I Don’t Dumb Down God – Astonishing Article in the Daily Mail

Ps 115: 1 Not to us, O LORD, not to us
but to your name be the glory,
because of your love and faithfulness

I DON’T DUMB DOWN GOD

Kevin McKenna is a senior Scottish journalist who writes for the Guardian, Observer and in this case the Daily Mail.  A number or weeks ago he contacted me about doing a story.  I was of course suspicious but I met with him and we had a great conversation.  I found him to be intelligent, thoughtful and very interesting. Today his story was published in a two page spread in the Mail.  I found it to be very humbling and encouraging.  And I continue to pray for Kevin… Sometimes in the midst of the battle the Lord grants victories…I hope you enjoy the following article. Please note – I hope that this is not posted with any sense of boasting.  Of course I am pleased to have such a positive report on St Petes and my own work there, but for me the main thing is that a mainstream journalist was so positive about an unashamedly biblical church!

He challenges trendy secularism, is angry about intolerance and believes in teaching the Bible. And he’s packing pews with no-nonsense preaching. Meet the Rev David Robertson, a thoroughly modern (and uncompromising) Christian soldier:

Scottish Daily Mail

3 Oct 2015

By Kevin McKenna

UNTIL I visited St Peter’s Free Church of Scotland in Dundee last Sunday, I had not heard that the leader of Jesus’s 12 apostles, the man to whom the Saviour entrusted l eadership of His fledgling church, was called ‘Pete’.

But there it was on an overhead projector, just above the little altar table at the front of this handsome old church in the heart of the student sector. It was on a notice for ‘newbies’ seeking to find out more about what St Pete’s had to offer.

To a persistent and old-fashioned Roman Catholic such as myself, the effect was slightly startling and I wondered if the Bible study class later that week might feature the adventures of some of Pete’s pals, Tam, Phil, Jimmy and Andy?

This wasn’t the only surprise to greet me. I had budgeted no more than one hour for this service, for who willingly attends a church service these days that lasts much more than 45 minutes? In my own Catholic tradition, we are beginning to get fidgety if we haven’t reached The Lord’s Prayer after half an hour.

Precisely one hour and 51 minutes later, I was still there and trying to digest a whopping 40-minute homily from Rev David Robertson which might just be one of the most spell-binding and uplifting addresses I have heard from a Scottish preacher in my entire life.

Mr Robertson is not just changing perceptions and leading a renaissance of faith within his own congregation, he is fast becoming the most important Christian leader in Scotland.

He is married to Annabel, a mental health social worker, and they have three grown-up children. He has been a minister in the Free Church of Scotland for almost 30 years, having gained a Masters in history at Edinburgh University, and is now the Moderator of the Free Kirk.

While the role has previously been largely one of quiet duty, the appointment of Mr Robertson marks an epiphany in the Free Church. It has encountered growth in the past ten years, perhaps among those seeking a degree of certainty and authority that has collapsed in the bigger, more mainstream Christian churches.

As churches of all denominations are being rendered obsolete by scandals, weak leadership and diminishing congregations, the scenes I witnessed at ‘St Pete’s’ would have gladdened the heart of an Old Testament prophet.

WITH more than 30 minutes to go before the main 11am Sunday service, the church was beginning to fill up. I had counted 30 or so already and made a bet with myself that the final attendance would top three figures. I stopped counting at 250, and would estimate almost 300 were in attendance.

The biggest surprise is the age profile of the congregation. There are students, and the numbers are swelled by young couples with babies. There are, it seems, representatives from each of the five continents. And although there are traditional old Presbyterians, secure in their tweeds and ties, the average age of the congregation is several years under 40. This is like no other church congregation I’ve encountered in recent years.

Up front, as the minister waits for the clock to reach the hour, a seven-piece band with drums, keyboards and guitars is tuning up. This is no tambourine and Kumbaya collective either. As the last of the churchgoers take their seats, the band strikes up the first song and, for the first time in many years, I am joining in lustily.

The words, helpfully projected onto a screen overhead, convey once more the gentle simplicity of faith. But faith alone has not brought all these people here – many have come to meet and hear the remarkable man waiting patiently at the front, Bible in hand.

At 52, Mr Robertson is benign in his tweed jacket with leather patches, light slacks and soft shoes. He could just as well have been a lecturer at a modern polytechnic, teaching human rights and social studies. Yet his appointment as Free Church Moderator earlier this year caused mild consternation within a body which, in modern Scottish culture, has become marginalised and ridiculed for its unyielding resistance to the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

Some may mock, but the Free Church of Scotland is on to something here. Mr Robertson’s appointment was broadly welcomed within a church that has grown more confident in its own skin in recent years until now there is a feeling that, in this Scotland, its time has come.

The Free Kirk’s origins lie in the realm of secular politics. It broke from the Church of Scotland following the Great Disruption of 1843, when hundreds of evangelical ministers and their congregations protested at what they regarded as elements of state interference in the church’s independence, not the least of which was the right of rich landowners to select local ministers.

Mr Robertson, in many respects, seems to have drawn his inspiration from the original spirit of this disputatious, thorn of a congregation. Well known within evangelical and Presbyterian communities all over the English- speaking world and beyond, in recent years he has begun to take the Christian message out onto the more unforgiving highways of secular society. In particular, he has parked his uncompromising Christian message on the lawns of several of the big beasts of militant atheism such as Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins and the lately departed Christopher Hitchens.

And this is at a time when organised Christianity is in retreat in Scotland – a country in which Mr Robertson finds ‘the rate of secularism has been more rapid than almost any other country I have ever visited’.

THREE years ago, he challenged Dawkins to a debate which the author of The God Delusion dodged. Having listened to this Scot quietly and elegantly debunk Dawkins’s anti-theist philosophy with a few adroitly chosen flourishes last Sunday, I’d have to say that the scientist dodged a bullet.

Mr Robertson further excoriated Dawkins and his atheist credo in a best-selling collection of essays called The Dawkins Letters. His new book, Magnificent Obsession, Why Jesus Is Great, is a challenge to Hitchens’s book, God Is Not Great.

Mr Robertson does not appear to favour living the quiet life. He is a high-profile opponent of same-sex marriage and believes the controversy of teaching creationism in Scottish schools has been manufactured by a well-organised humanist lobby to ‘destroy any vestige of Christianity in Scottish public life’.

One of his favourite authors is the great Catholic writer and philosopher GK Chesterton, but he is unsparing in his criticism of the Catholic Church, saying it has ‘a great social conscience and has done amazing work in that area, but they are suffering from a crisis of leadership and the sex abuse scandal is a symptom of that’.

Nor does he have anything more comforting to say about the Church of Scotland: ‘The Free Church of Scotland emerged from the Kirk, and I would go back to it tomorrow – if it returned to the Bible.’

He is angry at what he sees as a well organised and insidious attempt to wipe Christianity from the cultural and social map of Scotland: ‘Religion and matters of faith remain important in so- called, post- Christian Scotland. There isn’t a single day when religion is not in the news one way or another. You hear David Cameron talking about British values, while Scottish politicians talk about Scottish values – but what are they and where do they come from?

People misrepresent Christianity. You see it in newspapers and in the political arena all the time. Yet I wouldn’t say they were necessarily antagonistic to Christianity, simply ignorant of it. I work with people across Scotland from all denominations and the things that many of them think and say privately I am saying publicly.

‘Christian belief in Scotland is being attacked for being intolerant and there is intolerance in this society, but it’s not coming from the churches. What most concerns me about modern Scotland is that the country is becoming increasingly intolerant to competing points of view.

‘If you take Christianity out of the equation, whether it’s Catholic, Presbyterian or Baptist, you will end up with a state- imposed morality that doesn’t brook any opposition.

‘I’ll take people on; I’m not talking about on the street corner but on the internet and by using social media. I joined the secularist society so I could engage with them, just to see what might happen when I did. I’m a secularist in that I believe church and state should be separate. But that isn’t enough for some fundamentalist atheists who want to exclude Christians from all forms of public life – the media, schools, university chaplains. It’s nothing other than the privatisation of Christianity.

I THOUGHT the way Jim Murphy was treated by some militant atheists when he became leader of the Labour Party in Scotland was outrageous, simply for expressing his Christian faith. There was both anti-Catholicism and anti-Christianity in this. Intolerance in the name of tolerance is horrendous in this country.’

He has experienced plenty of it himself. The Moderator, who goes by the name the-wee-flea on Twitter, has been on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse and intimidation by some secularists that renders the beastliness in the independence referendum debate like a dispute over who’s paying the bill in a Morningside tea emporium.

Following a recent television appearance he was described as a ‘bigoted half-wit who should be banned from the BBC’. Last week he was described thus: ‘ He gives the appearance of someone who is a big fish, in the solitary goldfish bowl of his own head.’

Yet not all of his opponents are as unkind. Gary McLelland, the atheist blogger and secular campaigner, has praised him: ‘David Robertson is a thoughtful and provocative debating partner. In a society where cultural relativism prevails, David is an unashamed Christian evangelist. David and I disagree on a great many things, but we are unified in understanding the importance of this ongoing debate.’

Mr Robertson himself says: ‘I don’t speak in code. I don’t do between the lines. When I arrived here in the 1990s, the congregation numbered seven, and four of them immediately walked out after my first sermon. Now we have more than 250 worshipping every week.

‘I don’t have a brilliant strategy. We were a psalm-singing church in a decaying building with a handful of elderly people, and we couldn’t bus people in by having the best praise band. The only thing that would bring people here would be the knowledge that God lived here, too. Nor do we dumb down God; we don’t aim for the lowest common denominator. People know that I’m going to teach the Bible. My job is to get people to think when I teach the Bible and to pray and then we’ll see what happens.

‘ I’ ve visited churches, good churches, where it seems that everything has been programmed, right down to the responses, but I think that’s a mistake. Let’s just teach the Bible, pray and then see what happens.’

What happened for two hours after 11am in Dundee last week was quite breathtaking. There was no waving of hands or hallelujah fervour or stamping of feet, just a joyful gathering of many people – from every background imaginable in modern polyglot Scotland; young and old; rich and poor; non- conformist and High Church. And then there was the 40-minute magnum opus by Mr Robertson, preaching on a text from the Book of Isaiah with a quiet urgency and in a tone suffused with the cadences of Easter Ross in the northern Highlands where he was reared.

AFEW years ago, he felt sure his toils in the Lord’s vineyard were abruptly at an end. He collapsed in a pool of blood at a friend’s wedding and spent more than two months hovering around St Pete’s waiting room, not sure he would be spared for a few more tilts at the forces of secularism.

He had been struck by a virulent virus that was causing his lungs to drown him in his own blood. He contracted pneumonia and wasn’t expected to survive. If he were indeed spared, it would be for a severely brain-damaged existence.

That was in 2011. On one Sunday morning in November, a message was conveyed to each parish in the Free Kirk that, at noon, everyone should pray for David. ‘From that time I got better, and I was home before Christmas,’ he says. ‘But I’m not making any claims about my recovery, and it was a very sobering time for me and harder for my family. For seven of those weeks when I was in the intensive care unit I don’t remember anything.’

Perhaps this is why he now preaches a sermon as if it might be his last. As I waited for the service to begin, I was perched somewhere near the edge of his pews, trying to convince myself that from such an isolated position I’d be able better to observe the proceedings and count all those coming in. Who was I trying to kid? I was simply keeping out of the way in case there might have been an outbreak of some unseemly and un-Scottish religious fervour or enthusiasm.

Then, the moment I was dreading. Mr Robertson asked us all to turn to the person next to us and introduce ourselves. Thus I became acquainted with Chris and his girlfriend, neither of them regulars but they just liked the atmosphere there. It was a pleasant interlude, conducted calmly and with a comforting degree of restraint.

As I returned home to Glasgow, I found my faltering and uncertain faith had been stimulated by this humble Free Church minister. I resolved to light candles in thanksgiving to Saint Tam, Saint Jimmy, Saint Phil and Saint Andy. As well as to their boss, St Pete himself.


25 thoughts on “I Don’t Dumb Down God – Astonishing Article in the Daily Mail

  1. Thank you for the article, I read it all. I am not a Greek anything, but… Simon Bar-Jonah (St. Pete) name translated somewhat accurately might be better read:
    Peter=Petros=Rock, Bar-Jonah=Son of John=Johnson. This is how I got the possible name of my new music group, “Rock Johnson” 🙂
    Wish I lived closer, it sounds like a church I’d like to attend.

      1. The journo was friends with a HSS Celebrant who had been suspended. She was the light side (being a former newspaper columnist herself and friends with said journo). I had suspended her so I was the dark side. Amazing what can get written by a sympathetic journo……

  2. Oh dear, oh dear

    I’d love to hear DR’s sermons. I like his robustness

    But as I commented on his ELF blogs, most of this is about DR. It is difficult not to agree with the comment “He gives the appearance of someone who is a big fish, in the solitary goldfish bowl of his own head”

    This may of course not get posted

    1. Richard – you do realise that I did not write the piece? Of course I am uncomfortable it is about me – but can you not at least be thankful that a major newspaper carries a positive piece about a church leader, rather than a scandal or a negative piece? Your repetition of the atheist insult is really quite sad. If you are a Christian why would you seek to attack a fellow Christian in this way? If you are not, then of course I understand….!

      1. I am a Christian

        I know you did not write the piece

        But a little humility would suggest that you omit the hagiographic elements because they draw attention to you, not to the Lord who gives you everything

        In other words, your own vanity detracts and diminishes your message. It is always a danger. I’m sure I am not the first to hint at this?

        It is sad you do not see it. Many godly men do deflect any focus on them, rather like a stealth aircraft deflects radar

        You must reduce that He might increase – in you and more importantly in His church

        Sorry

    2. Well, what else were they going to write about? The day mainstream newspapers are prepared to write major articles on Jesus as we know him in the scriptures, I rejoice, and will grant you your point. In the mean time, I’m delighted to see some positive coverage of the church and its leaders for a change.

      1. Pdenhaan

        I too am delighted that this secular paper wrote in the way they did and I praise God that DR’s sermon made this impact

        I’m just querying whether DR needed to post this on his own website without at least modestly removing some of the more hagiographic elements which draw focus on him and away from the message. The key thing is that the Message is known throughout the world – not that DR is. I probably would not have commented in this way but there was again too much of DR in his blogs on this year’s ELF. It is a pity. It has given one secular critic the opportunity not to listen to the message

        It is what one wag called ‘serving in the limelight’ but there are some lovely servants of God who are almost invisible against the glory of God working through them as vessels. The latter saints are like stealth aircraft which deflect all attempts by radar to identify them. I wish I was like that but there is also in me too much of the flesh

      2. Richard – I find your comments discouraging, patronising, illogical and pietistic superspiritualism. It would be really stupid and wrong of me to remove references to me in an article written about me by a secular journalist. The secular critic you refer to takes every opportunity to disparage and abuse me anyway…its a shame that he is joined in this by a Christian critic who thinks he is being spiritual. By your criteria Paul should never have mentioned himself or anyone else in his letter – I seem to remember he was accused by his critics of being a nobody as well! I’m glad you recognise that there is too much of you in the flesh as well…next time please think before you post your comments. If you were really concerned about me and my pride, then you would have written me privately and not sought to attack me on my blog. Lord, deliver us from the self appointed humble ones!

  3. I think that in periods of decline there have always been some Christian communities that bucked the trend and congratulations for being part of one. The challenge though is how to turn individual success stories into a more general revival. Institutions might be tempted to look at structures and seek to replicate them more widely but the Holy Spirit is more likely to act through persons than structures. If we look at successful church builders like St Paul, St Francis and John Wesley we see that they were peripatetic and had been gifted with the ability not only to make converts but to raise up a leadership cadre who could continue the work when they themselves moved on. So, perhaps, to spread the success of a congregation you need to spread the charismatic individuals within it.
    Where these individuals are married and have children, of course, their solemn obligations to their families can act as a check on their mobility. However if the Spirit has willed them to marry as well as giving them a charism for the Church then we must also suppose that He has willed a way to unite the two. Prayer and discernment should help us to find out what that way might be.

  4. Brilliant and really inspiring article. Just goes to show that plain speaking from the Bible and a steadfast refusal to abandon the contemporary public square secularism and moral relativism works. Let’s pray that more of Scotland’s Christian leaders will follow this example and summon up a little courage to lead their people out from behind the fortress of the church walls to where the Gospel belongs…. the public square of Scotland’s villages, towns & cities. This is the challenge for every Bible believing deacon, elder and pastor across our land. The question is are our leaders (appointed and self-appointed) up to the task?)

      1. David

        Your reply to me earlier today did not give me a link to reply, so I’m inserting myself here. Taking your points

        1. I have no private contact for you, and it is always open to you to read but not publish my comments. Indeed you have taken some time whether to publish me or not and on the EFL link you did not publish me, or at least my second comment

        2. Secondly, your comments about me have been (i) am I a Christian? (ii) I am discouraging, patronising, illogical and pietistically superspiritual (iii) I am fleshly (but you are not?) (iv) I am a self-appointed humble one. My suggestion – that you should edit out some of the more hagiographic elements in the Mail – is pale in comparison. I did not initially say ‘vain’ until you – well – proved it. After all, we don’t need Apollos etc

        3. My suggestion is not illogical. I am delighted that the Mail said good things about you and your sermon to a secular audience. But I can’t see the point of repeating all that in a blog to Christians – unless of course you want the encouragement of men, the lack of which from me you find discouraging.

        4. Perhaps you only find my comments patronising because you are a big potato and you perceive me as a small potato

        5. Pietistically superspiritual? Some recipients of my comments might well have said ‘As one fellow Christian to another, I take your point that my qualities and successes are irrelevant to, indeed can get in the way of, focussing the secular world on the message that I (or DR) brings. Thank you for that’.

        6. I don’t think I’m being ‘superspiritual’. If anything I see myself as being a bit too pragmatic in saying ‘Hang on. Although the journo said all these amazing things about you, what are you trying to achieve in repeating them all in your blog for a Christian audience? If Mother Teresa was faced with such praise, you can bet she would become a stealth aircraft in the service of the Message. If the journo was affected by, and stuck with, a message lasting 40 minutes, can you not just say that?’ It hardly matters who delivered it

        7. To be honest, David, I doubt we would enjoy each other’s company but, as a Christian, I thought it worth suggesting how you might increase your effectiveness – albeit at the expense of your own ‘glory’. If it is not to be, well so be it

  5. Absolutely wonderful Dave! Read it this morning and it made my day. Very encouraging to see such a fair and sympathetic report.

  6. I think it’s just an amazing Rticlpe and even better to be included in the news of the daily mail…oh hallelujah, let’s have more. Blessings David. Jean l

  7. Delighted to read the original article, but depressed to read some of the comments from your ‘Christian friends.’ Apparently the calling of some is to keep others humble; to put them in their place. I doubt very much that the small amount of praise you received has the capacity to ‘puff you up’ – especially when balanced against the vitriolic attacks of Christ’s enemies which appears to be your lot on a weekly basis. I’d disable the comments facility on the blog if I were you. Best wishes.

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