Look to the Sources
Most uses of statistics are not neutral. First, the form of the study itself can be biased (e.g. in the specific questions asked and the way the research is conducted). Second, journalists and writers can make careful choices to pick the figures which support their point or achieve their aim. What we read in newspaper reports or online articles is often only part of the story (other relevant figures are sometimes omitted) or are not completely accurate reports of the findings (such as ambiguity about the wording of questions actually asked). It is therefore important to look for the original source of the statistics. Even if an article doesn’t cite its sources, they are usually not too hard to find after a bit of searching.
For example, I was looking for stats on polyamory in the UK. I quickly found this article which claims that nearly one fifth of Brits are polyamorous. Later in the article, we are told that ‘Northern Ireland is home to the largest number of people in polyamorous relationships across all regions that were surveyed.’ These statistics surprised me, so I dug a bit further. When I looked at the source of the statistics I found that the survey actually asked, ‘Do you identify as polyamorous?’ This says nothing about whether the respondents are actually in a polyamorous relationship. I then spotted that the survey defined polyamorous as ‘being capable of having more than one romantic relationship’. So, the survey is not actually even about those who would commonly take this as an identity marker, despite how the question makes it sound, but is actually identifying those who think, perhaps hypothetically speaking, that they could live in a polyamorous relationship. So, to say that one fifth of the UK are polyamorous or to speak of people in polyamorous relationships on the basis of this data is rather misleading.
As a preacher, it would be easy to see this article and use the stats to decry the crumbling of traditional, Christian ethics in our nation, yet a little bit of digging reveals that the situation is probably far less serious. It’s important to look at the sources.
Look at the Methodology
It is also important to consider how the research was undertaken. What was the methodology used and is it likely to give accurate results? The reality is that most statistics, perhaps with the partial exception of those based on census data or exploring smaller groups, are estimates. Those performing the research do so with a certain number of people and then use those results to estimate what the results would be for a wider group of people, such as the population of the UK. This can be done well, and it can be done badly. To be done well, the sample group must be carefully chosen to reflect the wider group and the estimations must then take into consideration various factors to give a fair estimate of what the results would look like in the larger group.
So, for example, as I looked at the source of the stats on polyamory, I noticed that the original survey consulted 2000 UK adults, but I couldn’t find anywhere which said any more about the sample group. These statistics may therefore not actually offer a fair reflection of the UK as a whole (and, credit to them, they don’t claim it does). This led me to search a little further, and I quickly found stats about polyamory in the UK from YouGov (both a summary article and the survey results) for which I could also check the methodology. Here the methodology shows the use of a carefully picked sample and estimates that take into account relevant factors to give an estimate which is as accurate as possible. These figures are therefore much more likely to be reliable.
Look at the Detail
When you look at the sources, you are also able to look at the detail. Details, such as the exact questions that were asked (as in the example above) or how the data was collected, can be really important. Even summary articles about the data produced by those who conducted the research are not always fully accurate.
Good sources will also include warnings about where the data may be inaccurate and about possible factors which could change the results. For example, an ONS study which looked into personal wellbeing in relation to sexual identity found that ‘those who identify as gay or lesbian, or bisexual report lower well-being than the UK average for all personal well-being measures.’ However, they also note that earlier research has shown that you are more likely to identify as LGB if you live in London and that personal well-being is often lower in London. They therefore admit that there could be factors beyond sexual identity which are influencing these results. These little details are important.
Look at the Critics
Finally, it’s always worth checking whether there have been any responses to or criticisms of the stats. Obviously even if there are, we shouldn’t assume that the critics are right, but we should listen to what they have to say and seek to evaluate their assessment to the best of our abilities. This is particularly relevant for significant statistics which are commonly repeated as they are more likely to have been checked by other people.
So, for example, within the current debate about transgender, statistics showing very high rates of self-harm and suicide among people who identify as transgender are commonly used. However, some have looked into the studies and surveys behind these stats and offered thorough critiques of them (e.g. here and here).1 A good critique will help you look at the sources, methodology and the detail in order to evaluate the reliability of the stats. Another example is about the prevalence of intersex conditions. The figure 1.7% is commonly repeated and you can find various critiques and defenses of that stat. A quick look at these reveals that the reason for these different views is actually about the definition of intersex. So, rightly defined, it may be true to say that 1.7% of people are born with an intersex trait, but that does not mean that 1.7% of babies are born with truly ambiguous biological sex, as the stat might suggest to many. Thus, the critics remind us about the need for clarity when sharing these figures.
To Stat, or not to Stat
To be honest, as I’ve learnt more about handling stats well I have looked back with regret on several things I have taught and written. It is so easy for us to pick the figures which support the point we want to make before we have really checked whether they are reliable. Applying these principles will, it’s true, take a bit more time, and will probably mean that we are less often able to use statistics to aid our teaching. But if we’re not teaching the truth, then what’s the point anyway?
- 1 On the topic of suicide in particular, the Samaritans have some useful advice about suicide reporting which is designed for the media but is also useful to preachers.
A Sure Foundation
The narration of the facts is history; the narration of the facts with the meaning of the facts is doctrine. “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried” – that is history. “He loved me and gave Himself for me” – that is doctrine. Such was the Christianity of the primitive Church.
Although first published nearly a century ago J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism feels incredibly contemporary. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Despite the Second World War, the atom bomb, the sexual revolution, landing on the moon, the electronics revolution, and the digital revolution we are living in the modern world just as Machen was; albeit the late-modern world. Machen identifies the key cultural shift happening around 1850. This was the shift from a Western civilization that ‘was still predominantly Christian’ to one which is ‘predominantly pagan’.
Paganism as defined by Machen is,
That view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties. Very different is the Christian ideal. Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature, whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.
Paganism refuses to acknowledge the reality and power of sin, which means that while Paganism can create much that is glorious (Machen cites ancient Greece) its foundation is rotten. By contrast, Christianity acknowledges sin,
But then, after sin has been removed by the grace of God, the Christian can proceed to develop joyously every faculty that God has given him.
This is why we need doctrine! Doctrine enables us to build a sure foundation and then something glorious on top of it. At this stage in our cultural revolution it feels that the edifice of paganism is beginning to crumble and reveal its rotten foundation. Paganism simply cannot provide the answers we need to the questions raised by our quest for identity, value and love. Only the truth can. Yes, Jesus loved me and gave himself for me. That is a foundation on which to build our lives.
Acts in 2,500 Words
Acts tells the story of Spirit Empowered Mission – the first 30 years of the history of the church. Dr Luke’s account opens, sometime around the years 30-33AD, with Jesus promising the disciples that they will be baptised in the Holy Spirit and receive power. They are to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
When the Spirit falls on the disciples on the day of Pentecost they are transformed. As they are empowered to speak in other languages God begins to fulfil His plan to reach all nations! Empowered by the Spirit Peter stands up to preach. There is a great response to his message. Because of the experienced reality of the transforming action of the Holy Spirit these disciples became devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The Lord was doing extraordinary things through the apostles – a man in his 40s, lame since birth, is healed when Peter commands him to stand up. This is great news for the man and draws a crowd. It also draws opposition and the religious leaders have Peter and John arrested. They threaten the apostles but don’t know what to do with them as no one can deny the miracle that has taken place.
The first church in Jerusalem find their sense of identity in who they are as the people of God. While everyone in Jerusalem had united in their determination to overthrow God’s rule by crucifying Jesus, the believers had been brought into relationship with God and with one another.
This is a company of people who know how to pray because they know who God is and so who they are. God is sovereign, the creator, the one who speaks, and who is working out his plan. Knowing this about God puts all other challenges into perspective. This is a company of people who look to God for boldness – not escape! And empowered by the Spirit they are able to witness to the truth boldly.
The Spirit-empowered community not only speak boldly but live boldly – everything is affected, even how they handle their money and possessions. Barnabas (“Mr Encouragement”) stands out as a particularly impressive example of generosity.
But not everything is perfect in this community. Ananias and Saphira want all the kudos of being known as extravagantly generous but without the cost. They knowingly seek to deceive – not only the apostles but God himself. Their deceit threatened the integrity of the entire community and has to be stopped in its tracks.
This is a community transformed by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit; that is growing rapidly numerically; that is characterised by signs and wonders; that grows deep rapidly too; and it is a church that is experiencing favour and opposition. The apostles continue to be threatened by the authorities and at one point are put in jail, only for an angel to set them free! The authorities keep threatening and the apostles keep preaching.
It is a model community for us, but not a perfect community. As they grew their pastoral administration was creaking and some in need were being overlooked.
They didn’t respond to this by easing back on mission but were honest in recognising the problems and put a system in place to help fix the issues. This meant increasing the number of leaders serving the church as deacons were appointed: faithful, Spirit-empowered men who were able to help pastor the people and release the apostles to the ministry of the word.
At this point the story takes a sudden twist as Stephen, one of those appointed as a deacon, is arrested. Just like all the rebels of the past the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem who claim to represent God are actually hardened in rebellion against him and they murder Stephen.
As Stephen is stoned for his bold proclamation of the truth another character emerges on the scene: Saul.
At this point of persecution the gospel begins to spill out beyond Jerusalem as Philip goes first to the Samaritans and then to an Ethiopian official. And the story then jinks back to Saul…
On his way to Damascus to persecute the believers Saul has an encounter with Jesus. Everything changes for Saul when Ananias goes to him in Damascus. Ananias is afraid of Saul but is obedient to God and full of faith. As a result of Ananias’ visit Saul receives his sight; receives the Holy Spirit; and receives baptism to wash away his sins. These changes are costly for Saul and he needs a friend. Barnabas becomes that friend and an advocate for Saul with those who have every reason to be sceptical about him.
With the story of Saul beginning to run, Peter makes a reappearance in what is a crucial moment of gospel advance. Peter is acting in great power, performing extraordinary miracles including the raising of the dead. In response to a vision he goes to the home of the Roman soldier Cornelius. As Peter begins to speak Cornelius and his household are filled with the Spirit. They are then baptised in water and welcomed as full members of the household of God.
The action then shifts to a city called Antioch. Here there is another gospel advance as Jewish believers start to speak to non-Jews about Jesus. In response to the news of this the church in Jerusalem send Barnabas to Antioch to help in the mission. In turn, Barnabas searches out Paul and gets him to come along and help too.
It is in Antioch that the believers are first called ‘Christians’.
As well as Barnabas and Paul, some prophets come to Antioch from Jerusalem to help strengthen the church. But then the church in Antioch reciprocates by helping the church in Jerusalem financially.
The story than switches back to Jerusalem and ongoing persecution of the church. Herod has James, brother of John, executed, and puts Peter in jail. But once more Peter is sprung from jail by an angel. While Peter is set free God judges Herod and he drops down dead.
Back in Antioch there are many gifted prophets and teachers in the church and in response to the Spirit’s lead, the church sends Barnabas and Saul off on mission.
On reaching Cyprus, Saul – who is now known as Paul – blinds a sorcerer and leads a high official to faith. This double-sided account of people rejecting the gospel and others gladly receiving it is retold as Barnabas and Paul continue on their journey. In fact, the greater the joyful response of some the greater the hostile response of others.
In Iconium they discover a plot to stone them and get away but in the next town of Lystra Paul is stoned. Paul’s response to getting knocked down is to get right back up again, because, we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.
As well as a change in name there is also a change in team shape at this point as ‘Barnabas and Paul’ become ‘Paul and Barnabas’.
Having appointed elders in the churches they had started Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch and report on all that the Lord has done. The mission to the gentiles is going brilliantly but then some people come from Judea to Antioch and say that to be true Christians they need to live like Jews. In response Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others are sent to Jerusalem to work things out. Here they meet with Peter, James, and the other leaders and the verdict is that the gospel can never be ‘Jesus Plus’.
Paul and Barnabas then decide to head out from Antioch and revisit all the churches they had previously started. But this leads to a breakdown in their relationship as Barnabas wants to take his cousin Mark with him. Paul – with good reason – doesn’t trust Mark. Instead of going out together they head in opposite directions.
Having parted from Barnabas, Paul needs another friend and Timothy appears on the scene. In order not to hinder the mission to the Jews Timothy – whose mother is Jewish – is circumcised before setting out with Paul. Timothy is committed to the mission!
Paul and his companions Luke, Timothy and Silas keep pushing into new territory but the Holy Spirit keeps them from going where they thought they might. Instead Paul has a vision of a ‘man of Macedonia’ in response to which they get into a boat and cross from Asia to Europe. This is the next great phase of gospel advance.
In Philippi the Lord works through the apostles to reach some very different people. Businesswoman Lydia becomes the first convert to Christ in the continent of Europe. Then a demon-oppressed slave girl is set free at a word of command from Paul. This provokes a backlash as the owners of the girl lose her moneymaking fortune telling ability. As a result Paul and Silas are flogged and thrown in jail but during the night an earthquake sets them free. As a consequence of this their jailer, and all his household, turn in faith to Jesus. The tables are then turned on the city authorities as Paul and Silas reveal they are Roman citizens who should never have been treated in this shameful way. And the apostles walk out of the city with a humble swagger.
From Philippi Paul goes to Thessalonica and Berea, meeting with a mixed reception, and then on to Athens. In Athens Paul debates with the philosophers and demonstrates how to both contextualise and contend for the gospel. He is gracious, but clear.
Paul then comes to Corinth, the largest city in Greece. Aquila and Priscilla get added to the team here and Timothy and Silas muck in to free Paul up for the ministry. Paul is intimidated by Corinth but the Lord encourages him to be confident that he has ‘many people in this city’. Despite some real difficulties and opposition in Corinth the gospel bears fruit as Paul labours there.
After 18 months, along with Aquila & Priscilla, Paul leaves Corinth and heads to Ephesus, before travelling on to Caesarea, Jerusalem and back to Antioch.
While Paul is travelling, Priscilla & Aquila remain in Ephesus where they meet Apollos who becomes the next key member of the team. Apollos then goes to Corinth while Paul travels back to Ephesus.
In Ephesus Paul meets some disciples who are very confused about the basics of the faith. He instructs them, baptises them, and they are filled with the Spirit.
Once the Jews decide they no longer want Paul to teach about Jesus in the synagogue he carries on ministry at the lecture hall of Tyrannus. Through this ministry the whole of the province of Asia is intensively evangelised, with team members starting other churches in the region in cities like Colossae.
There is an upping of the spiritual temperature in Ephesus and extraordinary miracles take place. As a result of this the new believers burn all their old magical paraphernalia – worth a huge amount of money.
In the end the extent of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus is so profound it threatens all the religious and economic foundations of the city. As a result there is a near riot in the city stadium; and after three years of incredible ministry it is time for Paul once more to get on the road.
In the summer of AD55 Paul heads off, revisiting the churches he has previously founded, accompanied by friends who are the fruit of his ministry. He travels around, speaking many words of encouragement. After two years of this ministry Paul moves on again, setting sail from Philippi to Troas.
While in Troas Paul is on a tight schedule and preaches late into the night. A young man named Eutychus falls asleep as Paul preaches, drops out of the window, falls a couple of floors, and dies. Paul prays for him and Eutychus is raised to life.
Paul then travels on and arranges a meeting with the Ephesian elders in the port town of Miletus. When they join him he describes the sense of urgency he feels to get to Jerusalem and, while he does not know what will happen to him there, the dangers he anticipates. Come what may, Paul is determined to finish the race and urges the Ephesian elders to be similarly faithful.
Continuing on his journey Paul is warned of the dangers that face him by the prophet Agabus but despite the pleadings of his friends he is determined to continue to Jerusalem. Once he gets to Jerusalem Paul is advised by James and the other leaders to publicly demonstrate his Jewishness by taking part in certain rites at the temple. But even as he does so, Paul is spotted by some trouble makers who stir up a riot which leads to his arrest.
The commander who arrests Paul assumes he is an Egyptian terrorist but Paul then reveals his credentials: he is both a Pharisee and a Roman citizen. But over and above who he is by ethnicity, birth and training, Paul is a Christian! When he testifies before the Jewish council he provokes an uproar but the Lord draws near and tells Paul that he must testify in Rome.
Paul then stands trial before the Roman governor Felix, and spends two years as a captive until a new governor, Festus, is appointed. Paul then makes an appeal to Caesar and Festus determines he will be sent to Rome to have his case heard there. In the meantime King Agrippa wants to hear what Paul has to say and Paul proclaims to him the truth and reasonableness of the gospel.
Paul then begins his journey to Rome, but the ship he is being transported on is caught in a storm and then shipwrecked. Paul had foreseen this but the centurion guarding him, the ships pilot, and its owner had all refused to listen. As disaster overtakes the vessel Paul’s spiritual authority asserts itself and he takes command of the situation, ensuring everyone is looked after and encouraging all on board. Once washed up on shore, Paul is bitten by a viper but suffers no ill effects. Instead he sets about healing the sick on the island before another ship is found and they continue on their way.
Once in Rome Paul is held as a prisoner but is free to preach: for two years the gospel is proclaimed at the heart of empire, with all boldness and without hindrance!
In Praise of Our MPs
It is certainly the case that the government, civil service and parliament have all made an almighty horlicks of Brexit. None of these institutions of the state have come out well from the process and public trust of the politicians and mandarins is rightly at an all-time low. However, I think this is a moment to sing the praises of our MPs – for all their collective failings.
Over the past couple of weeks I have had correspondence with the MP in whose constituency our church building sits on the subject of euthanasia through the back door. I have also had correspondence with the MP for my home address about the persecution of Christians around the world. And last night one of my fellow elders showed me a letter from his MP responding to his concerns about Brexit. This is pretty remarkable considering how busy, distracted, and exhausted MPs must be at the moment.
Of course, it is this democratic accountability that is the very reason why many people voted for Brexit in the first place. When contacted by their constituents MPs tend to respond. They are available – and that proximity makes democracy feel much more meaningful.
So, despite the current, undeniable, mess of Brexit, let’s take a moment to be grateful for our MPs – maybe even drop a note to your MP saying that. I’m sure they could do with the encouragement.
Stick to the Facts
The reasons for this are multi-layered and complex but largely seem to be rooted in the human desire for righteousness combined with a fear of being publicly shamed. Everyone wants to be declared righteous (something which of course is only possible through the work of Christ) and in our woke-world to question any item on the ‘progressive’ agenda is to put oneself outside cultural righteousness and be declared unclean. This is then combined with the very real fear of social-media trolling and potential career threatening collateral damage. So people just stay quiet – even when they are in a position to resist the tide.
This was always going to hit a crunch when it came to womens sport (as I first suggested on Think 4 years ago). The reality is that being born male confers significant physical advantages – not only to do with testosterone levels but longer limb length, larger heart capacity, higher haemoglobin levels, leaner muscle and so on. World track cycling champion and trans activist Rachel McKinnon is at the forefront of the movement arguing that transwomen have no advantage over biological females in elite sport. Of course, if this were true, so should be the reverse, that biological females are not disadvantaged when it comes to competing with men. But in no elite sport (with the possible exception of ultra-distance running) are women competing at the same level as men.
Martina Navratilova , tennis legend and gay icon, was the first high profile female sports star to break cover on this – only to be predictably pilloried and ostracised by the trans lobby. She has since been joined by boxer Nicola Adams (also gay), marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, swimmer Sharron Davies, and middle distance runner Dame Kelly Holmes. All have received an aggressive online response for stating their concerns, with McKinnon and others trying to organise their being silenced. This rather proves the point of the TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) who have argued that transwomen are simply another expression of men silencing women and colonising female space.
McKinnon has been lobbying athlete sponsors Specialized and Garmin to silence or drop Holmes. The irony of this should be clear as Specialized and Garmin work in an industry where facts rather than ideology are what counts. Those of us who ride Specialized bikes are concerned with the facts of how light, stiff and comfortable the frames are. And those of us who use Garmin’s products want accurate records of how far we have been, how fast, and for how long. It might be nice if my devices told me I was faster and fitter than I actually am, but I don’t want them to do that: I want the truth.
Of course, this is something we can do something about. If, like me, you are a Specialized or Garmin customer (or even if you are not) why not contact them expressing support for Kelly Holmes and asking them to stick to facts rather than be swayed by ideology. It is facts that wins them customer loyalty and the courage to stick to this would win them far more respect than distancing themselves from female athletes who are raising legitimate concerns.
You can email Specialized here: firstname.lastname@example.org
And Garmin here: email@example.com
The Gift of Sleep
I love sleep! Apparently, today is World Sleep Day, so it seems an appropriate opportunity to celebrate the gift of sleep.
The World Sleep Society, organisers of World Sleep Day, describe the day as ‘a celebration of sleep’ – which has inevitably led to tweets about sleeping animals, sleeping positions, some nice sleep-related quotes, and this pleasingly perfect photo - but it’s also ‘a call to action on important sleep issues’. and our devaluing of sleep really is an issue.
There’s a widespread belief in the modern world that sleep is a frustrating intrusion into each day which cuts down the amount of time we have to do the really important things. Asked in an interview about how he likes to relax, actor James Franco replied ‘I don’t even like to sleep—I feel as if there’s too much to do’, and the ever-competitive POTUS once said, ‘How does somebody that’s sleeping 12 and 14 hours a day compete with someone that’s sleeping three or four?’ We admire those who (out of choice) sleep for only four or five hours a night and those who get up before dawn every day to go to the gym. As Christians, we praise heroes of the faith in past generations who got up very early to pray (forgetting that they probably went to bed much earlier than we do too!)
But sleep is not a frustrating intrusion. It’s a wonderful, necessary gift. In his fascinating book, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker offers this advertisement for the power of sleep:
Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?’
These facts, he says, are supported by over 17,000 scientific reports, some of which he goes on to talk about. The advertisment would not be inaccurate. Sleep is a gift from God designed to strengthen, repair, protect and bless us. It’s far from a frustrating intrusion into our days.
But sleep is also a gift in what it teaches us. For many in the modern world, we don’t like sleep because it stops us doing things which we feel are important, important either to ensure our well-being (like earning more money to have more stuff) or our identity (like earning more money to have more stuff!) Basically, it undermines our god-complex which tells us that we have to ensure our own wellbeing and we have to create our own identity.
But sleep is designed to demonstrate that we are not God, and that that is a very good thing. We can sleep in peace, because we know he never will:
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep (Psalm 121:3-4).
As Christians, we have an opportunity to show people a better way. We can value sleep, not as a frustrating intrusion which puts at risk our wellbeing and our identity, but as a beautiful gift which reminds us that our wellbeing and identity are already guaranteed. We can sleep in peace because he never will.
Dualism at Death
Underlying this hope is a radically dualistic view of what it means to be human. The idea that we can live forever as a computer, depends on the idea that our bodies are completely separate, and completely irrelevant, to our true selves. Plato and Descartes are alive and well in secular anthropology. They’ve already radically shaped our views on sexuality, gender, and when it’s acceptable to end a life (in abortion or euthanasia), and now they are transforming the way we think about death.
Part of the Christian response to these hopes is pretty obvious. We don’t need to hold out hope for immortality as a computer when we have the hope of immortality in resurrected bodies. But we should also highlight that Christian anthropology, while acknowledging that we have a body and a soul, is far from dualistic. Though the soul can exist apart from the body (and will do if we die before Christ returns and the general resurrection takes place), we are designed to be integrated beings: body and soul united and working together. This is why the ultimate Christian hope in the face of death is not the soul’s release from the body, but the reuniting of the soul and the body in resurrection.
And yet, when death actually hits, it’s easy for us as Christians to fall into a dualistic view of humanity which stops short of the reality of Christian hope. When someone we love dies, we comfort ourselves and others with the fact that they are now with Jesus and that their pain and suffering have ended. For those who have suffered physically or mentally before death, we celebrate the release from that suffering as they were released from their body.
And this is right for us to do. This is the wonderful hope we have for the immediate future after death. It really is better to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23) and to be ‘at home with the Lord’ (2 Cor. 5:8). But if we stop there, if that is all we say, we’re missing the really good bit, because the pinnacle of Christian hope is not release but resurrection; it is not that we would be released from the pain and suffering which comes from having a physical body, but that we would be resurrected with a physical body that will never experience pain and suffering. When our souls go to be with Christ at the moment of death, we’ve only reached the waiting room for our real destination. While celebrating the good that is in that, we ought to be careful not to forget that there is something even better yet to come. This should shape the way we talk about life after death, the way we pastor those who are grieving, and what we say, read and sing at funeral services.
Dissecting Dualism at Death
Why does this happen? Why do we find it so easy to become dualists when we’re dealing with death? I can think of at least three potential reasons.
In part, I wonder if we are just impatient. We live in an instant access culture where we’re used to getting what we want and getting it when we want it. Waiting is something that, at best, makes us uncomfortable, and, at worst, we feel is an abuse of our rights. Perhaps the idea that we don’t instantly get the full experience of our eternal hope at death is just something we’re uncomfortable with because we’re impatient.
It may also be that the way many of us spend the last part of our lives has an effect. With the improvement of medical care, many of us are living longer, but that doesn’t mean that the end of life is always better. While there have been wonderful developments in palliative care, meaning few people now need die in great pain, many will face serious illness or mental limitations in their last years meaning that death is often experienced as a blessed release from the body. While many generations who have gone before us may also have seen death as a blessed release, this was often because of a much broader range of difficult situations faced in life, not just physical pain and distress at the end of life. Death for these generations was release, but it was release from life in a tough world, not just from a frail physical body. For those of us who live in relative ease and safety, the release we are more likely to value at death is the release from the physical body, rather than from a difficult life.
A final factor which may be contributing to this dualistic view of Christian hope after death is the popularity of cremation. In 2017, 77% of deaths in the UK were followed by a cremation. There are practical and financial reasons for this shift in practice, and I don’t necessarily think that Christians shouldn’t cremate bodies (although I do have quite a bit of sympathy for Piper’s arguments), but the reality is that cremation is not a very body-affirming way of handling death. Most of us probably don’t like to think about the body of our loved ones being incinerated and therefore, in the context of a cremation, we tend to focus on the soul, rather than the body. By contrast, burial carries with it the biblical imagery of sowing a seed (1 Cor. 15:42-44). Burial is a body-affirming way of handling death, which points us towards the hope of resurrection. So, if we do cremate, we must make sure it doesn’t lead us to stop short of the fullness of Christian hope.
Hope beyond death is one of the great blessings of the gospel, and we don’t need to wait for further developments in technology to be sure that we will enjoy that hope. But let’s not miss the fullness of that hope by being dualists in death. Yes, for a time our bodies and souls will be separated, and yes, our souls will at that point be with Jesus, we will be at home with the Lord, enjoying what is better. But we won’t yet be enjoying what is best. The best will be yet to come. The best will come when what has been sown perishable will be raised imperishable, when death, dualism, and division will be defeated, and through resurrection, there will be restoration and reunion.
The degree of discomfort I have experienced has not always been obvious to others, especially as I’ve always been active, have raced in triathlons and run marathons. Generally the more active I’ve been, the better, but since my early 20s, once or twice a year, I have been almost completely incapacitated by muscle spasm and pain for a week or three at a time. This has normally happened as a result of doing something innocuous, like getting milk out of the fridge, or visiting Milton Keynes. (Ah, the curse of Milton Keynes. Another post, another day.)
I know pain does funny things to people and have often wondered if I might have been a nicer person if I hadn’t gone through so much of life with - literally - gritted teeth.
Three years ago, after a particularly agonising round of back spasm, my GP sent me for an MRI scan. I have subsequently learned that this is what GPs always do when they have no idea what to do for patients with chronic back pain; despite the fact that the – expensive – MRI hardly ever reveals any information that can be used to alleviate said pain. True to form, the MRI revealed nothing very much: “Some deterioration of the lower discs. Don’t lift anything heavy.”
Then, two years ago, I took up CrossFit – “the sport of fitness” – which, among other things, involves lifting heavy objects. I was nervous about this, figuring I might quickly be laid up with my back in bits. In fact, while I certainly have not been pain free, these two years have been the best I can remember, with no prolonged period of enforced inactivity due to back pain. It would seem the medical advice I received was plain wrong: lifting something heavy has helped sort out my back issues more effectively than all the treatment, sport and exercise I have previously tried. I wonder how different my life might have been if I’d done this in my 20s rather than waiting till my late 40s. Think how nice I might be!
The point of this tale? If someone is struggling, very often it seems the right thing to do is to say, “Don’t lift anything heavy.” This can almost be our discipleship strategy: life is demanding enough, don’t put too much effort into following Jesus, that might tip you over the edge. This kind of strategy only heads one way though, ending up in a Nadia Bolz-Weber-like wholesale rejection of biblical truth. Instead, it might be that the very thing someone needs in order to handle life better is the encouragement to lift more. Inactivity and passivity don’t make anyone stronger.
The final spur I needed to give CrossFit a go was being beaten in an arm wrestle by a skinny 18-year-old and realising how weak I had become. Some of us are similarly spiritually weak – not because we lack the capacity for strength but simply because we have believed the lie that lifting something heavy might injure us when really it could strengthen us.
So go on and lift something heavy. Read that copy of The City of God that has been gathering dust on your shelf the past twenty years; give away enough money for it to really hurt; speak to someone about Jesus when you’d rather keep your mouth shut; choose a life of sexual purity rather than compromise. Lift something, and keep on lifting. You might be surprised by the results.
As previously described, I was never into the dance scene, but it was a significant stream in the cultural waters in which I swam. What dance music represented shaped my generation. It was about so much more than just the dancing.
Keith Flint, the tattooed and studded, tongue-twirling frontman of The Prodigy took his own life last weekend. He was a few months older than me. In 1996, when Firestarter was released, I had just become a youth pastor and was thinking about how to connect the gospel with the dance generation. All us youth pastors back then were in love with the World Wide Message Tribe and their Firestarter parody/alternative Heatseeker. Better to be a street preacher than a punkin’ instigator, we told our youth groups.
If I need a burst of energy there is probably no track I would rather listen to than Firestarter. It has a drive that is infectious. And it was this kinetic effect that was the meaning behind the title: Firestarter didn’t refer to lighting literal fires but the energy produced in a crowd at a Prodigy show. Yet the lyrics reveal something of the nihilism the raves embodied – the drug-driven highs and accompanying lows.
This energy and despair was reflected in Flint’s own life: apparently having it all but then ending it all.
Most of my dancing peers have long-since abandoned the raves. They are too middle-aged now and more likely to be found on a Friday evening searching for a decent bottle of wine in Waitrose than dropping ecstasy on the dancefloor. But Generation X has passed on to our Millennial and i-Gen children our fear addicted, filth infatuated, intoxicated habits. Yeah.
I think what Flint and the ravers always wanted was a connection with the transcendent. Whether through the chest thumping energy of bass, the bliss of drugs, or – in Flint’s case – the buzz of motorcycle racing, we’re looking for connection. Connection to something bigger and more meaningful than ourselves. i-Gen are looking for this is much as were Gen X, and are still dancing and pill-popping; but now they have tinder and unlimited online porn added into the mix. God help them.
Connection is what we need. Connection to other people and connection to the author of all energy, rhythm and colour. Keith Flint sang, “I’m the pain you tasted. Fell intoxicated.” The message of the gospel is that there was one who tasted our pain and drank the cup of God’s wrath so that we could walk – dance – in freedom and grace.
Keith, I wish you’d found that.
The beauty of so many plants and animals is a problem for biological science. Creating all that beauty uses a huge amount of energy, and that energy is costly, so there needs to be some reason for the expenditure. Evolutionary biology generally answers this problem in terms of ‘fitness’. Living organisms are meant to be most concerned with doing what is most likely to result in the propagation of their genes – energy expenditure is meant to be directed towards the creation of offspring who will flourish in their ecological niche. So the peacock’s excessively gorgeous tail or the butterfly’s extravagant wings demonstrate to potential mates what a good catch their owner represents: they are fit to reproduce.
When a female animal is checking out her prospects, natural selection would dictate that she pay attention to how healthy, or strong, or fit he is. But when it comes to finding a mate, some animals seem to be engaged in a very different game. What if a female were looking for something else - something that has nothing to do with fitness? Something…beautiful?
The argument goes that evolutionary development is not driven simply by who (normally male) is the fittest, but by the aesthetic preferences of females. As evidence for this Radio Lab considered the manakin bird. The males of this bird perform a courtship display that involves them vibrating their wings at incredibly high speeds – speeds so high that only wings with solid bones can handle it. This is bizarre, because birds have hollow bones in order to be able to fly.
Here is how the Radio Lab presenters dissect this problem:
Think about that. You’re in a crowded forest. Lots of competitors, lots of predators trying to eat you. And you have made yourself slower, more vulnerable. And it gets worse. Because the manakins have to start this process of building these hard bones really early, like when they’re very, very tiny in the embryo.
Before the embryo has become either male or female.
So you’ve got an embryo that can go either way, and they’re already making the big bones. And some of them are gonna be male, but some of them are gonna be female.
So by choosing males with weird wing bones because they make great songs, the female also has daughters with distorted and inferior wing bones that they will never use.
Both the females and the males get these thick bones. So she is choosing to hear that sound and has designed him to produce that sound. But in the bargain, he comes out with heavier bones and can fly less well, and weirdly enough she comes out with heavier bones and can fly less well. So both of them are hurting their chances to survive for the chance to hear the beautiful tone that she wants to hear that he wants to give her.
Wait. So she has heavy bones too?
But she doesn’t use them?
This is a suggestion with massive repercussions for biological science but as I listened in on the discussion it not only got me thinking about evolutionary biology but how this different theory is so much closer to Christian theology. What if the world is driven less by who is reddest in tooth and claw and more by the pursuit of beauty? Might that not be a better explanation for why the world is so extravagantly gorgeous – for why we have cobalt blue and cadmium red and yellow ochre? And what if this is not because of genetic chance but because that is how a Creator intended it? A creator who is himself beautiful and made all things beautiful and put in the hearts of his creation a desire for beauty – even in the hearts of the birds and the bees, and certainly in the hearts of the man and woman?
Beauty: not a by-product – not even a puzzle – but the very essence of what creation is meant to be. Wow. That’s beautiful!
The Midrash Mash
In its softest form, it might simply mean that Paul is commenting on Scripture in such a way as to apply it to his own time and place. This, while true, is also trivial: “in that sense, all readings of Scripture by Jews and Christians always and everywhere are instances of midrash.”
A stronger claim is that the type of midrash practised by the rabbis is the best historical background against which we can understand what Paul is doing in his letters. Formal similarities may be identified (although these usually crumble under close inspection); there may be a similarity of hermeneutical method, perhaps utilising the same methods as the rabbis did (although only two of these appear with any frequency in Paul).
Often, however, the term is used with such vagueness that it mainly serves “as a convenient cover for a multitude of exegetical sins.” To say that Paul is engaging in midrash, in such contexts, is apparently a way of getting him off the hook for reading the Old Testament in a bizarre way: “One frequently finds Christian commentators explaining away their embarrassment over some piece of fanciful Pauline exegesis by noting solemnly that this is midrash, as though the wholesome Hebrew label could render Paul’s arbitrariness kosher.” Or, even worse, midrash is used as shorthand for “free and playful interpretation,” with no real connection to any known practice of biblical interpretation.
The problem throughout, Hays argues, is that “the label midrash tends to bring the interpretive process to a halt, as though it had explained something, when in fact we should keep pressing for clarity.” This doesn’t mean it should never be used, but it does mean that it should provide the starting point for investigation, rather than the finishing point.
The 2018 National Faith & Sexuality Survey: Some Reflections
The survey was designed to examine ‘the role religious belief has on people’s understanding and acceptance of their sexual orientation in the UK’, as a follow-up to findings about conversion therapy highlighted in the UK government’s 2017 National LGBT Survey. Following the launch, the results made the national press in newspapers such as the Guardian and the Daily Mail, as well as featuring on Channel 4 News.
The executive report makes for sobering and sometimes heart-breaking reading. Around 4600 people completed the survey, with 52% defining themselves as LGBQ+ (which includes those who described themselves as same-sex attracted). Out of the entire collection of responses (the 4600), 10% had made attempts to change their sexual orientation, with around 60% believing these attempts have harmed their mental health. Those who had made such attempts identified a belief that their same-sex desires were sinful or feeling ashamed of their desires as some of the primary reasons for their actions. More than 50% identified the disapproval of their religious leader as a contributing factor. Perhaps most upsetting among the results is the fact that 22 people said they were forced to engage in sexual activity with someone of the opposite gender in an attempt to change their orientation.
The executive summary states that ‘the results provide strong evidence of the harm that attempts to change sexual orientation are reported to inflict’. While the report itself doesn’t directly call for an outright ban on conversion therapy in the UK, it is strongly suggesting that such should be the case. This suggestion is made explicit in a quote from Teddy Prout, a member of the survey’s Advisory Board and Director of Community Services at Humanists UK, in the official press release: ‘The Government urgently needs to act on its commitment to end the practice of conversion therapy once and for all’.
Overall, I am grateful for the survey and want to honour those who have analysed and published the results. Having worked through the executive report and press release alongside the full set of results I believe the findings have been faithfully represented and the survey does provide us with a snapshot of the experience of faith and sexuality for a group of people within the UK which had not previously been explored. For this we should be grateful.
I also have a few reflections upon the results to share. These should not be seen as criticism, but more one clarifying point and two suggestions for improvement or future research. The more important question, of course, is what we should do in light of the results. This is where I believe that some of the co-ordinators of the survey are making missteps, and so I will also share some reflections on where the church should go from here.
Some Thoughts on the Survey
One clarifying point which is worth knowing: It is very important to recognise that this survey is an open-access poll using random sampling. This means that the survey was completed by people who chose of their own initiative to do so. The group may, therefore, be very unrepresentative of the UK population as a whole and so, strictly speaking, it can tell us no more than what is true for the 4600 people who completed it. The results may reflect the UK more broadly, but this is impossible to say with any certainty. For a survey to give a fair representation of the UK population as a whole, those completing it would need to have been carefully selected to be a sample which reflects the diversity of the UK population and the results would then need to have been carefully weighted to give a fair estimate on the larger scale.1
The report does acknowledge this fact. It consistently talks of the number and percentage of respondents for each answer, rather than a percentage of the population, and does not claim to represent the UK as a whole. In addition, it notes that the age representation does not quite reflect the UK as a whole, that England is overrepresented and that ethnic minorities are underrepresented. However, it may have served the general reader better if the report had made it explicit that the survey is not necessarily representative of the UK as a whole. It could perhaps also have been helpful for the report to explain that the nature of an open-access poll means that people who have strong views on the subject are more likely to have responded. This is not to say that the results are of no use, but purely to say that they give us an insight into the lives of 4600 people, not necessarily the UK as a whole. Though it would inevitably be a rather more complicated study to administrate, it would be very useful to have a similar study with a carefully selected sample and weighted results to try and give an accurate estimate of the situation across the whole of the UK.
Now a couple of suggestions for improvement or future research. The definition of attempts to change sexual orientation used in the survey was very board. It included ‘a range of religious practises (eg. prayer, deliverance, emotional healing and fasting) through to counselling, aversion therapy and sexual activity.’ Respondents were at one point asked to specify the form of attempts they had made to change their orientation (Q28) and were later asked about the impact their attempts had made on their life (Q32), but unfortunately neither the survey questions nor the report offer a breakdown of the impact according to each form of attempt. This is a shame as it would be very useful to know whether different forms of attempt (e.g. personal prayer, professional psychotherapy, deliverance ministry etc.) had different types of impact (e.g. ‘I have suffered from mental health issues’, ‘I have found it hard to accept myself for who I am’ or ‘I have gone on to live a happy and fulfilled life’). One of the problems in the ongoing discussions about whether conversion therapy should be outlawed is a lack of definition as to what constitutes conversion therapy. An insight into the impact of various forms of therapy/attempt would allow more informed decisions to be made on this point.2
A second area for future research would be to explore when the attempts to change sexual orientation took place. My observation, from the contexts I have been involved in, is that things have changed a lot in the past 10 to 15 years. When I was first wrestling with my sexuality 12 or so years ago, the books I read and the teaching I heard often included stories of people who had experienced a change in their orientation, although I am not conscious of ever feeling any pressure to seek or expect my orientation to change. Now, over a decade later, in the same contexts I hear many more stories of LGBQ+ people seeking to faithfully follow Jesus, either in celibate singleness or a mixed orientation marriage, and rarely, if ever, hear stories of orientation change. I would be very interested to know if this shift is present more widely, in order to give us a more accurate picture of how things already have or have not changed.3
While I am genuinely grateful for this survey and the way that the results have been reported, I do feel that a more explicit acknowledgment of the limitations of the results would have been helpful and propose these two areas as questions which would still be worth exploring.
How Should We Respond?
This, of course, is the much more important question. Given the snapshot provided by these results, how should we respond?
Without question, the first response of every Christian must be sorrow and repentance. These results show that harm has been done and suffering has been brought upon LGBQ+ men and women by Christians. Regardless of whether the figures would be different if they were representative of the whole of the UK, the evidence of pain caused to those among the 458 respondents who have made attempts to change their sexual orientation should cause us to express deep sorrow at the part the Church has played in that and to repent of insensitive, uneducated and unloving responses to those who are LGBQ+. And I deliberately state that this must be the response of every Christian. Even those of us who have never been directly involved in encouraging people to change their sexual orientation, those of us who are too young to have been involved in its heyday, and those of us who are within the LGBQ+ group, must start with this response. We, as Christians, are all members of Christ’s body and all members of God’s family; these actions are part of our shared history, and therefore, it is right that we all respond in this way. It is not for any of us to arrogantly look back and claim we would never have been involved had we been there at the time. We cannot know that. Sorrow and repentance are the right responses for every Christian.
Then there are the deeply practical questions: if encouraging sexual orientation change is not the best way for the Church to respond to those who are LGBQ+, then how should we respond? It is here that I part ways from most of those who have co-ordinated the study and from the way that it is being used, and no doubt will be used.
The report itself, and the press release, are again admirable in the fact that they do not draw conclusions which are unsupported by the results. Both focus almost solely on conversion therapy, which is the focus of the survey. Although it should be noted that the issue of definition is here again present: the survey itself never actually uses the term ‘conversion therapy’, speaking only of ‘attempts to change sexual orientation’, which, as has been noted, is defined very broadly. It is therefore unhelpful to draw conclusions about conversion therapy, undefined, from the results. There should be more nuance in the conclusions being drawn.
However, it is where we go from here that most concerns me. In her interview with Channel 4, Jayne Ozanne, the director of the Ozanne Foundation, the group who co-ordinated the survey, stated, ‘Many of our churches are teaching young LGBT people that they have to be single for life, they have to be celibate, that they have to change and transform themselves’. She makes this statement with the clear implication that this is wrong.
It is fair to say that the survey does raise questions about the wisdom and morality of telling LGBQ+ people that ‘they have to change and transform’ their orientation. However, it has nothing to say about whether life-long singleness and celibacy are harmful and therefore wrong to encourage and teach as a Christian response to the experience of being LGBQ+. (In fact, 14% of those who had attempted to change their orientation said they have now ‘actively chosen to remain celibate’. No data is given to assess the personal well-being of these people.) The survey, while recognising the limits discussed above, has contributions to bring to the conversation about conversion therapy and broader attempts to change orientation, but beyond that it has little, if anything, to say about a right Christian response to those who are LGBQ+.
I wholly agree that it is imperative that the Church discuss and wrestle with how we best love and support those of us who fall within the LGBQ+ group and what it looks like for us to follow Jesus. Historically, the Church has done very badly on this topic, and this is a fact we should never overlook or deny. But slowly, I believe, this fact is being acknowledged, the important questions are being asked, and the even more important stories are being heard. But, as I have argued before, the best way for us to love and share the good news of Jesus with LGBQ+ people is not to discard the beautiful plan for human sexuality revealed to us in the Bible, but to take hold of and live out the fullness of the Bible’s teaching on love and family. If we do this, the fact that following Jesus – by denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following him – will, for some of us, mean forgoing sexual and romantic relationships need not seem like the life sentence that some are claiming it is. Rather we will find that, just as Jesus promised, losing the life we might have expected and wanted to have out of love and obedience to him, will actually be the route to finding real life (Matthew 16:25).
- 1 For more on types of polls and their limitations, see ‘How not to report opinion polls: A guide from YouGov’s Anthony Wells’.
- 2 I contacted the Ozanne Foundation to ask whether it would be possible to get a breakdown of this information. They acknowledged that there is still ‘a wealth of research findings within the survey, particularly within the free responses to “other” which we will need to publish in the future’. They also stated that various breakdowns are being processed, but acknowledged that the software used for the survey will place some limitations on the breakdowns which can be produced. I wonder if a simple improvement to question 30 (‘Of the various forms that you tried, how helpful were they?’) could have been very beneficial here. The word ‘helpful’ is very ambiguous (does it mean ‘made a change to orientation’ or ‘was not harmful’ or something else?) and thus rather limits the usefulness of the responses. Perhaps further surveys will be able to explore this area in more detail.
- 3 I should note that the survey did ask those whose attempts had involved NHS medical staff to state how long ago it was that they were trying to change their orientation (Q29). However, only 10 people answered this question and so the results are not included in the report as the sample is not large enough to give worthwhile data. My thanks to the Ozanne Foundation for clarifying, via personal communication, the reason for the low number of responses to that question.
Instagram and Atheism
It goes like this. Once upon a time, people believed “that everything they did had at least one Spectator who knew their every thought and deed, who could sympathise with them or, if necessary, condemn them.” God knows how much I’ve suffered, they would say. God knows I’m innocent. God knows what I’ve had to deal with. “God was always invoked as the all-seeing eye, whose gaze brought meaning to the greyest and most senseless life.”
But if you don’t believe in God, what happens then? Who is there to witness your life, in all its ups and downs, and validate your experiences by their attention? In a post-theistic world, who will see us? “All that’s left is the eye of Society, the eye of the Other, before whom you must reveal yourself so as not to disappear into the black hole of anonymity, into the vortex of oblivion, even at the cost of choosing the role of village idiot who strips down to his underpants and dances on the pub table.” Being seen by society at large, whether on television or on social media, is “the only substitute for transcendence, and all in all it’s a satisfying substitute.”
Eco stops there. Fortunately, Scripture doesn’t. In fact, the only place in the entire Bible where a person gives a name to God is in Genesis 16, when Hagar—a woman and a slave, and arguably the person in the story so far whom we would least expect God to notice—names a well “Beer-Lahai-Roi”: well of the Living One who sees.
So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” (Gen 16:13)
The Strange Case of Dr Evil
Dr Evil is a Wolverhampton tattoo artist who also ran a little ‘surgical’ business on the side. Brendan McCarthy, as Dr Evil is otherwise known, admitted causing grievous bodily harm and will be sentenced next month. Despite having the consent of his clients, as the law currently stands McCarthy was guilty of GBH in removing ears and splitting tongues.
Some questions on this.
Firstly, clearly there is a difference between having an earring and having metal horns inserted in one’s forehead – but where does the line lie in defining the difference? According to the BBC, the judge in this case drew the distinction between body modification and tattoos and piercings, saying there is “no proper analogy”. That feels about right, but what about the person who has the entirety of their face tattooed? Is that any less extreme, or any less disfiguring, than a tongue bifurcation? I’m not sure how to parse such distinctions. What about you? If a brother or sister in Christ wanted their tongue split in two, or their whole face covered in tattoos, would that feel in line with or beyond the limits of Christian freedom? On what grounds do you give your answer? And if you might feel uneasy about a full-facial tattoo, where would you draw the line (literally as well as metaphorically) about how much body art is acceptable for a Christian?
Secondly, to what extent should society accommodate the desires of those who seem to genuinely feel an intense need to make extreme physical, permanent, changes to their bodies? The BBC reports King of Ink Land King Body Art The Extreme Ink-Ite (born Matthew Whelan), as saying, “Under current laws, we are classed as effectively consenting abuse victims.” Should the law treat such people as victims of abuse, or as adults choosing to do something important to them which doesn’t affect anyone else? Should people be free to do with their bodies as they wish or does society at times have a duty to protect people from their own desires? Can it ever be morally right to remove a healthily functioning part of the body, whether for cosmetic reasons or because of a deep-held ‘need’ to have the offending body part removed? Why anyone would want their ear removed is unimaginable to most of us, but does that render such a decision illegitimate?
I don’t much like tattoos. That is a personal aesthetic judgment and I wouldn’t expect anyone to be bound by my aesthetics on this anymore than I would by my preferences in music or visual art. But at the least, a Christian theology that sees the body as essentially good and capable of redemption will be hesitant about making permanent changes to the body – especially those that would generally be regarded as mutilating. Indeed, this is one of the characteristics that has separated more Christian societies from animist ones. If the human being – body and soul – is somehow made in the image of God then we will not want to disfigure it.
In a Christian worldview, doctors do no evil.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
Thanks to Hannah Anderson for tweeting this a few weeks ago. I love it. One guy totally focussed on the game, the other guy watching everything, anticipating what is about to happen, and steering his guy in the way he should go.
I love the trust implicit in this relationship - it wouldn’t work at all if the coach was resistant to the work of his spotter. But because he trusts him, he is willing to be guided by him with the lightest of touches.
And I’m willing to bet that the coach is barely even aware of what is happening. If you asked at the end of the game how many times his spotter had pulled him out of danger, or steered him so he didn’t walk into other people, he wouldn’t have a clue. Maybe he’d have noticed 2 or 3 times, but he wouldn’t have been aware it was almost constant.
How often has the Holy Spirit guided you, protected you, pulled you back or urged you forwards today? I tend to only notice it when I mess up - when I hear a friend has been unwell, and realise I was thinking about them a lot on that day, but never got round to praying or texting; or when I think ‘I should mention my church or the Bible now’ in a conversation with non-Christians, but hesitate too long and miss the moment.
As I’ve been pondering whether to post this or not, I’ve also been thinking about our role as family and as the body of Christ. When Hannah first posted this, it was in the context of thanking the other human beings who perform a similar role for her - primarily her husband. But it strikes me that we all have a responsibility to do the same. In some cases it will be more obvious, like in a mentoring relationship or friendship when we help one another think through our choices and make good ones. It may be serving in church or helping out a friend in need, by performing a task they are unable to, to ensure things run smoothly (tech team, for example, or administrator, or going to hospital appointments with someone who needs support).
And of course, when we pray for one another, we are joining with the Holy Spirit in helping to shape, protect and guide our brothers and sisters.
Embarrassment and Evangelism
If that sounds familiar to you, then you might find this story from Matt Smethurst’s (forthcoming) Before You Open Your Bible encouraging:
When I lived in China, I got to know a college student named “James”; we’d met playing basketball and had become fast friends. But, just like virtually everyone around him, he had never heard about Jesus Christ.
Over the course of several weeks, I shared the gospel with him a few times. He seemed interested, and asked great questions, but he couldn’t disavow the atheistic worldview that had been ingrained in him for his entire life.
One day, I secured a copy of the Jesus film in his language, and we scheduled a time to watch it together. I had never seen it before and didn’t know what to expect. But given all the positive stories and statistics associated with the movie, I was eager for James to see it. I remember it was my last day of ministry for the semester—the winter holiday was about to begin, and my parents were arriving for a visit the following day. I was in a great mood. And when James and I sat down in my apartment living room and I inserted the DVD, my hopes were high.
I’m not sure if James heard a noise about seven minutes into the film, but if he did, it was my hopes being dashed on the floor. You see, James was a hip and modern college dude who had seen far more of Hollywood’s latest offerings than I had. The Jesus film, meanwhile, is on the cutting edge of 1979. Sure, the script is a verbatim presentation of Luke’s Gospel, but I felt embarrassed to be subjecting James to what I saw as subpar acting and cringeworthy cinematography—Is that Jesus levitating?—for two long hours. Honestly, I feared it would have a counterproductive effect, making Christianity look sillier to him than it did before. I was mortified and regretted showing him the film.
When the film ended and the credits rolled, I braced for his verdict. James turned and looked at me and, with sincerity in his eyes, simply said: “That was the best movie I have ever seen.” I was shocked. That afternoon, James placed his faith in Jesus Christ.
I’ve never forgotten John Piper’s comment on apparently embarrassing means of evangelism: “I like their way of doing it more than your way of not doing it.” This isn’t an argument for not contextualising, or being wilfully awkward; I am completely persuaded of the need for thoughtful, creative, wise and loving engagement, and I teach on it (and try to do it) all the time. But I am also persuaded that failing to do this is not our only danger here, nor even (perhaps) our greatest one. The apostle who became all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22) puts it this way earlier in the same letter: “We are fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor 4:10).
The Binary and Intersex
Over the past few weeks I have been arguing for the goodness of the freedom of the gender binary, the idea that our identity as a man or a woman is given to us by God and is therefore not something which we have to create through performance. This is good because it gives us the freedom to be how we are without changing who we are and means that we can each fulfil our male or female role in line with the way that God has created us. This identity is, I have stated, given to us by God and is written into our bodies. However, this perspective overlooks one very important consideration: what about those whose bodies are not clearly male or female? Does the existence of those who are intersex undermine the position for which I have been arguing? And, perhaps more importantly, what form should a Christian response to intersex take? As I bring the series to a close, it is these questions which I am going to consider.
What is intersex?
Intersex is an umbrella term used to refer to a large variety of situations where various aspects of an individual’s physical body do not match what is expected for either a male or a female. In some cases this creates ambiguity about the individual’s biological sex. The term can refer to a huge range of conditions which have varying degrees of impact on the body and on the individual’s experience of life. Medical professionals therefore prefer the term disorders or differences of sexual development (DSDs).
There are various biological factors which can lead to a DSD. Some are chromosomal; rather than the chromosomes expected for male (XY) or female (XX) an individual may have a different chromosomal formation. For example, some people have an extra X chromosome (XXY), a condition known as Klinefelter Syndrome, or a single X chromosome (XO), Turner Syndrome. Other DSDs are related to hormone production and reception. One of the more common conditions is androgen insensitivity syndrome, where male hormones are produced but the body does not respond to them. This can lead to a baby born with XY chromosomes, testes (which remain in the body) and female genitalia. Another common condition is congenital adrenal hyperplasia which causes increased production of male sex hormones. The impact of this on development in the womb can result in a baby with XX chromosomes, a womb and ovaries, and genitalia which look more like those expected of a male baby. Complications in hormone production also lie behind the very rare cases where a child is born with what appear to be female genitals which then develop into a penis when the child reaches puberty. (In these cases, the child was actually born with underdeveloped male genitalia and the surge of testosterone at puberty causes the delayed development.) There are also very rare cases where an individual is born with both ovarian and testicular tissue or where genitals can have a mix of male and female elements.
It is very hard to specify how common intersex conditions are; suggested figures therefore vary hugely. The examples given above are the more extreme cases. There are also many conditions which can be included under the broad term intersex but which have only minor effects on an individual’s body or experience of life. What does seem to be clear is that cases where there is genuine ambiguity about whether an individual is male or female are very rare.1
The Binary and Intersex
Regardless of how common or not they may be, we cannot deny that intersex conditions exist, and this clearly problematises the idea that we are given the identity of male or female by God and that this is written into our physical bodies. Does this fact undermine the reality of the freedom of the gender binary? If not, how does a biblical worldview help us to understand intersex conditions?
Additional Sexes in the Bible?
When we ask what the Bible might say about intersex, it is worth considering two avenues which have been explored by Megan DeFranza.2
The Bible often talks about eunuchs, and so DeFranza and others have suggested that in the Bible (and in other secular and religious texts from the ancient world) eunuchs were viewed as a third sex, additional to male and female. For example, it is argued that God’s promise of blessing to eunuchs (Isa. 56:4) and Jesus’ acknowledgment of those born as eunuchs (Matt. 19:12) show that the Bible accepts that male and female are not the only expressions of sex difference in creation.
However, there are a few problems with this view. First, while the word ‘eunuch’ appears many times in the Bible (in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word (sāris) occurs 43 times; in the New, the Greek (eunouchos) is used eight times), it does not necessarily always refer to those distinguished by a biological condition. Over time the term became almost synonymous with ‘[high-ranking] official’. It therefore often refers to those who served in royal courts without necessarily saying anything about their bodies (e.g. Potiphar, Gen. 37:36; 39:1; and the cupbearer and baker, Genesis 40:2, 7). In addition, in the Bible, when the term is used to refer to a person in relation to their biology, the understanding seems to be that eunuchs are biological males who are unable to procreate. This would seem to be the case in the key passage, Isaiah 56:3-5. The reference to these eunuchs calling themselves ‘a dry tree’ and receiving something better than ‘sons or daughters’ implies that what was distinctive to them as eunuchs was their inability to father children. In addition, if, as seems likely, Isaiah 56 is alluding back to Deuteronomy 23, where males whose ability to procreate had been lost are excluded from the assembly of the Lord, this further supports the idea that the biblical figure of a eunuch is one who is biologically male but is unable to produce children. There is thus no indication that the Bible sees eunuchs as a third sex.
The second way that the Bible may speak about intersex is by recognising that the mention of male and female in Genesis 1 may not exclude the existence of other sexes. This argument starts from the observation that other pairs in Genesis 1 (e.g. land and seas) don’t exclude the existence of parts of creation which sit between these pairs (e.g. rivers). If it is clear that other binaries in Genesis 1 are not meant to be exclusive, then the same could be true of the male-female binary. Intersex people may therefore not fit within the male-female binary and yet still be part of God’s original plan for creation. In this way, DeFranza suggests, Adam and Eve can be considered the ‘progenitors’ of humanity, but not the ‘paradigms’.
However, I find this an unpersuasive reading of Genesis 1. When God creates the sea creatures, the flying creatures and the land animals they are all created ‘according to their kinds’ (Gen. 1:21, 24, 25). This seems to imply that within these categories of living creatures there are many different, and here unspecified, variations. However, when God creates humanity, they are not created ‘according to their kinds’ but ‘male and female’ (Gen. 1:27). This would seem to suggest that male and female are the ‘kinds’ of humanity. In contrast to the other living creatures, there is no suggestion that there might be lots of kinds of humans, rather there are only two.3
The account in Genesis 2 would seem to support this reading. There are two kinds – male and female - within humanity, the purpose of which is that there might be male-female marriages (Gen. 2:24). Though this paradigmatic statement about marriage doesn’t necessarily exclude the possibility of other sexes in creation, it does explain why there might be within humanity an exclusive binary of male and female and seems to be a weighty argument for an exclusive binary, even if not a conclusive one. In addition, Jesus supports this idea when, in Matthew 19:4-5, he connects Genesis 1:27 (humanity created ‘male and female’) and Genesis 2:24 (‘…the two shall become one flesh’). Obviously, this doesn’t mean that every man and every woman should or will marry (Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 19:11-12), but it does seem to suggest that there is something purposeful about the design of humans as male or female. At very least it provides a logic to explain why the two kinds of humanity are male and female.
We can also note that elsewhere in the Bible, the male-female binary is assumed to be a paradigm for human existence, sometimes even being used as the grounds for various distinctions and instructions (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:3-15; 1 Tim. 2:11-15; 5:1-2; Titus 2:2-6). It is hard to see how the Bible might affirm the existence of a third or other sexes, when it regularly talks only of male and female when dealing with sexed distinctions.
I therefore find it hard to offer a biblical defence of the position which states that intersex conditions might be explained as one or more additional biological sexes which were part of God’s original plan for creation.
A Biblical Theological View
I think a better approach to finding a theological understanding of intersex is to think about it in the context of biblical theology. How might the Bible’s big story help us to understand intersex? When we ask this question, we find a fruitful answer.
The Bible’s big story is uniquely able to explain why the reality we experience now is sometimes different from how God originally intended things to be. We know that our corporate rebellion against God has led to brokenness and imperfections in God’s originally perfect creation (Genesis 3; Romans 8:20-22), and we know that this brokenness extends also to our physical bodies (Romans 8:23). It should therefore not be a surprise to us when our physical bodies, whether from birth or later in life, exhibit divergences from God’s original plan for human embodiment. All of us experience this to a greater or lesser extent at various points in our lives.
It seems to me that the best way to understand intersex conditions is as just some of the many ways the brokenness of creation can be experienced in our physical bodies. In this way, in terms of theological explanation, those born intersex are no different to those born blind or with a limb which is missing or not fully formed. These things are all biological experiences of the brokenness of creation.
Some object to this perspective, seeing it as unloving and dishonouring. However, this need not be. The examples of brokenness which we experience in our physical bodies are non-moral issues. They are not things over which we should feel guilt or shame. Rather, they are reminders of the reality of brokenness, the problem of humanity’s rebellion against God, and the good news of the gospel that Jesus has won the victory over sin such that he has the power and authority to one day put to rights all that is wrong in creation.
With this understanding, we can see how the existence of intersex conditions doesn’t disprove the reality of the gender binary. The gender binary is there as a part of God’s good creation, but it, like all creation, can be marred by the effects of sin.
A Christian Response
A theological explanation only takes us so far. To make a truly Christian response, we also need to think practically. How should Christians respond to those who are intersex and what might it look like for someone who is intersex to follow Jesus?
Intersex and the Image of God
We must start by recognising that intersex people, like all humans, are created in the image of God. An intersex condition does not negate this fact. Bearing the image of God is not predicated on being male or female but on being human, and no outworking of the brokenness of creation that we experience in our physical bodies can change this fact. Every intersex person has unique worth, value and dignity given to them by God and a contribution to bring to society and the church.
This being the case, we must make sure that being intersex is not a reason that people experience guilt and shame. Sadly, it seems that many intersex people, including those who have been involved in churches, have been rejected and ostracised because of being intersex. One intersex Christian who has shared her story recounts that when she opened up to some of her close friends, they told her that she had ‘ruined her testimony’ and that they no longer wanted to talk to her. When she shared with her pastor, he simply recommended that she remain silent about her situation.4
As Christians, we must make sure that we are the first to welcome intersex people, to listen to their stories, to acknowledge their pains, and to communicate, through word and action, that they are of equal value to us and to God as those who are clearly biologically male or female. We must work to ensure that having an intersex condition is not something about which individuals need feel ashamed or guilty, just as no one should be caused to feel ashamed or guilty about any aspect of brokenness that they might experience in their physical body.
Intersex and Identity
Intersex is another case where identity is vital. In particular, we must think about ultimate identity so that those whose identity as male or female is not clear, can find peace and security in a more fundamental truth about who they are. We can help intersex people by affirming that even if their identity as a male or female is ambiguous they are still loved by God and valued by him. For Christians who have intersex conditions, we must help them to know and experience that they are a child of God, regardless of any ambiguity about their biological sex. While ambiguity about one area of identity may be present, there need not be any ambiguity about other areas of our God-given identity.
And here there is again a part that we can all play. All of us need to recognise and live out our ultimate identity. Our sexed identity may be given to us by God and may be an important part of who we are, but it is not our ultimate identity. The ultimate identity for a follower of Jesus is as a child of God. This is true for those who are intersex, but it is also true for those of us who are biologically male or female. We need to be sure that our identity as children of God is where we are finding our sense of worth and security, not our biology. Only when those who are biologically male or female do this, can we help those who are intersex to do the same.
The Practical Questions
The practical questions about whether medical treatment and surgery should be sought, and about how intersex people are to live and present themselves in terms of their sexed identity, are too complex to deal with here and I feel underqualified to tackle them. But for a Christian working through these questions, I would offer three thoughts. First, prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit must be made central, trusting that God, as a perfect father, will want to answer, and guide and bring peace. Second, local church eldership should be involved. Elders are given to the church as fathers, to look out for us, protect us, encourage and walk alongside us. Such complex and difficult questions shouldn’t be tackled alone; they should be tackled with spiritual fathers alongside. And third, the wisdom of medical professionals should be received. It may need to be weighed against Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but medicine is an expression of God’s common grace to humanity and so should not be immediately rejected.
The Binary and Intersex
In theological terms, then, intersex conditions do not undermine the freedom of the gender binary. We know that we live in a world where we are to expect that our embodied experience does not always match up with God’s original intentions. Intersex is just one example where we see this as a reality. For those who are intersex the freedom of the gender binary may be difficult to experience. We must therefore respond with compassion, being those who suffer alongside, and pointing to, as well as living out, a greater identity. Intersex conditions, like so many examples of brokenness we experience in this life, are a reminder to look beyond this age, beyond even the freedom of the gender binary, to a greater freedom looming on the horizon. They are a reminder ‘that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21).
- 1 A recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s stats-checking show, More or Less: Behind the Stats, has a useful exploration of some of the figures often proposed. The Intersex Society of America also has a useful breakdown of the estimated prevalence of various DSDs.
- 2 Megan DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (Eerdmans, 2015). I have not read DeFranza’s book, but am familiar with her work through various useful summaries and discussions available online, such as here and here. Also helpful is an exchange of blogs on the topic between Megan and Preston Sprinkle (Preston 1; Megan 1; Preston 2; Megan 2; Preston 3; Megan 3; Preston 4. I don’t think Megan offered a final response.) Preston’s contributions in this exchange have influenced what follows.
- 3 I recognise, along with the author of Genesis (6:19), that most non-human living creatures are also created male or female. The distinction between creation ‘according to their kinds’ for non-humans and as ‘male and female’ for humans therefore highlights the significance of the male-female binary in humanity, rather than its uniqueness. This would seem to fit with the way the theology of the sexes develops as the Bible story continues, especially in the understanding that human marriages are designed to reflect Christ and the Church.
- 4 You can hear some of Lianne Simon’s story in this video.
Kintsugi and Grace
We were talking about these ideas one day with friends in our home after a meal, and one of them shared a story about an old Japanese art of mending broken pottery. Kintsugi means “golden joinery.” It’s the art of joining broken pieces of pottery with a liquid resin that resembles gold. The result is a bowl or vase that is more beautiful, more aesthetically complex, and more valuable than the original piece.
Isn’t that amazing? The new piece with golden seams became so popular among Japanese art collectors in the fifteenth century that some were even accused of purposely breaking pottery in order to repair it with gold.
That sounds like grace. Grace that takes what is broken and puts it back together in such a way that it is more beautiful and more valuable than it was before.
When the Gods are Toppled
- Camille Paglia, “The Waning of European Art Film”
A Eucharismatic Conversation with Glen Scrivener
The Freedom of the Gender Binary in Action
So far in this series, I’ve introduced the concept of the freedom of the gender binary and argued that the New Testament authors’ approach to masculinity shows that they understood and applied it. Those posts have been primarily about the theory, but what about the practice? How do we live out the freedom of the gender binary, and how might doing so help us as we think about various aspects of and discussions about gender in the world around us?
The Freedom of the Gender Binary and Gender Dysphoria
An obvious question to ask is whether recognising the freedom of the gender binary might be able to help us as we think about gender dysphoria and those affected by it.
The first important thing to recognise is that the gender identity struggles about which I have shared have been very minor compared to those faced by some people. Gender dysphoria is the experience of distress or discomfort because of an incongruence between biological sex (what the body says) and gender identity (what the mind says). While many people experience a mild form of gender dysphoria in childhood, as I did, for some people the experience extends into adolescence and beyond or appears only later, in adulthood, and often causes such distress for those affected that they feel they cannot cope with the idea of continuing to live in line with their biological sex. For many, the experience of dysphoria can be incredibly painful and distressing, and so our first response must always be compassion, just as Jesus always had compassion on those who were suffering.1
Gender dysphoria is a complex phenomenon. There is little agreement on causes, but it is generally felt that there are probably many different reasons people experience it. For this reason, a recognition of the freedom of the gender binary will not, by itself, solve the gender identity struggles of someone experiencing considerable levels of gender dysphoria. It would be insensitive and naïve to suggest that it might. In some cases, however, perhaps especially among children whose experience may be shaped by a feeling of not fitting the mould of the gender suggested by their biological sex,2 or individuals who experience a less extreme level discomfort with their gender, the freedom of the gender binary may have a positive impact and could even lessen the experience of dysphoria.
How then might be we put the freedom of the gender binary into action such that it might offer some level of help to some who experience gender dysphoria and to those who may experience less severe discomfort with their gender?
The Source of Identity
The freedom of the gender binary flows from the truth that human identity comes from God. Identity is meant to be received, not achieved. It is therefore not found in how we feel about ourselves or what other people think about us, but in what God says. This is the unique and life-giving nature of the Bible’s approach to identity. It is the only form of identity available to us which is solid, stable and secure.
It is this approach to identity which allows us to enjoy the freedom of being male or female as a received identity which is true regardless of how we feel or what we do, and which therefore gives us the freedom to be how we are without changing who we are. And yet the reality is that many Christians don’t live with this form of identity. So often we are actually finding our sense of identity in how we are, in what we do, in our relationships, or in our achievements. Can many of us honestly say that if we lost everything, if everything external and internal to us changed, we would still feel secure in who we are? Those wrestling with their gender identity need to experience the freedom of a received identity, rooted in what God says about us, but it’s harder to do that when others around you aren’t doing the same. All of us need to embrace a truly biblical understanding of our own identity if we are going to call others to do the same.
One of the factors which can lead to or contribute to discomfort with one’s gender identity is the presence of unhelpful and unbiblical gender stereotypes. Culture is full of these. In fact, the cultural understanding of transgender experience often reinforces them. It is often a failure to measure up to or to feel comfortable within gender stereotypes which is deemed to be an early sign of a mismatch between biological sex and gender identity. One documentary about transgender children featured a dad who said, ‘I knew my son was really a girl the moment I saw him run’. It was diagnosis through stereotypes.
The church has often been guilty of supporting unnecessary gender stereotypes. Desperate to maintain the fact that men and women are different we have propagated a whole load of unbiblical stereotypes about how men and women should be, and in the process, we’ve completely ignored the freedom of the gender binary which should help us to recognise that within masculinity and femininity we will find huge diversity and that this is part of God’s plan. These stereotypes can be found in our conversations (especially our jokes), our sermons, and the events we run.
Every time we reiterate an unbiblical stereotype about gender in the church we cause those who don’t fit that mould to feel uncomfortable and to believe that they need to try to be a certain way in order to be a real man or a real woman. We undermine the freedom of the gender binary and replace it with the oppression of gender stereotypes. I wonder how many men and women are sitting in our churches feeling like they don’t really make the cut because they don’t fit the common stereotypes. We need to reclaim the freedom of the gender binary by dispensing with unbiblical gender stereotypes if we are going to help everyone to find peace and contentment in who God has created them to be.
If my understanding of the freedom of the gender binary in the New Testament is right, then, while we need to dispense with unbiblical gender stereotypes, we also need to rightly express gender difference. I believe the New Testament guidance on expressing gender difference shows us that we are to do this through our appearance – not seeking to actively create ambiguity about our gender – and by living out the role appropriate to our gender.
This latter idea, that we have different roles according to whether we are a man or a woman, is frequently present in Christian discussions about gender, but it often gets attached to unhelpful stereotypes about what men and women should be like as they perform their roles. We start with what the Bible says, but then we go further. This ends up with Christians claiming that men should be those who ‘charge against enemy gates, leading from the front, and refusing to take cover behind their wives and children’, which is clearly a role (regardless of whether one agrees that it is the male role), while simultaneously claiming that things like ‘[l]ispy sentences, light gestures, soft mannerisms, and flamboyant jokes’ are a ‘perversion of masculinity’. Or we get the confusing mix of role and manner in: ‘At our house, swordplay is practice for life … I want [my sons] to see that the primary burden of defense, whether of home, family, church, or country – lies with them.’3 This understanding of the role of men may or may not be right, but surely physical aggression isn’t the only way for this to take place. The role has been mixed up with a manner of performing it which isn’t specified biblically.
The freedom of the gender binary means we can live out our roles, thus expressing who we are, without having to change how we are. So, I might be the complete opposite to a male friend – I’m sensitive, he’s tough-skinned; I hate aggression, he’s always up for a fight; I’m drawn to people, he’s drawn to objects; I have no interest in football, he lives for the game – but we can both live out our male role equally well. We may do it in very different ways, but we can still do it. We’re men because God has made us men and says we are men, and so we perform our male role, even while being completely different in almost every other characteristic. The freedom of the gender binary allows us to do this; it brings freedom to be how we are without changing who we are.
This means that while we must follow the biblical call to express our gender through our appearance and by living out the role of our gender, we must be careful not to go further than the Bible says. We live out our role, but we do so in line with the personality God has given us, embracing the freedom of our God-given gender.
An Invitation to Freedom
Recognising the freedom of the gender binary will not immediately end the distress of those around us experiencing considerable gender dysphoria, and there is a great need for us to find better ways to help such people to manage and reduce their dysphoria. But I wonder if there mightn’t be many people, both in and out of the church, who would find a great sense of peace and release if we put into action the freedom of the gender binary in our lives and our churches.
- 1 One of the most helpful and impacting steps to take when thinking through gender dysphoria is to hear the stories of some who have experienced it. These are easy to find online, both in writing and on video. The personal accounts are often deeply moving as people share about the continual feelings of discomfort they experience, the distress this causes them and sometimes even the strong hatred they feel against their own bodies.
- 2 This seems to sometimes be at least one factor involved in childhood gender dysphoria. See the examples given by Dr Kenneth Zucker, who directed the Gender Identity Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto for several decades, quoted in Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally (Encounter Books, 2018), pp.136-137.
- 3 Joe Rigney, ‘Masculinity Handed Down’ in Designed for Joy (Crossway, 2015), pp.36-37.
Anywheres and Somewheres
Anywheres (about 25% of the UK today) dominate British culture and society. They pass exams, do well at school, go on to a residential university, work in a major city at some stage, marry late, and comprise almost all of the political, journalistic, corporate and artistic elites. They (we?) have identities which are “portable” and “achieved,” and pride themselves on being tolerant, meritocratic, egalitarian, autonomous, open to change, internationalist and individualist. Ironically, though they almost all voted Remain, they are actually the ones who “leave” their place of origin and move somewhere else.
Somewheres (about 50% of the UK today) “are more rooted and usually have ‘ascribed’ identities—Scottish farmer, working class Geordie, Cornish housewife—based on group belonging and particular places.” (60% of British people live within twenty miles of where they lived when they were fourteen.) This, rather than education or class, is what joins them together; they earn, live, work and vote in widely differing ways, but they are typically more local in outlook, communitarian, stable, patriotic, traditional, mindful of security and tied to specific places. Many (though by no means all) of them voted Leave, but by and large they are the ones who “remain.” They also have larger families, and give more to charity.
Broad brushstrokes, for sure, and Goodhart admits as much. Everyone contains elements of each, which means that occasionally we will all find ourselves united by a common identity (as in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony). Both groups have an extreme subset: a handful of Somewheres (5-7% of the population) are Hard Authoritarians, and a handful of Anywheres (5%) are Global Villagers. As people get older, they often move between the two (usually from Anywhere to Somewhere). Then there are the Inbetweeners (25%), who are either both or neither, depending on the issue. That said, Goodhart argues, the categories are backed by a striking variety of empirical data—from whether you agree that “young people do not show enough respect for traditional British values” to how far away you live from your mother—and have substantial explanatory power when it comes to a whole host of contemporary issues, of which Brexit is merely the most obvious.
At the risk of bastardising a nuanced and often brilliant* book—but then, what else is this blog for?—here are some of the key insights that leaped out at me.
1. The Elephant Curve. You may have already seen this extraordinary graphic on global income growth, which is pictured above, but if not: most people in the world got substantially richer between 1988 and 2008, either because they are part of the emerging middle class in the developing world (percentiles 5-75), or because they are part of the global elite (95+). But two groups did not get richer at all, and may even have got poorer: the very poor, locked out of development because they have so little to start with (0-5), and those on lower or middling incomes in rich countries (75-90). This is not just economically but politically significant, especially when combined with #2.
2. The Decline of Male Employment. Lower income men in the last two generations have faced a triple-whammy: i) the dramatic increase of women in the workforce, competing for jobs that would historically have been all-male, ii) the continued rise of automation in manufacturing and, more recently, in services (automatic checkout, driverless cars, etc), and iii) globalisation, in which the competitive advantage will usually go to the country that pays the lowest wages. This is not only politically important; it also has crucial pastoral implications, as we discussed on a recent Mere Fidelity episode with Diane Schanzenbach:
3. The Dignity of Work. For most Anywheres, work is fulfilling because it gives a good income and an opportunity to realise one’s individual talents. But for many Somewheres, this misses a vital component of the value of work, namely that “it is also about feeling valued and respected through working on behalf of others, particularly one’s family, and through making a public contribution.” Consequently, initiatives to dramatically increase attendance at universities (which dramatically decrease manual skills training) seem logical to Anywheres, who typically make the decisions, but create a “wild mismatch between career expectations and the grim reality of actual job opportunities for those not on track to good universities … A concern of most Somewheres is how to retain dignity and honour in the mundane and middling while living in a world in which status, as well as wealth, is so unevenly distributed.”
4. Somewheres and the Family. Goodhart reiterates the point made by Putnam, Murray and others about the family: high status (and income) Anywheres “talk blue, but live red,” while lower status (and income) Somewheres “talk red, but live blue.” (Put differently, Anywheres insist that all family forms are equally valid for raising children, but in practice they generally prefer two married parents who stay together and have a small number of kids; for many Somewheres, the reverse is true. The rhetoric is different from the reality, on both sides.) This accentuates #1 and #2, because when lower income men do not have children at home, they are less likely to work, which makes them less marriageable, and so on. “Most of these depressing statistics apply in particular to working class whites who more than any other group have lost their place in society and have no encouraging narrative of advance, unlike young women and ethnic minorities.”
5. Debunking Globalist Myths. Some of Goodhart’s best work occurs in exposing the falsity of many widespread claims about globalisation. The world is not experiencing unprecedented migration flows. Only 3.3% of the world live outside the country they were born in. Thomas Friedman’s bestseller The World is Flat is almost entirely wrong. The nation state is not powerless in the face of global markets, as we realised during the financial crash (as Mervyn King put it, the banks were “global in life and national in death”). Many things that you might think were international are overwhelmingly national, including stock market equity (80%), Internet traffic (83%) and Facebook friends (85%+), let alone telephone minutes (98%) and mail (99%). Much of the globalisation narrative, he argues, is simply “globaloney.”
6. Debunking Londonist Myths. Londoners have great PR, and we pride ourselves on being open, tolerant, inclusive, rich, aspirational, creative, happy and successful. The statistical reality, however, is somewhat different. London has the highest levels of anxiety and the lowest levels of life satisfaction of any region in the UK. It loses population in every age group except 20-29. Only 13% of Londoners trust their neighbours. Four of its boroughs are among the twenty most deprived in England, 27% of its citizens are classified poor, and since 2009, pay for the lowest decile has fallen by nearly a quarter. More of us say we don’t find our work fulfilling than in any other region (41%). Astonishingly (at least to me), London is also the city in which the highest percentage of white British people say they are uncomfortable with the proportion of ethnic minority people in their neighbourhood. And of course 40% of Londoners voted Leave. There are more Somewheres here than I realised.
7. The Persistence of National Particularism. It is one thing to say that all human beings are equally valuable; it is quite another to say that we have identical obligations to all human beings, regardless of proximity or nationality. For some more extreme Anywheres, the existence of national borders is tantamount to racism, since it necessarily discriminates in favour of those individuals who happen to have been born in your country. But this argument proves far too much; “if the nation state is an illegitimate expression of bigotry, like racism, then the legitimacy of democracy and the welfare state, which today exist only in national forms, is also thrown into doubt.” As such, moral particularism persists. “All humans are equal but they are not all equally important to us” (emphasis added).
Goodhart finishes with some policy proposals, ranging from transport investment (HS3 rather than HS2), to compulsory voting, to ID cards, to more investment in technical education and apprenticeships and less in subsidising rich kids (like me) going to university. But the heart of his book is less about policy than it is about attitude: Remainer-Anywheres should listen to, seek to understand, and show respect for, the concerns of Leaver-Somewheres, even where they (we!) may disagree on the best responses. From where we stand in 2019, it would appear that Somewheres are not going Anywhere.
You can get The Road to Somewhere here.
*Although given that he is the editor of Prospect magazine, someone really ought to teach Goodhart how to use a semicolon.
If you don’t like the result of the vote, keep having votes until you get the result you want
No, I’m not referring to Brexit, but to a poll of doctors planned by the Royal College of Physicians.
The RCP is planning to poll its 35,000 members to ask whether ‘they would help a terminally ill patient to die and whether the law should be changed to allow assisted dying.’ A similar vote four years ago showed a clear majority of doctors against such a change and there is no evidence that the position is different today. But in an extraordinary move the RCP is saying that unless a supra-majority of 60% of its members vote either for or against the change it will declare its position on the matter to be ‘neutral’. Of course, in this case ‘neutral’ is really a euphemism for ‘supportive’ and demanding a supra-majority like this is nothing but gerrymandering the vote.
Another euphemism is to speak of ‘assisted dying’ in this way. In the UK we already have assisted dying – it is called palliative care. What the RCP proposal is really seeking is legitimacy for assisted suicide; but campaigners for euthanasia have subtly dropped the s-word in order make their goals feel more kindly.
According to The Times, ‘Doctors are in open revolt against their professional body amid claims that the Royal College of Physicians has been captured by lobbyists for assisted dying.’ And, ‘A former official has threatened legal action over a new vote on the issue that he called a “sham poll”.’
That the RCP’s actions should arouse such a strong response is unsurprising: most doctors want to care for their patients, not kill them.
All of us should care about this because once the door to euthanasia is opened the slippery slope only runs one way. As ‘atheist and unashamed liberal’ Ian Birrell writes, in those nations where euthanasia has been legalised the consequences are becoming increasingly alarming:
Belgium, for example, now permits euthanasia for children. It has allowed at least three minors – two of whom were children under 12 – to receive lethal injections since the law was changed five years ago. It also allowed a pair of deaf adult twins who feared turning blind to kill themselves. And it is available for those with ‘unbearable’ psychiatric pain. If we accept people have the right to death as relief from intense suffering, then this makes ethical sense, since there should not then be distinction between physical and mental agony. Yet such distress is harder to detect and more open to subjective interpretation.
Rather than heading down the road that Belgium and the Netherlands have started on, in the UK we should work to ensure that true assisted dying is available: that is effective pain relief and dignified treatment for the terminally ill. We should resist anything that is a step towards euthanasia.
If you are a doctor or medical student please consider adding your signature to this open letter to the RCP calling on it to postpone the poll.
Bibi & Blasphemy
In this extended report, the BBC provides a comprehensive account of the severe problems faced by minority groups in Pakistan. It is difficult from a western perspective to understand the kinds of passions that are generated in some Islamic contexts but the horrific consequences for non-Muslims are clear. It really is life or death.
Read the article. And pray.
The Bible and the Binary (Part Two)
In the previous post in this short series I argued that when compared with their contemporaries, the New Testament authors take a radically different approach to masculinity. For Greco-Roman authors, masculinity was a performance and the status of ‘real man’ was something to be attained through action, but the New Testament authors never suggest that masculinity has to be attained and they don’t really even engage in the gender conversations being had in the world around them. Rather, they believed in the freedom of the gender binary: that male or female identity is God-given and unchanging, thereby giving the freedom for people to be how they are without it changing who they are.
So, does this mean that the freedom of the gender binary leaves the body as the only difference between men and women? Can we live with a functional one-gender system where our identity as male or female doesn’t really make any difference to the way we live our lives? I don’t think so. It seems to me that the New Testament lays down two ways in which our identities as male and female should be expressed.
Different External Presentations
First, the New Testament teaches that men should be recognisable as men and that women should be recognisable as women, especially in terms of dress and physical appearance.
This would seem to be the key point behind Paul’s complex discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. The principle Paul is expressing is that men and women are different – the gender binary – and therefore this difference should be observable in how they follow their culture’s customs for male and female appearance, especially when in the context of corporate worship. How we present ourselves is meant to be a way of celebrating the gender identity God has given us, and for most of us our secondary sex characteristics (e.g. facial hair, hip width, muscle mass, fat distribution, pitch of voice etc.) help this presentation. This is obviously complicated by the fact that cultural customs change over time, but perhaps the general principles are that one’s God-given identity as male or female should be discernible from one’s appearance and that we shouldn’t seek to actively create ambiguity about our gender.1
Second, biblically speaking, sexual difference is expressed in different roles, not in different mannerisms, personality traits or preferences. The freedom of the gender binary makes this possible. Our identity as a man or woman is already set and therefore does not need to be created through performance. Rather, how we live is meant to flow out from that God-given identity. This means that all men have the same role to play, but because of the diversity within masculinity, we may perform that role in different ways. Likewise, there is a role for women to play, but different women will perform that role in different ways.
We see this in the fact that almost all the explicitly gendered commands of Scripture talk of role alone (e.g. Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Tim. 2:8-12; Titus 2:2-6; 1 Peter 3:1-7).2 Of course isolating from Scripture exactly what the male role and the female role are is more difficult, especially when looking beyond the contexts of marriage and the local church, and I’m not going to venture into that in this series, but the key point is clear: when the New Testament differentiates by gender it does so almost solely to discuss role, not mannerisms, personality traits or preferences.
Beyond these two elements, I think it’s hard to find biblical material which explicitly talks of differences between men and women.
Finding the Bible’s Teaching
‘Explicitly’ is the key word in that last statement. It alerts us to one last point which is worth making in this discussion of the freedom of the gender binary in the Bible. It’s the question of how we find the Bible’s teaching on what it means to be a man or a woman.
It’s common for people to build an understanding of biblical masculinity and femininity by looking to examples in Scripture. We turn to Ruth, Esther and the Marys for a biblical picture of femininity, and to David, Paul, and, supremely, Jesus for a biblical picture of masculinity. But when we do this, how do we know which elements are the individuals being a godly woman or godly man, and which are just them being a godly person? Which elements of the example of Jesus should women not follow because they are female and he is male?
The reality is that there is no way for us to isolate the gender-specific elements of a biblical figure’s example unless the text explicitly tells us that this was part of them being a godly man or woman. What is usually happening when we use biblical examples to construct masculinity or femininity is that, whether knowingly or not, we pick the examples that fit our preconceived ideas on gender expression and ignore those that don’t. The examples are reinforcing what we believe, not shaping what we believe.
This might actually mean that the Bible says a lot less about gender expression than we want it to. I think it probably leaves us with the different external presentations and different roles and not much else, but this is because the biblical authors understood the freedom of the gender binary. Our identity as male or female is given to us by God and is expressed in our external presentation and the different roles we play, leaving us the freedom to express our unique, God-given personalities, mannerisms and preferences.
Some people will not like this conclusion. They will see it as a watering down of the differences between men and women which will be destructive to individuals and to society. But I think the practical outworkings of the freedom of the gender binary are a good thing, and that’s what I’ll explore in the next post in this series.
- 1 This same principle – that our God-given identity as male or female should be observable in our external appearance – would seem to be the best explanation for the prohibition of cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5. While some have argued for cultic or military explanations of the command, the maintaining of the separation between male and female is the most contextually well-supported reading, as argued in Peter J. Harland, “Menswear and Womenswear: A Study of Deuteronomy 22:5,” ExpTim 110 (1998), pp.73-76.
- 2 The discussions about how women should adorn themselves in 1 Timothy 2:8-10 and 1 Peter 3:1-6 could perhaps be seen as exceptions to this. Some might argue they deal with preferences. But the focus of both passages seems to be about where women are finding their value: in the external, or in what actually matters to God, the internal. Thus they are discussions about godly character and living, not personal preferences for certain clothing and accessories.
The Most Attractive Quality in a Leader
I was thinking about this last month, when I had the privilege of meeting and praying for two days with the key leaders in Newfrontiers in the UK. None of them are household names. They all live in very ordinary places. They don’t have bodyguards, Twitter fan clubs, lucrative publishing deals or six figure salaries. They don’t pack stadiums or have profiles in the national media (not that those things are necessarily bad). Most people outside of a very specific slice of British evangelicalism have never heard of them. But having travelled, stayed or shared family dinner with all of them, one thing that they all have in common—as far as I can tell, anyway—is that their inside is bigger than their outside.
I don’t think that’s true of everyone in pastoral ministry. Many of us can probably think of examples: Christian leaders whose books, sermons, albums or organisations were far more impressive than the real person you found when you looked behind the curtain. There is nothing innately sinful about money, or popularity, or big churches, or social media followings, but when they work in combination with each other (which they often do), they have the potential to inflate a person’s “outside” while simultaneously diminishing their “inside.” Their stage presence is better than their prayer life. Their preaching is better than their parenting (if applicable). They give the impression of reading the Bible, and sharing the gospel, more than they actually do when you get to know them.
So when you see someone whose inside is bigger than their outside, it is immensely refreshing. You can hear it in their prayers. (Without exception, each of the ten or so people I mentioned earlier are more impressive in prayer than on the platform, at least from my interactions with them—and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay someone.) You can see it in their homes. You can tell by hearing the jokes they make (or decide not to make), the controversies they avoid, the judgments they pass (or don’t), the way they interact with their families, the things they spend their money on, the way they treat those from whom they have nothing to gain. When you see it, as I did years ago with Terry Virgo, you realise you’re looking at the real thing. It makes you think: I want to be like that.
Lewis, of course, used the phrase to refer to the new creation, and (by extension) to the realities of Christianity: “like an onion,” as Mr Tumnus puts it, “except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.” Peter Lewis (no relation) makes a similar remark about Jesus at the start of The Glory of Christ: “the closer I get, the bigger he becomes.” I find it a wonderful way of thinking about the realities of the age to come, and the ways in which pastors can reflect them (or not) in our own lives. So my prayer this week, as I have been thinking about these things (and as I prepare to spend another two days with a group of such leaders this morning!), is that my inside would be bigger than my outside. Or, as Matt Redman puts it:
So let my deeds outrun my words,
And let my life outweigh my songs.
Unbroken praise be yours.
The Bible and the Binary (Part One)
In the first post in this series, I shared about my moment of revelation concerning the freedom of the gender binary: how God’s creation of us as male or female, and his gift of that identity, gives us the freedom to be how we are without changing who we are, therefore meaning we do not have to perform to reach the status of being a ‘real man’ or a ‘real women’. Genesis 1:27 was vital in this realisation, but my change in thinking also grew from recognising the radically different approach to masculinity taken in the New Testament in comparison to that found in the wider Greco-Roman world. I realised that the New Testament authors recognised and understood the freedom of the gender binary and applied it in their approach to masculinity.
Masculinity in the Ancient World
In the Greco-Roman world, gender was understood on a spectrum, best thought of as a vertical scale, with masculinity at the top and femininity at the bottom. The scale was vertical because masculinity was deemed better than femininity, so it was a scale you wanted to move up, but there was always the risk you could slip down. Your position on the scale was determined by your position in society and by how you lived. Maud Gleason summarises what this meant for masculinity: ‘Masculinity in the ancient world was an achieved stated, radically undetermined by anatomical sex’.1 That is, masculinity had to be performed.2
In this system, to be a real man, at the top of the scale, you had to be someone who exercised mastery. So, for example, Aristotle claimed that ‘the male is by nature better fitted to command than the female’ (Pol. 1259b) and Seneca, when describing male and female, states, ‘the one class is born to obey, the other to command’ (De Constant. 1.1). By contrast, someone who was mastered by others and who took a subordinate position would be deemed feminine. This meant that only freeborn Roman males could ever hope to be truly masculine, while slaves were automatically placed in an effeminate position because they were under the mastery of another.
But it wasn’t just mastery of others which was important, mastery of oneself (i.e. self-control) was also a key element of the performance of masculinity. Cicero suggested that the senses are liable to ‘give way in a womanish fashion’ if not carefully mastered (Tusc. 2.48), and Philo believed that ‘the female element, the senses, may be made manly by following masculine thoughts’ (QG 2.49).
This understanding of gender also explains the sexual ethics of the Greco-Roman world: the issue was not who you had sex with so much as what role you played in the sexual act, the active role was deemed masculine and the passive role was deemed feminine.
The body itself was a consideration in all of this, but it wasn’t definitive.3 Having a male body wasn’t enough to ensure that you would be considered a real man and having a female body didn’t preclude you from achieving some level of masculinity (although you couldn’t actually become a man). In 4 Maccabees, for example, a mother who exhibits incredible control of her emotions while watching her seven sons be tortured and martyred is praised as being ‘more noble than men in fortitude’ (15:30).
This approach to gender is amazingly pervasive in world of the New Testament and is found in Greek, Roman and Jewish authors.4
Masculinity in the New Testament
When you look at these discussions of masculinity, you find the regular use of recurring ideas and specialised terms from the ongoing cultural conversation. The idea of the gender spectrum seems to have been almost universally held (at least among the literate classes represented by the texts we have access to), as is the idea that masculinity is superior to femininity. The key idea that mastery is at the core of masculinity is likewise nearly universal and there are plenty of recurring motifs, such as women being imperfectly formed men and men being hot and women cold. This seems to have been a hugely prominent cultural conversation, with a defined vocabulary and common themes. But what is striking about the New Testament is that it doesn’t seem to take part in this conversation.
The Language of Masculinity
For example, there is barely any use of the standard terminology of the conversation. I can think of only two examples.
In 1 Corinthians 16:13, in a list of quick imperatives as he heads towards the close of the letter, Paul tells his readers to ‘act like men’ (ESV). This is a word which was strongly associated with the performance of masculinity (the verb andrizō is linked to the noun andres ‘men’). However, it is not clear that Paul evokes the Greco-Roman gender scale in using the word. Some commentators note the pairing with the following command (‘be strong’) and see a link to the commands to be strong and courageous in the Old Testament. Others suggest that in the context of 1 Corinthians (especially 3:1, 13:10-11 and 14:20) Paul’s point is about maturity, not masculinity. Thus a translation such as ‘be courageous’ (NIV, NLT) may better communicate Paul’s meaning, capturing the sense of the word without the gendered implications which he doesn’t seem to be endorsing.
The other example of the standard terminology for masculinity in the ancient world used in the New Testament is also in 1 Corinthians; it is the word malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9. The base meaning of malakos (the singular of malakoi) is ‘soft’ (it is used to describe clothing as ‘soft’ in Matt. 11:8 and Luke 7:25) and in the context of the gender conversation in the Greco-Roman world it had the sense ‘effeminate’. But the ancient definition of effeminate was somewhat different to our modern definitions. Men would be described as malakos for a huge variety of behaviours that were deemed unmasculine, including an excessive interest in one’s physical appearance, removing body hair, a love of luxury and even having too much sex. In the context of sexual activity, malakos was used to describe males who took the passive role in same-sex sexual activity. The range of meanings of malakos was therefore pretty broad. We have to work out which elements of the word’s meaning Paul was seeking to evoke.
As always, context is key. Paul doesn’t actually explain the meaning of malakos but it’s position in a list of actions which will exclude one from the kingdom of God show that it must be something he considered serious and sinful. Also, the terms in the list either side of malakos both refer to sexual activity: it is preceded by ‘adulterers’ and followed by arsenokoitēs, which would seem to refer to men who engaged in same-sex sexual activity. There is therefore a good case to be made that Paul’s use of malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is designed to denote males who take the passive role in same-sex sexual activity, with arsenokoitēs then denoting the active partner.5 So translations such as ‘men who have sex with men’ (NIV 2011) are probably best (and ‘effeminate’ (NASB) is unhelpful). Once again, we find that Paul uses language from the gender conversation, but without the gendered overtones.6
The Themes of Masculinity
It is also striking that when the New Testament discusses themes which would usually be gendered in Greco-Roman literature, its discussion does not talk about them in gendered terms. For example, self-control is clearly a significant theme in the New Testament, but it is not linked solely with men. It is a Christian characteristic, not a male one. Sexual ethics are discussed, but not in gendered terms. The gender of those involved matters, but it is not affected by the activity. This is particularly striking when we note that Jewish authors, whose sexual ethics were closer to those of the New Testament than to other Greco-Roman authors, speak of sexuality in highly gendered terms. Philo talks of males who play the passive role in same-sex sexual activity as experiencing ‘the disease of effeminacy’ and as experiencing ‘the transformation of the male nature to the female’ (Spec. 3.37).
One exception where there does seem to be some overlap with Greco-Roman ideas is in the fact that husbands are called to be in authority over their wives, with wives instructed to be in submission to their husbands. This would seem to be masculine mastery much like we would find in Aristotle or Seneca. But even here there is a surprising anomaly: the New Testament does not use the usual masculine language of mastery, even though wives are commanded to be in submission to their husbands. Rather husbands are told to love (Eph. 5:25, 28; Col. 3:19), to honour, and to show respect to their wives (1 Pet. 3:7). This is a form of male mastery, but it is radically different from that usually found in the Greco-Roman world. A second difference is that this is an outworking of their identity, not a performance to attain it.
The Performance of Masculinity
Perhaps the most important evidence supporting the idea that the New Testament authors understood the freedom of the gender binary is that, unlike the non-Christian Greco-Roman sources, they never suggest that masculinity is something to be attained through performance. As we’ve seen, for Greeks, Romans, and Jews, masculinity was a performance, and the status of ‘real man’ was attained through actions. Gender was understood on a scale, not as a two-part binary, and you had to act to determine your position on the scale. There was thus no security in one’s gender identity.
But the New Testament authors see male and female identity as static, and when they give gendered instructions they are an outworking of that static identity, not a way of attaining the identity. So, for example, when husbands and church elders are told to exercise masculine mastery – in the radically different, Christian form discussed above – they do this as an outworking of their identity. They master because they are men, not so that they can really be men. The husband is already the head of the wife, he doesn’t need to become the head (Eph. 5:23).
This is an outworking of the freedom of the gender binary. Men are already men and so they don’t have to do anything to become real men. Women are already women and so they don’t have to do anything to become real women. They do have different roles to play (as I’ll explore in the next post), but roles flow from, rather than create, their gendered identities.
All of this suggests that the New Testament authors take a radically different view on masculinity and gender to their non-Christian contemporaries. They don’t see gender on a spectrum where men have to perform to be masculine; they don’t even bother taking part in the conversation about such performance. Rather it seems they have understood the freedom of the gender binary. The reason they don’t call men to live in certain ways in order to be men is because they know that God creates us male or female and so whatever we do and don’t do, we are a man or a woman based on how God has created us. And when they do talk about what men and women should do, it’s always as an outworking of that God-given identity, and never a condition to be met in order to create the identity. Biblically speaking, gender is given to us by God; it is not created through performance.
This leaves unanswered the question of whether there should be any discernible difference between men and women or whether we can live out a functional one-gender system. I will tackle this question in the next post in the series.
- 1 Maud Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton, 1995), p.59.
- 2 I should note that the focus on masculinity in this post is because it is the topic which I have studied; my master’s research explored masculinity in the New Testament. While I imagine the same conclusions could be drawn from a consideration of femininity in the ancient world and the New Testament, I have not yet studied this. I hope, however, that the example of masculinity achieves the aim of this post and demonstrates that the New Testament authors approached gender as a God-given identity.
- 3 This was certainly true, although how exactly the sexed nature of the body was understood has been debated. For several decades it was widely believed that the ancients subscribed to a one-sex understanding of the body, in which the bodily differences between men and women were just an inversion of one biological sex. (This view was mostly strongly put forward by Thomas Laqueur in Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.) However, more recently this view has been challenged and it has been argued that the one-sex model and two-sex model sat alongside each other. (This has been argued by Helen King in The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence.)
- 4 One of the best introductions to Greco-Roman views on masculinity is Craig Williams, ‘Effeminacy and Masculinity’ in Roman Homosexuality (2nd edn; Oxford, 2010), pp.137-176.
- 5 See, for example, the discussion of this verse in Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved (Zondervan, 2015), pp.105-117. Also Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon, 2001), pp.306-312, although note the comments below.
- 6 This is the point where I feel Robert Gagnon (The Bible and Homosexual Practice) makes a misstep. Though he rightly concludes that Paul is using malakoi to refer to ‘passive partners in homosexual intercourse’, he sees a gendered element in this which is not warranted by anything Paul says: ‘For them [Philo and Paul], an attempt by the passive partner to feminize his appearance is simply the logical corollary or symptom of the root problem: namely, playing the receptive female role in homosexual intercourse’. This is almost certainly true of Philo, who uses explicitly gendered language in his discussion of same-sex sexual activity, but Paul never hints that the masculine identity of the passive partner is actually affected. He knows that the freedom of the gender binary means that a man’s position as a man cannot be affected by what he does.
Three Features of Christian Prophecy
First, there is discernment of the contemporary situation by prophetic insight into God’s nature and purpose. We have noticed Revelation’s dominant prophetic concern for exposing the truth of things - both in the churches and in the world - and for revealing how things look from the perspective of God’s heavenly rule …
Secondly, there is prediction … What must take place is the coming of God’s kingdom - or God would not be God. Prophecy as prediction reveals how the contemporary situation must change if God’s kingdom is to come.
Thirdly, prophecy demands of its hearers an appropriate response to its perception of the truth of the contemporary world and its prediction of what the working-out of God’s purpose must mean for the contemporary world. It is this third element that ensures that the predictive element in biblical prophecy is not fatalistic. It leaves room for human freedom, for human response to God’s will and human participation in his purpose for the world … God’s kingdom must come - or God would not be God - but the predicted manner of its coming is conditional on human response and on God’s freedom to embrace human freedom in his purpose.
- Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 148-149.
The Freedom of the Gender Binary
There was a time in my childhood when I thought I was a girl. Though externally I looked like a boy, and everyone thought I was a boy, I believed that internally I was a girl. I remember being afraid that one day I would get pregnant (obviously before I understood how these things work!) and that then my big secret would be found out. I resolved that I wouldn’t ever be able to get married, and so I would just stay living with my parents forever.
Over time these feelings abated, as they do for the vast majority of children who experience discomfort over their gender identity,1 but the feeling that I wasn’t quite a real man remained with me. I carried a sense of not really fitting in and not really making the cut. I always felt more comfortable around girls and would feel actively uncomfortable in all-male environments. Stag dos were my worst nightmare; I would usually find a way to get out of them or to only attend part of them. Even men-only Church meetings were an uncomfortable place to be. I actively wanted to like things deemed more traditionally feminine and was uncomfortable if I liked something traditionally deemed masculine, and I tried to make myself ‘one of the girls’ by distancing myself from men, saying things like, ‘Well he would do that, he’s a guy’, or ‘Guys just don’t get that type of thing’. This was all more subtle than the belief that I was actually a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and for many years I was unaware of it, but it was all part of an ongoing discomfort with my identity as a man.
Over the last year, I’ve been working through these issues, gradually becoming more comfortable with who God has made me to be, and one day I had a moment of revelation. I suddenly realised that if my identity as a man comes from who God has made me to be and what he says about me, it doesn’t come from how I am. I saw that God’s creation of us in his image as either male or female (Gen. 1:27) means that my male identity is received, not achieved. The image of God is an identity given to us, which is static and stable. Every human being bears the image of God in a way which can never be changed (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9), and in the same way, every human being is given the identity of male or female in a way that can never be changed. It is an identity spoken over us, written into our physical bodies, and is not something created by us through performance. This isn’t to say that men and women should live their lives in exactly the same way (I’ll explore that in a later blog), but it means that this God-given identity gives us the freedom to be how we are, without changing or challenging who we are.2
So, this means that my love for musicals, Downton Abbey and afternoon tea don’t bring my identity as a man into question. In fact, they can’t. It means that the fact I’m quite sensitive, I hate violence and aggression, and can’t stand beer doesn’t change my identity. God has made me as a man, and so I am a man. End of story. And at this point I realised that this truth - the fact that God has dictated who I am - gives me the freedom to be how I am. I can embrace and express my likes and dislikes and my personality, without fear that they might render me less of a man. God’s gift to me, my male identity, gives me the freedom to be me.
And this is a radically different view to that held by the world around us. Western culture tells us that the male-female gender binary is oppressive and harmful and that people like me should just accept that we’re somewhere on a spectrum between male and female or even that we are women with male bodies. Culture’s answer brings complexity and confusion. But the God-ordained gender binary is liberating and life-giving. It tells me that regardless of how I am and regardless of what I feel, regardless of what other people think or me or how I do or don’t measure up to their expectations, I am a man. I don’t have to try and reach the status of manhood; I don’t have to try and fit in, and I don’t have to perform an act to convince people of my masculinity. God has said, through my body, that I am a man, and so I am. God’s answer brings peace and freedom; it’s the freedom of the gender binary.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting a number of articles exploring how the freedom of the gender binary can be seen in action in the New Testament, how we should live it out, and how it might help us as we seek to bring God’s love and his truth to those who experience gender dysphoria and to those who are intersex.
- 1 A written brief prepared by three prominent academics and medical professionals and presented to the US Supreme court for a case in 2017 stated, ‘All competent authorities agree that between 80 and 95 percent of children who say that they are transgender naturally come to accept their sex and to enjoy emotional health by late adolescence. The American College of Pediatricians, for example, recently concluded that approximately 98 percent of gender-confused boys, and 99 percent of gender-confused girls, naturally resolve’ (pp.12-13). See also Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally (Encounter Books, 2018), pp.123-26.
- 2 I am acutely aware that the experience of intersex people and those who experience gender dysphoria or identify as transgender complicates this perspective, and that, more importantly, such blanket statements could be painful for intersex and transgender people to read. In order to handle these topics well, I will consider both in later posts in this series, considering how intersex and transgender sit alongside the freedom of the gender binary and how Christians should seek to best love intersex and transgender people.
Baptism and Church Membership: An Expatriate Perspective (Guest Post by David Shaw)
Ortlund argues that, yes, one should be welcomed into fellowship with all its attendant benefits, suggesting that while the paedobaptist view may be improper, it ought not be considered invalid. Leeman, on the other hand, argues to the contrary from the position that faith is essential to the nature of baptism, and as such, if such a person has not been baptized subsequent to their confession of faith, then they have not been baptized at all.
(Spoiler alert: I side with Ortlund on this issue. Below I outline why that is the case from my former expatriate ministry setting).
My own response is borne out my experience as a pastor in an expatriate setting. After finishing my MDiv in Seoul, South Korea, I was fortunate enough to be brought on to the pastoral staff at an international Baptist church in one of Seoul’s most internationally diverse neighbourhoods. As associate pastor, one of my early tasks was to develop a formal membership curriculum. At the time, the church had a membership process that was relatively vague and unknown to the congregation.
This was due in part, I believe, because of the inherent diversity and transience of expatriate ministry. How, for example, does an expatriate church offer meaningful membership or develop a leadership framework when the congregation in question experiences up to 80–90% turnover every two or three years? How much more so when those who hope to make your church their home for the next few years come from both credo- and paedobaptist traditions? As I worked on this issue with the input of our senior and executive pastors and the rest of our leadership team, we came up with something called ‘WatchCare membership’. Here is an excerpt from the most recent membership document that broadly articulates what this looks like:
Because of our unique ministry as an expatriate church, we sometimes find ourselves presented with unique challenges and one of those is membership. The challenge arises out of having many people from various Christian denominations and traditions who call [name of church] home. It is out of a desire to honor such people that we offer Associate Membership. [This] is available for those who (1) desire to maintain membership at their church back in their home country and/or, (2) for those whom acknowledge Christ as their Lord and Savior but have not been baptized by immersion. Associate Members are afforded all the rights of full [name of church] membership including pastoral care, communion, access to all of our ministries, mission opportunities, and the like, but cannot vote on the annual budget or other called church votes.
We do realize that for some this may be a sensitive issue. Our hope in all of this is to honor our centuries of Baptist tradition as well as the traditions of those who would fellowship with us for the period of their duration in Seoul. If you have further questions concerning [name of church’s] position on this matter or would like to be baptized, our pastors and deacons are more than happy to meet with you.
According to Ortlund’s second piece on the matter, our stance would be close to position (3) ‘Modified Closed’ where “a believer who is unbaptized, or was baptized as an infant, is given ‘associate’ status, and may vote on secondary matters in church meetings, and generally will not be eligible for the office of deacon or elder.” The only immediate difference is that we would have refused the right to vote. As I hope can be seen clearly, the goal of our policy was to honour a person’s faith whilst also honouring the Baptist heritage in which we stood. We wanted to welcome godly people into a form of membership for the duration of their time in Seoul so that we might care well for them without disdaining their theological convictions.
To provide an example of how this played out ‘on the ground’, we had a number of congregants who came from paedobaptist backgrounds who wanted to be members of our church. Pastorally, we spoke with such people and asked them to prayerfully consider where their conscience stood with regards to their paedobaptism. If their conscience considered their paedobaptism as valid, they were welcomed into associate membership upon a public declaration of faith and commitment to the church. Others, upon considering their past, determined that they should be immersed, and we would work with them through that process and welcome them into full membership.
In the years since I worked on that membership document, I have probably transitioned from a ‘Modified Closed’ position to a more ‘Modified Open’ position: that is, I would welcome into full membership ‘those who are baptized can be members, provided the individual regards their baptism—of whatever kind—as valid for them’. I say this on the grounds that we ultimately belong to one kingdom; God’s kingdom. We may inhabit different ‘states’, ‘counties’, or ‘shires’ within that kingdom, but there is only ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’ (Eph 4:5–6). And while I imagine Leeman might oppose such a view/practice, I have a hard time imagining how my church in Seoul could ever sustain a feasible form of leadership and membership in such a transient context (80–90% turnover every 2–3 years), without having some level of flexibility and inter-denominational mutual respect. In an international context, this is especially so where expat’s may not even have the choice of which church denomination they might attend while living overseas.
Moreover, like Andrew Wilson, I find incongruous that Leeman would welcome a paedobaptist (e.g. Tim Keller) to preach in his church, and yet not welcome them into membership or to the communion table. I think Ortlund summarizes the tension well when he asks, “are we strict with respect to the proper expression of baptism, or are we strict with respect to a proper recognition of the unity of the church?” In matters such as these, I would argue that the unity of the church should be the priority. And to extend the state/county analogy described earlier, though our denominational boundaries within God’s kingdom may be important to us, perhaps they should not always be the defining measure for membership within a local church.
David M. Shaw lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his wife, Becky and three children, Owen, Gianna, and Hugh. Together they attend Providence City Church in Perth’s inner-northern suburbs. David spent over eight years in South Korea where he earned an MDiv from Torch Trinity Graduate University and pastored among Seoul’s English-speaking expatriate community. He now lectures in New Testament at Perth Bible College, having completed his PhD at the University of Exeter, UK in 2017. His thesis investigated 1 Peter’s use of the Old Testament in the formation of the early church’s Christian identity and missional posture. You can follow David on Twitter @shaw_davidm
Is having a child a right?
That is a question posed by Mirah Riben. Surrogacy is becoming an increasingly important ethical issue, with governments around the world, including the UK, indicating that they are going to loosen the rules surrounding it. Riben’s post is worth reading in full: she raises important questions. Here is an excerpt.
Are a husband and wife with two kids a house and a dog, a single career woman who decides to be inseminated because time is running out for her to be a mother, a family who decides to foster one or more special needs children, and a gay couple who have a child via surrogacy all equal? Do all of these ways of family building put the needs of the child(ren) before the desires of the adults and are primarily in the child’s best interest? Are all equally accessible to people of all income levels? Is financial means, which allows for multiple options in both controlling reproduction and family building, a good litmus test for parenthood? Most importantly, do all “family building” options protect the rights of children?
Andy Cohen is the executive producer and host of the Bravo nightly series Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, Bravo’s late night, interactive talk show, and hosts a two-hour live show with co-host John Hill twice a week. He is executive producer of the Real Housewives franchise, host of the television dating show, Love Connection, and a New York Times best-selling author.
When Cohen, fifty, single, and worth an estimated $15 million dollars, recently publicly announced that he was about to become the father of a child being born to a surrogate, the announcement was met with cheers of joy and accolades in the Hollywood community and the public.
Why? Why is his renting of woman’s body, buying the reproductive services, cheered? Why does anyone celebrate hiring a woman to act as a human incubator? Utilizing the services of prostitutes, even where legal, is not publicly announced, cheered, or celebrated. If one can afford it and enjoys it, why do we not share their pleasure in paying to have a brief intimate relationship and be happy for them? Why does society condemn one and applaud the other? Yes, it is the impending fatherhood that is being celebrated, but does becoming a father make it so very different and justify the means? Where is the concern of those cheering him on for a child brought into the world to be raised by a man old enough to be his or her grandfather? Does his wealth make that OK, too?
Why has having a baby by any means become socially acceptable and a source of pride and joy? Please stop and think about this before having a knee jerk reaction. Andy Cohen is not adopting a child languishing in an orphanage in order to fulfill his desire to be a single dad. He is creating a human being from purchased gametes and having it gestated in a rented womb. The child will be motherless and live out his or her life knowing only half of its genetic medical history. Why celebrate that? Because it is his choice?
When Did Britain Become Post-Victorian?
Until, that is, the final chapter, when the book suddenly springs into life by imagining what time-travellers from 1800 would make of 1906. This is the bit of the book that anyone interested in the period should read, and the part in which all the trees we have seen in the previous five hundred pages start to coalesce into a wood. We read about what was like in cities and on farms, for men and women, labourers and artisans, parents and children. Literature finds its place in the story, and so do music, theology, science and art. As readers, we start to imagine what life was like for the 99.9% of nineteenth century Brits of whom we have not heard, and it is like a breath of fresh air.
Then, in the epilogue, comes a fascinating (and unexpected) payoff when it comes to the way the Victorian legacy is handled in our own day. Britain, Cannadine argues, only became truly post-Victorian in the 1960s, and that sheds a great deal of light on much that has happened—and much that has been said about what has happened—in the last fifty years (emphasis added):
Just as nineteenth-century Britain had been ruled by eighteenth-century men until 1868, when Derby was replaced by Disraeli, so twentieth-century Britain was ruled by nineteenth-century men until 1963, when Macmillan was superseded by Douglas-Home, who in turn would be followed by Harold Wilson. Indeed, there were many ways in which the late-Victorian United Kingdom lasted and lingered until the mid-1960s: in its great-power pretensions, global empire and imperial monarchy, in its heavy-industrial economy, moral code and gender relations, and in its outward conformity to Christian ethics. The nineteenth century cast a long shadow. Only since the 1960s has Britain significantly de-Victorianised, de-imperalised and downsized, and begun to come to terms with that ‘recessional’ that Kipling so prophetically foretold in 1897.
This, Cannadine suggests, “may explain why in recent decades it has become fashionable to denounce Victorian Britain more energetically and systematically than Lytton Strachey ever did, for espousing a set of assumptions that seem at best alien, at worst deplorable, and for being (among other things) sexist, misogynist, homophobic, racist, classist and imperialist.” (This is not to say that it did not espouse those things, merely that there are good cultural reasons for our constant, superior and sometimes shrill insistences that it did—and for downplaying those aspects of it which would lead to a more nuanced, balanced and historically credible portrait). The Victorians are still, perhaps, closer than we think.
When the tricks of the trade don’t work
To many of our readers, I imagine that seemed obvious. Yes, we might forget it sometimes, and accidentally start working backwards from the problem, but it’s no news that we think Scripture is (the revelation given to us by) our supreme authority.
So how do you debate with a believer for whom that is not a given?
Phil Moore recently faced just such a challenge on the Premier Radio programme Unbelievable, when he debated Natalie Collins on issues surrounding #MeToo and gender theology.
Phil had come across Natalie through last year’s THINK conference, and had seen from an article she wrote about it afterwards that she was coming from a very different perspective than him. So step one was to find some common ground. They could both agree that women often suffer abuse at the hands of men. Beyond identifying the manifestation of the problem (abuse), however, they seemed unable to progress.
I say that is the manifestation of the problem because in order to abuse someone you have to hold a whole set of assumptions about who you are, who they are, how the world is, what is right and what is wrong. To Natalie, as far as I can understand it from the interview, it seems that she believes that anyone who abuses women must believe in male headship as defined by [Phil’s/the complementarian interpretation of] scripture. And that anyone who doesn’t abuse women is not exercising this headship. (I’m getting this from the part where she talks about her husband – “the good one” – calling to ask if it’s OK for him to go out for drinks after work with his friends one night. To her, that was clear evidence that he does not consider himself the head of the household, because why would the head be considerate of the rest of the body?)
So Natalie’s diagnosis of the problem behind the negative outcome is wildly different from Phil’s, and for her, scripture is part of the problem, at least to the extent that scripture is always interpreted by humans, and humans are the problem, therefore we can’t trust their appeals to scripture. So how do you debate with someone to whom the bath itself is a problem, let alone the baby and the bathwater?
Phil made a valiant effort and was, of course, gracious, kind and generous throughout. Yet in the end it was a ‘debate’ between two people on opposite sides of a vast brick wall, built in a canyon, surrounded by a raging river, trying their best to communicate via the Bing translation tool. As an exercise in disagreeing well, it was a masterclass, and it served well to advertise Natalie’s forthcoming conference. Beyond that, it’s perhaps a useful training tool in helping you think through how you would answer objections when ‘What does the text say?’ is a complete non-starter.
Would You Excommunicate Tim Keller?
The stickiest question raised in the discussion, and the one which (for me) puts the problem in its starkest form, is: Would you excommunicate Tim Keller? If you found out that you had admitted someone into membership of your church who, it subsequently turns out, had only been “baptised” as a baby, would you remove them from membership, and/or from access to communion? (Let’s assume that this hypothetical situation was not generated by deceit or anything, but by misunderstanding or an oversight on your part.) If you would say no, admitting that you would not exclude them from membership and/or communion on the way out, then on what basis would you exclude them from membership and/or communion on the way in?
In the conversations I have had within Newfrontiers, the family of churches I belong to, it is intriguing how many people agree that the different sides of the “and/or” should be answered in different ways. Each Newfrontiers pastor I have spoken to—and the sample size is small, but probably representative nonetheless—agrees that we should not exclude paedobaptists from communion, but that we should exclude paedobaptists from membership. To which I expect both Gavin and Jonathan would respond, from opposite sides: what?
Crucial to the discussion is the question of what membership actually is.
For some Baptists, to accept someone into membership of a local church is to affirm that they are a member of the universal Church (and, conversely, to exclude someone from membership is effectively to say to them that they are not a Christian, as far as you are concerned). This is the basis of John Piper’s argument on the subject, as expressed in his response to Wayne Grudem: “excluding a true brother in Christ from membership in the local church is far more serious than most of us think it is.” Practically, to hold this view is to welcome paedobaptists into both membership and communion.
Some other Baptists would agree with this, but add (crucially) that there is a difference between the way an individual recognises someone as a Christian (which does not necessarily require baptism as a believer), and the way a gathered church recognises someone as a Christian (which does). This, if I understand them right, is how Jonathan, and Bobby Jamieson and the 9Marks guys more generally, approach the question. As such, although a Baptist individual might agree that Tim Keller is a Christian, a local church is not authorised to do that without him having been baptised as a believer, and therefore he should not be admitted either to membership or to communion.
In other Baptist churches, including my own, membership is an affirmation that a person is not only a Christian, but that they are committed to your vision and values, in submission to your elders, and qualified (in principle) to serve and lead among you. To admit someone into membership, then, requires that a much higher bar be cleared than is needed for them to be welcomed to the Table; you would welcome Tim Keller to share the Eucharist with you, because you recognise him as someone who has repented and trusted Christ, but because he disagrees with the church on a crucial point of doctrine, he would not be welcomed into membership.
As far as I can see, the grounds for excommunicating someone—excluding someone from communion—are the same as the grounds for excluding someone from baptism: either they are unrepentant, or they are unbelieving. As much as I can see the logic of Jonathan and Bobby’s position, some of their practical conclusions (for instance, that someone could preach at their church without being able to share the Lord’s Supper with them afterwards) serve as a reductio ad absurdum of their argument, indicating that there must be some mistake somewhere. So no, I would not excommunicate Tim Keller. There is, however, a very real possibility that if he comes across the way I’ve used his name in this article, he might look favourably upon the possibility of excommunicating me.
Some Tricks of the Trade
I recently spent a few sessions helping a group of pastors to think through their position on a complex ethical issue. At the end of one of these sessions, one of the group came up to me and asked if something I had kept doing in the discussion was one my tricks. (He then realised what he had said and was very apologetic for using language which suggested I was engaging in some sort of trickery, which I thought was rather amusing.) His comment and the experience of wrestling with this topic over a number of weeks got me thinking about some tricks of the trade we should employ when doing such thinking. Two have stood out to me.
Understanding the ‘What?’ Before the ‘So What?’
I often find I am the awkward person in a discussion about the Bible’s teaching who is constantly asking the question, ‘But what does the text say?’ If the Bible really is our supreme authority (or better, if it’s the revelation given to us by our supreme authority), then the first and most important thing is to understand what it actually says.
This was the point which one of the group asked me about after our discussions. ‘Is one of your tricks that you focus on what the Bible says on its own before working out how to apply it?’, he asked. And he’d got it exactly! Before we ask how we apply a passage, we’ve got to first understand what it actually says. Bad Bible reading often results from a failure to separate out these two steps. We want to jump to the ‘So what?’ questions, before we’ve actually answered the ‘What?’ question. This is particularly easy to do when wrestling with biblical texts which are directly relevant to ethical issues. We are so aware of various situations in the lives of those around us and of the implications that a particular conclusion might have for people, that we skip over the meaning (the ‘What?’) to get to the application (the ‘So what?’). In the process we often end up giving our own spin to the text’s meaning or ignoring it completely.
In reality the separation between ‘What?’ and ‘So what?’ is overly simplistic. The two can’t be so completely separated all the way through the process. There has to come a point where you start asking about the application, and that may cause you to rethink your understanding of the meaning. But we should always start by working on the meaning alone for a while before jumping to the application. (In this particular case, I found that I sometimes had to apply my working thesis of the meaning of a passage to a hypothetical situation to be able to really think through whether my understanding of the text made sense of all of its details. But this ‘So what?’ came after I had done a lot of work on the ‘What?’)
Acknowledging Your Presuppositions and Preferences
As I continued to wrestle with the topic over a period of time, I noticed that the conclusions I was heading towards were different to those of several others in the group, and I also found that my preference for what the end conclusion would be was different to others in the group. I noticed that as I was wrestling with the Bible I was hoping to find evidence to support my view. At this point I realised that I needed to bring my presuppositions and my preferences into the light; I needed to bring my subconscious influences, as much as was in my power, into my conscious thinking.
Presuppositions are those things we already believe which have an effect on how we interpret a passage of Scripture, and preferences are simply what we want the text to say. Both are unavoidable, and both can be good or bad. It’s common to think that we want to interpret the Bible on its own terms, without the influence of our presuppositions and preferences, but this is impossible. Any reading of the biblical text will be affected by our presuppositions; the important question is whether they are the right presuppositions. Our preferences can also be a good thing, not necessarily because they help us find the meaning of the text, but because if we find the meaning of the text doesn’t match our preference, it can be revealing to consider why; perhaps there is some wrong thinking lying behind our preference.
If it’s impossible to interpret the Bible without presuppositions and preferences, then the way to ensure they have a good influence rather than a bad influence on our reading is to acknowledge them. We need to ask ourselves, ‘What am I already believing about this?’, and ‘What do I want this text to mean?’ It might be that our presuppositions are biblical and helpful, and it might be that our preference does line up with what the text says, but we won’t be able to test that until we bring them into the light.
As I thought about my presuppositions and preferences while wrestling with various biblical texts during this process, it didn’t cause me to change my mind, but it did challenge me to make sure that the text really was saying what I wanted it to, rather than just assuming it was. It challenged me to be able to make a good argument to support my view and to make sure I gave serious consideration to arguments for other views.
Interpreting the Bible can be a tricky process, especially when wrestling with a big ethical issue which could have huge real-life implications for people we know and love. But that tricky process can be helped by knowing and applying some of the tricks of the trade.
Jon Haidt, Tim Keller and Me
My conversation with Jon Haidt can be listened to here.
Our Mere Fidelity episode with Tim Keller is here:
A Movement is Afoot
If so, then you may well be encouraged by what Tim (who has been a leading blogger in these circles for over a decade, and is a convinced cessationist himself) writes next:
I suspect, though, that this is about to change. This is about to change because several noteworthy pastors and leaders who are both Calvinistic and charismatic are committed to calling their own churches and others’ to practice what they preach. Sam Storms recently released Practicing the Power (my review), a kind of guidebook for bringing a church into charismatic practice, and now Andrew Wilson has released Spirit and Sacrament, a book that attempts to set charismatic practice alongside better-known and more traditional Christian forms of worship. Notably, both books have forewords by Matt Chandler and all three of these men spoke at the recent Convergence Conference which exists “to instruct and encourage individual believers and local churches to eagerly embrace the functional authority of the written text of Scripture and to experience the full range of miraculous spiritual gifts, all to the glory of God in Christ.” A movement is afoot!
Unsurprisingly, I hope so. (Also unsurprisingly, he has more concerns about it than I do.) As you will see if you read his review, and/or the exchange of papers I had with Tom Schreiner in November (soon to be published in Themelios), the historical and biblical arguments for the continuation of the gifts are increasingly being recognised as credible, even compelling, even if they don’t persuade everybody. The objections being expressed now are less about whether you can defend the charismatic gifts from Scripture, and more about whether, as Tim neatly puts it, “these gifts are those gifts”: whether the gifts which charismatics are currently practising are on the same level, or of the same nature, as those practised in the New Testament. I think there is a strong defence to be made here, and I try to do so both in my book and my papers. But it is a very encouraging development, and in some versions—“Why aren’t you guys seeing more, and more demonstrably powerful, miracles than you are?”—it can serve as a provocation, or even an invitation, to pursue the gifts more rather than less.
Dementia in the Trans-Physical Age
While my dad is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s, the sad fact is that dementia is going to affect most of us in some way. A third of people born this year will develop dementia at some point in their lives, and even if you escape this curse many of the people you love will be afflicted by it.
From my earliest memories my dad has been the hero of my life and a constant inspiration. His vast reading, his deep convictions, his grit and indefatigable approach to the challenges of life have all left their mark. I have always loved the way he loved me, my brothers, my mum. There were many shortfalls, but he has been a good dad, even a great one. Now it feels like he is slipping away.
And what is left? A face I love. Eyes that are kind and strangely understanding. Crooked teeth like tombstones. And a body that is slowly but surely failing. Yet this body is still my dad, and so we care for him and seek to offer him the dignity and honour he deserves.
Reflecting on the destructive effects of dementia raises a huge question: Where does the real you reside? We live in the Trans-Physical Age in which we view our bodies as plastic, moldable, even disposable containers in which our true selves live. If you feel that your body is an inaccurate portrayal of the real you, you are free to change it. Perhaps the real you is younger, a different race, or a different gender. And so, like choosing a more suitable outfit for an occasion, we paint, cut and carve our bodies to better reflect the person we feel we are inside. And when the body eventually fails, one of the greatest hopes that is beginning to emerge is the idea that you could upload that true self into some more durable hardware than disease-ridden meat. Your consciousness may be transferred to a computer and so the real you can outlive this rotting biological waste. 
All of these movements I am describing are captured by the ‘trans’ prefix. It means across or beyond. And I have no doubt that what we have seen so far is just the beginning. There will be an ever-expanding array of alternative trans identities and options which reflect a common theme of body denial. The point is that in this word ‘trans’ we are seeking to bypass and alter our bodies, as though they do not matter to our sense of self or they must be adjusted to better reflect who we are. All of this is underpinned by a conviction that the real you is somewhere inside, rather than the imperfect container you’re in.
Face to face with my dad, I’m very aware that there are no simple answers to the questions I’m raising here. On the one hand, it does feel as though he is slipping away as one neurone after another fails to fire, and everything that was familiar or automatic to him becomes strange and out of reach. At what point is he no longer my dad? How many memories does he have to lose before the body that resembles who he was becomes an empty shell? But I can’t think that way. No matter how bad things are going to get, he’s still my dad standing right there in front of me. That body is a body I love because it is him, and so it cannot be discarded or neglected or ignored.
It was the Ancient Greeks who first taught us to despise our bodies. The philosophical underpinnings of our modern attitudes to the body seem to have stemmed from the teachings of Plato, in which the spiritual realm of the Ideals was elevated above the grime of the material. The body was seen as something to escape, a mere vessel. This goes some way to explaining why the Greeks thought of work with the mind as so much superior to work with the body. We agree with this whenever we talk of blue collars and white collars, showing just how deeply this Greek way of thinking is embedded in our world, elevating one thing above another.
But Christianity broke into the Greek world with an altogether more complex, more subtle, and more hopeful view of things. Yes, the body is broken, and you have a spirit that will live on beyond death, but the aim is not to be separated from the body and enter some ethereal version of the afterlife in which you will float around for all eternity. This notion was killed when Jesus came back to life in a body that was both like and unlike his old one. It still bore the scars of his crucifixion as he ate barbecued fish with his friends. But he also looked different and seemed less constrained by the laws of nature. His body was physical, but somehow better and improved.
This means that when I look at my dad I feel sadness and hope at the same time. Perhaps parts of him are disappearing, like a photo bleached and faded by years of exposure to the sun. But since I am certain that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead—a certainty I derive from the testimony of the eyewitnesses who were frequently put to death for this claim—so I am deeply confident that my dad will be reunited with a better body one day. That will be the reward of his faith in Jesus, the ‘firstborn from among the dead’. Dad’s future body will have all the same parts, being both familiar and strangely unfamiliar at the same time. It will also be an improved and perfected body.
A vision of the future as something embodied—with hair and sweat and feasting, and with spit flying out of your mouth as you laugh at a friend’s jokes—this is at the heart of the Christian hope of eternity. That is why we treasure and honour the body, even that of a dying person. ‘For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Corinthians 5.1).
 This growing movement is called Transhumanism.
This article was originally posted at Salt.
Reparations: Four Thought Experiments
Perhaps, but it is frequently more complex than that. When we talk about reparations today—in the context, say, of slavery and racism—we are often talking about situations where the wronger and the wronged have both died. This complicates matters significantly; no individual is “making amends for a wrong one has done,” and “those who have been wronged” are not there to receive payment. So, since neither slaveowner nor slave are still alive, and since Scripture tells us that we should not visit the sins of the fathers upon the children because everyone is accountable for their own sin (Jer 31:29-30), we should jettison the whole idea of reparations and just move on, right?
Perhaps, but it is frequently more complex than that. The effects of slavery and racism continue to be felt today, for the descendants of the owners (who often still benefit) as well as the owned (who still don’t). Whether we are talking about life expectancy, average income, home ownership, incarceration rates, educational attainment, experience of discrimination, healthcare statistics, representation in leadership or something else, there remain disparities—often very large ones—between the offspring of the wrongers and the wronged. Letting bygones be bygones, and moving on with our lives as if there is nothing to see here, is not an option for the latter, and therefore should not be an option for the former.
So there is a Christian obligation to seek justice (and appropriate restitution) for wrongs which have been committed, and at the same time there is a Christian obligation not to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children. How exactly that applies to reparations today—whether we are talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s famous essay, or calls for the SBTS to grant free tuition to all African Americans, for example—requires careful thought.
So here are four thought experiments, to see if they help.
1. Marc Zuckerberg defrauds Eduardo Saverin of his share of Facebook. But imagine if when Saverin sues Zuckerberg, instead of winning the lawsuit and receiving an undisclosed sum (presumably many billions of dollars), as shown in The Social Network, he loses as a result of legal corruption, and gets nothing. Saverin’s children grow up with very little; Zuckerberg’s children grow up with billion dollar trust funds. Eventually, both the founders of Facebook die. If you were discipling one of Marc Zuckerberg’s children, would you encourage them to share their father’s estate with Eduardo Saverin’s children? Why / why not?
2. A Jewish woman, whose grandparents survived Auschwitz (and had all of their worldly possessions stolen), goes into business with a German woman whose grandfather was a member of the Nazi party, and whose inherited wealth enabled her to go to a private school and a top university. Both women put up 50% of the capital to get the business started, and before long it is turning a substantial profit. You are a friend of the Jewish woman. Do you think she should ask for more than 50% of the dividends (and if so, how much more)? Why / why not?
3. One ethnic group invades the land of another ethnic group, makes a deal with them and guarantees their right to remain, and then years later they renege on the deal and kill a substantial number of them. Three generations later, the descendants of the invading nation are challenged to make restitution to the displaced people, lest they face divine judgment. Do you think the descendants of the invaders are under the judgment of God for failing to rectify their ancestors’ transgressions? Why / why not? (And if the answer is no, why do you think your answer is different to that given in 2 Samuel 21?)
4. This one is not so much a thought experiment as a real world question: Should Britain give back the Elgin marbles? Should Europe give back some, or all, of the artworks stolen during the colonial period? Why / why not?
The fifth question is simpler: are your answers different from each other, and why? What factors would change your view on the reparations due (or not) in each case?
Unfortunately, however, they do not prevent the sixth question from being fiendishly complicated (though that is not a reason for failing to ask it). The sixth question is: so what?
Film Review of 2018
Part of why I missed so much at the cinema this year is because there’s more to see than ever before. Each week film distributors offer anything from five to 10 new releases in cinemas, with Netflix offering you a couple of original productions to watch without ever leaving your home. That means curation is more important than ever these days; you’re being assaulted with content around every corner and in every medium, each desperate for your custom. Deciding what you view and why can be overwhelming, so the question is, how do you curate the cinema you watch?
There are a couple of ways that many people choose which films to watch. Many people cling to reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes (falsely) as some arbiter of taste. Most, however, opt for familiarity, which is why nine out of the 10 most successful films at the worldwide box office were franchise entries and the other was the execrable Bohemian Rhapsody, where the familiarity was in its formula.
Familiarity, however, is not always a good way to decide what to see at the cinema, and big box office doesn’t always indicate quality. The top grossing film of the year was the deeply terrible Avengers: Infinity War, while other entries in the list such as Incredibles 2 had the whiff of mediocrity. Mission Impossible: Fallout was the best blockbuster by a mile, a film so exciting, so physically exhausting to watch that it validated the entire franchise so far. Black Panther was also decent, but the best superhero film was Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse, which shows just how inventive and entertaining the genre can be, while also showcasing some dazzling animation.
Bad box office doesn’t always mean a bad film, either. I was very fond of the ill-fated Mortal Engines, which was intended as a franchise-starting blockbuster, but the difficult premise (cities on wheels moving across barren landscapes, eating smaller cities as a colonialism metaphor) and dense worldbuilding made it a hard sell. It tanked - perhaps due to its unfamiliarity - so we’re unlikely to see any sequels. It’s a shame, as I was drawn in by the sheer scale and invention of the world. There are, admittedly, too many characters with not enough time, but I wish more films with this sense of boldness existed. It’s the kind of thing that makes cinemagoing a special experience.
So, box office doesn’t work as a way of determining what to watch. Instead, you could choose to follow directors. It was my love of David Lowery, whose A Ghost Story was my favourite film of last year, that led me to see Robert Redford in The Old Man and the Gun. It’s wonderful, and Lowery has yet again made a contender for my favourite of the year. Redford (one of the greats) plays an aging bank robber too charming to ever be captured. He dares you to root for him even as he commits crimes, but leaves you with just enough doubt to make this a morally ambivalent delight. The jazzy score by Daniel Hart, the gorgeous 70s production design, a wonderful performance by Sissy Spacek (another hero) - I can’t fully describe the thrill of watching this, but it’s a bit like drinking whisky while watching The Sting.
Other directors I already admired also produced the goods again. Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) released Widows, a much grittier, thornier heist film than The Old Man, with even murkier morals for the viewer to parse. It was marketed as a serious movie about race and gender and, while it is that, it’s also one of the most exciting films of the year and a good deal more empowering than froth like Ocean’s 8.
I’m drawn to directors like McQueen who don’t offer easy answers. For instance, I’d still be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s drama, was really about. It’s a story of a dressmaker and his muse, but it’s also a tale of control and power, about the nature of genius and a whole lot more. A deadpan sense of humour, three of the year’s best performances and stunning cinematography only add to the appeal of this near-perfect, unusual film.
Two of Japan’s finest directors also maintained their phenomenal form. Hirokazu Kore-eda made the heartbreaking Shoplifters, about a strange kind of family on the lowest rung of society, while animation genius Mamoru Hosoda released Mirai, about a boy who learns to love his little sister through time travel shenanigans.
Word of Mouth
Of course, word of mouth is probably the best way to find out what’s good. Read critics, follow them on Twitter, listen to them on the radio. Good criticism leads to good curation. Find the ones who you like (but don’t always agree with) and allow them to add things to your film diet that you might otherwise have missed.
Some times word of mouth is so loud that it leads to Oscar nominations, as with Greta Gerwig’s lovely Lady Bird, which was pretty much perfect in its astute depiction of a strained mother-daughter relationship. The hype around A Quiet Place, meanwhile, was deafening (if you were on twitter). I wouldn’t have gone to see it if I hadn’t seen so many people I trust recommend it - it’s terrific, a monster movie that launches you straight into its silent world and leaves you listening out even for your own breaths. I wish the score hadn’t been quite so invasive, but otherwise this is as great as everyone suggested.
But then there are the smaller releases, the ones that I sought out based on the words of just one or two people. Nearly everyone who saw Chloe Zao’s The Rider loved it, but that wasn’t too many people. It’s a drama about a rodeo rider who sustains an injury and is forced to hang up his saddle. The cast are mostly playing versions of themselves, making this study of masculinity and meaning even more powerful. In a part of the world where one activity determines your worth, what do you do when that’s taken away from you? I won’t readily forget the scenes of the lead character Brady visiting his paralysed friend in the hospital and recreating riding movements with him, showing a depth of compassion that defies traditional macho images of cowboys.
I spend too much time on Twitter, a place where nuance goes to die. That’s perhaps why this year I was drawn towards films that didn’t offer easy answers, that resisted moral binaries in favour of complexity. I needed a balm to the self-inflicted irritant of social media, so I sought out ambivalence and difficulty. (I’m not always like this, I’d just as readily rewatch Paddington 2). This might be why I consider Hostiles to be one of the very best of 2018, though it was another film that came and went without too much fanfare.
Hostiles is not an easy film. It opens with a family getting brutally killed and, well, a few more characters die from there. It’s about a grizzled war veteran (Christian Bale) escorting his old enemy, a Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi), across several states so he can die peacefully in his home. Not only is it stunning (cinematography geeks will love Masanobu Takayanagi recalling the vistas of Vilmos Zsigmond), but it’s one of the chewiest films of the year. America, it contends, is a nation that was built on violence. Is it possible to break the cycle of violence, to create a nation that leaves its cruelty behind? Admirably, Hostiles offers few solutions. This is cinema with real heft to it; gripping, uncomfortable storytelling with an unflinching emotional core. If you’re OK with screen violence and you like to be provoked, this is an immensely rewarding film.
Our new Netflix overlords
Of course, you don’t need to fork out 10 quid to watch films by the great directors and storytellers anymore. You could just fire up Netflix and see what’s playing. No one is entirely sure what Netflix’s business model is, but I’m reluctant to ask too many questions when they keep throwing money at insanely talented directors. For a while, the streaming giants have been pushing for critical, festival and awards recognition and this year they pulled it off magnificently, offering many of the best films of the year.
Roma, by Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men) is a serious Oscars contender, a festival darling and a pretty universal critical success. In a way, that’s a bit surprising, as it’s a slow, black-and-white film in Spanish and Mixtec, so it was never guaranteed universal praise. It follows a maid working for a middle-class family that’s falling apart during the political turmoil of the 70s in Mexico. The family are utterly oblivious to the tragedy and trials of her life, yet she continues to show them compassion and care. It’s harrowing in places and features some moments of severe emotional distress** but builds to something unforgettable. Oh, and it’s technically astonishing, too. If it does win awards, I can think of few films more deserving.
Roma alone would be a triumph for Netflix, but this year they also released a new film by the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-part anthology film that riffs on different Western genres. It’s not the Coens’ best, and it’s rather cruel, but even coasting Coens is a joy to behold. Outlaw King told the story of Robert the Bruce with a suitably epic scope, while Annihilation proved to be the most inventive sci-fi of the year. I wish I’d seen all three on the big screen, but I’m glad they exist. Oh, and Netflix also produced the best teen movie I saw this year, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, so they really do have something for everyone.
There’s no really easy way to choose what to watch. If anything, Netflix makes it harder; you can spend 30 minutes browsing hundreds of films before deciding that there’s nothing good at all. But with the sheer number of films being produced and released, across numerous different platforms, it also feels like there’s more good stuff than ever being released. Cinema can be profound and challenging, offering complexity in a culture that resists it. It can also be wonderful escapism where you can watch Tom Cruise get beaten up for two hours or you can picture yourself flying through New York accompanied by Nicholas Cage as Spider-Noir. Sometimes the good stuff takes some seeking out, but there are few worldly experiences more thrilling than sitting down in a dark room and discovering a new masterpiece.
**ROMA SPOILERS - CONTENT WARNING
Roma features an unflinching scene of a stillbirth, which is more distressing than many of the more violent films I’ve seen this year. It’s intrinsic to the themes and plot of the film, so it isn’t unjustified. It’s upsetting enough, however, to warrant a warning for unsuspecting viewers who may have dealt with similar tragedies.
TGC Reviews Echoes of Exodus
First, the exodus highlights both our liberty and also our responsibility. The Israelites weren’t delivered from Egypt in order to “wander off and do their own thing” (145). Neither are we delivered from sin and Satan in order to live for ourselves (2 Cor. 5:15). Rather, we’re set free from one master that we might serve a new one. Besides being a key part of the exodus, this truth is “at the heart of Christian discipleship” (145).
And finally, as “exodus people,” Christians must always be those who sympathize and advocate for the truly oppressed. You don’t have to embrace liberation theology to acknowledge that those who have known both the oppression of Satan and also the elation of freedom ought to be disposed toward those who still suffer under various forms of Satanic oppression. “We use our power to serve the interests of those without it, because the exodus was never just for us” (158).
So I would encourage you to take up this slender volume and read. Learn to hear the echoes. Learn to tell the story—the story of a “cosmic exodus stretching from Eden to New Jerusalem” (151). Tell it to your neighbors. Tell it to your children. Because “one day the Jordan will divide, and the trumpets will sound, and worldly powers will collapse, and the vines will stretch as far as the eye can see” (158).
Even so. Come, Lord Jesus.
What is the Difference Between Play and Work?
What is work and what is not work? Is it work to dig, to carpenter, to plant trees, to feel trees, to ride, to fish, to hunt, to feed chickens, to play the piano, to take photographs, to build a house, to cook, to sew, to trim hats, to mend motor-bicycles? All of these things are work to somebody, and all of them are play to somebody.
There are in fact very few activities which cannot be classed either as work or play according as you choose to regard them. The labourer set free from digging may want to spend his leisure, or part of it, in playing the piano, while the professional pianist may be only too glad to get out and dig at the potato patch. Hence the antithesis between work, as something intolerably tedious, and not-work, as something desirable, is false. The truth is that when a human being is not eating, drinking, sleeping, making love, talking, playing games or merely lounging about - and these things will not fill up a lifetime - he needs work and usually looks for it, though he may not call it work. Above the level of a third- or fourth-grade moron, life has got to be lived largely in terms of effort. For man is not, as the vulgarer hedonists seem to suppose, a kind of walking stomach; he has also got a hand, an eye and a brain. Cease to use your hands, and you have lopped off a huge chunk of your consciousness.
Three things strike me as fascinating about this.
The first is how biblical it sounds to me. If I didn’t know who had written it, I would think it was Lewis. It is a vision of work that should resonate with every Christian, unless we have so uncritically swallowed the world’s pursuit of leisure as an absolute good in itself. Work is not a result of the Fall; it is a gift of God in creation (although, like everything else, it is tainted by the Fall). The prophetic pictures of new creation are filled with people doing things—hammering swords into ploughshares, or whatever it is—and it sounds like Orwell would approve.
The second is the overlap between Orwell’s comments here (in 1937) and the satirical dystopia of Huxley’s Brave New World, which was published the previous year. Huxley imagined a world in which nobody lived, in Orwell’s words, “above the level of a third- or fourth-grade moron,” and it wasn’t a pretty sight. One wonders whether the advance of screens in the last eighty years have challenged their analysis—many people do spend many hours a week without using their (our?) hands, after all—or whether, in “lopping off a huge chunk of our consciousness,” they have actually confirmed it.
And the third is the role this observation plays in Orwell’s broader argument about technology, progress and socialism. Orwell’s argument, in nuce, is that 1) we should be drawn to socialism, but 2) most of us are not, because 3) we associate it with a world in which machines have removed the need for human labour, which 4) ultimately makes us soft, squidgy, vapid and degenerate (again, see Brave New World). A world in which humans don’t need to work, he argues, would be a world in which human culture, society and meaning would be unthinkably impoverished; if life is too easy, we disintegrate into fatuity. (It is worth saying that Orwell writes this in a book that, perhaps more than any other, debunks a romantic view of manual labour; his chapters on the backbreaking realities of coal-mining in Wigan in the 1930s are unforgettably grim. Whatever you think of his argument here, he is not naïve.) That, too, is a strikingly Christian observation.
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).
Sunshine for the Soul
I’m reading my way through the 1536 edition of the Institutes as part of my morning devotions and this paragraph – one of the most sublime paragraphs I have ever read – is from the beginning of Calvin’s discussion on the Lord’s Supper. The week after New Year with everything beginning again but nothing operating at full pace can feel like lost days. These are the post-Christmas, empty cupboard and empty bank account days. The workers back in their offices but not yet being productive days. The kids still out of school but with nothing much to do days. It feels like winter should be over already but spring is weeks away. And then a paragraph like this cuts through the malaise and the grey like a shaft of concentrated sunlight.
Yes, yes, yes! See what Christ has done for us, given to us, accomplished on our behalf. What an exchange. What a Saviour.
Happy New Year indeed!
2019: A Look Ahead
Writing. Regular readers will know that my Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship is out this month, and I am very excited about it (you can get hold of it here). You are less likely to know that I have my first children’s book coming out this summer, Sophie and the Heidelberg Cat, which is basically a book about grace for 4-7 year olds, in the style of a Julia Donaldson story. And unless you are my agent, you will almost certainly not know that I am working on a book with the working title God of Things, which is an exploration of who God is through the physical things he has made. I’ve finished writing the first two, but barely started the third, so that will be a major focus this year.
Reading. There are all sorts of things I’m planning to read, but there are a few new books I’m anticipating in particular. Camille Paglia’s Provocations has just arrived, and I’m hoping Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise will be joining it soon. Christian Smith’s Atheist Overreach comes highly recommended (and the title is inherently intriguing). Peter Leithart has a commentary on 1&2 Chronicles due with Brazos, which after enjoying his volumes on Samuel and Kings so much is genuinely exciting; Chronicles is also the part of Scripture that I know the least well. And I’ve heard rumours that Tom Holland has a book on Christianity coming out (hip hip ...) and that Josh Butler has something cooking as well (hooray!) So that’s a few to get me started.
Preaching and Teaching. I don’t do that much travelling, but I have the privilege of preaching in a number of very exciting contexts this year: Jubilee Church in Cape Town, The Village Church in Dallas, Westpoint, Convergence, and perhaps one or two others. But my main preaching role is at King’s Church London, where I am looking forward to each series we currently have planned: one on encountering the Holy Spirit, one on evangelism based on the life of Jesus, and a twelve week one on Revelation (which I have never preached through before, and am already getting excited about). Revelation is also the theme of this July’s THINK conference, which you can book into here; and then in September we start another cycle of Catalyst Leadership and Theology Training, which I am freshly envisioned about on seeing the benefit a similar course has been to my wife Rachel.
Fun. I am very fortunate in that I love my job, so I really enjoy all of the above. But I’m also looking forward to celebrating fifteen years of marriage this year, going on holiday with my family in the summer, and hoping (against hope) that Liverpool will win the league for the first time since 1990.
Many of the most important things that happen in a year are things you have no idea about in January. God is always doing more than we can ask, or think. Of the things I know about, though, there is plenty to be getting on with, and praying for. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to interact with some of you in physical, virtual or paper form in 2019!
On Earth As In Heaven
That famous photo of the earth appearing over the moon is now both so familiar and so iconic. It is a picture that has been taken again and again by every subsequent space flight but before Christmas 1968 no-one had seen how the earth looked from space. No-one knew the way its colours contrast with the ‘plaster of Paris’ lunar surface, how beautiful it looks, and how fragile. That image helped propel the environmental movement into the mainstream and created a sense of wonder at the uniqueness of our planet.
Borman, Lovell and Anders decided the appropriate response to what they were experiencing was to read the first ten verses of Genesis 1 in their Christmas Eve broadcast to the world. God created this, and now Man was seeing it with new eyes.
That the Apollo 8 mission was timed to coincide with Christmas was significant and fifty years on what those astronauts experienced should be significant for how we approach this Christmas. Glen Scrivener and the brilliant team at Speak Life have put together a mini-documentary describing the impact of Apollo 8: Christmas, 1968 and we first saw “earthrise”. But our mission to the heavens was a reflection of the first Christmas — God’s mission to earth. Yes: He who formed the heavens and the earth left heaven for earth. That changes everything.
Take 13 minutes to watch On Earth As In Heaven, and worship!
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really thought that the shame of the cross was the worst thing about it. Yet sitting reading some other section of the Bible one morning last month, this verse dropped into my mind and asked me to consider it.
Later that day, Andrew Wilson tweeted, “If you read Scripture as if ‘shame’ is basically the same as ‘embarrassment,’ an awful lot of it will not make any sense.” He went on to say, regarding the crucifixion account: “It’s interesting that the pulling of the beard, spitting, wagging heads and jeering are mentioned in such detail in the Gospels, yet the physical pain is not. We’d do the opposite (like Mel Gibson did).”
Quite. I skim over the beard-pulling parts without really noticing them, and certainly wouldn’t consider them important in explaining the gospel. And that is because I, as a modern Westerner, understand sin (and indeed all right and wrong) as being about guilt, not shame.
Which is perhaps why no one has yet worked out a way of bringing rape cases to trial without increasing the suffering of the victim through exposing her to the shame of having every detail of her private life pulled apart by lawyers. We don’t understand the reality of it.
In the Middle East, they do. Shame is a powerful motivating factor there, and the message of the gospel in that culture has to deal with the removal of shame as well as guilt. And it does. As Andy McCullough explains in Global Humility,
If the atonement were only a guilt-righteousness transaction, Christ could have died in private, satisfying God’s wrath and bearing our punishment. The truth, however, is that he was not just bearing our guilt, he was also bearing our shame. (p. 138)
He goes on to talk about how the Hebrew word for ‘atonement’ literally means ‘covering’, not in the sense of staging a cover up, or hiding our sins under the carpet, but covering our nakedness, our shame, as with Adam and Eve in Eden.
There are dozens of fascinating insights like this in Andy’s book. Unlike the more scholarly Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, I found most of these insights drove me to worship, as well as simply to understand. I also greatly appreciated the wider range of cultures examined in this book. Andy engages with Eastern cultures as well as Middle Eastern to help us understand how the gospel must be preached in order to connect with the heart cries of those nationalities – whether you are travelling to them, or whether, in our globalised world, they are arriving in your congregation.
It’s a helpful, and humble, book, with an important message. What struck me most through it, though, is how the gospel does speak powerfully to all cultures. Every parable, every story was understood in a certain way by its original audience, and may be understood differently by different cultures today, but each understanding contains gospel truth and points to God.
One example Andy gives of this is when he heard an Armenian pastor, Karen Khachatryan preaching about Peter from Matthew’s Gospel:
Peter, he said, is continually trying to stick out, to attract honour to himself. The most striking example is in Matthew’s telling of the walking on the water story. I am used to this being told as a story of individual faith. “While the others stayed in the boat terrified, Peter walked on water!” Pastor Karen, however, pointed out that Jesus never praises Peter for this act, he rebukes him. Essentially, Jesus is saying, “Get back in the boat with the others where you belong. Stop trying to be better than everyone else.” In a collectivistic culture, what Peter was doing in trying to stand out from the crowd was unacceptable! (p. 124)
Are we wrong to teach it as an example of great faith? I don’t think so – that reading is clearly there, including the moment when Peter takes his eyes of Jesus, focuses on the wind and waves, and starts to sink. Yet how glorious to realise that while that seems the only possible reading to us, another culture with a different set of experiences and expectations can read something completely relevant to them in it.
I don’t know about you, but that fact alone leaves me in awe of the God whose word it is – this ancient text, written by many authors across many centuries is not only still living and active today, but is living and active on every continent in every culture. Whoever you are, in whatever time, race or culture, the Bible speaks to you. Amazing.
Making Sense of Sexuality
For many people, the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and gender just doesn’t make sense. (And that probably includes a lot of people in our churches!) 'How can God expect people to live in such a way that they have to deny who they really are?' 'How can such oppressive ideas claim to be good news?' This should make us stop and think. If we’re going to help people to see and live out the beauty of God’s plan for sexuality and gender, we need to understand why it doesn’t currently make sense to them. We need to understand the stories they are believing which mean that God’s story doesn’t work. One of the key areas where this applies is on the topic of identity.
Some of the most helpful teaching I have heard on the topic of identity and sexuality was given by Tim and Kathy Keller at an event hosted earlier this year by Living Out. At the event, Tim and Kathy helped us to understand different ways that identity is formed and how they impact on understandings of sexuality. The teaching is incredibly helpful as we think about issues of sexuality, but it is also hugely helpful and relevant to so many other areas of life.
Living Out have kindly released video recordings of each session, and they are well worth watching. If you go and watch the videos, you’ll find that as an added bonus each one starts with an interview with a same-sex attracted Christian, a great way to get a bit more understanding of what it’s like to follow Jesus as someone who is same-sex attracted. Here’s a brief summary of each of the four sessions to whet your appetite.
Talk 1: Culture and Identity
In the first session, drawing on the work of Charles Taylor, Tim outlines the move from a traditional model of identity, which held sway in the pre-modern period and is still prominent in much of the non-Western world, to modern identity, the dominant approach to identity formation in the Western world today. Traditional identity was rooted in the external: first in honour (whether through victory in battle or bravely facing the dangers of childbearing) and then in various understandings of external moral absolutes. In traditional identity, it is the community – others – who validate an individual in their identity. With the move into early modernity and the Enlightenment, Romanticism and then late modernity, moral absolutes first moved inside the individual through reason (in Enlightenment thought) or feeling (in Romanticism), before finally any concept of moral absolutes was abandoned altogether (in late modernity). Now, morality and identity are not just discerned internally, they are determined internally.
Keller gives some fascinating examples of how the narrative of modern identity can be seen in popular culture (e.g. Babe: If a pig feels like they are a dog, let them be a dog! Or Frozen: Elsa should ‘let it go’, embracing and expressing what’s inside, regardless of whether it means lots of people will freeze to death!) To end, Keller, outlines seven reasons why modern identity doesn’t work and is destructive.
Talk 2: Christ and Identity
How is Christian identity different from traditional and modern identities? Tim isolates two vital aspects which constitute Christian identity: the basis of identity is Christ’s performance, not our own, and the ultimate validator is God, not us.
With Christian identity based on Christ’s performance, not our own, it is the only identity in the world which is received and not achieved, meaning it gives an unparalleled security and can be equally available to all people. God as the ultimate validator overcomes several of the great risks of having human validators for identity: they can manipulate us, and they die. God does neither. Keller looks at several key biblical themes which allow us to see and bring out this theme of identity (the image of God, adoption, gifts and calling, being known by God, and Jesus’ teaching on discipleship) before sharing reasons why Christian identity is so good.
Talk 3: Church and Identity
In the third session, Kathy Keller outlines some of the practical implications when applied to issues of sexuality and gender, exploring what kind of churches we need to become in order to be able to help those who are LGBTQ+. She considers what we must do, what we must say, and what we must become known for.
Talk 4: Moving Forward
Tim’s last talk outlines how we can grow in the Christian identity outlined in the second session. He argues that gospel practices are vital and that to be effective they must capture the imagination, be repetitive and be communal. Within this, he notes the vital importance of participation in local church gatherings and having a rich prayer life alongside friendship and accountability.
You can find videos of all of the sessions on the Living Out website.
The Real Review of the Year
Best post, without doubt, was a contribution of my own: Praylexa. The conference of the same name, organised, hosted, and presented by me, was a ground breaking moment in practical theology. Will the church ever look the same again?
Best clip: Ever. Benedict Cumberbatch as Otter. When the movie of my ministry is finally produced, Cumberbatch will make an excellent facsimile of me.
Best book: Wilding, by Isabella Tree. It’s not only about otters – but don’t let that put you off.
Best conference: The Otter Keeper Workshop, in Portland, Oregon, was an opportunity for me to explain the particular needs of my brethren to those seeking enlightenment. Among my fellow luminaries were African spotted-necked otters, Asian small-clawed otters, giant otters, North American river otters, and sea otters. Truly, we are being gathered from every tribe, tongue and nation.
Best movie: Indeed the only movie that will be watched over the hallowed festive season in my holt, is of course, Ring of Bright Water. It may have been made in 1969 rather than 2018, but who after seeing the old otter desires the new?
Andrew, I’ll see you next year.
Review of the Year 2018
Best article: Andrew Sullivan’s magnificent piece on America’s new religions. If you haven’t read it already, take ten minutes at some point at read every sentence; it explains our innate religiosity, and what happens when it gets projected onto politics, with tremendous clarity, via John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Steven Pinker, Christopher Hitchens and John Gray:
Our modern world tries extremely hard to protect us from the sort of existential moments experienced by Mill and Russell. Netflix, air-conditioning, sex apps, Alexa, kale, Pilates, Spotify, Twitter … they’re all designed to create a world in which we rarely get a second to confront ultimate meaning — until a tragedy occurs, a death happens, or a diagnosis strikes. Unlike any humans before us, we take those who are much closer to death than we are and sequester them in nursing homes, where they cannot remind us of our own fate in our daily lives. And if you pressed, say, the liberal elites to explain what they really believe in — and you have to look at what they do most fervently — you discover, in John Gray’s mordant view of Mill, that they do, in fact, have “an orthodoxy — the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion” …
Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.
Best topical YouTube clip: This one came out in the last 24 hours, and if (like me) you either like The Apprentice or dislike Man Utd, you’ll love it. Alan Sugar fires Jose Mourinho (slight language warning):
Best movie: the extraordinary Danish thriller Den Skyldige (“The Guilty”). One actor, in one office, for an hour and a half, yet one of the most gripping films I’ve ever seen (and it has 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is almost unheard of). Go see it:
Best TV show: this was a great year for British thrillers, with shows like McMafia, Bodyguard, Unforgotten, Killing Eve and The Little Drummer Girl surpassing many of the American boxsets we watch. But nothing compared to David Attenborough’s Dynasties, which knocked the rest of 2018’s offerings into a cocked hat. Masterful.
Best show: Hamilton. (I’ll come clean: Hamilton was the only show I watched in 2018. But I’m pretty confident that even if I’d watched dozens, I would still think it was the best. By miles.) Historical hip-hop with wit and verve it is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t seen it, as well as the best portrayal of Lewis’s “Inner Ring” that you’re likely to find.
Best conference message: the MLK50 Conference in April included several extraordinary messages, from Charlie Dates, Matt Chandler and others, but this fifteen minute fusion of poetry, prophetic summons and biblical exposition from Jackie Hill Perry was the high point. If I taught a course on preaching, I would use it as a superlative example of how to use words:
Best tweet: when I first saw PETA’s tweet on using animal-friendly language, I thought it was beyond parody. It turns out: it wasn’t. Not by a long chalk (or, to avoid anti-calcium language, “not by a long way.”)
Best conference paper: Rachel and Jacob Denhollander at ETS on the Trinity, penal substitution and our response to sexual abuse. Marvellous.
Best journal article: David Armitage’s provocative article on the census in Luke (and how it means much of what we think we know about the Christmas story is wrong.)
See you next year!
Dying well this Christmas
That might seem a strange thing to say. We live in a culture which while parading any number of gruesome ways to die in its entertainment is remarkably shy about facing the reality. We have removed death from the home and placed it in the hands of professionals who can nurse us through our final moments and discreetly deal with our remains. Death is too disturbing for public view.
But as a pastor, I get to be by the bedsides of the dying, and a privilege it is.
A few weeks back I sat with Betty, having been told she was likely to die in a day or two. She keeps surprising us though and is still here. I went to pray for her, but she ended up praying more for me. Lying in her bed giving thanks to Jesus for all the blessings of a long life Betty expressed not a single regret and only excited hope for what lies ahead. Remarkable.
Then at Brian’s bedside, holding his hand and reading scripture as he laboured for breath. Just a few hours before his last laboured breath Brian was praying for his family and expressing trust in Jesus. He held my hand firmly, but his grip of Christ’s hand was firmer still.
And Chris, who died a few days ago. When I last saw her, a few days before that, she was lying in bed, giving glory to God and revelling in the promise of the life to come: whooping with joy!
It was John Wesley who said, “Our people die well.” It is a privilege to be able to see the truth of that. Being with saints who are dying well is to see how true are the words of 1 Thessalonians 4:13. When those who are about to fall asleep confidently and joyfully recount the goodness of God throughout their lives and confidently and joyfully anticipate what is to come, those of us who are left behind are encouraged to be confident and joyful too. We do not grieve as others do, for we have hope!
At Christmas we celebrate birth but always the celebrations entwine with death. Christmas is the dying of the year. Christmas is the celebration of a baby in a manger, and a prelude to the man on a cross. Christmas is itself a testimony that we need not fear death – one year dies, another will begin. The baby grows to a man who is crucified, but the cross and tomb are empty. Resurrection is coming!
At the bedside of dying saints I am reminded of that coming resurrection again and again. What a privilege.
Where the book-worm will not die…
Didn’t Jesus say something along the lines of not sounding trumpets when you read a book, as the theologians do, so they may be honoured by bloggers. Truly I say to you, Wilson has had his reward in full! And I have a number of specific concerns with what Brother Wilson’s reading habits reveal. In no particular order:
Firstly, I note that the Bible didn’t feature anywhere on Wilson’s list. Not in the top ten old books, not in ‘the rest’, or as a re-read, or even in the honourable mentions at the start. Worrying, but not-unsurprising.
Secondly, I was concerned with the lack of diversity, and the fact that otters were not fairly represented in the list of authors he chose to read or celebrate. I consider this a clear case of speciesism. I would have thought, for example, that Praylexa: A Theology of Priesthood for a Digital Age, based on my recent conference, might have been in the running for best title. (That this post did not feature in the most read Think articles of 2018 is confusing – surely a mistake on the part of Google Analytics?) And due to a particularly poor proof-reading job, I do believe that my book racked up more typos than even Leithart’s two-volumes. I feel overlooked.
Thirdly, some of us consider it far more important to spend time with people than with books, and it seems clear that Wilson must have neglected a good few of his congregants in 2018 in favour of racking up more reading hours. One can hardly imagine Jesus turning away a leper, for example, because he had two chapters left in his Graham Greene novel.
Perhaps Andrew has too little work to do, in which case he is welcome to gather up the crumbs that have fallen from my to-do list. After all, the devil makes books for idle hands.
Maybe in 2019 he might like to take a leaf out of Jesus’ book (pun intended) and get out and about a little more. To paraphrase the beloved disciple:
‘Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even Dr Wilson would not have time to read all the books that would be written.’ (John 21:25)
Trading Personhood for Power
How is it that we live in societies of great abundance and prosperity, unparalleled in history in terms of the wealth and health we enjoy, and yet those societies are plagued by a chronic problem with loneliness? In the UK, up to 20% of people report feeling lonely most or all of the time and 75% of GPs say they see one to five people a day who are experiencing loneliness. The UK also now has the world’s first minister for loneliness, and October saw the launch of the government’s first loneliness strategy. Well, in a talk posted at Q Andy Crouch argues that this strange paradox is the result of a series of revolutions in which we have traded personhood for power.
Crouch outlines three revolutions in which personal interactions have been replaced by impersonal interactions.
- The Financial Revolution – The founding of banks, starting with the Medici Bank in 1397, moved the location of wealth from the land and its produce to currency. Unlike fruitful land, currency is transferable in a way which requires no personal interaction. Land has been replaced by money, the personal replaced with the impersonal.
- The Industrial Revolution – With the invention of the steam engine work was radically transformed. Whereas previously work had always been done by bodies – whether human or animal – now work would be done by engines. Bodies have been replaced by machines, the personal replaced with the impersonal.
- The Informational Revolution – Historically knowledge has always been relational and consisted in the passing on of wisdom through the generations. Now knowledge has become about information, facts which can be acquired without anyone else involved. Wisdom has been replaced by knowledge, the personal replaced with the impersonal.
So, it’s not surprising that while in many ways we’ve prospered, relationally we have suffered greatly. Modern life no longer requires interpersonal connections, and yet the human heart does. This disconnection leads to loneliness.
That is fascinating and enlightening enough, but Crouch doesn’t stop there. He points out that in a different way these three revolutions all took place at the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans minted coins and formed a currency in a way which hadn’t been done before. They took steps in engineering and technology which were unprecedented in the ancient world, and they acquired and absorbed the knowledge of the many peoples they subsumed into their vast empire. They were a forerunner to the trading of personhood for power seen in later revolutions, resulting in a society with huge inequalities in personhood where only a freeborn male who ruled over his family – the paterfamilias – was a true person.
And it was into this impersonal world that the early church came, recognising, acknowledging and embracing anyone, regardless of background or status. The fact that slave and free, male and female could stand alongside one another and embrace one another as brothers and sisters was truly radical. The exchange of personhood for power had been revolutionised by one who laid down his power in order to love people.
The situation of the Roman Empire gave the early church the perfect opportunity to show the radically different approach to power demonstrated in the gospel. Perhaps the situation in the modern Western world gives the Church today that same opportunity. In a world where people are ignored, overlooked and isolated, we can be the ones who see, acknowledge and embrace.
What You’ve Been Reading on Think
And lo, a great company has been reading Think, nearly to one million pageviews. And of this great company there were more than 300,000 unique visitors. And behold, most of these users are found in the West, from the land of Trump and Disney, and have come to Think seeking light.
And among the most read posts were shepherds and wise men; and also some perhaps not so wise.
When we had seen the stats, the word spread about what we had been told, that our most read posts are old ones. And all who heard this were amazed that what’s wrong with the Passion “translation” should still be so popular, even to thrice the pageviews of any other post. But we have treasured up all these things and pondered them in our hearts and consider that an old post is as good as new one.
Thanks for reading Think. Here’s a list of our top ten most viewed posts of 2018, with original publication date:
What’s Wrong With the Passion “Translation”? (January 2016)
What’s the Difference Between Preaching and Teaching? (May 2013)
Is Eldership Gender Neutral? (July 2018)
Is it Sinful to Lust After Your Boyfriend or Girlfriend? (March 2014)
Peterson, Driscoll and the Millennial Man (January 2018)
The Best Response to John MacArthur’s Social Justice Statement (September 2018)
Women Preachers: A Response to John Piper (May 15)
12 Rules: The Review (January 2018)
The Passion “Translation” Debate: Brian Simmons Responds (April 2016)
Does God Give and Take Away? (February 2012)
What Not to Say When Someone Confesses Their Sin
So rather than sharing my top ten books of the year with you, I’m going to share the most pastorally helpful thing I’ve read in any of the 29 I did get through (yep, unless I start reading Mr Men books, I don’t think I’m even going to match my reading list from last year!).
It’s from Catherine Parks’ Real, and it deals with the topic of sin.
First, to catch you up, Parks’ book is about learning to be genuine and open with one another. As I summarised it in my review earlier this year, for Parks, this means:
Being truthful, being honest about our sin and vulnerable about our struggles. Only then can we show our friends and family the real us as we are right now.
What is holding us back from being real with one another, Parks argues, is not that we’re not yet perfect, but that we’re not yet assured of our forgiveness.
If we truly grasped the depths of our sin, and if we took that sin to God and repented of it, and if we believed and accepted his forgiveness, the freedom we would experience would be so great that we would no longer have to hide behind our façade of perfection.
She suggests that as well as confessing our sin to God, there are times when it’s appropriate to confess to trusted others, too. This may be in accountability partnerships where we have asked someone to help us walk away from sinful habits or behaviours, or it could just be in the day to day context of loving, real relationships.
Two common errors
Parks warns us, though, against two very common, but very unhelpful, responses to someone’s confession of sin – you may even have had one or both reading my confession above.
The first is downplaying the sin. If you came to me and said, “Catherine, I yelled at my husband today,” … my instinct would be to say, “Oh, I’m right there with you, but give yourself grace – your husband isn’t exactly perfect.”
Now the empathy is good. But ultimately, when I give those answers, I’m thinking about your opinion of me. I don’t want you to feel guilty, and I don’t want you to think I’m being hard on you. I want you to like me and to think I’m a good friend.
To this I would also add that when I have this kind of response, it’s because I don’t really think the sin is a big deal. Perhaps because I have done similar things, or because I’m failing to see beyond the ‘presenting issue’ to what the real sin is. We all snap at people on off days, why beat yourself up about it? Or to use my time-wasting example, “Your job is reading; it’s OK to relax in a different way.” (And, “Don’t compare yourself to freaks!”)(Sorry, Andrew.)
The second unhelpful response is attempting to control the sin. Our instinct is to give advice: “Well, when I’m struggling with wanting to yell at my husband, I just count to five and think about my wedding vows.” Or, “When my boss gets under my skin, I just try to think about something good about her. That really helps.”
These are not necessarily bad ideas, but they don’t get to the root of the problem. Instead, they make our problems with sin seem manageable: If you just do this, you won’t sin. But…the sin is not just the yelling or the bad attitude [or the lack of time spent reading] – it’s the beliefs and desires taking root under the surface that are the real issue.
The reason I sit in bed at night with a good book (OK, a pile of good books) beside me, scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, is not that I’ve been reading too much in the day. I’m searching for connection, entertainment, stimulation, conversation and variety. I don’t want to put in the deep work of reading one thing for a sustained period – even though I love that, and know how satisfying it is. I could manage the symptoms, by leaving my phone downstairs at night, but would that really address the heart attitude?
If we minimize sin or give each other “tips” to control it, we think we’re giving each other grace, when in fact we’re not. We’re actually denying one another the grace we need by saying we don’t need it. We should not deprive one another of sadness over our sin. When we deny the heavy reality of sin, and the “godly sorrow” that comes before repentance (2 Corinthians 7 v 10), we will also keep our friends from experiencing the joy that comes after repentance. The way we truly give grace to each other for our sin is by owning it, diagnosing it, and taking it to the cross. If there is true, overflowing joy to be found at the foot of the cross, then why would we stop our fellow believers on their way and tell them they don’t need to go there after all? (Emphasis added.)
David Bennett makes a similar point in A War of Loves (which may well become the next Righteous Mind for this blog, if Andrew W and Matt love it as much as Andrew Bunt and I do!). He points out that
Historically, the church [has] more often than not dealt with moral issues like homosexuality by focusing on sin management rather than emphasising Christ’s transforming grace through the Holy Spirit. This only confirmed what the LGBTQI community believed: that God wanted to enslave them in an oppressive obedience of hopelessness.
But that is not the offer of the gospel. The Good News is not that if we work hard and do all the right things we’ll make it in the end; that’s the American Dream, not the New Covenant. The solution is not clean hands, but a pure heart. If we don’t understand the true problem and its only possible solution, we doom ourselves to forever fiddling around on the fringes of faith, hearing the command to ‘be holy’, but never progressing a step towards it.
Probably the greatest roadblock to my sanctification thus far in life is that I haven’t taken my sin seriously enough. I know logically that there are no gradations of sin, that a tiny spot is as bad as a huge great stain, but my heart hasn’t felt it. I am thankful that Jesus died for me, and I know his salvation is my only hope, but I have found it hard to take my sin as seriously as he does. I accept full responsibility for that, but I can’t remember many times when I have been personally challenged in the way Catherine goes on to describe:
So don’t make excuses and don’t give easy fixes. Instead, dig deeper together, because often we’re blind to our desires. And sometimes we need to process things out loud with others to help ourselves see what’s really going on.
So if a friend says, “Catherine, I yelled at my husband today,” my answer needs to point to truth and grace. I can say something like, “I know how that feels. The impulse to sinful anger is so strong, and I’ve done the same many times. But God is in the business of forgiveness and restoration. Have you repented to God and your husband? Remember, God’s grace is sufficient. Can I pray with you for that relationship?”
That whole chapter (Chapter 6), contains more incredibly helpful pointers on how to restore those who have fallen into sin (“Gently”), how to be a Nathan not a priest, and how to get started with having these more honest conversations in the first place. But of all the books, blogs, tweets and Facebook updates I’ve read this year, I think this insight has the greatest potential to bring new life to those in my sphere of influence – and hopefully to me, too.
(A Smaller Collection of) Books of the Year 2018
I’m sure that many of us share the same mix of feelings when Andrew posts his annual summary of the best books he has read that year: a combination of gratitude for his hard work, interest in some of the titles mentioned, and a healthy dose of humility as we wonder how a list of almost 100 books can be only the good ones! But it also got me thinking about my own reading this year.
I’m not a great fan of reading. People usually assume I am, but I’m not. I am a big fan of learning and thinking, and so I read to help me learn and to help me think, but I actually read slowly, often feel frustrated at how little I take in and frequently start books but don’t finish them. This year, however, I have succeeded in reading more than I usually would, and, inspired by Andrew, I thought I’d share a few of my highlights.
Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible
A big picture overview of the theology of the Old Testament tracing the themes of dominion (humanity’s call to rule over the earth) and dynasty (the promised seed who would fulfill this call). By following the order of the books as found in the Hebrew Bible, Dempster understands the Old Testament in terms of two sections of history (the Pentateuch and Former Prophets at the start and Daniel to Chronicles at the end) with a commentary on this story in the middle (the Latter Prophets and the Writings). This proves to be a really fruitful way of approaching the text and the literary reading offered is insightful and illuminating. It’s a book I want to read again.
Paul Williamson, Death and the Afterlife: Biblical Perspectives on Ultimate Questions
Death is a subject we probably don’t think or talk about enough and it’s a subject on which Christians often have unbiblical understandings. Williamson’s book gives a great overview of biblical teaching on all the key areas of the topic (such as the nature of death, resurrection, judgement, hell, and heaven), each of which, he notes, are debated in contemporary evangelicalism. He does a particularly good job of tracing themes as they develop from the Old Testament into the New, thus helpfully acknowledging the fact that much of the Bible’s teaching on death and the afterlife is progressively revealed as the story of scripture progresses.
Peter Vogt, Interpreting the Pentateuch: An Exegetical Handbook
I’ve already praised the Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series from Kregel, so I needn’t say much more here. The material on interpreting and preaching law is particularly valuable in Vogt’s contribution to the series.
Tim Keller, Romans 1-7 For You and Romans 8-16 For You
I used these two volumes to work through Romans with a theology intern I was mentoring. As you’d expect from Keller, it is a masterful example of how to work through the text faithfully exegeting its meaning while constantly drawing out the contemporary application. Inevitably there are places where I would disagree with his reading, but overall, the volumes are a great guide to Romans.
Sexuality and Gender
Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing
We all know that views of sex have changed dramatically in the last half century and that the Church is largely still trying to catch up with what has happened and to learn how to hold on to and to proclaim the good news of God’s plan for human sexuality in this new context. Harrison aims to help the Church in this task. He does this by doing three things: first, he helps us get a better understanding of the sexual revolution by looking at what lies behind it. He then gives advice on how we can better critique the revolution, before, in the final section, showing how God’s way provides a better story which we are called to live out and proclaim. This book contributes towards some of the vital groundwork the Church needs to do in order to be faithful to God and his mission in this new social context.
Preston Sprinkle, People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue
This has now become my top recommendation for a first book to read on sexuality. In part this is because of the range of its material: it is one of the few books that does a great job of covering both the biblical material and practical outworkings in a single volume. But perhaps what I most love about the book is its tone. Preston has worked hard to embody what his title says and does a wonderful job of combining total commitment to biblical truth with a wonderful heart of love for LGBT people.
David Bennett, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus
I’ve already posted a couple of times about David’s book. It is a great example of the better story in action. There are lots of reasons I appreciate it: it’s written in a clear and engaging way and is an amazing story of what Jesus can do, but I think what I have found most helpful is David’s focus on the importance of a commitment to celibacy being rooted in an experience of the love of God. It is an example of and a call to experience ‘the expulsive power of a new affection’ and a reminder that it is only this new affection that can really lead a person to true submission to Jesus as Lord.
Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment
Anderson has written a brave and clear critique of transgender ideology, drawing from the work and perspectives of scientists, psychologist, and medical professionals. The collection of testimonies from detransitioners – those who had transitioned to live as the opposite sex but found it didn’t solve their problems – in chapter 3 is heart-breaking and powerful, and also makes the book an important resource as these stories are often suppressed. I also value that Anderson recognises the need for society to find better ways of helping those who experience gender dysphoria if transitioning is not the best solution. While firmly challenging the ideology, Anderson never forgets that behind the cultural debate there are real people who are suffering and who we need to find ways of helping.
Other Contemporary Topics
Nigel Cameron, The Robots Are Coming: Us, Them & God
I was a bit unconvinced when someone kindly gave me this book and suggested I read it, but it was actually really interesting and is an issue which I’m sure we will need to think about more in the coming years. I think it was stronger in its outlining of some of the developments of technology than in its theological analysis, but it certainly made me think.
Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You
This is a topic nearly all of us need to think about. The book does as the title suggests and will make you really think about your own use of technology and its use in wider society. If I’m honest I found the style a bit verbose and felt that Reinke was sometimes trying to be a bit too clever and deeply theological when a rather more simple critique would suffice, but the key points are important and well worth wrestling with.
Terry Virgo, God’s Lavish Grace
This was a re-read, but it still makes my list of top books for the year. You can never be reminded too much about the importance of the doctrine of grace, and there are few people better to remind you than Terry!
C.J. Mahaney, Living the Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing
Fourteen short, simple chapters which take you back to the heart of the gospel to behold it, experience it, enjoy it and worship because of it.
Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams
A truly fascinating read! Walker is a sleep scientist who summarises developments in understanding of sleep among scientists over the last few decades. The abridged version is that sleep is incredible and an amazing example of the glory of God seen in creation (although Walker prefers to offer naturalistic, evolutionary explanations rather than divine ones). Walker also suggests that in modern society we seriously undervalue sleep and have structured life in such a way that most of us don’t and can’t get the sleep we need. The book will certainly challenge you to think about the importance of getting enough sleep and help you to move towards that goal, all the while fuelling your worship as you see a new aspect of the wonder of God’s creation.
No Such Thing as a Fish, The Book of the Year: The Weirder Side of 2017
No Such Thing as a Fish is a podcast in which the QI researchers share fascinating and bizarre facts they have discovered in the course of their work. This book is the best of their findings from 2017. If you love random facts and love a laugh, it’s a great read.
Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – And the Unexpected Solutions
I’ve not yet finished reading this and will want to read some reviews and do some further research when I have, but if the thesis of the book is correct, then it is hugely significant. Inspired by his own struggles with depression, Hari spent three years exploring research into the causes of depression and found that there is little evidence to support the idea that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain and lots of evidence that depression is primarily the result of environmental and psychological factors which he summarises as disconnections (e.g. from other people, meaningful work and the natural world). In light of these disconnections he proposes that reconnection in these areas is actually the answer for those suffering with depression. Hari is an atheist, but Christian readers will quickly see how well his conclusions fit with a Biblical worldview (e.g. in the importance of relationships with others, of working and of appreciating the natural world).
An Interview with David Bennett
Last month I posted about David Bennett’s new book, A War of Loves. The book tells the story of David’s journey from being a gay activist to a follower of Jesus committed to celibacy. I found one of the real strengths of David’s book to be that he gives fresh and thought-provoking perspectives on some of the areas of debate among Christians who hold to the historic Christian sexual ethic. David has kindly agreed to answer some questions and share a bit more on some of these points.
AB: A War of Loves is built around the story of how you met Jesus. Could you give us a quick summary of how that happened?
DB: I met Jesus in a pub in the gay quarter of central Sydney. A young filmmaker offered me prayer and asked me, after I had spoken about why as a gay man Christianity was clearly not for me, ‘Have you experienced the love of God?’ – no Christian had ever asked me that question. As a postmodern, experience attracted me. I accepted the prayer with an agnostic logic: ‘If you don’t know about whether there’s a God you have to be open to prayer.’ She prayed for me in such a loving way, and suddenly, I felt this tingling sensation on the top of my head; the Holy Spirit came on me with power. Jesus came into my life in that moment, but I won’t spoil what more is in the book!
AB: You spent three years after first responding to Jesus wrestling with how your sexuality and faith go together and living with an affirming or Side A view. Now that you have come to a non-affirming/Side B perspective, how do you think those from a non-affirming position should relate to those from an affirming position?
DB: Initially when I became Side B, I was filled with so much anger and bitterness toward Side A Christians. I felt betrayed by them, in that they didn’t relay the truth of God’s Word to me, which was a cruel thing to do. They were working to take away the rights of people like me and to marginalise our voice so that they could just feel like they would never have to be reminded of God’s truth again. My experience when I committed to celibacy was that it was easier for them just to delete and block people like me from their world or ignore me in person. I was shocked at how bigoted side A people could be (of course this is not exclusive!) I think we are all blind to our own ignorance towards others, and Side B folk must be careful not to let their sense of betrayal or frustration or even the rejection of their precious obedience to Christ sway them from loving Side A people in truth.
Of course, I now believe Side A to be deeply flawed, but it took me three years to realise God’s truth out of grace and love. There are so many Side B people who have the same ethic but have no love. That just hurts people. Recently I’ve made Side A friends again and have slowly begun to trust and witness to them after almost seven years of deep frustration and hurt at not being told the truth. I’ll leave the rest to the book!
AB: At one point you say that the way that Christians have often handled sexuality has had the effect of ‘inoculating people against the gospel’. What do you mean by this and how can the church move on in this?
DB: I think the graceless response of Christians to gay people and the way Christians have often used the gay community as a scapegoat for their own inner moral failings have been truly inoculating. Many Christians have also failed, because of a latent dualism in our ethical thinking that isn’t biblical, to recognise the virtue in many gay relationships and unions, whilst holding to the theological truth of scripture that same-sex activity is sinful and not God’s will for human sexuality. We are sex-act obsessed and often don’t see the heart of a person, which God sees, and their full humanity, which is both broken and beautiful.
Same-sex desire is a complex entanglement of the very good aspect of a human being made for intimacy, love, connection, and closeness, and the effects of the fall on our bodies and hearts, both involuntary and voluntary. I never chose to be same-sex attracted, but because of Adam, original humanity, I have a body that is directed toward a goal that isn’t God’s original intention. Instead of being met with compassion and celebration for my obedience, I am often met with an inoculating theorisation about why things are this way. We need to stop theorising and start loving and living truth in a way that meets the real needs and personal realities of LGBTQI people and beyond.
AB: You see importance in understanding yourself as being part of the gay community – in distinction to the gay scene. What do you mean by this and why is it important to you?
DB: The gay community is as diverse as gay people are, and it’s important to me that I can say ‘Hey, I’m one of you – I get what it’s like to have a body like that which desires those things and what it’s like being in spaces that don’t get you.’ For me, the word gay simply refers to one’s orientation (not one’s sexual ethic), and thus the gay community is that group of people who have a shared experience of a particular kind of human embodiment in which they can relate.
The gay community has a mainstream, liberal element that is strong and pronounced, but that doesn’t represent all gay or same-sex attracted people. The gay scene can often be quite a broken space, where I find the same idolatries I often find in the ‘Christian’ community, only people are often more real about them. However, because of my faith and chosen path of following Jesus, I feel on the fringe of the gay community a lot of the time and not really welcome in the ‘gay’ scene.
AB: You also feel it’s important that you are able to refer to yourself as a ‘celibate gay Christian’. Others have pushed back against the use of the term ‘gay’ among Christians attracted to those of the same sex, questioning whether sexuality should be a part of identity. Why do you feel it is an appropriate and helpful term to use?
DB: It’s hard when you are falsely represented as not gay enough for the gays and not Christian enough for the Christians; you are thankful that your Father in Heaven sees you as whole in Christ and not reduced by cultural misunderstandings.
I only use the word ‘gay’ in reference to a fallen sexual orientation. (All of our sexual orientations are broken since the Fall FYI!) I think there is a lot of fear regarding the word ‘gay’ in the Christian world – however Christian faith has always renewed and critiqued and utilised the language of its surrounding culture to preach and access the culture. Paul was the great master of this (i.e. his rhetorical strategies and preaching and his Roman citizenship). I am following his example.
The word gay is defined across all of its uses, which are varied and complex like any identity-laden word, as referring to one’s sexual orientation. In this sense, I don’t see it very differently to ‘same-sex attracted’, but it avoids the baggage that term has for many (it risks sounding pathological or pejorative). Our identities as Christians are not self-erasing but self-transforming. We have to boast in our weakness in forming our identities whilst setting our minds on heavenly things.
That is the tension in which every ‘celibate’ (heavenly), ‘gay’ (earthly reality of the Fall) Christian lives. You don’t have to identify as a married heterosexual Christian because you wear a ring, and most people assume you’re that. As a smaller group, we need language to be real and transparent and to witness to Jesus. I boast in the weakness that has now been redeemed in celibacy as I wait for the day, with the groanings of faith in this body, for its resurrection. Anything less is to betray the careful tension of the ‘now but not yet’ way in which truly Christian identity is to be formed, whilst pointing to a greater reality in Christ where we will, at last, be free of earth-bound, fallen-body bound identities like ‘gay’ or ‘straight’.
As I say in the book, my only worry about the word gay is the added associations it has in our culture which are not actually integral to its meaning. Being gay is simply about sexual orientation; it’s entirely separate to the sexual ethic one chooses to adopt. I want to assert that in the secular world. There’s another way to be gay in Christ that doesn’t have to involve the liberal ethic that everyone assumes of gay people. Celibate gay Christians need acceptance, not just in the Christian world, but in the secular world too – our witness needs to be heard. It’s an evangelistic imperative that causes me to use the word gay. In Christ, I chose celibacy in obedience to God’s teaching. Other gay people have chosen otherwise. It doesn’t make me less Christian, but actually magnifies my Christian witness when I say ‘I’m a celibate gay Christian’ – boasting of the grace that wrought such obedience in my weakness. One’s difference of embodiment becomes a site for the glorification of God. The great truth I’ve learnt is that God does not love us and use us in spite of our fallen or broken vestiges but precisely because of, and through them. He gets all the glory!
AB: One of the challenges you lay down for the church is that we must break the ‘culture of silence’, replacing it with a culture of ‘repentant honesty’. Can you explain this to us and give us some practical ideas of how we can do this?
DB: When we have an issue or divisive point as the Church that disunifies us, the best way to solve it is to really search ourselves for our own idols that may be generating the problem. The call of repentance in Christ is constant and every day, not just one-off. There are ways we can have ‘right beliefs’ in the wrong way. Arguably, Jesus confronted a society that had a lot of the right beliefs but believed them in the wrong way; they were not defined by the love of God. Repentant honesty protects us from double standards that harm our LGBTQI or SSA brothers and sisters in Christ.
AB: At one point in your journey you realised the importance of combining love for God with a right fear of God. How do you feel these two should work together?
DB: These are absolutely vital. Fear of the Lord protects our idol/sin-prone hearts from worshipping a fantasy of our own construction, and the love of God keeps our hearts soft and malleable to his grace and instruction. We can’t offer our bodies up as living sacrifices until we know both these realities – and as I say our love won’t be real.
Dr Ashley Null, an expert on the thinking of Archbishop Cranmer, the great reformer, has said, ‘According to Cranmer’s anthropology, what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. The mind doesn’t direct the will. The mind is actually captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants.’ Until the fear of the Lord removes the idolatry of broken desires, we will forever justify ethical feelings that are contrary to God’s true nature and will.
I couldn’t submit to scripture and God’s heart for human sexuality until I knew the love of God in the fear of the Lord, which transformed my ethical knowing to let go of what I desired and willed and receive the mind of the Spirit that takes us deeper into revelation, Word and the thoughts of God, instead of the flesh which brings separation from the reality of the true and living God. Once I repented (allowed my mind to be renewed by Holy Spirit), I could be celibate from the right place, avoiding ‘bad celibacy’ or false asceticism that is not Christ-centred and grace-driven but sinfully self-justifying.
AB: What are the key lessons you are hoping Christians will learn from your story?
DB: Whatever the Holy Spirit teaches. Let everything else be forgotten!
For more information on A War of Loves take a look at the book’s website: awarofloves.com
Is Advent Backwards?
Not really. The rhythm of the church’s seasons turns out, in this as in so many other ways, to be theologically profound. If we began with the manger and then moved to the last judgment, we would be so softened up by the little baby in the manger that we wouldn’t be able to take the second coming of Christ in power seriously. The solemnity and awe do not lie in the fact that the baby becomes the eternal judge. What strikes us to the heart is this: the eternal Judge, very God of very God, Creator of the worlds, the Alpha and the Omega, has become that little baby.”
—Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ
Books of the Year 2018
Top Ten Recent Books
- Camille Paglia, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism. Fiery, lucid, bombastic, polymathic and gripping. I reviewed it here.
- Peter Leithart, Revelation (2 vols). Book of the Year. It fuelled my devotional times for the best part of six months, and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay a book. Ceaselessly original, insightful and doxological.
- Francis Spufford, True Stories and Other Essays. One of the most brilliant writers anywhere, Spufford can write on anything and make it seem compelling. A treat.
- James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Searching, moving, theologically astute and with enormous ramifications for the contemporary world. I summarised it here.
- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years. Why the world developed as it did. One of the best books I’ve read on anything, as I explained here.
- Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Bad title but great book, and one which I’m getting to discuss with Jon Haidt on the radio in a few days’ time.
- Tim Keller, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy. One of Keller’s best books, this opens up layers to an apparently simple book that I had never seen. We’re talking to him about it on the Mere Fidelity podcast this week.
- Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. An Asian history of the last two centuries, in which Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore are the central characters, and Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905 is the key turning point in modern history. Marvellous.
- Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible. I’m coming very late to the party on this one, but this marvellously written and illustrated kids’ Bible should be read by most grown-ups as well, and it was the only book I read this year that made me cry. Fantastic.
- Peter Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? A brief, clear, brightly written and thoroughly compelling case for saying yes, on the basis of geography, topography, names, disambiguation, Judaism, botany, finance, language, customs, undesigned coincidences, embarrassing inclusions and omissions, and deliberate formal contradictions.
Top Ten Old Books
Homer, The Odyssey (translated by Emily Wilson)
Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail
C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems
George Orwell, Essays
Euripides, The Bacchae
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, 1848-1875
John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
The Rest (asterisks indicate a re-read)
Tertullian, Against Marcion
Richard Reeves, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What to Do About it
John Barclay, Paul: A Very Brief History
G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism
Tim Chester, The One True Gift
Dorothy Sayers, Creed Or Chaos
N. T. Wright, Paul: A Biography
Jared Wilson, The Imperfect Disciple
Donna Tartt, The Secret History
Adam Mabry, The Art of Rest
*Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr Fox
Terry Virgo, Life Tastes Better
John Stevens, Knowing Our Times: How British Culture Impacts Our Mission
Tim Keller, The Way of Wisdom
Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
*C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair
Glen Scrivener, Divine Comedy
Origen, Against Celsus
Ross Douthat, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism
Roger Scruton, On Human Nature
*T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
R. W. L. Moberly, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith
J. M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad, The Penguin History of the World
Graham Greene, The Quiet American
Julie Melilli, Special God
Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom
Graham Greene, The Fallen Idol
William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
Amos Yong, Renewing Christian Theology: Systematics for a Global Christianity
Graham Greene, The Third Man
Mike Wilkerson, Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry
Ephraim Radner, Leviticus
*C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
D. H. Dilbeck, Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet
Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia—and How it Died
Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment
Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
Boethius, De Trinitate
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress
Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed
T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
Jennifer Egan, Black Box
C. S. Lewis, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm
Andy Naselli, 1 Corinthians
John Piper, Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship
Tom Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter
Ben Myers, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism
Chinua Achebe, Africa’s Tarnished Name
Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
Todd Billings, Remembrance, Communion and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table
Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History and What they Reveal about the Future
John Le Carré, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
*C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
Henry Chadwick, Augustine: A Very Short Introduction
Larry Hurtado, Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice
Roger Scruton, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition
Jen Wilkin, In His Image: 10 Ways God Calls Us to Reflect His Character
Niall Ferguson, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power
David Bennett, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom and the Great Commission
Hannah Anderson, All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment
James Baldwin, Dark Days
Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Shaped Our Values
Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence
Pete Greig, Dirty Glory
Brian Stanley, Christianity in the Twentieth Century
Ian Paul, Revelation
Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy
Francis Chan, Letters to the Church
Edith Bruder, The Black Jews of Africa: History, Religion, Identity
Sam Storms, The Language of Heaven: Crucial Questions about Speaking in Tongues
Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis
Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know about Global Politics
Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Reading Great Books
Ben Lindsay, We Need to Talk About Race
John Le Carré, The Night Manager
The Curious Case of the Growth Conference
There was lots about the Growth conference that was impressive. It was well marketed and superbly run. The speakers were excellent communicators, and were able to share all sorts of principles from their own experience of growing; clearly, they were practising what they were preaching (virtually every speaker there was several times larger than I was, for instance). They were also, from what I could tell, genuine and humble individuals with a passion to help people put on weight. Personally I haven’t implemented everything they said, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, but I’m confident that if I did, I would get bigger myself.
Yet there was also something odd about it. My concerns started when I noticed was that all of the speakers, and most of the delegates, were operating on the same assumption: that if you were getting bigger, it was because you were healthy. Everyone talked as if growing and putting on muscle were the same thing; if you’re growing in bulk, and need to buy larger clothes, it’s because you’re becoming stronger. But this, it seemed to me, was obviously untrue. Some people who grow are getting stronger, to be sure—but plenty of people are simply getting fatter. In fact, there are all sorts of people whose physical growth is not a result of exercise, effort and a healthy diet at all. Rather, their growth is a sign that they either aren’t doing enough, or are eating too much fast food, or both.
That bothered me, because it was clear that the speakers (and many of the delegates I talked to) already knew this. It’s self-evident: there are plenty of muscular small people, and plenty of flabby big ones. (It’s like Charles Spurgeon’s comment: sometimes we grow because we have a tumour.) Yet even though everyone knew that growth was not in itself a good thing, and that it could be a result of either a healthy or a harmful lifestyle, the conference was entirely focused on how to get larger, as opposed to stronger, more muscular, or whatever. There were seminars on managing size, growing pains, designing a house for larger people, how you source bigger trousers, how you overcome small person thinking, and so on—but very few on the disciplines that actually make for healthy, strong, muscular people. It was, as I say, somewhat odd.
There was still plenty to learn, of course. If you are a large person, it can be quite useful to share ideas on how to cope with growth—what pressures, responsibilities, habits and practices can help you manage and steward your size well—and as someone who is fairly large myself, there was plenty to glean there. At times it was refreshing; big people can often feel squashed in conferences that are entirely aimed at small people. And the speakers were, as I say, lovely and humble individuals. So there was plenty to appreciate.
At the same time, the focus of the conference was so relentlessly on growth, as opposed to health, strength, activity, productivity, exercise, diet or whatever, that I found it a bit unsettling. Personally I do want to grow, but I want the right kind of growth—the kind that comes through eating well and exercising faithfully—rather than the kind that comes from doing those things badly (let alone the kind that comes from taking food from other people). So I feel ambivalent about the Growth conference. I may go to the Strength conference next year instead.
Why I’m Wary of ‘the Presence of God’
The Unbiblical Presence of God
Many of the ways we use the language of the presence of God suggest that it is an item that can be met, held, contained or carried, but in the Bible, God’s presence is the place where he is. The presence of God results from God being present. It is a state or a place, not an item.
So, for example, in the garden Adam and Eve tried to hide from God’s presence when he came for a walk (Gen. 3:8); they were hiding from the place where he was. Later, God was present in the tabernacle and the temple, and therefore priests who were barred from the tabernacle or temple for ministering while in a state of uncleanness were cut off from God’s presence (Lev. 22:3). When Hannah took Samuel to serve in the tabernacle at Shiloh, she took him ‘that he may appear in the presence of the LORD’ (1 Sam. 1:22), that is, where God was. When Jerusalem was captured by Nebuchadnezzar and the king and high-ranking officials were taken off to Babylon, they had been cast out from God’s presence (2 Kings 24:20). The prophets understood the Exile in the same way: to be taken from Jerusalem, was to be taken away from God’s presence (Jer. 52:3).
God’s presence is not just where he dwells on earth, but also where he sits enthroned in heaven. In Job, when Satan left God’s throne room, he ‘went out from the presence of the LORD’ (Job 1:12; 2:7). The Psalms are probably helping us see that the temple is God’s throne room on earth when they speak of entering God’s presence with thanksgiving and singing (Psalm 95:2; 100:2) and when they declare to God that ‘in your presence there is fullness of joy’ (Psalm 16:11).
The same conception of the presence of God is found in the New Testament. The presence of God is the heavenly throne room from where the angel Gabriel is sent (Luke 1:19) and where Jesus asks to be glorified with the glory which has been his for all eternity (John 17:5). It’s also where Jesus sits currently, awaiting the day of his return (Acts 3:20). At the end of this age, those who do not know God or obey the gospel will ‘suffer the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord’ (2 Thess. 1:9) and be tormented ‘in the presence of the Lamb’ (Rev. 14:10). In a broader sense, since God is present with his people, important pronouncements and judgments can be made in his presence, that is, with God as a witness (e.g. Acts 10:33; 1 Tim. 5:21; 6:13; 2 Tim. 4:1).
So biblically speaking the presence of God is a place where God is present. It’s a location, not an item that can be carried or a person to be encountered.
I’m sure at this point you’re thinking about Exodus 33:14-15 where not only does Moses request that God’s presence go with him, but God promises that it will. It certainly looks like Moses was going to carry the presence.
But here the limitations of language are confusing things. Both Moses and God use the standard Hebrew term for ‘presence’ paneh.1 Paneh can have a variety of meanings including the sense ‘person’, as in ‘I myself, in person’. This is how it is used in 2 Samuel 17:11 (‘and that you may go to battle in person [paneh]’) and Lamentations 4:16 (‘The LORD himself [paneh] has scattered them’), and this is the sense it has in Exodus 33: ‘I myself [paneh] will go with you’ (v.14); ‘If you yourself [paneh] will not go with me’ (v.15).2 The promise wasn’t that some item or force – God’s presence – would go with Moses, but that God himself would go with him, and that is surely a far better promise!
The Unhelpful Presence of God
So perhaps we’re not always using the language in the same way the Bible does, but does it really matter? Isn’t this just being a bit pedantic about words? Well, maybe, but words matter. Words shape our thinking, and I worry that our misuse of this language could cause us to miss the incredible truth of what God offers us.
When we talk about the presence of God as if it’s an item, it’s impersonal; it sounds like a force or a power. Therefore, when we speak of ‘encountering the presence’ or ‘being filled with the presence’ we are encouraging ourselves to seek an experience of something when actually the invitation is to a relationship with someone. We get to ‘encounter God’ and ‘be filled with God’s Spirit’. The reality is, you can’t carry someone’s presence with you, but they can come with you. And that is far better!
I think it’s significant that in contrast to the Old Testament (e.g. Lev. 22:3; 1 Sam. 1:22; 2 Kings 24:20), the New Testament doesn’t use the language of the presence of God when talking about temple theology and how humans encounter God. Instead, the New Testament uses the language of the Holy Spirit. We don’t just get to come to a place where God dwells, we get to be the place where God dwells by the person of the Holy Spirit.
You will look in vain for references to coming into, encountering, carrying, ministering in or living in the presence of God in the New Testament, but you’ll find constant references to being full of (Acts 6:5; 7:55; 11:24), filled with (Acts 2:4; 4:31; 9:17; 13:52; Eph. 5:18), serving in (Rom. 7:6), led by (Rom 8:14; Gal. 5:18) living in (Rom. 8:5, 9), being dwelled in by (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19), and walking by (Gal. 5:16, 25) the Holy Spirit. This is where the focus lies for the new covenant people of God. It seems that often we’re longing for an encounter with the presence of God, when God has invited us to encounter him personally. And that has got to be something far better!
None of this means we can’t use the language of the presence of God, it just means that if we do use it, we should be careful to make sure our use is biblical and (therefore) helpful, and we should use language to communicate about and build faith and anticipation for the wonderful reality into which we’ve been brought: an intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit, with God himself.
So, it’s true to say that Jesus has ascended to be ‘in the presence of God’. It’s true that as believers when we die we will immediately be ‘in God’s presence’. It is true that we love God’s presence (that is, where God is), but I fear that many people in our churches are thinking of an impersonal force when we say that, not a relational encounter with the living God. Perhaps, ‘we love encountering God’ is a better way of expressing the same sentiment.
When we gather to worship, let’s not fall short of what is offered and settle for encountering ‘the presence’, let’s encounter God himself. When we’re going out into the world and interacting with those who don’t know Jesus, let’s not go with an impersonal force, ‘the presence’, let’s go with the Holy Spirit living inside of us. Let’s follow the lead of the New Testament authors and revel in the wonder that we get to have intimate communion with the living God himself.
Explaining the Presence
One other point on this topic is worth highlighting. I didn’t think of it until it was raised by a friend with whom I was discussing these musings. It’s the question, ‘Why?’ Why has the unbiblical use of the language of the presence of God become so prominent? Why are people so eager to talk about ‘encountering the presence’ and creating a ‘presence culture’? As my friend expressed it, ‘There is a difference between looking at fruits and looking at roots.’
The New Testament shows us that we have access to a wonderful, intimate communion with God. It shows us that we should expect to experience this when we gather as his people. So perhaps the popularity of this language is actually highlighting that we’re longing for something that’s available to us but which, we feel at least, we’re not currently experiencing. Perhaps we need more than just a change of language. Maybe our expectation of what the work of the Spirit looks like is wrong, or maybe there’s something lacking in how we are approaching Christian life and church which means we’re not experiencing what’s available. I’m not yet sure what the answer to the ‘Why?’ question is, but I’m sure we need to wrestle with it.
So that’s why I’m wary of ‘the presence of God’ and why I think we need to ask why it’s become so prominent; not because it’s not good, but because the reality on offer is someone far better.
1 As it happens the word actually always appears in its plural form: pānîm.
2 The NLT reflects this understanding. See especially F.W. Gesenius, Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, פָּנֶה 2 and Brown-Driver-Briggs, פָּנֶה 7.2 a.
Can We Trust the Gospels?
Geography. If the Gospels were written by someone who didn’t live in the local area, they would never be able to describe Palestinian geography with such accuracy. No sources that we know of—not Josephus, Philo, Strabo, anyone—could have given the writers the details they mention, often in passing: villages, bodies of water, hills, landscapes, and so on. When you compare the four Gospels with the Gnostic Gospels (Judas, Thomas, Philip and co), the disparity in geographical awareness is extraordinary.
Topography. The same is true for the very incidental (to the extent that you barely notice them) mentions of topography: up to Jerusalem, down to Jericho, down from Cana to Capernaum, and so forth. Much of this information is available in no other sources, as far as we know, and this suggests the writers were very well acquainted with the landscape.
Names. Richard Bauckham has done a lot of work here, and Peter summarises it well: the distribution of personal names we find in the Gospels corresponds extremely well to what we know of Palestinian Judaism on the basis of other sources (including Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic texts and ossuaries). Jews in other parts of the empire had very different naming habits, so nobody from outside the area would have invented plausible names with such accuracy.
Disambiguation. The previous point is strengthened by the practice of disambiguation in the Gospels. Some characters are repeatedly disambiguated (Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Joseph; Simon Peter, Simon the Zealot, Simon of Cyrene; Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus son of David, Jesus the Galilean; John the Baptist, John the son of Zebedee; and so on). Many others never are. The names which are disambiguated are those which would need to be clarified in Palestine, but not elsewhere, and this adds to the veracity of the accounts.
Judaism. The awareness of Jewish language, law, Scripture and culture is clear throughout the Gospels. It indicates not only a high degree of familiarity with Judaism, but also (perhaps) an early date of composition, since the “parting of the ways” that followed the destruction of the temple would make such a correspondence far less likely.
Botany. How did the authors know that the rabbis tithed dill and cumin? How did they know that sycamores grow in Jericho?
Finance. I love this one: we encounter a whole group of tax collectors in Capernaum (Matt 9:9-10; Mark 2:14-15). What none of the Gospels mention is that Capernaum was in a key location on the border of the territory of Herod Antipas, and therefore exactly the sort of place we would find tax collectors. Jericho, likewise, is home to a very wealthy chief tax collector (Zacchaeus), which is just what we would expect of a border town. The Gospel writers know the local tax systems.
Language. Matthew, Mark and John all show clear signs of being familiar with the local language, in ways that could not simply be drawn from other sources. The word hosanna is a fascinating example, because the evangelists not only get its counterintuitive usage right (the word originally meant “save”, but in the Gospels and in later Jewish sources it is more of a cry of praise), but also its pronunciation, which differs from the original Hebrew hoshianna. Neither of these facts would be available to someone from researching or reading books.
Customs. Celebrating the Passover inside Jerusalem, even when you weren’t staying there; singing a hymn before going to the Mount of Olives; priestly servants carrying a club; tearing clothes in response to the charge of blasphemy. Once again, the writers show first-hand knowledge of Jewish customs that could not have been gained through second-hand research.
Undesigned coincidences. On several occasions, different Gospel writers provide details that make sense of something another Gospel says, yet in a way that is so subtle most people miss it (and certainly not in a deliberate fashion). John and Luke tell completely different Martha and Mary stories, but they both present Martha as a practical person and Mary as much more contemplative; each sheds light on the other, but without being designed that way. Mark calls James and John “sons of thunder”, and Luke tells us they want to call down fire from heaven; both illuminate the other, but almost accidentally. When we read John, we wonder why Jesus asks Philip in particular to buy food for the massive crowd, a fact which we can only make sense of when we look at Luke, and find that the miracle took place near Bethsaida (Luke 9:10), Philip’s home town. And so on.
Embarrassing inclusions and omissions. Jesus calls his followers “evil” (Matt 7:11), calls Gentiles “dogs” (15:26), instructs his disciples to listen to the Pharisees (23:3), and dies asking why God has forsaken him (27:46). No one fabricating these stories would invent these sorts of things. Flipping the comment round, it is also unimaginable that an invented Gospel, written to bolster the early church in the 70s or 80s, would omit any mention of circumcision, Gentiles in the church, or ordering Christian worship. The Gospels do not look like they would if someone was inventing the story after the fact.
Deliberate formal contradictions. Finally, in response to the argument that the Gospels preserve contradictions between them, Peter makes the telling point that each Gospel contains within itself examples of contradictions which are clearly deliberate, in order to make the reader think. He gives a number of examples from John: Did people believe in Jesus when they saw his signs, or not? Did they know where he came from, or not? Is Jesus’s testimony true if he bears witness to himself, or not? Does Jesus judge no one, or does he judge all the time? Did he come into the world to judge it, or not? If Gospel writers deliberately preserve these kinds of tensions, or paradoxes, why should we think that tensions between the Gospels are a sign of unreliability?
I could go on. There is an excellent discussion of whether we have the actual words of Jesus, in which Peter makes some important comments about the lack of the punctuation marks by which we indicate paraphrases, like “...” and “[…]” There is a helpful treatment of miracles, and the resurrection in particular. And the whole book is written in accessible English, in an engaging and humorous style, in 140 pages. Check it out.
The Revenge of the East
Initially, Western technology was borrowed with full awareness of how it might corrode traditional ways of life:
Many of these thinkers judged Western-style politics and economics to be inherently violent and destructive forces … These thinkers sensed that, though irresistible and often necessary, the modern industrial society and social freedoms pioneered by Europe would destroy many of their cherished cultures and traditions, just as they had in Europe itself, and leave chaos in their place.
A compelling example is Zhang Junmai, a follower of Liang who hosted Tagore in China. In the 1920s, he highlighted the question with haunting clarity:
The fundamental principles on which our nation is founded are quietism, as opposed to activism; spiritual satisfaction, as opposed to the striving for material advantage; a self-sufficient agrarianism, as opposed to profit-seeking mercantilism; and a morally transforming sense of brotherhood rather than racial segregation … A nation founded on agriculture lacks a knowledge of the industrial arts, but it is likewise without material demands; thus, though it exists over a long period of time, it can still maintain a standard of poverty but equality, scarcity but peace. But how will it be hereafter?
Quite. As such, many leading Asian intellectuals brought similar critiques of modernity: Western selfishness, materialism, consumerism, individualism, industrialisation and popular entertainment would destroy the traditional ways of life and do untold harm to their society (the classic demonstration of which came in the slaughter of the Great War). Yet, Mishra argues,
it should be admitted: the course of history has bypassed many of their fondest hopes. In fact, it was European principles of nationalism and civic patriotism that almost all native elites embraced in order to beat (or at least draw level with) the West in what seemed a Darwinian struggle for the future. Even someone as spiritual minded, anti-political and critical of modern state-building as Gandhi could not avoid becoming a nationalist leader … Chinese intellectuals felt compelled to vilify over two millennia of Confucian tradition. The Ottoman Turks went so far as to abolish the office of the Islamic caliphate altogether, renounce their leadership of the Muslim umma, and then disestablish Islam itself in order to turn Turkey into a modern nation-state.
It didn’t work. Nationalism has a lot to answer for:
The European model of the ethnically homogenous nation-state was a poor fit in Europe itself. That it was particularly so for multi-ethnic Asian societies has been amply proved by the plight of Kashmiri Muslims, Tibetans, Uighurs, the Chinese in Malaysia, Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Kurds in Turkey and Tamils in Sri Lanka.
And therein lies the problem with the rise of the East, for all that Mishra welcomes it:
The rise of Asia … is in many ways the revenge of the East. Yet this success conceals an immense intellectual failure, one that has profound ramifications for the world today and the near future. It is simply this: no convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though these seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world. Gandhi, their most rigorous critic, is a forgotten figure within India today. Marxism-Leninism lies discredited … Turkey’s Islamic modernity doesn’t point to any alternative socio-economic order.
So what happens next? For Mishra, the idea that increased economic growth will bring Indian and Chinese consumers to the Western standard of living is “as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by al-Qaeda.” He is far more pessimistic. “It … looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots - the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic.”
Written in 2012, before the migrant crisis, the rise and fall of ISIS and the increase of Western nationalist populism in the last few years, this is a prophetic and unsettling book, as well as a fascinating account of Asian intellectual history. It’s well worth a look.
Christmas in Context
Christmas only makes sense in context. You quickly realise that when you start to read the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. Who are David and Abraham and what’s the big deal about this Jesus Christ guy being their descendant? (Matt. 1:1-17; Luke 1:27; 2:4) For that matter, what’s the significance of the title ‘Christ’? (Matt. 1:1, 17, 18; 2:4; Luke 2:11) And is the name ‘Jesus’ significant? (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31) Why is it so important that the prophets spoke of these things beforehand? (Matt. 1:22; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18, 23) What’s the ‘throne of David’, and who are the ‘house of Jacob’? (Luke 1:32-33) Why do we need a saviour? (Matt. 1:21; Luke 2:11) And what’s with all the singing and celebration? (Luke 1:46-55, 67-79; 2:14)
Advent is a great opportunity to think about this context. It’s a great opportunity to dive into the Old Testament and to see that the birth of Jesus was the beginning of the end, not just the beginning of the story. It’s yet another reminder that we really need the Old Testament!
One of my favourite ways to explore this context during Advent has been to use the Jesus Storybook Bible! The Jesus Storybook Bible is the children’s Bible that every adult should read (even Dr Wilson himself has said so!) It’s the story of God’s ‘Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love’, told in beautiful prose, with stunning illustrations and with a wonderful focus on the Bible as a unified story in which Jesus is the centre point. As the introduction explains:
The Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!
You see, the best thing about this Story is – it’s true.
There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story. The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.
It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story. And at the centre of the Story, there is a baby. Every Story in the Bible whispers his name.
Sometimes hearing a story in a fresh way, and with the focus so clearly on the over-arching narrative of the Bible, brings new life to stories we’ve heard many times before. This is what the Jesus Storybook Bible does so well.
And it just so happens that the Old Testament and Christmas story in the Jesus Storybook Bible take up 24 chapters. So, while you eat your little chocolate from your advent calendar each day in December, you can be reminded of the context of Christmas by reading (or listening to or watching) a chapter.
If you’ve got kids, this is a great thing to do together over advent. If you haven’t, this is still a great thing to do across advent. (I’m a single guy in my 20s and the Jesus Storybook Bible has blessed me greatly!) And if you’re worried about reading a children’s Bible on the train as you travel to work, there’s a version just for you without the pictures (but you’ll miss some of the beauty!)
The creator of the Jesus Storybook Bible, Sally Lloyd-Jones, has a page on her blog with links to lots of creative ideas of how families can use the book in Advent. Take a look here.
THINK 2019: Revelation
The book of Revelation is arguably the theologically richest book in Scripture, and it is certainly one of the most important texts for a Christian vision of worship, suffering, history and hope. Yet for all sorts of literary and structural reasons, it is also surely the most misunderstood.
In some ways this is a tragedy, because all sorts of pastors (let alone church members) are nervous about diving into it and discovering its treasures. But it is also a great opportunity. If it sometimes seems that there is nothing new to say about Luke 15 or Ephesians 2, there will always be more to see, appreciate and be challenged by in Revelation.
So for three days in July 2019, we will immerse ourselves in this magnificent apocalypse, asking all the difficult questions—beasts, harlots, numbers, flying scorpions, you name it—but keeping our eyes on the big picture (which, spoiler alert, is not “Jesus wins,” but something more subversive.) The conference will be hosted by Andrew Wilson (King’s Church, London) and will include plenary sessions, breakout discussions, meals together, and time for Q&A.
The cost of THINK 2019 is £150 per person or £225 per couple, which includes tea, coffee, meals together at lunchtime and in the evenings, but does not include overnight accommodation in London. We will begin at 3:30pm on the Tuesday, and finish by 2pm on the Thursday, at King’s Church London (we will confirm which site is hosting the event in due course). If you have any queries before the event, please email Judith on Judith [dot] Barnett [at] kings-centre.co.uk.
Come. Take time. Be refreshed. Think.
When I grow up…
Yet I find myself, in my mid-forties, growing and changing into an entirely new version of me, long after the world has stopped expecting me to develop further. I’ve experienced a significant growth spurt in the past couple of years (not in height, sadly), which has led me to wonder if we’re short-changing ourselves in setting our expectations so low.
I’ve noticed two equally destructive tendencies at play around this topic (three if you count a general fear of aging or displaying physical signs thereof). One is around the (utterly abhorrent) neologism ‘adulting’, meaning ‘behaving like an adult’. It is the resistance towards moving out of the young, free, single party animal phase and into adulthood. We have glorified youth so much that we’ve bred a generation of Lost Boys (and Girls) who are terrified of growing up.
The second is the ‘Is this all there is?’ syndrome, characterised by the mid-life, or nowadays quarter-life, crisis.
How have we so misrepresented life as to cause people to resist adulthood and then have a crisis thinking their best years are behind them before they’ve reached their thirties?! Is this all there is? By no means!
There are many contributing factors to this problem: the natural desire of parents to want more and better for their children than they had, resulting in children and young adults being encouraged and urged up the educational and career ladders. Our increasing prosperity meaning it is possible, then normal, then vital for each adult generation of a family to have its own home, so children only grow up in close, daily contact with one other generation, making age a mysterious and fearful thing. The idolisation of independence meaning we keep ourselves apart from one another and making it seem a shameful failure to ask for help, even from one’s own children.
Age, in the modern mindset, equates to infirmity, loneliness, weakness and being burdensome. No wonder we fear it.
But as Christians we don’t have to. This is one area where our lives can witness loud and clear to the watching world what a difference knowing Jesus makes. The future is no longer something to fear, characterised only by loss and decay. Though our bodies and minds will decay, our friendship with God won’t, and in fact should only get better.
Discipleship does not peak at 25. The Christian walk never ends. There’s always ‘further up and further in’. As we grow, it grows, and we can never fathom its depths nor reach its heights.
What’s more, it’s intended to be inter-generational. We should be walking our walk alongside those who are both older and younger than us. Those who are more mature in faith are commanded to teach and help those who are younger, while the younger are instructed to honour and learn from the older. We’re meant to be in each other’s lives, learning from one another’s wisdom and experience, and meeting one another’s spiritual and physical needs.
With a few notable exceptions (like Terry and Wendy Virgo, in Newfrontiers circles), we’ve neglected to honour our older brothers and sisters. I love the dynamic young speakers and writers too, but I’m struck by how little attention we - and I - pay to learning from those who are older.
If I want to be someone God can use in my later years (if he grants me later years), I both can and should start building the relevant character traits and habits now, and I am watching those older and more mature than me to find out what that looks like and to learn from their example. (It’s a challenge in a central London church, where there are very few people older than about 35, but the ones we’ve got are wonderful examples.)
Just as when we were children, what we want to be in future needs to shape what we do now, as it will be shaped almost entirely (barring a miraculous intervention from God) by what we do now. If you wanted to be a pianist, ballerina or footballer, you needed to practise your piano scales, ballet steps or ball skills. If you want to have a rich and fruitful old age you need to start planting and cultivating the corresponding fruit trees now.
I’ve been struck recently by just how often little old ladies seem to pop up in stories of God’s powerful works. They are people who pray persistently and faithfully, and see hundreds of lives transformed. They give sacrificially - usually tiny amounts in the grand scheme of things, but those tiny amounts, given boldly and obediently, open the floodgates of heaven and pour down God’s blessings on whoever is in need. They speak out what God has revealed to them, often when others are too polite or afraid, and change the course of history.
Those stories inspire and encourage me. Old ladies don’t have to be lonely, crotchety, bitter people, passed by and overlooked. They can be powerful tools in God’s hands, even from their reclining chairs. (And there’s no reason the same shouldn’t be true for little old men, too.) But it doesn’t spring up over night. Just as roots of bitterness and unforgiveness are planted in youth or middle age and nurtured over decades, so are roots of faith, hope and love, joy and peace, thankfulness and generosity. I want to start learning now how to pray, how to hear God’s voice, how to respond with boldness and generosity when he calls, so that when I grow old, I can be one of his little old ladies.
Life is good right now. I could sit back on my laurels and enjoy it, but I know that there’s more, far more, to life than this. Further up and further in!
The Nazareth Inscription: The Earliest Christian Artifact?
The Christian proclamation is rooted in time and space. The creed proclaims that Jesus Christ was crucified by a Roman prefect named Pontius Pilate. The gospel makes claims to historicity that seem to invite the search for material evidence. And, to be sure, some of the figures portrayed in the New Testament texts appear in the epigraphic record. Mostly these affirm the existence of persons whose presence on the scene was never in reasonable doubt. For instance, an ossuary from first-century Jerusalem bears the name Caiaphas on its side; it may well belong to the high priest who oversaw the initial trial of Jesus. A dedicatory inscription from the city of Caesarea on the Judean coast presents evidence of Pilate’s tenure in the province. Of slightly greater consequence is an inscription from Delphi in Greece, naming the high-ranking governor Gallio, copied in the year AD 52. Gallio is represented by the Christian book of Acts in his capacity as a judge, hearing furious accusations made against the apostle Paul by fellow Jews. The date helps us build a chronology of Paul’s mission. Otherwise, what all of these inscriptions have in common is that they reflect minor characters in the background of the early Christian story, for reasons that have nothing to do with Christianity itself. They add plausibility to the historical backdrop of the New Testament, but none of these can be properly considered a trace of early Christian history.
The search for Christianity’s earliest material remains is mirrored in the hunt for manuscripts, which continues unabated today. The oldest physical traces of a Christian text are probably the scrap of papyrus known to textual critics as “P52.” Bought on the antiquities market in 1920, it is housed today in a library in Manchester, England. The scrap preserves a few precious words from the 18th chapter of the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John was probably written toward the very end of the first century or the opening decades of the second. The papyrus fragment belongs to the second century, sometime between AD 125–175 or perhaps a bit later. The dating of this fragment, and others like it, is dependent on the imperfect science of paleography, and remains hotly contested. These early crumbs of otherwise richly attested textual traditions can stir passions because of their possible proximity to the autograph — the romantic idea that only one or two sets of hands lay between us and the very first copy. These passions were agitated in recent years, as word rumbled that a new first-century papyrus fragment of Mark’s gospel was imminently to be made public. The fragment in question was just published, and it is, predictably, “merely” a text of the later second or early third century. There is still uncertainty and intrigue about the circumstances behind the rumor, amplified by the possibility that the Green family, the evangelical craft-store magnates and parvenu collectors from Oklahoma, may have had a hand in the affair. But we still lack a Christian text that can be dated to within one or two generations of the autograph. This circumstance is utterly unsurprising and holds for every author from the ancient world. Only in the case of Christian texts is this fact something like a recurring source of disappointment.
Forgers have often been tempted to fill this vacuum. Many of them are quite clever. The so-called “James Ossuary,” announced in 2002, bears an inscription claiming that it held the bones of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” The box is undoubtedly authentic, but strong doubts have been cast on the inscription, which is probably the work of an expert hand trained to mimic first-century Aramaic. Textual forgeries are even more common. The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” a text purporting to represent Jesus saying the words, “my wife,” hoodwinked an eminent Harvard professor in recent years. Inevitably, it has been asked whether the Nazareth inscription might be a forgery. But the Nazareth inscription is at once too good, and not good enough, to be a fake. It is virtually impossible that anyone in the 19th century would have had the ability to conjure a passing imitation of something as little understood at the time as the Roman law on tomb robbing — into ancient Greek, with perfect Palestinian paleography no less. And, if someone had been that astute, they should have created a document that does just a little more to convince us of its links with the Christian story. The authenticity of the Nazareth inscription has never been seriously doubted by the scholarly community.
Verifiable physical remains of Christianity, then, do not go back before about the middle of the second century, at least for those who need the kind of certainty offered by scientific archaeology. From the later second century, there is a continuous series of Christian inscriptions in the catacombs and an uninterrupted stream of Christian art and iconography. Christian tombstones start to appear in Asia Minor. Soon the vestiges of Roman persecution, and then of Christian churches, will appear. But to go further back is to enter a realm beyond physical proof. Nowhere is this conundrum better exampled than in the very heart of established Christianity, the Vatican itself. By the standards of critical archaeology, it is possible to say that Christians were venerating the spot said to mark the resting place of Peter’s bones from sometime in the course of the second century. Nothing requires, nor precludes, the belief that the place was hallowed even earlier. But as we reach back into the first century for some trace of Christianity we can touch, its remnants always recede just out of grasp.
This invisibility is totally unsurprising, after all. The Christian movement was tiny and irregularly scattered, and even at the end of the first century, the church only numbered in the thousands. Despite the zeal of believers and despisers alike, there is not much to be made of the fact that physical traces of early Christianity are absent. It would be far more unexpected if they were present. And this paradox is what makes the Nazareth inscription, and the story of its obscure provenance and long concealment at the hands of Froehner, at once so beguiling and so unlikely. If it is from the remote corner of the world that gave birth to Christianity, and if it was inspired by the emperor’s reaction to the tumult over the empty tomb, it would be the most ancient surviving artifact in any sense of the Christian faith.
ETS II: My Response to Tom Schreiner
1) Whether all New Testament prophecy is authoritative, infallible and foundational revelation, and as such should be clearly distinguished from impressions, whereby “someone senses that God is leading them to speak to someone or to make some kind of statement about a situation.” This is the argument he makes in chapter 7, and as we have already heard, it is crucial to the discussion.
2) Whether the gift of tongues, for Paul, is about the speaking of human languages, as it is for Luke, rather than that which is usually practised by Charismatics today. He makes this argument in chapters 8-9.
3) Whether the case for “nuanced Cessationism” in his final chapter actually holds up. His argument, in outline, is that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and in particular on the authoritative and infallible revelation they communicated. Both of these have ceased, whether with the death of the last apostle or, in an intriguing aside, with the agreement on the final canon of Scripture after a few hundred years. (This concession, incidentally, seems to me to undermine some of the arguments he has made previously: if an ante-Nicene father could prophesy, yet without in any way undermining the final authority of Scripture, why couldn’t someone today? And how would anyone in the late fourth century know that Paul’s exhortations to prophesy had recently ceased to apply?) Tom then explains his position on the other gifts—tongues, interpretation, miracles and healings—which is essentially that they might exist today, but he is doubtful, and if they do, they are very rare. I disagree, unsurprisingly, but we seem to agree that there is no biblical reason for claiming that the gifts of healing and miracles have ceased.
To begin with this last point, which in some ways is the most peripheral to Tom’s argument: it seems to me that many Cessationists apply a somewhat unfair standard when it comes to miraculous events like healings, or the speaking of unlearned human languages. Yes, the apostles were more successful at these things than we are. There is, indeed, a discrepancy between our experience and what is described in the New Testament. But the apostles were also far more successful at evangelism. And church planting. And leadership. And cross-cultural mission. And church discipline (unless the Southern Baptists have figured out the Ananias and Sapphira thing). And teaching. And standing firm under persecution. And selling their possessions and giving to the poor. And handling disappointment in ministry. Yet in none of these cases do we conclude that the gulf is so wide, their “success” so much greater than ours, that to tell people how to share the gospel, or teach, or lead more effectively, is to encourage people to be satisfied with sub-biblical Christianity. Rather, we acknowledge the disparity and seek to learn from it. What did they do? How did they do it? What can we learn? What are we missing? Which contemporaries of ours is God using in this area at the moment? What can we learn from them? As such, it looks like a standard is being used with respect to the “miraculous” gifts (where Charismatics claim more “success” than Cessationists) that is not applied to those areas in which conservatives typically pride themselves.
Cards on the table: I have personally witnessed a large number of miracles like this. Blindness, deafness, paralysis, unlearned earthly languages being spoken (in one recent case, a Rwandan language that was being spoken by a white British girl in our prayer meeting, and understood by a native speaker of that language standing a few feet away), life-long conditions, the whole kit and caboodle—not third hand stories from Majority World countries, but in front of me in the UK—and many of the healings have subsequently been verified by medical staff, which is something we always encourage. (In my favourite story, which was featured in the national press in the UK, the government continued paying disability benefits to a wheelchair bound lady even after she had been completely healed, and when she rang to say she no longer needed the money because she could walk again, the bureaucrat at the government department said, “We haven’t got a button to push that says ‘miracle.’”) I agree with Tom that such things are rarer than they were in Acts—but then so are sermons that see 3000 people saved, and so are missionaries that plant churches from Jerusalem round to Illyricum. That is not a reason to seek those things less; it is a reason to seek them more.
Working backwards, my second disagreement with Tom concerns the gifts of tongues and interpretation. Tom argues that the tongues in 1 Corinthians are all unlearned, human languages, a la Acts 2; I think there are several reasons to suggest they are not (whether or not we see Paul as alluding to the difference in his famous comment about “the tongues of men, and of angels”). Tongues in Acts were immediately understood by those who heard; tongues in 1 Corinthians required interpretation. The former demonstrated blessing, as those who speak other languages understand, in reversal of the curse of Babel; the latter demonstrated judgment, as those who speak other languages do not understand, in fulfilment of Isaiah. The former is assumed to function like prophecy by Peter; the latter is explicitly differentiated from prophecy by Paul. The former had a declarative, even evangelistic, purpose, and is aimed at people: “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” The latter is described in terms of prayer, song and thanksgiving, and is aimed at God. The purpose of the former is the edification of the hearer; the purpose of the latter, if there is no interpreter, is the edification of the speaker. If tongues were all comprehensible, earthly languages, it would be extremely strange for Paul use the gift so much in private, yet be so cautious in public.
The tongue-speaking at Pentecost is understood because the hearer already knows the language; for anyone to understand Corinthian tongue-speaking requires the speaker to “pray that they may interpret what is said,” which would be a strange remark to make of earthly languages in a polyglot city like Corinth (unless we are to imagine that the Spirit only prompted people to speak in earthly languages that nobody in the congregation understood, which would be thoroughly bizarre). As David Garland points out, it is also hard to understand Paul’s rhetorical question in 14:6—“if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you?”—if glōssa here refers to xenoglossia rather than glossolalia. For Garland, “this rules out the view that tongues refer to the miraculous ability to speak in unlearned languages.” I am inclined to the view, as articulated by a variety of scholars, that there are “various kinds of tongues,” that some of them are human languages and some of them are not, that they are primarily used in prayer and praise rather than for prophetic speech, and that there is no biblical reason to believe they have ceased (although, clearly, they should always be used within the parameters Paul identifies in 1 Corinthians). Call it a nuanced Continuationism, if you will.
The third area of disagreement—and, we would all agree, the main one for this discussion—concerns prophecy, and this takes me back to my previous paper. I argued there that the burden of proof rests with the person who says we should not follow a particular apostolic instruction, rather than with the person who says we should, and gave hermeneutical, historical and eschatological reasons in support of the Charismatic position. Tom’s argument, as we have heard, is that (1) all Old Testament prophecy is authoritative, infallible divine revelation, (2) there is no indication of a change between Old and New Testaments on this point, (3) New Testament prophecy also represents infallible, authoritative, foundational, divine revelation, as per Ephesians 2:20, and therefore that (4) since the closure of the canon, it has ceased. I gave reasons to disagree with each of these three steps in the argument.
Deuteronomy 18, certainly, draws a very sharp line between the new prophet like Moses, who will speak all that Yahweh commands him, and the presumptuous prophet who speaks words God has not spoken and/or speaks for other gods. But it is far from clear that this proves all Old Testament prophecy is authoritative, infallible divine revelation. In a number of examples of Old Testament prophecy, not only is prophesying not about conveying authoritative and infallible divine revelation, it doesn’t seem to be about conveying any information; its purpose, rather, is more to identify divinely indwelt individuals than to communicate divinely inspired content. (I mentioned a number of examples earlier: Gen 20:7; Num 11:25–29; 1 Sam 10:6; 19:20–23; 1 Kgs 18:4; 2 Kgs 2:3; 4:38; 6:1; 9:1; 17:13; 1 Chr 25:1–3; 29:29; 2 Chr 9:29; 12:15; 13:22).
The kingship of Saul, for example, is bookended by parallel stories in which groups of people prophesy, including Saul himself. We simply have no idea what sorts of things they were saying, whether it purported to be infallible, and whether anyone subsequently appraised their accuracy as per Deuteronomy 18 and even killed them accordingly (although it seems very unlikely). We must also reckon with the fact that Saul’s prophesying in 1 Samuel 19 is prompted by the Spirit, but looks remarkably like madness: he strips off all his clothes and “prophesies” naked (some translators render naba as “raved” or “went into ecstasy” here) all day and night. This is not to say that we should pursue such prophecy, of course! But it is to say that the first premise of Tom’s argument, namely that all Old Testament prophecy is authoritative, infallible revelation on the basis of Deuteronomy 18, is not necessarily true.
The purpose of New Testament prophecy, similarly, is far broader than the foundational, authoritative revelation that Paul refers to in Ephesians 2. New Testament prophecy can serve to declare the mighty works of God (Acts 2), extol God (Acts 19), encourage, edify and console other believers (Acts 15; 1 Corinthians 14), bring unbelievers under conviction, witness to the presence of God in the assembly, enable the congregation to learn and be encouraged (all 1 Cor 14), redirect Christian funds (Acts 11) and/or missionaries (Acts 13; 21), direct particular individuals to exercise their ministry in a particular way (1 Tim 1), impart gifts of leadership to newly ordained elders (1 Tim 4), and/or provide foundations for the church for all time (Eph 2-3)—and that’s without mentioning the prophesying that is mentioned in passing, without any clear description of what was said or why.
In that sense, it seems to me, the Cessationist position depends on a far narrower definition of New Testament prophecy than is supported by the texts we have. (This is also true of some Charismatic definitions, by the way; there are some church circles in which prophesying is defined in equally narrow terms, like “predicting the future,” or “challenging the status quo,” or even “saying Christian-ish things with your eyes closed and your arms outstretched.”) Many of the spiritual gifts Paul describes simply cannot be delineated in such narrow, specific ways. A word of paraklēsis can mean anything from the decision of the Jerusalem council, to Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch, to the epistle to the Hebrews. Apostoloi can be anything from a messenger carrying a financial gift, to an eyewitness of the resurrection. Teaching, as Tom has rightly written in other contexts, can vary from “informal mutual instruction” through to “authoritative transmission of tradition.” Showing mercy overlaps with giving. Shepherding overlaps with leadership. Nobody really knows what the difference is between words of wisdom and words of knowledge. What we know of the other gifts tells against the idea that all New Testament prophecy must be of the same purpose and weight as that mentioned in Ephesians 2.
Far more representative of 1 Corinthians, from a practical as well as a scholarly point of view, is the definition from Thiselton I quoted earlier: “Prophecy, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, combines pastoral insight into the needs of persons, communities, and situations with the ability to address these with a God-given utterance or longer discourse (whether unprompted or prepared with judgment, decision and rational reflection) leading to challenge or comfort, judgment, or consolation, but ultimately building up the addressees . . . While the speaker believes that such utterances or discourses come from the Holy Spirit, mistakes can be made, and since believers, including ministers or prophets, remain humanly fallible, claims to prophecy must be weighed and tested.” I agree.
The example of Acts 21:4, in which the disciples “were telling Paul through the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem,” also raises the question of what exactly Tom means when he talks about all New Testament prophecy being infallible. If he means simply that what the Spirit has revealed is all true, then of course Sam and I would agree—that is a key part of the Charismatic argument, not an objection to it. But to put this in the form of a question: is there ever a difference between what is revealed through the Spirit, and what is spoken by the prophet? Tom and I agree that what the Holy Spirit said in this case (as in every case!) was true. And we agree that what the disciples said to him—not to go to Jerusalem—was at least partly false. In other words, as Tom argues, what the disciples actually said “though the Spirit” was a mixture of what God had revealed (which was true) and what they mistakenly concluded from it (which was false). Quite so. But that sounds to me like exactly the sort of thing that responsible Charismatics would say about prophecy today: what God says is always perfectly true, but what disciples who are prophesying say may contain a mixture of true and false (which is why prophecies need to be “weighed” and “tested”). As such I basically agree with Tom’s exegesis of the passage, but I think it confirms a Continuationist view of prophecy, not a Cessationist one.
I began my opening paper by defining the question before us today as this: Are disciples today intended to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy? I think Tom Schreiner has made just about the best case you can make that the answer is no, and he has done so clearly, graciously and well. I also think his case is ultimately unconvincing in three crucial areas—on healing and miracles, on the gift of tongues, and especially on the definition of New Testament prophecy—and that as such, it fails to meet the burden of proof which is (and in my view should be) required to disregard a clear and repeated apostolic instruction. Nevertheless, it is exemplary both in its representation of the opposing view, and in the clarity with which it expresses its own. With enemies like this, who needs friends?
ETS I: My Paper on the Continuation of the Charismata
To crystallise the debate in one sentence, I suggest this: Are disciples today intended to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy? I’m pretty sure that Tom and Ligon would say no, and that Sam and I would say yes (and that Patrick would say “hmmm.”) Prophecy, that is, is the most helpful focus for a concentrated discussion. We are not primarily debating the continuation of the apostoloi, since we would all agree that eyewitnesses of the resurrection have ceased (the sense of apostolos in Acts 1 and 1 Corinthians 15), and that itinerant missionaries or messengers have not (the sense of apostolos in 2 Corinthians 8 and probably Romans 16); it is also noteworthy that in those passages where Paul urges believers to pursue the gifts, he does not include apostleship as one of them. And although we may disagree about the continuation of the gifts of languages, interpretation, healings, miracles and discerning spirits—although maybe not so much, as we will see!—I think we would all agree that the key question concerns the continuation of prophecy. Should disciples “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy”? Clarifying that might keep us from getting lost in the weeds.
For the Charismatic, the first reason to say yes is a hermeneutical one, namely that Paul says so. This sounds like a facile remark, and certainly not worthy of such a sophisticated audience, but it is actually very important. Sometimes the exegetical debate over the pursuit of the gifts can look like a no-score-draw, with Continuationists pointing out that the New Testament never says the gifts will cease, and Cessationists responding that it never says they won’t, either. But this is to reason as if Paul’s instructions to pursue the gifts were not relevant, which they clearly are. “Earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor 12:27). “Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (14:1). “Earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (14:39). “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith …” (Rom 12:6). “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:21). Given the clarity and frequency of this apostolic instruction, and given that we would normally assume that New Testament imperatives apply to us unless it is clear from the context that they don’t, Charismatics believe that the burden of proof rests with those who say Paul’s instructions don’t apply to us, rather than to those who say they do. (I tend to call this the Presumption Of Obedience, although I’m not wild about the acronym.)
Sometimes, of course, this burden of proof can be met. When we read the whole of Matthew’s Gospel, we recognise that “go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5) is not applicable to Christians living this side of the command to “go and make disciples of all nations” (28:19). Nor have there been any Christians in history who have made it their business to go to Troas and look for Paul’s coat; it is obvious from Paul’s letter that his request only applied to Timothy. But if an instruction appears frequently, to multiple different churches, at some length in one case, and there is no clear indication in the text that the instruction has since been superseded or relativised, we should assume it also applies to us, and require a significant burden of proof from those who say it does not. (We will look at the attempts to meet this burden of proof, or even to argue that the burden of proof lies elsewhere, in due course.) That is the hermeneutical argument for the Charismatic gifts.
The second argument, to the surprise of some, is historical. That is, one of the best reasons to think the miraculous gifts continued beyond the deaths of the apostles is the fact that, according to many of the Church fathers, they did. In the context of contemporary debates this point is often lost, not least because the gift which has proved the most divisive in the last hundred years or so, namely the gift of languages, is the one over which the patristic evidence is least clear. But I am not aware of any writer before Chrysostom or Augustine making a cessationist argument about any of the gifts—and Augustine’s argument, famously, only refers to the gift of languages, and needs to be set alongside his extended treatment of miracles and healings in the City of God.
Justin Martyr claimed that “the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time.” Irenaeus said that “those who are in truth his disciples” performed miracles according to the gift given them, including driving out demons, seeing visions, uttering prophetic expressions, healing the sick, raising the dead, speaking in other languages, and declaring the mysteries of God. (Eusebius uses this excerpt to demonstrate that “various gifts remained among those who were worthy even until that time.”) Tertullian trash-talks Marcion, like Elijah on Mt Carmel, by daring his god to predict things to come, make manifest the secrets of the heart, interpret tongues or prophesy, before claiming that “all these signs are forthcoming from my side without any difficulty.” Origen regarded the scope of the gifts as having diminished but certainly not disappeared: “there are still preserved among Christians traces of that Holy Spirit which appeared in the form of a dove. They expel evil spirits, and perform many cures, and foresee certain events, according to the will of the Logos.” Basil the Great said that “the Spirit enlightens all, inspires prophets, gives wisdom to lawmakers, consecrates priests, empowers kings, perfects the just, exalts the prudent, is active in gifts of healing, gives life to the dead, frees those in bondage, turns foreigners into adopted sons.” Cyril of Jerusalem explained that “he employs the tongue of one man for wisdom; the soul of another he enlightens by prophecy; to another he gives power to drive away devils.” And Augustine, as we know, lists an extraordinary range of healings from blindness, rectal fistula, breast cancer, gout, paralysis, hernia, demonization and even death.
From a purely historical perspective, then, the idea that the miraculous gifts suddenly stopped when the last apostle died is simply untenable. There are of course Cessationists—and (spoiler alert) we will be hearing from one soon—who grant this point, and see the cessation of prophecy and the other miraculous gifts as happening gradually across the first four centuries. But this concession is crucial, because it shows that there is no necessary conflict between foundational, infallible, apostolic teaching, and ongoing prophetic insight. That is the point that Charismatics have been making for decades.
The third argument is eschatological. The gifts of the Spirit, and prophecy in particular, are seen by the apostles as characterising the entire era between Pentecost and Parousia, the coming of the Spirit and the return of Christ. So as long as we still live between the inauguration and the consummation of the kingdom—between D-day and VE-day, in Cullmann’s famous analogy—we should continue to expect, and pursue, all the spiritual gifts.
This expectation is clear on the day of Pentecost itself. At the start of the first sermon ever preached by a Christian, Peter explicitly connects the last days, the pouring out of the Spirit on all nations, and the gift of prophecy, with the latter a clear demonstration of the former. (As Charismatics are fond of pointing out, Peter doesn’t say, “In the last days I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and they will prophesy—but after that I won’t, and they won’t.”) When Paul thanks God for the Corinthians, he reminds them that “the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you, so that you are not lacking in any charismata, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:7-8). In other words, the charismata are theirs while they wait for Jesus to be revealed. Similar things are true of the famous ending to 1 Corinthians 13: “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” Paul believes in the cessation of the gifts, but he believes it will happen when “the perfect” comes, and expresses the contrast in four ways: the partial versus the perfect, childhood versus maturity, dimness of sight versus clarity, and partial knowledge versus fullness. Despite occasional exegetical gymnastics to try and prove the contrary, this can only really refer to the return of Christ, as Tom (another spoiler alert) rightly points out in his book.
When we read Paul with this eschatological framework in mind—recognising that believers live in the “last days,” between Pentecost and Parousia, characterised both by the gift of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit until the return of Christ—we see it everywhere. We observe that Paul’s exhortation to “be filled with the Spirit,” characterised by (among other things) singing “spiritual songs,” is given as long as “the days are evil.” We notice that the exhortation to use spiritual gifts (including prophecy) in Romans applies to the period between Jesus’ resurrection and return: the time during which believers need not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, as their salvation gets ever nearer. We see that the command not to quench the Spirit or despise prophecy, in 1 Thessalonians, appears in the context of living godly lives as we wait for Jesus to return. Some of these texts are more explicit than others. But it seems clear that Paul anticipates the charismatic gifts, including prophecy and languages, remaining with the Church until the coming of Christ—at which point they will no longer be needed.
That, in a very, very small nutshell, is the Charismatic argument for the continuation of the charismata. Eschatologically, we would expect them to continue; historically, they did; and hermeneutically, we would expect to eagerly desire them, especially prophecy, since Paul says so. Fortunately, everyone agrees about all this, so we can stop the panel here and go for an early lunch …
The strongest criticism of this position, and the best way of attempting to meet the burden of proof I have mentioned, is the argument from the infallibility of New Testament prophecy, as expressed in writers like Richard Gaffin and Tom Schreiner. If New Testament prophecy is infallible and foundational, and associated with the infallible and foundational witness of the apostles, then claims to fallible prophecy today—“I think the Lord is saying this, but I may be wrong, so my words need to be weighed and tested,” or whatever—cannot be sustained as biblical. So whatever we think of that phenomenon, and whatever else we call it (impressions, insights, intuitions, insanity!), it is not what the New Testament means by prophēteuō. Plenty of other Cessationist arguments are made, of course, but as I said at the start, we will leave those for later.
The logical shape of the argument goes like this:
(1) Prophesying in the Old Testament was infallible divine revelation. Aside from the numerous “thus says the LORD”s, the key texts here are Deuteronomy 13 and 18, especially 18:22: “When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You shall not be afraid of him.”
(2) There is no indication of a change between Old and New Testaments on this point. Therefore we should assume that prophesying in the New Testament is also infallible divine revelation.
(3) Paul describes the church as “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20), which indicates that New Testament prophecy is not just infallible but also foundational.
(4) Therefore the Pauline exhortations to pursue spiritual gifts, especially prophecy, should be considered as unique to the first century (or the first four centuries), and no longer binding on the church today.
If the first three steps are all true, then the fourth one follows. But there are good exegetical reasons to challenge all three of them.
(1) Is prophesying in the Old Testament always infallible divine revelation? Iain Duguid, in the Festschrift for Vern Poythress, demonstrates that in all sorts of instances where the word “prophet” or “prophesying” is used in the Hebrew Bible, “there is no suggestion of anyone listening to or being instructed by authoritative pronouncements” (e.g. Gen 20:7; Num 11:25–29; 1 Sam 10:6; 19:20–23; 1 Kgs 18:4; 2 Kgs 2:3; 4:38; 6:1; 9:1; 17:13; 1 Chr 25:1–3; 29:29; 2 Chr 9:29; 12:15; 13:22). Rather, the person in view may be engaged in prayer, or ecstatic speech, or leading worship, or writing court history, or none of the above. In such cases, Duguid argues, “prophecy functions not to convey divinely inspired information but to identify divinely indwelt individuals.” It is therefore possible—we might even say common—for Old Testament prophesying not to involve infallible divine revelation, but to mark out those in whom the Spirit of God is at work. It is this, rather than the demand for further infallible divine revelation, that is behind Moses’s famous challenge in Num 11:29: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”
(2) That, of course, is exactly what the Lord does at Pentecost. And that is the sense in which there is a substantial change between Old and New Testaments when it comes to the gift of prophecy: not that prophecy suddenly becomes fallible, but that its scope is dramatically widened (“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy”), and its purpose explicitly connected with the new age of the Spirit, in which the Lord will put his Spirit on all believers, as Moses had asked all those years before. We can argue the toss about whether Agabus was mistaken in certain details, and there are plenty of interpreters on both sides. But the key point in Acts is that lots of prophesying does not look at all like Deuteronomy 18, in which we either get the new prophet like Moses, or an impostor who speaks in the name of other gods. The term is used far more broadly than that: it might refer to declaring the mighty works of God to others, extolling God, encouraging and strengthening the brothers, or simply speaking in ways that reveal the individual to be filled with the Spirit (2:11; 15:32; 19:6; 21:9). That same polyvalence is present in 1 Corinthians 12-14, as we will see.
(3) We also have to ask: Does Ephesians 2:20 show that all prophecy in the New Testament is infallible, divine, foundational revelation? Clearly, this is the role of the prophets to which Paul is referring in this text (and in 3:5), whether or not we agree with Grudem on the grammatical point (which Tom doesn’t, and nor do I). But is it the only purpose of prophecy, such that anything which does not qualify as “foundational” does not qualify as “prophecy”? Richard Gaffin, interestingly, comes clean about which texts have interpretive primacy in his view: “As a general guideline for interpretation, the decisive, controlling significance of Eph 2:20 (in its context) needs to be appreciated. It and the other passages that bear on prophecy, like 1 Cor 14, are not of the same order of magnitude exegetically … Eph 2:20 makes a generalisation that covers all the other New Testament statements on prophecy.” To which we should ask: really? One mention in Ephesians—in a subclause of a sentence that is primarily about the unity of the church—counts for more than three chapters on the gifts in 1 Corinthians? Why?
If we suspend judgment on that for a moment, and look at 1 Corinthians on its own terms, we get a far more varied perspective on the purpose of prophecy. It is given to encourage, console and edify other believers in the local church (14:3). It brings unbelievers under conviction (14:24), witnesses to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the assembly (14:25), and enables the congregation to learn and be encouraged (14:31). If we add 1 Timothy into the mix, prophecy also provides personal guidance for ministry (1:18), and is associated with appointment to eldership (4:14). Consequently, several of the major commentaries on 1 Corinthians now include Anthony Thiselton’s definition as standard: “Prophecy, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, combines pastoral insight into the needs of persons, communities, and situations with the ability to address these with a God-given utterance or longer discourse (whether unprompted or prepared with judgment, decision and rational reflection) leading to challenge or comfort, judgment, or consolation, but ultimately building up the addressees . . . While the speaker believes that such utterances or discourses come from the Holy Spirit, mistakes can be made, and since believers, including ministers or prophets, remain humanly fallible, claims to prophecy must be weighed and tested.”
None of this is to deny that Eph 2:20 and 3:5 are speaking of foundational divine revelation. It is simply to deny that those texts provide a Procrustean bed onto which every other use of the word should be forced to fit. The reason we sometimes talk about capital-A and small-a apostles, or capital-T and small-t teachers, or capital-E and small-e evangelists, is that we recognise such gifts come in different ways and for different purposes. We know there is a difference between the kinds of apostoloi in Acts 1 and 2 Cor 8. We assume there is a difference between the didaskaloi that Hebrews says we should all aspire to be, and the didaskaloi that James says we should not aspire to be. There may even be a difference between the sort of euangelistēs Philip was and the sort Timothy was told to be. So yes, the prophētai in Eph 2-3 were foundational for the entire subsequent church. Whether those in 1 Cor 12-14 were as well—and I have deliberately omitted the references in Romans and 1 Thessalonians, of which similar things are true—needs to be shown, not assumed.
As such, I think there are good hermeneutical, historical and eschatological arguments for the Charismatic position, and that the strongest argument against it ultimately falls. But I want to finish with a story from a fellow pastor of a London Baptist megachurch. Charles Spurgeon, as far as I know, never uses the word “prophecy” to refer to this sort of phenomenon, although he does talk about revelation, God speaking, and the moving of the Spirit. But this gives a historical snapshot of the kind of thing I Paul may have been talking about, and perhaps also the various church fathers I quoted earlier. He writes:
While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said, “There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!”
The man explains: “I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul.”
Spurgeon again: “I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, ‘Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did.’”
Earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. Thank you.
The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus
As subtitles go, this has got to be one of the best and most intriguing. It’s the subtitle of A War of Loves by David Bennett which releases later this month (or today in the States!) I had the real privilege of spending some time with David at this year’s Newday event. He is one of the most humble and most funny Christian speakers I have spent time with, and the story of how he encountered and became a follower of Jesus is amazing. A War of Loves tells that story and shares some of the lessons David has learnt along the way.
If I’m completely honest I approached the book as just another thing on my to-do list, another book I should be aware of and ready to recommend, but as I read it I found God stirring, encouraging and deeply challenging me. I would encourage every Christian to get a hold of this book, to read it, and to let God speak to you through it. To whet your appetite, here are 20 key quotes from the book. (My initial list of great quotes included almost 80, so this is only a minor sampling!)
‘As a nineteen-year-old agnostic gay activist who felt rejected by Christianity, I had very little reason to believe in God. Then I encountered Jesus in a pub in the gay quarter of Sydney, Australia, and my life changed forever.’
‘I felt like Christians were explaining me away, not entering into my experience. That was bad enough, but their explanation wasn’t even any good! I found it frustratingly hypocritical that Christians, who worshipped a saviour of transparency and truth, couldn’t deal with my being honest about my humanity. Their obvious prejudice toward gay people only pushed me farther away.’
‘Wait, I realised. My sexual orientation has nothing to do with my righteousness before God! I was completely accepted by him because of Jesus Christ, not because of my moral performance. I didn’t have to earn it. My chosen sexual behaviour, just like for a heterosexual person, was a different story. But my orientation? It was not a barrier. It was just me.’
‘This was radical, beautiful grace. Suddenly, my identity no longer centred on what I desired sexually, but on Jesus Christ himself.’
‘The Church had historically dealt with moral issues like homosexuality by focussing on “sin management,” rather than emphasizing Christ’s transforming grace through the Holy Spirit. This only confirmed what many in the LGBTQI community believed: that God wanted to enslave them in an oppressive “obedience” of hopelessness.’
‘My church never compromised their views of sexuality and the priority of God’s presence, even though sometimes that made me angry. I am eternally grateful. Without these clear boundaries, I would have found it far harder to stay on the narrow path of righteousness I now attempted to walk by the grace of Jesus.’
‘Even in my church, friendship seemed secondary to romantic love. It seemed like everyone had been spending more time reading Jane Austen than the New Testament, or watching ‘90s Rom-Coms more than the work of the Spirit’
‘It was as if the message to Christian singles was, “If you just get married, have kids, and buy a property, you’ll be truly happy.”… Both in the gay community and the Church, what seemed to matter most to people was fulfillment in a partner.’
‘Not many believers had warned me about costly sacrifice in the Christian life. In my experience, the Church barely talked about what Scripture said about being “living Sacrifices.” Instead, they settled for a comfortable, easy Gospel, offering what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” That means there was no need to surrender our choice sins, our closely-held dreams, our deepest desires that went against God’s revealed will.’
‘Jesus taught that both the worst sin and the most sacred worship originate from the same place: the heart. Think of that revolutionary concept! What does that mean? Simply, that it is God’s love that should displace all others, and occupy the primary space in our hearts. It is, simply, what we were made for.’
‘So why do most Christians seem far more concerned with romantic love, than that great story of God’s? In fact, in many congregations, when an engagement or wedding is announced, there is often greater enthusiasm than when God is worshipped. In contrast, when someone commits themselves to celibacy, there is no celebration. The person is regarded as an abnormality.’
‘Hear me well: homosexuality is not an evangelistic issue, it is a discipleship issue … Gay or same-sex attracted celibacy must be a response to God’s love, not a legalistic bottling up of our human desires. It is about the redirected affections of a transformed heart.’
‘To employ the Apostle Paul’s language, I truly believe celibacy to be the “better” option for desires that lead us outside of God’s original intention for marriage. I would never trade the depth of intimacy and freedom I have experienced in celibacy for a gay relationship, and long for the day that the Church celebrates what I have been given.’
‘The Western Church, however, has often failed to resist idolatry. In the last century it has worshipped family above God and His Kingdom, putting pressure particularly on “sexuality.” In the post-war 1950s, the Church made the nuclear family the idolatrous centre of middle-class life. The 1960s reacted to this idolatry by throwing off the repression of desire and pursuing free sexuality. It brought its own set of idolatries.’
‘The gay community is made up of people who are loved by God, and need to be told about the love of Christ and the gospel. Are we willing to reach out to them and enter their world to share and connect with them?’
‘God has called me to trust that He knows best and He knows the eternal story he’s writing. In the meantime, he’s shown me I can give my same-sex desires to him, and find a deeper satisfaction and love in knowing and worshipping him than I ever could through pursuing my desires.’
‘A weak culture of friendship and fellowship excludes LGBTQI people, and forces them to look for intimacy in the wrong places.’
‘The question of whether a gay or same sex-attracted person can be saved reflects a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Of course they can be saved! The real question is, will gay or same-sex attracted believers live the way the world encourages them to? Or will they give up their plans and desires to follow Jesus in celibacy or another arrangement he provides, even to the ridicule of their friends, family or some members of the Church?’
‘When we look at the covenant friendships of David and Jonathan, Jesus and John, we see that marriage is not ultimate or even the greatest form of intimacy that can be experienced, as is often wrongly communicated by the Church and our society at large. Rather the love of friendship is the greatest of the loves…A life of celibacy as a gay man does not, as I thought originally, cut me off from the intimacy I was made for.’
‘Denying same-sex desires simply to obey a law or to belong to the Church not only fails but also is a miserable existence leading to sin. However, by understanding my desires actually point to my desire for God in Christ and the Holy Spirit, I have come to a place of satisfaction and joy in my celibacy.’
The UK release date for A War of Loves (Zondervan) is November 29th. You can find out more and pre-order at www.awarofloves.com
The Gospel and Class: Six Struggles
The six struggles he highlights are:
1. Ignorance of the emotions behind the “us” and the “them.” They run deep, and whether you notice it or not, they run deep on both sides.
2. Underestimating how long it takes to earn people’s trust. Impatience for quick results can kill ministry to working class communities.
3. Building a church based on just preaching and teaching, without also eating and drinking. “You’ll never enjoy having someone to the Lord’s table for the first time, if you’ve not had them around your table.”
4. Seeing everything as black and white, and being unable to handle grey. “Your ministry is going to feel more like the book of 1 Corinthians than the book of Romans. Deal with it.”
5. Naivete to the power of a dominant culture. “If you don’t think that your church has a dominant culture, it means that the church’s dominant culture is your culture.”
6. Over-leading because you are aiming at peak efficiency. This is so challenging (and helpful): “over-leading may mean an efficient church in this generation, but it will mean a dead church in the next generation.”
It’s a super message. You can watch or download all the sessions here.
Turtles, Poppies and Jesus Only
Yet a friend pointed out to me the irony of our local yummy mummy brigade who would regard giving their child a plastic straw as tantamount to murder sending those same children out on Halloween to trick or treat dressed in costumes made of – Plastic! The human capacity for blind-spots, hypocrisy, and plain old self-deception knows no bounds.
Halloween is a strange one. A recent tradition in the UK there is now considerable pressure for parents to allow, or encourage, their children to take part in it. One child came to my door who very clearly didn’t want to be there – her mother standing in the background urging her on. This is the power of the crowd, which we humans find so hard to resist, even if we haven’t really thought about what it is that the crowd are doing.
This Sunday is Remembrance Sunday and there has been a huge focus on the centenary of the end of the First World War. To not join in with this focus – to not wear a poppy – is almost heretical. Yet I am not convinced many people could give a thorough account of the causes or effects of WWI or of the rights and wrongs of that conflict. In our post-Christian age observance of Remembrance Sunday seems to have become one of those rites which pulls together the crowd, and by which the crowd feels a sense of justification.
And all those plastic stems on all those disposable poppies will go into the same landfill as all those Halloween costumes and all those plastic straws and doubtless some of them will end up in the belly of a turtle.
A poppy is a badge of identification and from a theological perspective is a matter of indifference – which is not to say that what is identified is unimportant but that it makes no difference to our standing before God whether or not we wear one. If Paul can say that, Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation (Galatians 6:15), then surely we can say the same about poppies, and two minutes silence, and all the rest. Our gospel must remain Jesus Only, not Jesus Plus – whether that be Jesus Plus Circumcision, or Jesus Plus Poppies, or Jesus Plus Turtles.
At my church we always acknowledge Remembrance Sunday in some way (we are a military town, with the Special Forces based here, so it is important to recognise this reality) but don’t make a big thing of it. This year because Armistice Day actually falls on Sunday and because of the significance of the centenary we’re choosing to make much more of it and observe the silence at 11am. I think we are free to do that, just as we would be free not to. Most importantly, I think not doing so this year might actually set back our mission to some degree, as it would have set back Paul’s mission had he not circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3). But I’m not planning to wear a plastic poppy. Think of the turtles.
The Identity Merry Go Round
Predictably Ratelband’s case rests on the fact that biological realities are no longer considered the basis for legal reality. Rather, he argues, a more arbitrary definition of reality should be the measure by which he is defined – a definition based on the opinion of his doctor and his opinion of himself: ‘Mr Ratelband further argued that according to his doctors he has the body of a 45-year-old, and described himself as a “young god”.’
This looks like it might well be a publicity stunt but Ratelband argues that being legally classified as twenty years younger than he is will improve his life,
When I’m 69, I am limited. If I’m 49, then I can buy a new house, drive a different car. I can take up more work. When I’m on Tinder and it says I’m 69, I don’t get an answer. When I’m 49, with the face I have, I will be in a luxurious position.
As someone who will next year attain to Ratelband’s desired age of 49 I think I would experience a more luxurious position if only I were 29. Alas.
While admiring his self-confidence, Mr Ratelband’s case is obviously risible; but it also contains a strange logic – at least by the logic of our current cultural dispensation. As he says, “You can change your name. You can change your gender. Why not your age?” Indeed.
The more that society prioritises the ‘authentic self’ as the measure of who we really are over external, objective, realities the more we will see cases like Mr Ratelband’s. Perhaps society will decide this isn’t a problem – though I imagine anyone on Tinder who thinks they are going on a date with a 49-year-old might feel somewhat cheated when Mr Ratelband turns up, despite his god-like body.
Alternatively, perhaps it will be that the strange logic of prioritising what we feel ourselves to be over what we actually are will start to be seen as the madness it is. In the end it comes down to honesty. “The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favour with him.” (Prov. 11:1) Pretending something is that isn’t is a kind of theft. Emile Ratelband, and all of us, should live honestly. Truthfulness is a much better improver of life than living a lie.
The Best Case for Cessationism
I’ll post my papers (and perhaps others’) here over the next few days, but first I want to commend Tom’s book as the best case for cessationism you will find anywhere. (In fact, I am already lamenting the fact that I did not say so in Spirit and Sacrament; I gave that honour (?) to Richard Gaffin, but have since become persuaded that Tom’s is better.) It is a masterclass in disagreeing well. In a debate which is frequently characterised by misrepresentations, accusations and inflammatory distortions on both sides, Tom has written something completely different: fair and balanced, generous and wise. The book is clear, but not partisan; it builds its case in such a way as to embrace the strengths of some Charismatic arguments, and recognise the weaknesses of some Cessationist ones. Obviously I still disagree on a number of key points, and on the conclusion of the book, but we share far more common ground than you would know from hearing many people on both sides of the aisle, and this is the book I would recommend to any Charismatic who wants to wrestle with a “nuanced” Cessationism. Bravo.
Chapter 1 draws on J. I. Packer to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the Charismatic movement. At our best, Charismatics emphasise Spirit-empowered living, emotion finding expression, prayerfulness, every-heart involvement in worship, missionary zeal, small group ministry, communal living, joyfulness, a real belief in angels and demons, and a real belief in the miraculous. At our worst, we are characterised by elitism, sectarianism, anti-intellectualism, illuminism, charismania, super-supernaturalism, eudaemonism, demon obsession, conformism and an excessive focus on experience. I agree.
Chapter 2 defines the spiritual gifts we find in Paul (except languages and prophecy). I agree with all of it.
Chapters 3 and 4 affirm ten truths about spiritual gifts. Jesus is Lord. We must not overestimate our godliness or effectiveness. The diversity of gifts comes from God. Our gifts don’t make us superior or inferior to others. The gifts are sovereignly given, not on the basis of our spirituality. They are given to edify the church. Baptism in the Spirit occurs at conversion. Edification comes through understanding. We should concentrate on our gifts. Gifts are worthless without love. I agree.
Chapter 5 asks and answers six questions about the gifts. I agree with all of them.
Chapter 6 defines the gift of prophecy. It should not be reduced to charismatic exegesis, or preaching (I agree). Rather, it is “the reception of spontaneous revelations that are communicated to God’s people.” Personally I find Tom’s use of the word “spontaneous” here a bit confusing; it sounds like it means “given and communicated on the spur of the moment,” but he clarifies that he does not mean this (he says “the prophet may not communicate immediately what God has revealed”), and rather means that “it isn’t derived through studying the biblical text or any traditional material.” That quibble aside, Tom’s point is that Paul identifies prophecy with revelation, rather than exposition, and I agree.
Chapter 7 argues that all New Testament prophecy is authoritative, infallible and foundational revelation, and as such should be clearly distinguished from impressions, whereby “someone senses that God is leading them to speak to someone or to make some kind of statement about a situation.” I disagree, and we will come back to this next week—but it is interesting that it takes about 100 pages of a 172 page book before Tom says anything I don’t like!
Chapters 8 and 9 address the gift of tongues, and argue that Paul (like Luke) is referring to the speaking of human languages, rather than that which is usually practised by Charismatics today. I disagree, and again, we will come back to this soon.
Chapter 10 shows that there are some very unconvincing arguments for the cessation of the gifts, and that they should be debunked. I agree.
Finally, chapter 11 makes the case for “nuanced Cessationism.” The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and in particular on the authoritative and infallible revelation they communicated. Both of these have ceased, whether with the death of the last apostle or, in an intriguing aside, with the agreement on the final canon of Scripture after a few hundred years. Tom then explains his position on the other gifts—tongues, interpretation, miracles and healings—which is essentially that they might exist today, but he is doubtful, and if they do, they are very rare. I disagree, unsurprisingly, but we seem to agree that there is no biblical reason for claiming that the gifts of healing and miracles have ceased. In that sense, Tom’s Cessationism is nuanced indeed!
I will explain my disagreements over the next few days, but for now, I wanted to commend this as a book worth wrestling with and thinking through. With foes like this, who needs friends?
Reaching Bedrock with God’s Grace
Here is one striking parable he uses, based on Jonah’s extraordinary comment on hearing that the Ninevites had repented: “death is better for me than life.” Keller explains:
During the building of Interstate 79 from Pittsburgh to Lake Erie, one stretch remained unfinished for years because of a swamp that had to be crossed. They kept putting down pilings, trying to finally get to the bottom so the bridge would not sink. But whenever they thought they had gotten to bedrock, the piling would give way and they would have to drill deeper.
Jonah’s heart was like that. Every time it seemed he had taken God and his grace to the very bottom, it turned out that he needed to go deeper. What does it mean to get to “bedrock” in one’s heart? If you say, “I’ll obey you, Lord, if you give me that,” then “that” is the nonnegotiable and God is just a means to an end. “That” - whatever it is - is the real bedrock. It is more foundational to your happiness than God is.
As long as there is something more important than God to your heart, you will be, like Jonah, both fragile and self-righteous. Whatever it is, it will create pride and an inclination to look down upon those who do not have it. It will also create fear and insecurity. It is the basis for your happiness, and if anything threatens it, you will be overwhelmed with anger, anxiety and despair.
To reach heart bedrock with God’s grace is to recognise all the ways that we make good things into idols and ways of saving ourselves. It is to instead finally recognise that we live wholly by God’s grace. Then we begin serving the Lord not in order to get things from him but just for him, for his own sake, just for who he is, for the joy of knowing him, delighting him, and becoming like him. When we’ve reached bedrock with God’s grace, it begins to drain us, slowly but surely, of both self-righteousness and fear.
Living by the Mountain
I’ve been reading Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography while on a trip to Cape Town and his opening statement about the state of Africa certainly caught my attention. Cape Town is an African anomaly – its climate, flora, economy and demographics are all different from the rest of the continent but the power of geography is very clear. Poured into a narrow peninsular separating the Indian and Atlantic oceans and huddled around Table Mountain the ‘mother city’ is all about geography. Her incredible beaches, stupendous scenery and sensational wines are all geography dependent – as are its human demographics. High up on the hill exclusive suburbs like Bishopscourt and Fresnaye literally look down on poorer communities. The leafy southern suburbs spread out around the foot of the mountain while the dusty townships are far away on sandy plains. Far more even than in class-conscious Britain a Cape Town address immediately spells out the likely socio-economic place of its occupant; and most probably their skin colour too.
Sometimes the geography blurs though, as is the case in Hout Bay (see photo in the header). Here a township of tin and timber shacks is separated from expensive property by the thinnest of lines.
The extreme, very visible, contrasts between wealthy and poor in Cape Town can be unsettling. I find it helpful to be reminded of global realities though: the reality is that when I am in prosperous Poole it is very easy to forget the poor, simply because I don’t see much obvious poverty; in Cape Town that is just not an option. Living in the UK it is easy to forget how blessed I – we – are, but that doesn’t diminish the realty of the poverty in which so many live.
‘The land on which we live has always shaped us’ writes Marshall. ‘It has shaped the wars, the power, politics and social development of the peoples that now inhabit nearly every part of the earth.’ The truth of this is writ large in Cape Town and it is something that scripture directly addresses too. I’ve also been reading Amos this week and through the prophet God warns those who feel complacently secure because of their geography.
Woe to you who are complacent in Zion,
and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
you notable men of the foremost nation,
to whom the people of Israel come!
Go to Kalneh and look at it;
go from there to great Hamath,
and then go down to Gath in Philistia.
Are they better off than your two kingdoms?
Is their land larger than yours?
You put off the day of disaster
and bring near a reign of terror.
You lie on beds adorned with ivory
and lounge on your couches.
You dine on choice lambs
and fattened calves.
You strum away on your harps like David
and improvise on musical instruments.
You drink wine by the bowlful
and use the finest lotions,
but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.
Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile;
your feasting and lounging will end.
It would be easy to make an exegetical twist of passages like this against the residents of Bishopscourt and Fresnaye but it surely speaks to all those who are complacent in their comforts, whether that be in Cape Town, Poole or Timbuktu. Our geography shapes us but it must not blind us to the needs of others. We need to huddle around a mountain but it is Zion we must anticipate (Rev.21:10) more than a desirable address in the city of men.
Peanuts, CBT and Martin Luther King
Three Great Untruths have permeated American education in the last few years, and between them they are responsible for a lot of the recent developments on campuses that seem so bizarre to onlookers: safetyism, no platforming, call-out culture, trigger warnings, shoutdowns, intimidations, microaggressions, safe spaces and the rest. Each flies in the face of ancient wisdom and modern psychological research, and is demonstrably harmful to the individuals and communities which believe them:
1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
2. Always trust your feelings.
3. Life is a battle between good people and evil people.
These three untruths have gone from being obviously wrong to widely accepted in a fairly short space of time—the period from 2013-17 seeing a particularly rapid shift—and it cannot all be Donald Trump’s fault (though his election has undoubtedly exacerbated it). There are, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, six related factors that have come together at once, which account for much of the change (emphasis added):
We identify six explanatory threads: the rising political polarisation and cross-party animosity of US politics, which has led to rising hate crimes and harassment on campus; rising levels of teen anxiety and depression, which have made many students more desirous of protection and more receptive to the Great Untruths; changes in parenting practices, which have amplified children’s fears even as childhood becomes increasingly safe; the loss of free play and unsupervised risk-taking, both of which kids need to become self-governing adults; the growth of campus bureaucracy and expansion of its protective mission; and an increasing passion for justice, combined with changing ideas about what justice requires.
As a result of these factors the Great Untruths are now widespread, even self-evident in some circles, but they remain untrue. It all comes down to peanuts, CBT, and Martin Luther King.
Peanuts. You would think that the best way to stop children developing peanut allergies is to stop them from getting anywhere near peanuts. It isn’t. In fact, research shows that peanut allergies are significantly increased when you keep peanuts away from children; if we are not exposed to a potential threat at all, we never learn how to cope with it (which is partly why allergies are on the rise pretty much everywhere in the developed world). And the reason for that, to borrow from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is that children are neither fragile (easily broken) nor resilient (able to withstand shocks), but antifragile: like muscles, and bones, we need stresses and challenges in order to learn, adapt and grow. Consequently, though we might think that the best way of building healthy students was to protect them from things which might upset them, the opposite is closer to the truth.
CBT. Trusting your feelings, come what may, is a terrible idea. In fact, the principle behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is that we need to question our feelings, examine counterevidence, and form habits which enable us to foster different, more helpful beliefs than the ones towards which we may instinctively gravitate. That’s why CBT works: it recognises that we are all prone to cognitive distortions, and helps us establish thought patterns that fight back. (One such tool they mention is the CARE model: Conscious empathy, Active listening, Responsible reaction, Environmental awareness.) I am not responsible for what happens to me, but I am responsible for the way I respond to it. So if I am offended by a lecture, a speaker or an idea, my education and mental health will likely be better served by challenging that feeling than by embracing it.
Martin Luther King. There are two kinds of identity politics, and one is good, and the other is bad. The good kind is common humanity identity politics, whereby (like Dr King) you make the case that some of your fellow humans are being denied dignity and rights because they belong to a particular group, and that this needs to change on the basis of our shared humanity. (The classic statement of this is from Pauli Murray: “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them.”) The bad kind is common enemy identity politics, in which a group is united by identifying and opposing an outgroup: Jews, Communists, black people, white people, gays, liberals, conservatives, or whomever. Both types exist, on campus and in society as a whole, but recent years have seen a significant shift from the former to the latter.
As with Jon Haidt’s previous book, one of the many things that struck me while reading it is how very Christian—and, more specifically, how very Pauline—many of these insights are. Peanuts: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character produces hope.” CBT: “do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Martin Luther King: “here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” Whether that is because they are standard examples of ancient wisdom which many of our contemporaries are forgetting, or because Paul’s thought has so shaped our culture that we echo him without realising it, or simply because common grace is a wonderful gift, I am not sure; I suspect it is a bit of all three. But wherever it comes from, Lukianoff and Haidt have served parents, students, teachers, adults and children with the wisdom in this book. I hope it gets a wide audience.
Some Exciting News
For those who want a bit more detail, the shape of the book is like this:
1. Spirit and Sacrament: Pursuing the Best of Both Worlds. An introduction to the vision, the concept, the language, and the argument of the book.
2. Charis: A Theology of Gift. Why a gift-based understanding of everything is the best way to approach Scripture, and how we should (and shouldn’t) respond to the gifts God gives us.
3. Chara: Joy Unspeakable. Christianity is not always as a joyful as it is supposed to be, but being Eucharismatic can help us with that in all kinds of ways.
4. Eucharistic: What Do You Have That You Did Not Receive? A biblical and historical argument for being sacramentally deep, liturgically rich, historically rooted and self-consciously catholic.
5. Charismatic: Zealously Desire Spiritual Gifts. A biblical and historical argument for earnestly desiring spiritual gifts: prophecy, languages, healing, miracles, the whole lot.
6. Eucharismatic: When You Come Together. Reflections on how to actually put this into practice, whether we are looking to lean more into the eucharistic stuff, the charismatic stuff, or both.
To Post, Or Not To Post
There are lots of things we post which will primarily do good: a funny story gives people a laugh, a blog post might challenge, inform or entertain. But there are some things we post which might have a slightly more varied effect. A post about a day out with friends might do some good in letting people know what I’ve been up to; friends who live far away might be pleased to see what I’ve been doing. But it also has the potential to do some harm. How does the person who feels they have no close friends to have fun with feel when they read about my day out? A good-hearted post publicly thanking someone for their support in a difficult time might be well-intentioned, but how does it make the person who feels they have no one to turn to for support feel? Does this mean that sometimes I’m choosing not to post things I’d like to post, and which could do some good, for the sake of those it might harm? Yes, sometimes. But doesn’t that sound like what Jesus would do?
Posting in the way of love
As I’ve been thinking this through I’ve been considering it in light of two New Testament passages. First, it reminded me of Paul’s discussion of the weak and strong in Romans 14-15. The situation there is quite different. Paul seems to know that there are divisions, or at least tensions, among the Roman Christians because of disagreements over Christian living. Is it right for Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols? Should Christians observe the Sabbath as a particularly important day? Presumably the debate wasn’t over whether these were justification issues as Paul’s response is somewhat different to what he had earlier said to the Galatians. Instead, the debate was about how those who have been justified can best honour God in their way of living. They are examples of what are sometimes called ‘disputable matters’, things Christians can agree to disagree on because they are not required of those in the kingdom of God. (This distinction is important, as it means the logic underlying what follows shouldn’t be used to undermine biblical teaching on other issues which the Bible addresses directly and which are not, or should not, be disputable. I’m not arguing that Christian ethics should be based on a form of utilitarianism!)
What’s striking about Paul’s response in Romans 14-15 is that while he does reveal his perspective (14:14, 20), his priority is not that all the believers in Rome come to agree with his position, but that they treat each other with love. He calls those who share his view to curtail what they do in order not to cause their weaker brothers and sisters to stumble and identifies this as the way to walk in love (14:15). They are to give up some of their freedoms in order to seek the good of their brothers and sisters, thus following the example of Jesus: ‘Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself’ (15:2-3).
The situation in Rome was obviously different to my thoughts about social media, but the principle of laying aside some of our freedoms in order to seek the good of others seems applicable. Do we have the freedom to post anything? Yes. But does that mean we should do so? Not if it might do harm to others. If we want to walk in the way of love, we have to consider others. We seek to please not ourselves but our neighbour, just as Christ did not please himself.
Posting in the interests of others
The second passage which has helped me is Philippians 2. As Paul encourages the Philippians to live life in a way that is worthy of the gospel (1:27), he calls them to ‘count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (2:3-4). Again, he gives the example of Jesus, noting how in the incarnation and crucifixion Jesus exhibits this principle of counting others more significant and looking to the interests of others.
Again, there is a principle here which I think is applicable to our usage of social media. In posting, we are to consider the well-being of others as more important than our own freedom to post. We look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others, just as Jesus did.
And when you think about it, when we do this, we’re just doing what Jesus has told us to do. (And I’m sure Paul was well aware of that!) Jesus’ command to us as his followers is to ‘love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another’ (John 13:34). He said this just after washing the disciples’ feet and the night before he would hang on the cross for them. He knew what it was to walk in love by seeking to please not himself but his neighbour and what it means to look to the interests of others. This is the kind of love he has shown us, and it’s the kind of love he calls us to show to each other.
So, will I keep posting on social media? Yes, but I’ll probably be posting less. Does this all mean that sometimes I’ll choose not to post things I would quite like to post? Yes, but that’s what it means to keep posting in love.
The Overtonian Swings and the Newtonian Roundabouts
In some ways, the social media age looks like an advert for trying to move the Overton window. Say something extreme in public, bring your allies out of the closet, force your opponents to denounce you (and often overreact in the process), change the terms of the debate, and watch opinion move in your favour.
Perhaps. But another rule to bear in mind—and one with another three hundred years worth of stress-testing—is Newton’s third law: for each reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you say something extreme enough to move the Overton window, it will frequently provoke others to move in the opposite direction to the one you want. Nigel, meet Jeremy. Bernie, meet Donald.
It happens theologically all the time, at least to me. A Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel comes out, and I scurry away from it as fast as I can. But then Union Seminary respond, and it pushes me back in a conservative direction. I read R. C. Sproul and want to be Arminian, then I read Roger Olson and want to be Calvinist. Nothing convinces me of the need to be inclusive more than reading fundamentalists; nothing convinces me of the need to contend for the gospel more than reading progressives. It happens politically as well: when I read the Guardian I move to the right, and when I read the Telegraph I move to the left. Every reaction produces a counterreaction.
One possible explanation of all this is that I’m a natural contrarian. But I don’t think that’s it, because when I read moderate, centrist, triangulating treatments of controversial subjects—and thankfully there are plenty of those, and I regularly get to share them here—I usually find them compelling and convincing. I think it’s more likely that the very fire and bombast you need to move the Overton window is almost guaranteed, as an unintended consequence, to toughen the resolve of those who disagree with you, even if they express themselves in a more nuanced way than you do. Ask Richard Dawkins.
Staking out extreme positions can certainly shift the terms of the debate. But it can also backfire when it comes to the people you’re trying to persuade. So beware. What you gain on the Overtonian swings, you may well lose on the Newtonian roundabouts.
Deepities and Politics
To illustrate the point, he uses a number of everyday examples. “Love is just a word.” “Love trumps hate.” “Everything happens for a reason.” In each case there are two meanings: one which is obvious and facile (love is a word like any other, but we already know that), and one which is apparently profound but patently untrue (if it was true that all feelings of love were simply imaginary, that would be incredibly significant—but it isn’t, so it isn’t.) However,
despite their emptiness, deepities often pass for profound insights. They achieve this effect because the listener switches back and forth between their two different interpretations unwittingly, and each interpretation seems to make up for what the other lacks. Upon hearing a deepity, the skeptical part of the listener’s mind is pacified by the true (but trivial) reading, while the emotional part of the listener’s mind is stimulated by the mind-blowing (but false) reading. Before the listener has a chance to realize that the allegedly deep insight is actually pseudo-profound bullshit, the speaker has already moved on.
Hughes then goes on to show how many deepities circulate in contemporary political discourse. “All Politics is Identity Politics” is true if it simply means “all politics involves people, who have identities.” But if it means “every political issue can be reduced to the struggle of immutable identities like sex or race,” it is obviously bunk. “No Human Being is Illegal,” likewise, is clearly true if it simply means that the existence of a person cannot be illegal. But if (as it often is) it is taken to imply that everybody has the right to be wherever they like, without national borders or property rights, then it is obviously false, even to the vast majority of people who say it.
Anyway: it occurred to me while reading this that deepities are not unique to politics, and regularly pop up in other places. The Church, for instance.
A Cold Take on the Kavanaugh Debacle
1. Every allegation of sexual abuse should be taken with the utmost seriousness, and investigated accordingly. Dismissing allegations out of hand as implausible, exaggerated, fanciful or fabricated is the best possible way to encourage sexual predators in our midst, and to discourage victims from coming forward. (Jacob Denhollander made this point brilliantly: “If a 10 year old being molested by her uncle saw your tweets about sexual abuse or heard you speak about it, would she feel safe to tell you? Or would you reinforce her shame and silence? Some of you have that 10 year old in your life and you’ll never know because of your damn politics.”)
2. The presumption of innocence is as crucial as ever in the pursuit of justice. As tempting as it may be to set it aside when dealing with powerful or privileged people, we should remember that abandoning the principle will almost always harm disadvantaged or marginalised people in the long run (historical examples are legion: witch hunts, the Spanish Inquisition, show trials, lynchings, and so on).
3. Our political or theological alignment with a person must never lead us to assume their testimony is true and their opponent’s is not. If anything it should make us more sceptical, not less, since our motives to believe them may be mixed. If the social media circus shed light on anything—and mostly it didn’t—it revealed how political partisanship has spread to the question of whether an abuse allegation should be believed or not.
4. It should not be legal for unborn children to be deliberately dismembered in utero. Come to that, it should even not be thinkable.
5. This does not mean, however, that anything which leads to abortion restrictions is rendered morally acceptable on that basis. The ends do not justify the means.
6. The Church of Jesus Christ is called to take the side of the poor, vulnerable and afflicted, defying the powerful, fashionable, wealthy and influential where necessary, and that is true whether the vulnerable person is born or unborn, male or female, Republican or Democrat, slave or free. We sing Hannah’s song, not Homer’s; the bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength.
7. It is possible—necessary, even—for Christians to believe all of these things at once.
Coming Out - Some Advice for Christians
The reality is, if you are same-sex attracted, whether Christian or not, there will likely come a point where you have to reveal this to people explicitly as it’s not the expected norm. You may not be embracing everything that is traditionally associated with coming out, but you are still opening up about a personal – and often difficult – part of your experience of life. Even same-sex attracted Christians come out, and coming out is not a one-time thing.
I’ve come out countless times now. I still remember the first time. I was in my mid-teens. I had experienced exclusive same-sex attraction since at least the beginning of secondary school, but I had never told anyone. It had taken me quite a while to even understand what I was experiencing. I’m not really sure I even knew that some people are same-sex attracted when I first began to experience these attractions. By this point, I had understood, to some extent at least, what I was experiencing, but I had no intention of telling anyone.
But then one day a guy who was discipling me asked, ‘Is there anything else you want to tell me?’, and, almost to my surprise, through faltering words, I told him. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I think we were both in a state of shock. He hadn’t expected me to say that, and, to be honest, neither had I. Nevertheless, it had happened. This thing which had previously been known to only me and God was now known by another person. I was out - or at least, I had taken the first step. I remember going into school the next day and suddenly it all seemed so much more real. ‘What does this mean?’, I remember thinking. ‘What is life going to look like? How can I be attracted to guys and follow Jesus?’ These were questions I would have to wrestle with in the coming months. But that was just the start. Over the years that followed, I came out to other friends, youth leaders, church leaders, and my family.
Coming out is never an easy thing. There is rarely a natural way to bring it up in conversation; it pretty much always requires an awkward gear change. And it’s an exposing thing; for most of us, sharing about such personal elements of our life experience is not easy or comfortable. Coming out can be like exposing a fragile, sensitive, and, often, hurt part of yourself to another person, and you almost hold your breath wondering how they will react. I now come out to crowds of hundreds in churches and Christian conferences without really even thinking about it, and yet there is something about coming out to an individual or small group which still leaves me feeling very vulnerable. Coming out is never an easy thing.
So, as I’ve thought about Coming Out Day, I felt it might be useful to share a few of the lessons I’ve learnt. I’m sure there is much more that could be said, but here’s some advice to get us started:
For Christians coming out
- Remember your identity in Christ. There is nothing more important than this. You are not defined by anything internal (who you are attracted to) or anything external (how people respond to you), you are defined by being a child of God, eternally loved and eternally secure. No matter what happens, that cannot change.
- If you’ve never told anyone about your sexuality, start by telling someone with whom you feel comfortable. Don’t feel you have to tell everyone straight away.
- Try to choose a situation where you will have good time to share and to talk through what you share. You don’t want to open up and then suddenly have to move on to something else.
- If you want to come out to someone, but are not sure how to do it, pray that God would give you a good opportunity. In my experience, the awkward gear change moment is usually still there, but I have been amazed at how God has answered some of my prayers and provided moments where the gear change was slightly less awkward.
- If you are particularly worried about coming out to a specific individual or group, ask someone whom you have already told to be alongside you as you speak to them.
- If you know what you think about how your faith and your sexuality interrelate, share this as you feel comfortable to do so. If you’re still wrestling with it, it’s ok to share that too.
For those to whom others come out
- Thank them for sharing with you. However lovely you are, it was probably still a big, scary thing for them to do.
- Stress that you love them and that God loves them and that their sexuality doesn’t change this. If this is as far as you get in your first conversation, it’s enough.
- Let them talk. They may have carried this for many years without telling anyone or having only told a few people. Let them share what they want to share and listen carefully. If they seem comfortable, ask questions, but don’t interrogate them. You don’t need all your questions answered straight away.
- Acknowledge pains, difficulties and frustrations they have felt are legitimate. Express God’s heart of love and compassion.
- Help them know that they are not alone. They are not alone because they have you, and many others, who will walk alongside them, and they are not alone because there are many people who are same-sex attracted and who are seeking to follow Jesus. As time goes on, it may be good to point them towards stories from Living Out and True Freedom Trust.
- Don’t say you had always wondered. It is more likely to make them stress about why you wondered and whether everyone else is also wondering, and it offers little comfort.
- Ask how you can best love and support them.
- Always be listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying.
- Be the kind of communities where it’s safe to be really honest and open and to talk about struggles and temptations. In a sense, all of us need to ‘come out’ about all sorts of things. Show people how the gospel frees us all to do this and equips us to spur each other on when we do.
- Homophobia, stereotypes, and jokes about sexuality should not be accepted in conversation or ‘from the stage’. Same-sex attracted people will not feel safe to share in a context where any of these are present.
- Equip people with a good understanding of the Bible’s teaching on identity, love, singleness and church as family, as well as about sexuality.
- Use Living Out’s Church Audit to think about how your church can better serve same-sex attracted people.
If you’re a same-sex attracted Christian who has not yet shared about your experience of sexuality with anyone, the best person to talk to would be a trusted Christian friend or church leader. However, if you feel you have no one locally who you can talk to, True Freedom Trust can offer you support. You can find out more on the ‘What we offer’ page of their website.
At the moment, for instance, I’m reading Robert Alter’s The David Story, a translation of 1&2 Samuel, alongside Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey: two of the foundational epics of Western civilisation, both from the early first millennium BC, both describing flawed and complicated yet heroic men, one a Jew, one a Greek. The similarities of date and, in a strange way, of theme, draw the different theologies, anthropologies and moralities of the books into sharp relief, and show you (if you didn’t know it already) just how different Yahweh is from the gods of the nations. When you read Hannah’s song right after Homer’s song, it makes your soul magnify the Lord, and your spirit rejoice in God your Saviour.
Over the summer I read Jared Diamond’s magnificent Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, which basically argues that Western nations developed faster than other nations because of geography, immediately followed by Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, which gives much more of the credit to Western thought. That materialist/idealist difference was also evident as I read Ian Morris’s Why The West Rules For Now, and then Nick Spencer’s The Evolution of the West. Going through two commentaries on Revelation in my devotions, from Peter Leithart and Ian
Paul, gave me more than I would have gained from reading them separately (as well as plenty of interesting discussions with the writers as I weighed their very different interpretations!) T. S. Eliot’s poems were more interesting for being read alongside his contemporary George Orwell’s essays. I’m now slightly wishing that I had waited before starting Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life, so that I could read it alongside Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind. And so on.
Those may or may not be the sorts of books you’d read, but you get the idea. I guess it’s an extension of Proverbs 18:17—but only if it’s read alongside Ecclesiastes 4:9.
The Theology of The Good Place
The premise of episode one is a juicy one: Eleanor Shellstrop has died. She’s ended up in The Good Place, a version of heaven that each religion “got about 5% right”. It’s a perfectly engineered afterlife designed by the angelic Michael (Ted Danson) for the very best people in the world – if you’ve lived a life of perpetual excellence and your “positive points” vastly outweigh your “negative points” then you end up in The Good Place. Eleanor, as a lawyer who got people off death row and helped out Ukrainian orphans, has made it. Only the Eleanor Shellstrop we’re following, played by Kristen Bell, is not that Eleanor Shellstrop. There’s been a mistake. She’s not supposed to be there.
From there, the rest of the show pans out in a fascinating way, wrong-footing the viewer at every turn. It’s consistently surprising, packing in a surprising number of twists and turns into each season of 13 25-minute episodes. This is not any old sitcom. And while it clearly isn’t a show that even remotely corresponds with Christian concepts of grace, new creation or the sacrifice of Jesus, it is a show that has a very distinct theology. It’s one of the things that makes the show so special.
The non-spoiler version is that Eleanor spends time with her supposed “soulmate” Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an ethics professor, to try and become a better person. Each episode poses different ethical and philosophical questions as Eleanor attempts to improve from being a self-centred, deceitful and cruel person. The show posits that this is actually possible. Through learning, effort and action, Eleanor can maybe earn her way into the Good Place. Humans, the show suggests, have the capacity to improve, to better themselves, to be good.
And now I have to spoil the show, because it’s a lot more complex than that.
Spoilers begin here. Seriously, don’t read beyond this point. Stop it. If you haven’t seen Season One, we’re going to ruin it…. Now.
It turns out, they aren’t in the Good Place at all. Chidi, Eleanor and their friends Jason and Tahani have been put in a fake Good Place in order to torture one another as part of a radical experiment. Michael is not angelic, he’s the demonic mastermind behind it all. His theory is that humans are self-centred and mean enough for an eternity where they end up punishing one another. Only, he finds himself consistently foiled as the humans do actually manage to discover a capacity for goodness.
Season One, when rewatched with this knowledge in mind, is like a whole new experience, with every one of Michael’s interactions reinterpreted and all the small creative decisions making a lot more sense. There’s a reason that all of the food in the Good Place is frozen yoghurt – it’s actually designed to make everyone feel just a little bit uncomfortable and out of place. It’s an image of the Good Place, but not the real deal.
Season Two, as well, changes the game thematically, with all four of the leads grappling with the fact that they belong in the Bad Place but try ardently to be good enough for the Good Place. And, make no mistake, Eleanor is a bad person. She once made and sold multiple T-shirts that mocked her flatmate. Her main job was selling fake drugs to gullible old people. It’s interesting that although the show is sympathetic to her terrible upbringing, it doesn’t allow it as an excuse for her terrible behaviour.
It’s because the show’s key idea is that humans can improve through working hard at it, through achieving self-improvement. Everybody, it assumes, can choose to be good. In Season Two of The Good Place, it even suggests that Michael, a torturer from a version of hell, can find some redemption. It’s an alluring proposition, shaped by Michael Schur’s optimism. He told the New York Times (in this terrific article) that he’s inspired by David Foster Wallace, who wrote that “in dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” Schur is looking at the world and seeing darkness, so he’s choosing to believe that human goodness can survive or thrive even in the face of darkness.
What makes The Good Place work as a show, even if it’s ultimately unconvincing as a theological text, is that it’s rooted in actual ethics and philosophy. The whole show began after Schur sat down with an ethics professor and asked whether someone could change from being a bad person to becoming a good person based on sheer willpower alone. The show now has multiple philosophy consultants, who lend the writing a surprising weight. This is, after all, a show that features an extended fart gag and swear words are replaced by “fork” and “shirt”. You wouldn’t expect it to be one of the most intelligent shows on TV, yet here we are.
Each episode wrestles with a different moral idea, but at its heart is the theory of contractualism (a term I’ve only become aware of through watching the show and listening to the adjacent podcast, which is also delightful). This asks where morality would come from if there wasn’t a higher power to instigate it and concludes that morality comes from unspoken contracts between all humans. Every human owes every other human a debt of kindness. The Good Place acknowledges that this is complex – the reason ethics professors even exist is because being good to one another can take on many forms and there aren’t easy answers – but you’ve got to try.
At the end of the day, I don’t buy The Good Place’s message – I think the world is a pretty good defence of Calvin’s idea of Total Depravity and I remain convinced that we’re a people desperately in need of a saviour. Yet even though I don’t think we can save ourselves, The Good Place remains an inspiring and incredibly funny examination of human nature and beliefs about the afterlife. It essentially argues that humans should be kinder and better to one another, but that that takes a lot of work. So, let’s start working.
Guns, Germs and Steel
A commonly cited answer is found in the title of Jared Diamond’s development classic, Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years. Francisco Pizarro defeated Atahualpa because he had guns, germs and steel, and the Incans didn’t. But this just pushes the question back one step: Why did the Spanish, rather than the Incans, end up with guns, germs and steel? Are Spanish people genetically superior? Is Spanish thought more amenable to innovation and technological advancement? Are Spaniards more intelligent by nature? More creative? Luckier? Or what?
Everyone reading this will sense that any explanations based on genes, biology, superiority, intelligence or other innate qualities are morally unacceptable. That way lies colonialism, paternalism, racism, eugenics, and all their works. But that is not the same as understanding why those explanations are wrong, and/or which explanations should replace them. Without such an alternative account, there is always the risk that some kind of racial superiority—whether the soft variety (our ideas are better than yours) or the hard variety (our stock is better than yours)—will sneak in through the back door.
Diamond’s answer, in a word, is geography. Some societies developed faster than others because of maps, not chaps. There has, in the last couple of decades, been a flurry of books making this argument in all sorts of ways; Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules—For Now is excellent (until it gets into weird transhumanist speculation at the end), Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography applies the same kind of logic to contemporary politics, and so on. But Diamond’s stands apart, both for the superb writing and for the clarity of the argument. Here, in the form of a wince-inducingly crass list, are five of the reasons he gives.
1. Cereals. Native to East Asia, and particularly to the area between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers (where the Chinese population core developed), is rice. Native to West Asia, and particularly to the Fertile Crescent (where the Ancient Near Eastern civilisations developed), are barley, two types of wheat, and three types of pulses. These cereal crops are more easily grown and stored, and provide more calories and protein, than the cereals which predominate elsewhere (maize, sorghum, millet, and so on), and obviously far more than the sorts of plants on which hunter-gatherers have to survive (fruit, nuts, tubers). That gives the people who live in such areas a significant developmental advantage.
2. Large mammals. If you were looking for animals to domesticate—mammals which can be bred in captivity and which are large enough and tame enough to provide you with milk, meat, clothing and/or muscle power—you would want to live in Eurasia. SubSaharan Africa and Australia have plenty of species which are great for tourism but hopeless for farming (would you want to milk an elephant? ride a kangaroo? yoke a rhino?) The only domesticable large mammal in the Americas is the llama or alpaca, and they cannot be trained for war or for ploughing. Eurasia, by contrast, has cows, pigs, donkeys, sheep, goats, camels and horses, which between them can be used for transport, farming, milk, cheese, hides, meat, war and so on. This gives another significant advantage.
3. Continental shape. Not only did Eurasia have more species of cultivable plants and domesticable mammals, it is also shaped in such a way as to facilitate the spread of crops and animals, and therefore humans, and therefore trade, ideas, technology and so on. Eurasia’s axis runs sideways, from East to West, so plants and animals which are native to one part of the continent will often be able to thrive in another part (because a change of latitude does not mean a dramatic change of landscape or climate); wheat and horses could spread across to Portugal or Korea. But Africa and America have axes which run longways, from North to South, which presents far greater obstacles to the spread of agriculture. Potatoes did not reach North America from South America until Europeans had colonised both, and llamas never did.
4. Division of labour. As food production goes up, so does the density of population, and this allows some people in a society to stop looking for food (whether by hunting and gathering, or by farming) and develop writing, religion, social hierarchy, philosophy, bureaucracy, trade, military power, exploration, and so on, all of which are important for social development. This is a big part of how the Maoris conquered Polynesia, and Pizarro defeated Atahualpa.
5. Diseases. Living in close proximity to domestic mammals, and many other human beings, spreads disease. Which is unfortunate for the people who die, but for the people who don’t, and develop immunity, it turns out to be a significant developmental advantage, the most dramatic demonstration of which is the European invasion of the Americas (where European diseases killed millions of Native Americans, but the reverse did not happen on anything like the same scale).
Taken together, these reasons (along with a whole host of others) provide a compelling explanation of why some continents developed faster than others, and Diamond concludes his book with six case studies that show how this worked itself out in practice. If the book has a flaw, it is the risk of reductionism; in responding to an idealist account, in which thoughts and individuals are the primary movers in human history, it risks falling into the opposite trap, namely that of denying any determinative role for human agency. (A more granular reading of history suggests that some ideas, social structures, religions and worldviews are more conducive to human development than others; as such, Diamond’s theory works far better for the differences between continents than for the differences between regions, let alone nations or tribes.) But in fairness, this is not what his book is attempting to do. It is trying to explain why the people who lived in some parts of the world developed faster than the people who lived in others, and in that sense, it has manifestly succeeded.
I am twenty years late to the party on this one (the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998, my wife read it at university, and I just read the 20th anniversary edition), so you may already know all this. But if not, this is undoubtedly one of the best books I have read this year, and I highly recommend it. If you’re looking for a polymathic book that explains why the world is as it is, you won’t find many better.
Sovereignty, Responsibility and the Cross
He examines Acts 4:23-30, where Peter and John re-join their friends after being released following their interrogation by the Jewish authorities. Now reunited, Peter, John and their friends pray, and their prayer speaks both of God’s absolute sovereignty in the event of the cross (it was ‘whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place’, v.28) and of the personal responsibility of those who instigated and carried out the event (‘Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel’, v.27). Carson concludes:
Even brief reflection demonstrates that any other alternative destroys the fabric of the Christian faith. Suppose God had not been sovereign over the conspiracy that brought Jesus to Calvary. Would we not have to conclude that the cross was a kind of afterthought in the mind of God? Are we to think that God’s intention was to do something quite different, but then, because these rebels fouled up his plan, he did the best he could, and the result was Jesus’ atoning death on the cross? All of Scripture cries against the suggestion.
Then should we conclude, with some modern theologians, that if God is as sovereign as the early Christians manifestly believed him to be—so sovereign in fact that the conspirators merely did what God’s “power and will had decided beforehand should happen”—then the conspirators cannot reasonably be blamed? But that too destroys Christianity. The reason Jesus goes to the cross is to pay the penalty due to sinners; the assumption is that these sinners bear real moral accountability, real moral guilt for which a penalty has been pronounced. If human beings are not held responsible for this act, why should they be held responsible for any act? And if they are not held responsible, then why should God have sent his Anointed One to die in their place?
God is absolutely sovereign, yet his sovereignty does not diminish human responsibility and accountability; human beings are morally responsible creatures, yet this fact in no way jeopardizes the sovereignty of God. At Calvary, all Christians have to concede the truth of these two statements, or they give up their claim to be Christians.
D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers, p.156.
A Hub of Hope: Guest Post from Rachel Ruddy
Social connectedness seems to be key in the fight against suicide and managing suicidal thoughts. Many national and local strategies have tried to target men by raising awareness through sports personalities talking about their own mental health difficulties and sports clubs creating space for people to talk and be directed to support. Campaigns like “Time to Talk Day” help promote deeper relationships in workplaces by people being honest about their mental health problems and daily struggles. A recent initiative by one of the suicide prevention charities has launched a website and app called the “Hub of Hope” in an attempt to help people find local services, telephone and online support to help them find it easier to address their mental health needs. (I don’t know how many churches are listed!)
Although many suicides can occur out of the blue with no warning or contact with health services depression is one of the main causes of suicidal thoughts. Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions, draws strongly on his own experience with depression and independent evidence to show that social connections can make a big difference to outcome. (Interestingly and unsurprisingly, his other book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, also draws attention to the vital role of social support in fighting the battle with addiction).
The Samaritans promote creating connections as a means of suicide prevention and helping people in crisis. They share true stories of people not going ahead with suicide because someone approached them and talked to them, often about ordinary things, at the time they were contemplating it. People want something to hang on to some sign that they matter, that they are part of humanity, that someone else “sees” them.
As Christians we are not surprised that social connectedness is important in giving people hope. How many times are we told in Bible to “love one another”. This brotherly love is key to us functioning in the fullness of life as God intended it. We are not born as individuals but as members of families, communities, tribes, nations. And as Christians we are rooted into God as part of his family; sons and daughters. As the church we are part of a body of believers that needs to function together and care for each other. These are just some of the “one anothering” verses:
“...Be at peace with each other.” Mark 9:50
“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…” Romans 12:10
“...Stop passing judgment on one another.” Romans 14:13
“Live in harmony with one another…” Romans 12:16
“...Have equal concern for each other.” I Corinthians 12:25
“Carry each other’s burdens…” Galatians 6:2
“...Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Ephesians 4:2
But this is not just for within the church body, we are also told to extend that care and compassion beyond the boundaries of the church and love those around us.
Suicide prevention charities talk about helping people to have a “piggy bank” of hope. Things that will sustain them and allow them to continue even at their lowest. Things that give them a reason to live. In my experience these can be all kinds of things for people: dogs, people, their work, events, holidays. I don’t want to undermine them because they are important, but they are all temporary.
Jesus said “I am the vine and you are the branches…remain in me and I in you and you will bear much fruit”. Through Jesus death and resurrection and accepting the truth that his blood can cover our sins we can fully connect to God. We can know him as Father. As someone who is always there for us and always will be there however we are feeling. He lives in us through his Holy Spirit. He gives us a hope and a future.
I long to say to patients I meet in my work life: “Find Jesus; find a church; that will help you”. I know Jesus will, but there is part of me that wonders whether the local church will. Alan Snuggs, in Surrounded by Jesus: Confessions of a Flawed Christian, talks honestly about how the church both was and wasn’t there for him in his episode of mid life depression. It is hard reading and raises the question “Would your church would do better presented with an unwell church leader?” How do we walk alongside people with mental health problems in our churches in the right way? How much are we teaching our congregation about these issues? How do we find the balance of offering support and pointing to God? How do we not burnout in the process? In the face of rising rates of mental health problems in the UK and shrinking public and third sector provision these are questions each church needs to address.
We know that Jesus is the hope of the world, that he can fill our “piggy banks” of hope to overflowing. But there are also people with long-term mental health problems who would benefit from being part of a church community even if they don’t receive healing and find it hard to see the fullness of their eternal “piggy bank”. The church can be the “Hub of Hope” for our communities. I don’t know how many churches are listed on the app or the website but we do have a message of hope, of connectedness that is deeper and more powerful than anything the world can offer. Is your church prepared to sign up and offer it?
Rachel Ruddy works as a Consultant in the NHS and is a regular preacher at Church in the Peak, Buxton.
Safeguarding the Psalms
Some parts of scripture are harder to read and apply than others. At my church we generally start our time of worship each Sunday with a reading from a Psalm. This week we are up to Psalm 137 but I think we’ll skip it on account of the smashing babies heads thing. One Mothers’ Day I did preach from the story of the Levite and his concubine but even for me Psalm 137 would be a tough lead into worship.
Of all the troublesome scriptures, the imprecatory Psalms are among the most troubling. Many churches dispense with Psalms 58 and 137 altogether – they are just too violent and perplexing for modern sensibilities. They seem to clash too irreconcilably with “blessed are the peacemakers.” Yet if all of Scripture is Scripture, God-breathed and helpful for instruction, then these Psalms must have a purpose and a place.
There are five guidelines I find helpful when it comes to these Psalms:
1. The Psalms are Poetry
Things can be said in poetry and song that would not be acceptable in normal speech. Poetry is meant to express strong emotions in strong terms – it is deliberately hyperbolic. These Psalms are like that.
2. God is not afraid of strong emotion
The Psalms are emotionally raw because so many of them were composed in the context of conflict – whether personal or national. They teach us that strong emotion is not inappropriate for praise and prayer: that where we tend to castrate prayer, making it polite and formal, the Psalms let rip – and God seems to be okay with that.
3. These are songs of the oppressed
For a western congregation, living largely comfortable and secure lives, increasingly concerned with safeguarding, it is understandable that we come to Psalm 137 and ask, “How am I supposed to read that as a Christian?” So it is helpful to turn the question around and ask, “How would I read this if I was in Syria/Afghanistan/Somalia? How would I have read this in Auschwitz? Or Stalin’s gulag?”
These Psalms are the cry of the underdog, of the abused, of the victim. And as such they can help us be more fully Christian because they call us to side with the oppressed. If injustice doesn’t ever cause us violent emotional response, something is wrong!
If we read Psalm 137 as the testimony of a refugee, who has seen loved ones butchered in front of their eyes, the women raped and the old people humiliated, now being asked to perform for the amusement of their tormentors, it begins to make much more sense. This is the cry of someone who is powerless. It is a plea for justice. And it is meant to be shocking because it is meant to get our attention – and God’s.
4. God is the judge
God is judge of all the earth (Psalm 58:11) and when the judge appears there will be different reactions: for the oppressors, terror; for the oppressed, liberation! That means that these Psalms are not just declarations of violence but a plea to the judge – and that makes them very Christian. It was Jesus who said: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4:18-19).
5. Jesus fulfils the Psalms
Jesus bore the wrath and pain of these Psalms on the cross. When the psalmist cursed, “Smash their teeth,” Jesus was the one who was smashed so we might be made whole. Jesus is able to sympathise with the oppressed. He is the judge who has born the verdict against sin in Himself. It is at the cross we find hope for justice and at the cross we find forgiveness and mercy.
I won’t be reading Psalm 137 at the start of our worship this Sunday but I’m not going to excise it from the canon. One day, in the new Jerusalem, we will need it no more, but we need it now. So long as there is injustice in the world it is a Psalm we need.
On Stating the Blindingly Obvious
Part of that is because I’m a repressed Brit and we don’t do extravagant displays of emotion, but to be honest that is just an excuse. My biggest problem is that it seems so pointless, so redundant.
Of course God is good, mighty, wonderful, loving, just etc etc. He knows it, I know it, what’s the point of telling him? I get round it by thanking him for those attributes, but then I get stuck when I arrive at T and realise I’ve already covered that. Hmm.
On my blog this week, though, someone left a comment and prefaced it with a disclaimer about it being an obvious point. It kind of was, but at the same time it was a point I had omitted to mention (among my other obvious points), and it was a powerful truth to be reminded of.
And then it clicked for me. Stating the obvious about God is important because if we think it is so obvious it’s not worth saying, our feeble brains and hearts begin to forget it.
This is why we see the swings in emphasis in worship from God’s grace to his holiness and back again, over the generations. We notice a lack of emphasis on one aspect and try to reinstate it, while easing off on the one we’ve sung about so much it is now blindingly obvious, only to discover ten years down the line that we’ve got out of balance and need to swing back the other way. All those wonderful hymns that informed, shaped and strengthened my faith in my childhood were swept away by choruses focussing more on our response to God than on his character and the theological truths about him, but they’re now being rediscovered and loved once more (despite being often butchered with different time-signatures, modernised language or missing words, but that’s another story/rant).
We need to state the blindingly obvious to God over and over again, not only because it is commanded, not only because it draws us into deeper relationship with him, not only because of that thing CS Lewis said about our enjoyment not being complete until we have shared it, but because otherwise we forget, and it stops being obvious.
Are Ethics Non-Essential?
The English Puritan Richard Baxter popularised the famous maxim, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things love” ... The essentials of Christian belief are clearly listed in the Nicene Creed ... These, then, are the “essentials” around which we can all unite and beyond which we just grant liberty for differing opinions about issues relating to the future of Israel, or the chronology of the end times, or the nature of the priesthood, or the practice of the gifts of the Spirit, or church governance, or even (dare I say it?) impassioned perspectives about marriage and human sexuality. Such topics are all extremely important. We should think about them very carefully indeed and form opinions. But since they do not feature in the Creed they must never be allowed to define orthodoxy or divide the church. The Nicene Creed provides a common language for having conversation within the family of God and having mastered its vocabulary, there is much for us to discuss!
If something is in the Creed, Christians must be united on it, but if it isn’t, we must grant liberty. Orthodoxy is essential; orthopraxy is not. Beliefs, at least the central ones, are essential; ethics, sexual or otherwise, are not. We unite around what we believe, not what we do. It was a provocative paragraph—despite the fact that I agree with Pete on most of his examples—so I made a note to come back to it, and finished the book (which, as anyone who has read Pete before will already know, is a wonderful and inspiring story of prayer, faith and breakthrough).
A short while later, I was reading Alastair Roberts’ most recent Davenant booklet and came across this (emphasis added):
Christian ethics are ... the shape that orthodoxy should take in practice. And, where Christian ethics are compromised, the undermining of the creed is seldom far behind. Whether it is the toleration of substantial moral disagreement and failure to exercise discipline in a manner that undermines the holy unity of the Church, the downplaying of the body and God’s claims upon it, the denial of an objective force to God’s creative ordering of the world, or the radical devaluation of the biblical witness, the downgrading of the truths of the creed has often been the consequence of the rejection of Christian ethical norms. In particular, where significant ethical differences are tolerated, the clarity and authority of the testimony of the Scriptures themselves is practically abandoned.
In practice, that is, you cannot separate ethics from dogmatics, orthopraxy from orthodoxy, what we believe from what we do, faith from works. The Creed, Alastair argues in the rest of the booklet, was never intended to be separated from the moral imperatives of Christian teaching as contained in the Law, or the Sermon on the Mount, or whatever. (An obvious example: the prohibition of murder is not something about which we should exercise liberty.) So ethics are essential.
It won’t surprise regular readers that I agree with Alastair on this one, not least because of my studies in Paul. (Paul clearly regards the eating of meat and the celebration of certain days as “disputable matters.” But when he hears about a man having sex with his stepmother, he doesn’t say “exercise liberty,” but “purge the evil person from among you!”) There are things I could do, not just things I could believe, which, if I was not repentant, would lead my brothers and sisters to remove me from the church, both for the good of me and the whole congregation. But in some ways I suspect our focus on sex in this discussion—and this is the example that both Pete and Alastair use, for obvious contemporary reasons—makes this harder to see, because we know what it will cost us. We know it will mean confronting X, preventing Y from joining us at communion, and having Z regard us as nasty people for doing so. It would be easier to see, I suspect, if the ethical issue was something everybody we know regards as morally reprehensible, yet which some Christians have done (and approved of) nevertheless.
Tragically there are plenty of examples. Let’s say you were part of a church in Rwanda’s Kabgayi parish in May 1994, where 65,000 local Tutsi were killed in the space of three months. Would you agree to disagree with the Christians who were directly involved, on the grounds that it wasn’t mentioned in the Creed? What about the members of the German church who not only failed to oppose the Nazis, but swallowed their antisemitism wholesale (to the point of expunging Old Testament references and Hebrew words like “Hallelujah” from their hymnbooks)? Do you agree with abolitionists like Frederick Douglass that the Evangelical Alliance should exclude slaveholders? Would you share communion with those in the American South who participated in lynchings on Saturday and then turned up to church on Sunday? Or would you regard all these things as matters of liberty?
These are emotive questions. And the point here is not that all Christian ethical positions are morally equivalent (which they clearly aren’t), nor that they all require the same responses (which they clearly don’t). The point is that, when we step back from the specific debates of our own generation, we can often see the principles at work a bit more clearly. Some ethical positions are so central to Christianity, even if they are not mentioned in the Creed, that we have to stand our ground on them and, if necessary, separate from those who act otherwise—and if we introduce enough historical distance, we all know that. How to tell exactly which positions they are is not necessarily straightforward (although the Ten Commandments are probably a decent place to start). But when faced with a credal minimalism on the essentials of Christianity, in which what we believe is non-negotiable but what we do is not, it is worth pausing and asking where it comes from, and whether it is actually true. Dogmatics is ethics, as Karl Barth put it. For faith without works is dead.
When Allegorical Exegesis Wins
The issue of Nicene orthodoxy is that here you have a tradition, grounded in exegesis that has persisted for 1500 years, and it has resulted in a stable, Trinitarian and Christological set of doctrines that undergird the faith, that have been embraced by all kinds of different traditions: Eastern, Western, first world, third world, Pentecostal, Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist. And on the other hand you have what you get when you go to SBL. You get all these different groups meeting in different rooms, using different methodologies, coming to different conclusions; nobody knows what the Bible is about as a whole; nobody agrees on exegetical matters.
So isn’t it ironic that the supposedly subjective method of allegory, that allows you to read anything you want into the text, results in a stable, unified tradition that is coherent and enduring—and on the other hand the scientific, objective method that rescues you from the hopelessly subjective method of allegorising, results in a completely fragmented set of traditions that don’t interact with each other, that don’t cohere in any meaningful way, and can’t tell you what the Bible means at all? Obviously there’s something very wrong here.
Once More Into the Breach
That’s the startling claim in an article in The Times based on two recent pieces of research. (And these are large scale projects: one involved surveying 130,000 people from 22 countries.)
This research demonstrates what I have long suspected. Three years ago I posted on Think my anecdotal observations about how masculinity and femininity is expressed culturally:
It could be argued that for all our sexual equality, the physical distinctions between the sexes are more pronounced now than has often been the case in far less equal societies. Not many men achieve quite the results of Aidan Turner, but there are far more men around who have spent a lot more time in the gym than used to be the case. This might just be a reaction to the much less physically demanding lives most of us lead than did previous generations, and a need to stress the body in a way that working at a desk does not allow. Only we also seem to be in an era of hyper-feminisation in terms of the attention paid by women to their clothes, hair and nails. (Not to mention the growth in cosmetic surgery.) Go to many parts of the developing world and even though the power structures between men and women might be much more ‘traditional’ than how we do life in the west today, the external physical distinctions between the sexes are often fewer than is the case in our more cosmopolitan towns and cities. Our ‘liberation’ from the tyranny of manual labour has enabled visible sexual distinctions to be expressed like never before.
I’m beginning to form a working hypothesis about human sexuality: That it is like squeezing air in in an air-bed: push it out of one area, and it pops up in another. Being distinguished as male and female is so real, and so fundamental to us, that it always manifests itself by some means. Suppress or blur it here, and it becomes all the more evident there.
A number of people suggested I was a bit of an idiot for saying such things and that my observations were silly, subjective ones. But the evidence seems to be in – at least when it comes to ‘gendered’ behaviour, if not physical appearance: “As gender equality increases, as countries become more progressive, men and women gravitate towards traditional gender norms.”
According to The Times, this patriarchy paradox, “is now one of the best-established findings in psychology, even if no one can properly explain it.” The more egalitarian we become the more different we are. Who knew?
What Qualifies God to Judge?
He is omniscient
He sees every angle, knows every motivation, and every extenuating circumstance. Conflicting witness statements can’t confuse him, CCTV footage can’t be obscured from him. He has all the information he needs. He also, having been human, understands what it is like to be us. He gets it. ‘Omniscient’ can sometimes feel distant - the eye in the sky, Big Brother watching you - but he is also close, he walked among us. He sees the micro as well as the macro. He feels the emotions and the pressures and the fears.
He is impartial
He cannot be fooled by a sharp suit and smooth tongue, neither can he be swayed by a pretty face or attractive figure. He is not prejudiced against anyone based on their appearance, accent, attitude or age, or on their race, disability or gender identity. He knows and loves each of us equally, without fear or favour.
Speaking of which, he is all-powerful
He doesn’t need anything, so he can’t be bribed or corrupted. There is nothing he wants - not even people’s good opinion of him - so there is no danger that he will compromise his principles in order to win favour with anyone. Equally, no one has the power to harm him or take anything from him, so he can’t be threatened. He has nothing to gain and nothing to lose.
He is eternal
He is now, always has been and always will be the judge. He wrote the law, he understands it fully, and he alone administers justice. He has no term-limit, so he won’t get softer - or meaner - towards the end of his jurisdiction. He won’t get muddled in his old-age. Neither will he regret the decisions he made when he was young and foolish.
Linked to this, he is unchanging
His judgements do not build on those of other judges in other courts. They are not modified by other people’s opinions or persuasive arguments (Abraham and Sodom notwithstanding). They do not need to develop in line with new advances in human understanding.
He is omnipotent
He has the power to carry out his judgements. No one is going to be able to dig their way out of his jail cells or skip bail and hide under a fake name and a new hair colour. Stretched budgets won’t ever mean that he is under pressure to give lenient sentences. He will never make empty threats or promises he can’t keep.
And one more thing that recent events mean we need to point out: he is good
There are no skeletons in his closet. No-one is going to be able to bring up inappropriate behaviours, illegal activities or other indiscretions from his past to invalidate his appointment. He is without spot or blemish. Unimpeachable. Holy, holy, holy.
I found it such a helpful, revealing and worship-inspiring exercise to think through just some of the characteristics that reassure us that God’s are the hands we want to be in when judgement day comes. I’m sure there is much more - what else can you think of?
Suicide of the West?
1. On the natural bias towards group unity, and the morally neutral nature of it: “Given time and incentives, any group of humans will start to see themselves as a cohesive group, a cast or aristocratic class. Just as any random group of dogs—strays and purebreds alike—will, if put together, quickly form a pack with a collective identity, humans will do the same thing given time and the right inducements. The children in Lord of the Flies, contestants on Survivor, college students in the Stanford prison experiments, members of the Seattle Seahawks, police, firemen, marines, Copts, Sunnis, teachers’ unions, street gangs, college professors—the list is as endless as the subdivision of labor and identity in any society. This natural human tendency is neither bad nor good. It’s simply a fact. The capacity to trick our coalitional and tribal instincts to self-organise around identities other than race and kin can be the source of both wonderful things and horrible ones. Unity is a neutral value. Unity’s moral status is derived entirely from what a group does. Whatever label you ascribe to the group—class, faction, sect, etc—the only time self-interested groups or coalitions become a real threat to the larger society is when they claim the power of the state for their own agenda.”
2. On the unintended consequences of the bureaucratic state: “Complexity is a subsidy. The more complex government makes society, the more it rewards those with the resources to deal with that complexity, and the more it punishes those who do not.”
3. On the important difference between the civil rights movement and some forms of contemporary identity politics: “They are not merely arguing that the system needs to live up to its own ideals, which was the argument of the suffragettes and the civil rights movement. They are arguing that the ideals themselves are illegitimate. The tragedy here is that liberalism—in the classic Enlightenment sense—is the only system ever created to help people break out of the oppression of identity politics.” (I don’t think this gives Christian thought its due, but I’ll leave that point for now.)
4. On the uniformity of diversity: “Universities subscribe to a very narrow definition of diversity. Intellectual, ideological, and religious diversity take a backseat—sometimes a very distant backseat—to a very specific kind of bean counting.” This has been a constant refrain of Jonathan Haidt (whose new book on this subject, The Coddling of the American Mind, has just arrived) and the Heterodox Academy, among many others.
5. On the true lesson of the Dead Poets Society: “Throughout the film, we are always supposed to take Mr Keating’s side in every dispute… But the headmaster is right, or at least less wrong than Mr Keating. To be sure, Mr Keating has something to teach the fogeys about how to make education interesting and entertaining. But what he is not doing is teaching the boys to think for themselves. He is teaching them to embrace the romantic imperative of finding truth—or at least the only truth that matters—within themselves. In other words, he is not teaching them to think for themselves; he is teaching them not to think at all. Dead Poets Society is a rock-and-roll song minus the rock and roll.”
6. On our essentially tribal nature. “We are rightly taught not to hit, steal or torture. These rules, and ones like them, form the bedrock of virtually every halfway decent civilisation. And yet, almost every time we go see an action movie, we cheer people who violate these rules… We use the more primitive parts of our brains, which understand right and wrong as questions of “us” and “them.” Our myths are still with us on the silver screen, and they appeal to our sense of tribal justice. We enter the movie theater a citizen of this world, but when we sit down, we become denizens of the spiritual jungle, where our morality becomes tribal the moment the lights go out.”
7. On the family as the foundation of civilisation: “Family lays all the crucial groundwork for the kind of person you will become. When I say that the family is the gateway to civilisation, I mean that literally. The family civilises barbarians. It imprints them with language, customs, mores, values and expectations for how society should work. If culture is a conversation, then the family is where all conversation begins … Hannah Arendt once observed that, in every generation, Western civilisation is invaded by barbarians: We call them “children.” The family is the first line of defence against this barbarian invasion. The metaphor is inapt, because parents aren’t at war with babies themselves. But parents are at war with the darker side of human nature, which we all work to trim away from our children by inscribing in their hearts notions of decency, fair play and self-restraint.”
The True Sexual Revolution
I know that may be a little hard to hear for many Christians, and especially for those who view the sexual revolution of the 1960s onwards as an entirely bad thing. But as I point out here, in the first of the messages that I’m currently preaching on Sex and Sexuality at Everyday Church, Jesus doesn’t tell his followers to try to wind the clock back to the 1950s. He tells us in Matthew 19:4 to wind the clock back to the beginning.
The sexual revolution can be viewed, at least in its early stages, as a healthy reaction against three sins that were prevalent in post-War Europe and America. It called out the sexist way in which Western nations had used female labour to defeat the Nazis, but then had tried to push women back into their boxes once the war was won. It resisted the domestic abuse that many of those disenfranchised women were experiencing behind the doors of their oh-so-perfect homes. It also called time on the West’s hypocrisy, pointing out how much of society’s talk about sexual purity was a smokescreen. Many of those who promoted so-called Christian values were revealed to be committed to those values in public, but not once they believed that nobody was watching.
Somewhere along the way, this sexual revolution became hijacked by a group of reactionaries. It stopped calling out the sins of its generation in order to promote something better. It started focusing, instead, on how to bring sexual taboos into the open. That’s how we have come to a place today where virtually no form of sexual practice is taboo, while crossing any of those last taboos is a sin that can never be forgiven.
As Christians, we need to push the sexual revolution to its godly conclusion. While it’s important that we speak up against sexual sin in all its forms, it’s even more important that we proclaim God’s sexual revolution in all its glory. We live in a world where an MP is forced to resign his position for touching a reporter’s knee, despite having apologised. We live in a world where an actor’s career ends in a puff of smoke as the result of an as-yet-unproven accusation of sexual impropriety. We live in a world where the appointment of a Supreme Court judge can be derailed by a claim that, thirty-six years earlier, at the age of seventeen, he groped a fellow college student. We live in a world where, in short, much of what was once taboo has become mainstream but what remains taboo is more taboo than ever. Sexual sin is viewed as something unforgiveable and sexual sinners as people irredeemable.
The world was no different when the Apostle Paul proclaimed his sexual revolution in 55AD. Timarchos had been on the brink of power in Athens when a political rival revealed that he had once worked as a prostitute in his city’s seedy dockyards and his career sank from view like a block of lead dropped into water. For the women of Athens and Corinth – as today – the bitter repercussions for sexual sin were even harsher. The historian Mary Lefkowitz explains that shame befell “not only a woman who practises prostitution, but also one who has formerly done so, even though she has ceased to act in this manner; for the disgrace is not removed even if the practice is subsequently discontinued.” As far as the Ancient Greeks were concerned, once a prostitute, always a prostitute.
Into this judgemental world strode the Apostle Paul, declaring that Jesus Christ was good news for sexual sinners. He announced to the men and women of Athens and Corinth that they were not beyond the pale. They were not damaged goods. They were not unfit for society. They were sinners, just like anybody else, who could receive forgiveness and cleansing for their sins through the blood of Jesus, and freedom from their sins through the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. As the news of his sexual revolution spread across Corinth, thousands were converted:
“Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
Now that’s sexual revolution. That’s good news for sexual sinners, and it’s where we ought to be directing the discussion. We can’t allow the sexual revolution of the 1960s to be hijacked today by people whose ideas are as old, as vicious and as ineffectual as those of Ancient Athens and Corinth. Instead, let’s preach the Gospel with the Apostle Paul in all its glory. Vive la Révolution!
Phil Moore is posting a series of a dozen blogs on the Everyday Church website as part of his “Sex and Sexuality” series which explore how to embrace the Bible’s true sexual revolution of forgiveness and redemption. You can access them all via the first blog here.
 The speech in which his rival, Aeschines, denounced him has still survived. See his Against Timarchos (346BC).
 Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant in their book Women’s Life in Greece and Rome (1982).
The Quietus is Here
A decision made by the British Supreme Court in July opens the way for thousands of infirm people to be ushered towards a hidden quietus. Dr Peter Saunders explains,
Patients with permanent vegetative state (PVS) and minimally conscious state (MCS) can now be effectively starved and dehydrated to death if the medical staff and relatives agree that this is in their ‘best interests’.
People with PVS (awake but not aware) and MCS (awake but only intermittently or partially aware) can breathe without ventilators but need to have food and fluids by tube (clinically assisted nutrition and hydration or CANH).
These patients are not imminently dying and with good care can live for many years. Some even regain awareness. But if CANH is withdrawn, then they will die from dehydration and starvation within two or three weeks.
Under the old rules, in order to withdraw CANH from such patients, it was necessary to apply to the Court of Protection. Only about 100 such applications have been made in more than twenty years. Under the new rules, no such application is needed and this opens the way for a quiet culling of thousands of patients.
It is unknown exactly how many patients with PVS and MCS there are in the UK but the figure is likely to be between ten and twenty thousand. These patients represent a considerable financial cost to the health system and it is not hard to imagine that – dressed up in humanitarian claims – withdrawing CANH might increasingly be seen as the right thing to do.
This outcome is made more likely by the fact that there is no requirement to list withdrawal of CANH as a cause of death on the death certificate. Instead, the underlying cause of the PVS/MCS can be given. This means that there will be no record of how many patients are dying as a result of withdrawal of CANH, which is bad policy in terms of data collection and makes abuse far more likely. In Belgium, where euthanasia is legal, withdrawal of CANH is recorded as cause of death so that accurate data is collected. Can it be right that the UK is falling behind even this standard?
This is all the more troubling as new research shows that patients with PVS and MCS are not necessarily as unaware or beyond recovery as is often supposed. In fact, four in ten people who are thought to be unconscious are actually aware and one in five people with severe brain injury from trauma will recover to the point that they can live at home and care for themselves without help. This means that the term permanent vegetative state is inaccurate and should be dropped.
The Supreme Court ruling has not attracted much attention. Indeed, when it was reported it was largely in tones of ‘these people are already effectively dead and this will make it easier for everyone concerned.’ But it is not like that. It is euthanasia by the back door, decided by court rather than Parliament. It is a quietus waiting to happen.
The Center for Bioethics and Culture have just released a powerful 45-minute film describing one surrogate mothers story.
Like Big Tobacco and Big Pharma, Big Fertility is what happens when an industry intentionally disregards—and indeed attempts to distract from—the harm it inflicts on its customers in the pursuit of profit. In all the slick marketing around surrogacy there is never any mention of the real and serious potential health risks to the young women who serve as ‘gestational carriers.’
In #BigFertility you will meet Kelly Martinez, a young mother who served as a surrogate mother for three different couples. She was threatened with financial ruin after nearly dying during her third surrogacy. But each of her three surrogacy journeys had a price to pay. Together, the stories of Kelly’s three surrogacies exemplify everything that is wrong with the distorted version of fertility medicine that is Big Fertility. It truly is all about the money.
You can rent or purchase the film here. I’d really encourage you to watch it.
Here is a trailer:
My Favourite New Testament Commentaries
Matthew / Mark: N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God. This is not a commentary on Matthew or Mark. But it is the book that has opened up the meaning of the synoptic Gospels to me more than any other. Skip chapters 2 and 3 unless you’re a NT studies nerd.
Luke: David Lyle Jeffery (Brazos). This is for devotional and homiletic use, and not a verse by verse commentary, but it is tremendously eye-opening. For a more traditional commentary format, try Howard Marshall (NIGTC) or Joel Green (NICNT).
John: D. A. Carson (Pillar). Classic Carson, really: thoughtful, evangelical, wise and theologically sensitive exegesis.
Acts: Ben Witherington (Socio-Rhetorical). I should say, though, that I haven’t read Craig Keener’s four volume monster on Acts, so my recommendation here may not be that valuable.
Romans: Douglas Moo (NICNT), closely followed by Robert Jewett (Hermeneia) and Tom Schreiner (Baker). No NT book has attracted more brilliant commentators; you should also get John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift, Cranfield, Dunn ...
1 Corinthians: Anthony Thiselton (NIGTC). For me, Thiselton incorporates the strengths of all the other great modern commentaries (David Garland, Joseph Fitzmyer, Gordon Fee, Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner, not to mention the Germans), yet adds his own distinct flavour.
2 Corinthians: Paul Barnett (NICNT). Solid exegetical and pastoral work on a somewhat neglected Pauline letter.
Galatians: Douglas Moo (Baker). It will certainly be worth checking out David DeSilva’s new NICNT one, however; it’s coming out any day now.
Ephesians: Frank Thielman (Baker). Lucid, clear exegesis with both a devotional and a homiletic eye on the text, with some wise treatments of difficult parts of the letter as well.
Philippians: Gordon Fee (NICNT). Everyone speaks well of this volume, and with good reason. (Useless trivia: it’s also the first commentary I ever saw Terry Virgo plug at Stoneleigh.)
Colossians / Philemon: N. T. Wright (Tyndale), although the best writing on Philemon itself comes in the opening section of Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
1&2 Thessalonians: I haven’t read enough to know.
1&2 Timothy, Titus: William Mounce (Word). You have to do a pretty amazing job to overcome the annoying format of this particular series, but Mounce does so with room to spare. Phil Towner (NICNT) is also excellent.
Hebrews: William Lane (Word). Lane’s two volumes are outstanding, although I think Peter O’Brien (Pillar) and Paul Ellingworth (NIGTC) are also well worth consulting on this crucial book.
James: I haven’t read enough to know, but I’d certainly give Scot McKnight (NICNT) a try before anyone else.
1 Peter: Karen Jobes (Baker). Wonderful analysis, fluid writing, clear layout and compelling exposition. All the things a commentary is supposed to be.
2 Peter / Jude: Gene Green (Baker). Everyone says Bauckham is excellent here too, although I haven’t read him myself yet.
1, 2 and 3 John: Howard Marshall (NICNT) is the only one I’ve worked through, so this isn’t especially well-informed, but it’s a good volume in a very reliable series.
Revelation: Peter Leithart (ITC). No commentary I’ve read on any biblical book has thrown out as many insights, ideas, connections and provocative interpretations as this one, for all its unexpected judgments (and typos!)
So there’s my list as of today. If you want to tell me I’m wrong, you’ll need to join Twitter ...
An Orientation to the Old Testament
Last month I posted about Brent Strawn’s book Is the Old Testament Dying? I suggested that the critical condition of the Old Testament in many churches is not because we don’t believe the Old Testament is important, but because we lack confidence in how to handle it well. And so, to complement Andrew’s post on his favourite Old Testament commentaries, I thought I would tell you about my favourite series on how to read the Old Testament.
Commentaries are great. I love them (probably too much). A good commentary is like a good guidebook. It gives you a map of the whole area and detailed information about the individual landmarks. But a guidebook is nothing compared to exploring the city or country yourself. And a guidebook doesn’t always show you how it got its information. In the same way, a commentary is never as good as exploring the biblical text yourself, and, though a good commentary sets a good example of how to handle the text, they don’t always show you how they reached their conclusions. If we are always relying solely on commentaries, we’ll miss out on the joy of exploring the text ourselves, and we’ll always be dependent on other people’s conclusions.
Commentaries are great for the end of the reading journey. You get to the landmark; you’ve explored it a bit yourself and have made some tentative conclusions about its history and purpose, and then you turn to the guidebook to check your conclusions and be directed to the bits you’d overlooked. If you turn straight to the guidebook, you might as well have just stayed at home and read it there. Before reaching for the guidebook you need a bit of an orientation.
Enter the Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series from Kregel. If you want a bit of orientation so you feel more confident handling the Old Testament, these books are a great place to start.
The series is designed to help readers to better understand the different genres found in the Old Testament and how to read each one well. Each volume follows the same six-part structure:
- The Nature of the Genres – An introduction to the key genre(s) found in that part of the Old Testament, including common features and their significance.
- Viewing the Whole – An introduction to the key themes of the relevant books of the Old Testament.
- Preparing for Interpretation – Relevant historical background, discussion of issues of text and translation. (The series is aimed at those with a bit of Hebrew knowledge, but has been designed to be accessible to those without. Don’t let that put you off!)
- Interpreting the Text – A discussion of interpretative issues and different approaches to the text, sometimes including invaluable step-by-step guides to tackling a text.
- Proclaiming the Text – Advice on how to go from understanding the text to communicating it to others.
- Pitting It All Together – Ties all the preceding sections together, as the name suggests. Often contains substantial worked examples to show the entire journey from text to interpretation to proclamation.
Why am I such a fan of this series? Let me give you just three reasons:
- The volumes are accessible, full of examples, and not too long. They’re the kind of book a busy preacher can actually hope to find (or make) the time to read.
- The handbooks not only show you how to find the meaning of a text but also how to think through its application and how to communicate it to others. They are basically the perfect training manual for preparing good sermons from the Old Testament.
- They tackle the real nuts and bolts of handling and communicating the Old Testament well. You’ll find answers to the questions you’ve never dared to ask for fear that they’re too obvious and be introduced to a whole load of useful questions of which you’d never even thought before.
So, if you’re conscious that the Old Testament feels like very foreign terrain to you, but you don’t want to always rely on someone else’s work in a guidebook, pick up some of these volumes to get an orientation which will allow you to explore the Old Testament yourself.
The series contains six volumes:
Peter T. Vogt, Interpreting the Pentateuch: An Exegetical Handbook (2009)
Robert B. Chisholm Jr., Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook (2006)
Edward M. Curtis, Interpreting the Wisdom Literature: An Exegetical Handbook (2017)
Mark D. Futato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (2007)
Garry V. Smith, Interpreting the Prophetic Books: An Exegetical Handbook (2014)
Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook (2016)
My Favourite Old Testament Commentaries
Genesis: John Walton (NIVAC). Walton is excellent on Genesis through ancient eyes, and writes well. I also love R. R. Reno (Brazos), but it might not be so useful if you hadn’t already consulted other commentaries.
Exodus: Peter Enns (NIVAC). A superb book that reminds you just how good a biblical scholar Peter Enns was before his fallout with Westminster.
Leviticus: Ephraim Radner (Brazos). Searching and occasionally difficult, but rich, thorough, and full of insight.
Deuteronomy: Gordon McConville (Apollos). Solid analysis of a book that can easily bamboozle. John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch is also very helpful.
1&2 Samuel: Peter Leithart, A Son To Me. Nobody writes on the Israelite monarchy like Leithart (see below), and the connections he makes are often breathtaking.
1&2 Kings: Peter Leithart (Brazos). The best commentary I have ever read on anything, and one of the best five books I have read on anything. Full of devotion, insight, philosophy, typology, history and the gospel. Marvellous.
1&2 Chronicles: it’s not out yet, but I’m waiting for Leithart’s on this as well, for reasons that are probably already clear.
Job: John Walton (NIVAC). The introduction makes you rethink what the book is even about, and having seen it, you won’t look back.
Psalms: Derek Kidner (Tyndale). It’s very difficult to do such a big book justice, but Kidner does a super job here.
Proverbs: Tim and Kathy Keller, The Way of Wisdom. This is a daily devotional, not a commentary, and does not go through the book line by line. But (like its authors) it is full of excellent reflection, application, contextualisation, and most importantly wisdom.
Ecclesiastes: Peter Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns. Warning: this is not a commentary. At all. But I’d be surprised if there was a book that helped you preach on the text, or wrestle with it, more than this one.
Isaiah: Alec Motyer, The Message of Isaiah. The first biblical commentary I ever used for my devotions, and still one of the best on anything. Get this one, rather than his (shorter) Tyndale commentary.
Jeremiah: I’m waiting for Kevin Vanhoozer on this.
Ezekiel: Robert Jenson (Brazos). Sweeping, deep, exegetically careful and theologically illuminating, with the occasional Jensonian quirks thrown in.
Daniel: Ernest Lucas (Apollos). I would have liked a more unapologetic landing on dating and predictive prophecy, but generally an excellent guide to a very complicated book.
The Twelve: I haven’t consulted enough commentaries to know here, but I’m looking forward to James Jordan on Haggai and Zechariah (Brazos) when it comes out.
My New Testament commentary recommendations will follow on Friday.