On Visiting Princeton

In what is surely the largest gathering of verbose dudes in gingham shirts happening anywhere in the Western hemisphere this year, the annual Karl Barth Conference finished up today at Princeton Theological Seminary. The theme of the conference was Barth and the Gospels. Since my PhD thesis is in a large part made up of discussions about Barth’s reading of the Gospel parables, I thought I would fly over and sit in.

It began on Sunday night. After 20 hours of exhausting travelling, myself and my buddy Taido made it on time to barge in on Jurgen Moltmann’s opening address. It might have been worth the journey alone to see the 89 year old saint present the legendarily complex teaching that Barth expounded on predestination and election. The key, he reckons, is to remember that freedom is not unencumbered choice, but relationality. Everything straightens out then, allegedly.

The next morning, Eric Gregory, a Princetonian giant laid out all the ways people read the parable of the Good Samaritan, which was a great way to show just how fascinating Karl’s reading was. Right after him came the Duke Divinity lecturer Willie Jennings, who considered Barth’s interpretation of the Rich Young Ruler and challenged us to unmask the power of Mammon in our life. It was such a great presentation that I enjoyed it, even though it trod right across the very fulcrum of my thesis.

The papers came thick and fast. Like everything that Americans organise, the conference seemed to assume that you can’t be using your time right unless you are busy. We got to listen in on great talks about Barth’s reflections on Jesus in Gethsemane, on the disciples on the road to Emmaus, on the Greek make-up of the first 18 verses of the Gospel of John and the parable of the Prodigal Sons. And that’s not even mentioning the myriad of fine papers delivered in break-out sessions or the conversations had over the fearfully bad coffee, or the talk by Bruce McCormack that may become the matter of myth in the coming years as he began with an extended discussion of a Jose Saramago novel as a set-up to present a mind-bending, intricate argument which says more but not less than that God’s love is generative of death.

I am sure there are people who would like to read a more detailed account of the conference, but I am not the person to write it. I never feel fully at home at an academic conference, because I am at heart not an academic. An exhaustion quickly settles when I have to navigate the strange terrain of conversation among graduate students and early career academics and established veterans. There is little small talk. There is just big ideas. There is little listening, but lots of nodding and hmming and uhhuh-ing. It is work, I suppose. We’re all at work, but for these three days our office is this strange space and we go to work with people who aren’t our colleagues.

Princeton Theological Seminary Library

What I did want to talk about though is America.

I promise to be brief.

Princeton is perhaps the most sumptuous place I have ever been. It is luxurious in a way I can’t communicate. It feels like a 5 star resort but for research. The theological library is the second biggest in the world. Their new books section is about the size of the theology library in its entirety in my home university. Everywhere is air conditioned. The shops all sell very stylish clothes, even if they aren’t fashionable. The houses are run down in the way that requires careful maintenance, invariably done by people with darker skin than me. I have seen more police cars in the 3 days I have been here than I would see in three months in Ireland. There are flags constantly in view, whenever you are out in public.

It is a wonderful place. But its greatness rests on such shaky foundations.

Palmer Square, Princeton

This all became very clear for me when I went to buy stamps for postcards (they have Karl Barth postcards here!!). Inside the beautiful little post office on the beautiful Palmer Square I found a mural. It was painted in 1939, as part of the New Deal, by Karl Free. It reminded me of the public murals you still find lingering from the Soviet era in eastern Ukraine. Whereas that public art was invariably modern and decisive, this is romantic and idyllic. Three white men stand on the left of the piece, dressed in the uniform of Englightenment-era philosophers. They are surrounded by symbols of learning – an antomical skeleton and a globe and Hellenistic sculpture. Their faces are impassively, stoically set towards the right hand side, where the future is found in all graphs. Above them, from the heavens, are angels bearing trumpets. The artist has caught them in the moment of annunciation. There is no Christian imagery anywhere in this painting and the angels are neither the cherubim of popular imagination or the more closely Biblical fear-inducing messengers. They are mature. Directly below them sits Columbia, with her shield of liberty at her feet, a bald eagle perched beside her and behind her the famous Naussau Hall of Princeton University.

The last element of the artwork are two “natives”. They are largely naked, coming out of a jungle of palms, and cowering under the glory of the trumpet ring that heralds the arrival of the book-carrying white men. The native woman is on her knees and might be pulling her man away, out of the scene, frightened to even engage with these civilised characters. Lest this visual feast does not satisfy you, the artist has explained it all in verse beneath:

America! With Peace and Freedom blest,
Pant for true Fame and scorn inglorious rest,
Science invites, urged by the Voice divine,
Exert thyself ’til every Art be thine.

Consider these words. There is no peace even in the image thus depicted. The America that looks upon this art when posting birthday cards to nephews back home and buying packing tape before moving to a bigger house is an America that today pants after fame, and so utterly despises rest – that basic commandment of YHWH – that they do not even assure maternity leave for pregnant women. The science whose invitation they have pursued has created bombs strong enough to kill us all and has been co-opted by an economic system that only staves off killing us because there would be no one left to buy things. The voice divine that animates this artwork is the Unmoved Mover of the Deists, not the God that took on flesh much darker than that of Columbia.

Columbia under the palms

Tonight there is a vigil in Princeton, starting at the local AME church, where the city will walk and stand in solidarity with the victims of racial violence. Then tomorrow they’ll go back to work and back to school and back to the post office and their lives might be exciting and ascetically dedicated to learning or back-breaking and devoted to mowing lawns but they will be so awash in the lies of histories never told that even prayer doesn’t seem to bring relief.

On the globe in the painting, America is literally the only country in the world. Imagine how sad living in that world must be.

I like visiting America. But I think I am very glad that I don’t have to call it home.

Your Correspondent, If you don’t believe him, believe in America!

7 thoughts and a conclusion about the hot topic of the week, that will actually continue to be a critically important topic even after magazines stop talking about it next week.

1.
Christianity can be sorted into all sorts of different buckets. You can parse it by era (apostolic – early – medieval – and so on), place (east and west and the east beyond Russia and the south and the Mediterranean versus northern Europe and Celtic versus Roman and on and on), institutions (a denominational approach), or theologically, liturgically, doctrinally, or how much the priests like getting dressed up in silly clothes.

Having done this, the one thing you can’t do is go out on to the street or down to the church building and actually find the taxonomy you have described. In the Presbyterian church where I discovered that God had indeed charged my baptism with more than water and a chance for a knees-up, devout Roman Catholics would take a seat, eager to hear the Word preached, having come from mass. My pentecostal buddy here in Aberdeen has the deepest sense of creedal liturgy. I could go on.

The point is: there are theological reasons to reject theological abstractions.

***

2.
There is a certain strand of theological ethics that is enamoured with order. You can find thinking of this sort through the eras and in all the places and institutions, as well as all over the theological and liturgical and doctrinal spectra. With such a theology you can sort things in ways that can be very useful. You can sort political power out from ecclesiastical power. You can sort nature from supernature. You can sort man from woman. And the ability to make these distinctions from what is called “created order” can give a structure to the apparent anarchy of our shared lives.

This strand of theological ethics is often very well liked by people with status.

***

3.
In many places in the West today, Christians are commonly scared. Their churches continue to empty. Their balance sheets are thinning. Their connections to power are weakening. All this encourages them to get caught up in a sorry story of the decline of their civilization, with important symbolic losses in courts and legislatures where abortion is decriminalised and gay marriage is legalised and the onward march of euthanasia is unstoppable. The order doesn’t seem to hold anymore, their arguments never seem to land, they sincerely worry about the human life being wasted in an increasingly atomised, consumptive society.

The instinctive reaction of people who find their hold is slipping is to try and grab it even tighter.

***

4.
Transgender issues have been discussed for decades but it seems that they are becoming more pressing in our public discourse. Undoubtedly this is because of the glossy media coverage of celebrities who are struggling with gender identity issues but it may also owe something to the way in which it is pitched as “the next big thing” for us to fight about after gay civil rights. You can leave such analysis aside, because the reality is that our conversation about transgender issues – whatever prompts for-profit media corporations to give it attention – is deeply significant for the many people afflicted with them who aren’t going to be on the front cover of Vanity Fair and don’t have the energy or resources to launch activist campaigns.

We have known for decades that this phenomenon existed and perhaps now we can pay it sustained attention.

***

5.
The default mode of the early 21st century person who lives in the Western world, when confronted by transgenderism, is to applaud the existential self-actualisation involved in coming out. As Hauerwas never tires of saying, we are the people whose story is that we have no story apart from the story we choose for ourselves. The problem with this, in the realm of gender dysphoria and in so many other realms, is that we are not our own. We come to discover our “I”, straightforwardly cis-gendered or in ways that are more complicated and fraught, in the midst of a “We”. The people we discover ourselves in the midst of have some real purchase on who we are.

Alongside the deep trauma of gender dysphoria for the one who suffers, there is trauma for those all around.

***

6.
The default mode of the early 21st century Christian who lives in the Western world, when confronted by transgenderism, is to lament how this condition destroys order. The categories are all messed up. The structures that we take for granted disintegrate and we are confronted with the troubling reality of the way everything we make falls. We construct these ways of being human; male and blue, and female and pink, one side taciturn and stoic and the other emotional and sensitive. And then they slide out of place and what can we do except groan in deep human empathy for those trapped inside this pincer movement of social construct and internal identity.

If the doctrine of the Fall cannot anticipate gender dysphoria, we are devastatingly under-estimating how far things fall.

***

7.
Then the smart, order-loving Christians reflect on all this and they notice that gender dysphoria expresses itself in the modes that are dominant in the culture. So the man who comes to identify as a woman buys into the tropes of femininity that are propogated by late-capitalism. This is how you end up with transgender celebrities in lingerie on the front of magazines. The stark order created by the binary of male and female has been challenged for so very long that when it gets challenged not as intellectual game but as the deepest form of existential angst, these Christian thinkers think they see a flaw. Equipped by a theological system that can find a place for everything, they describe those who are transgendered as sadly futile, a hollow parody of what our society mistakes for masculinity or femininity. This thinking holds that because their identity is so wafer-thin, the phenomenon can be disregarded. This is a grave mistake. It is disdain posturing as theology. There are internal incoherencies present in the accounts of those who are transgendered, in the same way that there are internal incoherencies in all our accounts of self.

In other words, of course gender dysphoria expresses itself in gender-normative terms, because the people suffering from gender dysphoria live in a gender-normed society!

***

Conclusion
The question raised by people who are transgendered is not a question about gender. It is a question about humanity. “Masculine” and “feminine” may be ideas that can be useful in some conversations. But like the taxonomies of Christianity, you’ll never encounter the taxonomies of gender out on the street, or down at the church building. You won’t even be sure to meet “man” or “woman”. You’ll meet people. With names they were given by their parents, and names that they took from their spouses, and names that they changed by deed poll to avoid abusive partners, or for a prank, or because of gender reassignment therapy. And the Scriptures tell us that none of these actual people even know their names. Jesus will reveal that to them when the time comes.

Christians are tempted by accounts of the world that promise order because in times of change, order promises stability. But Christians cannot be seduced by accounts of the world that do not begin with Jesus. The natural orders we locate in tradition, or culture, or science do not win our allegiance. The fully human one – who was biologically male but who took form in the womb of a biological female – is the one to whom we owe our allegiance. The fully human one is the one we turn to when we seek wisdom about what it is to be human.

People with gender dysphoria suffer immense trauma and stress. Their families do too. The weight of being this uncategorizable type in world obssessed with categories and in a species addicted to types is too much to bear. Suicide rates are so high as to constitute a crisis, with or without the incentive of celebrity interviews to drive the narrative.

Christians are tempted to take positions, aided by reasoning that seems solid because it is built off of orders that appear to be natural. If we find a firm place to stand, then we can start moving again. On this, as on so many issues, I plead with my friends to resist calcifying. We’re not really talking about the transgendered issue. We’re talking about people, people bearing an incredible weight.

Jesus is not a theological abstraction. He is not a container full of propositions that allow us to advance our piety or politics. Jesus is a man who lived a life paid for by women and who preached sermons about eunuchs. Gender identity (and indeed, for a conversation on a different day, sexual identity) is as native to Jesus as it is to you or I or Chelsea Manning. We don’t abstract Jesus’ humanity and break it into components that can be placed in little boxes. We don’t do that to ourselves. We should oppose doing it to others.

I realise I have written 1500 words to say “we don’t need to have a position”. So obviously that is my position. But that is not an evasion. It is theological stance that would train us to shut up long enough to learn how to listen. In shutting up, we might see there is reason to hope where we thought there was reason to fear. In listening we might hear the word of God break in and strip away our flimsy self-made personae as ordered people. Regardless, we will at least be close enough to make friends with people just as confused as we are about how to go on being human.

Your Correspondent, Broker than an old VCR

How To Bake A Gay Cake

Today in Northern Ireland, a civil court found in favour of a gay rights activist who brought a case charging a prominent bakery – Asher’s – with discrimination. Last year Gareth Lee had ordered a cake with Bert and Ernie on it and a slogan supporting gay marriage. Asher’s initially accepted the order but then two days later reneged on the deal, citing their Christian faith as the motivation for turning down the work.

I think this ruling is best described as asinine. The great risk of identity politics is that it will be reduced to the freedom to purchase our identity and in this instance, that seems to quite literally be at play. Whatever about the reaction of the people who brought this case and the people who defended this case, Mammon is delighted about the verdict.

But the over-riding impression that I have following this case is the sense I have had from the beginning. Something is very amiss about what Irish Christians seem to think is a public voice. The freedom to not make cakes is not a promising start for trying to enact a New Testament social witness. There are legitimate reasons to stress about how deep our concept of free speech is in such cases, but there are deeper concerns about how deep our concept of mission is (as well as legitimate concerns about cross-sectional discrimination against gay people!).

I am a reasonably skilled baker. I am a wizard with old bananas or a few carrots or a half finished box of malteasers. So let me share with you and any potential Christian bakers out there my recipe for Gay Cake.

    1. Take Mark 12:30-31 and reflect on the nature of neighbour love. Think how outraged many Christians would be if a prominent secular family of bakers outright refused to make Easter-themed cakes anymore. What does it now mean to love your neighbour as yourself?
    2. Add in Matthew 5:41 and consider how Jesus used the example of a genuine enemy to describe the social engagement of his followers. The audience of the Sermon on the Mount were Hebrews, oppressed in their homeland by the undefeatable and pyschopathic might of the pagan Roman Empire. The backstory to “walk a mile in their shoes” is the legal blank cheque that Roman soldiers had to humiliate and denigrate the local population. Even to chief enemies – the rapists of your women, the murderers of your sons, the thieves of your land, the insulters of your God – even to these should compassion be shown.
    3. Fold in Matthew 5:44 which tells you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Don’t go overboard here with whisking because the idea is so similar in texture to the previous one that it will just flow right into the mix. After all, if Christians in Ireland did have some genuine persecuting enemies, the clear and unavoidable teaching is that we should love them and pray for them. Loving them means contact with them and praying for them creates some sense of openeness and empathy for them.
    4. With these three ingredients ready to go, you now need to bake it for an hour in a kitchen. Consider the kitchen of Simon the Pharisee, or Zacchaeus the tax collector or the numerous places where Jesus engages in table fellowship with people whom he ought to stay clear of. The Pharisee is a particularly good case because on the surface, he is the kind of guy you want to have marry your daughter, so to speak. He is fine and decent and upstanding. But he judges Jesus for the way he welcomes the attentions of a disreuptable woman. Commentators down through the centuries have speculated that the woman was a prostitute. It seems the upstanding religious impulse has wanted to distance dinner parties from sexual immorality even before Belfast bakers said no to Ernie.

The New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg has a wonderful little book called “Contagious Holiness” about the way that Jesus used meals to both instruct his followers in his Way and to initiate the reality of that Way in his followers. If the ingredients of this gay cake are clear teachings of Jesus, the oven it is baked in are the many cases where Jesus transgressed both societal norms and the internal coherence of his own movement if he was just another religious guru selling enlightenment. He issues teachings with Godlike authority and then interprets them with Godlike audacity. He has no fear of contamination. He acts as if he is the one who is a contagion. The saltiness and the light that he represents gets passed around along with the bread-basket. He eats with anyone and everyone.

Christians should be the same way. The Ashers are sincere and obviously very committed to Christianity. They have the stamina and the cojones to back up what they say they believe. They are not bigots. They are not worthy of scorn. But I do think they missed an opportunity when they didn’t bake the Ernie and Bert cake. As one Christian to other Christians, I suggest there was a better way.

Our voice in the public square is no longer going to be about power. Our voice in the public square can no longer be about having friends in high places. Our voice in the public square should not be about how we have special rules for conducting our business affairs. Based on the specification of electoral politics, Christians will therefore be increasingly silent in the public square. This is very good news. When we stop speaking the language of power, people will finally get a chance to listen in on us as we worship the one who, forsaking power, triumphed over power, and killed death. He was hospitable even to death, he went as far as hell, he did this to set the captives free.

We can bake cakes for gay people, for capitalist people, even for Baptists. Jesus wants to welcome them all. We should too.

Your Correspondent, Has your cake and will eat it too

After demonstrating the patience that marks true friendship, by reading my 3,500+ word screed on theological stances towards marriage equality in Ireland, a dear friend asked me to elaborate on the theological reasons that we have for not imposing our theology on law.

Jesus and politics

I love questions that allow me to badly regurgitate ideas that Stanley Hauerwas has taught us.

But let me be brave and try to sketch this out without blatantly ransacking the old works published by my teacher and so exposing what another friend called, as if he was alluding to a B.O. issue, my “Anabaptist tendencies”.

I study wealth. This leads me to reading many books about capitalism and globalisation, markets and money. I have become reasonably competent at guiding people through the Christian tradition on how to engage with wealth. And I have noticed that thinking about the theology of having more than you need casts a great deal of light on thinking about other aspects of the Christian life. For one thing: when you get paid to read books about getting paid, you start to really notice how often Christians get agitated about, well, getting laid.

So Christians that I know and love and respect are very agitated about the idea of marriage equality but they are not really comparably concerned (at least by reference to their external acts) about wealth (in)equality. We want to maintain a legal framework that encourages our sexual ethic but we do not want to build a legal framework that encourages our wealth ethic.

Perhaps the reason is because we have no wealth ethic. We just have claims about God in one hand, and our day-to-day life with our bank account in the other, and the left doesn’t know what the right is doing and we are happy with that.

If that seems unfair, let me ask you when was the last time you deliberated on the nature of usury? When was the last time you heard a sermon about the dangers of usury? When was the last time a Christian got themselves invited on drivetime radio to debate with politicians about the futility and delusionary nature of societies constructed on usury?

Christians have reason, it would seem, to impose their views about usury on the world. The Bible is very clear. Usury is out of bounds. The people of God do not engage with it. They cancel debts. They forgive debts. They do not profit from debt. They were enslaved in Egypt, they are now liberated from enslaving others with fictional bonds.

Jesus on money-lenders

Laws progressively changed in post-Reformation Europe so that the concept of usury is now effectively meaningless for us in any legal sense. The failure of the British government to clampdown on parasites like Wonga demonstrates how in a critical contemporary ethical zone a basic Christian commitment has been so unlegislated as to be silent. The Archbishop of Canterbury rails against Wonga, but he is unusual in that. I have heard more Christians laud the welfare cuts, systemic underemployment, and brutal surveillance of David Cameron’s Satanically named “Big Society” than I have heard Christians offer quiet critique of 3000% APR rates.

So why do Christians not lobby for laws that limit (nevermind prohibit) usury?

There are two reasons, as I can see it. Both are pertinent. The first is that we cannot successfully get them passed. We’re better off putting our energy into realisable political goals – like getting funding for a huge educational tapestry that shows Jesus first fighting and then taming the raptors in Jurassic Park that once and for all teaches children the folly of Darwninism.

The second is that we cannot achieve what we want to achieve by passing such laws.

We have laws against murder because it is evident to everyone why murder is wrong. We do not have laws against usury (and soon gay marriage) because it is not evident to everyone why they are wrong. It is only because it was revealed to us that we claim that we should not establish industries that are predicated on profiting without reference to the success of our partners. Murder destroys civilisation. It is not evident that usury does. When we say usury is wrong (something few of us actually seem to believe), we are not just making a claim about licit financial transactions but making a claim about the very nature of reality.

Strip usury out of our society, without that transformation being embedded in a deep trust in the grace and covenant shared with us by the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and we will just find new and more devious ways to enslave each other. Unless we actually believe that God stands opposed to all our attempts at mastering others, boycotting usury will just be window dressing.

In the same way, living for generations in societies where gay people couldn’t get married didn’t create societies where people trusted and lived out the strange and upside-down logic of Christian sexuality.

So pragmatically we can’t pass these anti-usury laws we’ve never even thought about, because no one agrees with us. And on a deeper level, we can’t pass these anti-usury laws because they don’t achieve what we long to see.

This is not some secret anabaptist retreat from the public square. Rather, it is a theologically coherent position that arises from dwelling on what our theological vision for our communities actually looks like. Law limits excess. But the goodness of God is always in excess. Law is great for doing some things, like drawing lines for acceptable behaviour and arranging ways to fight with each other without resorting to pistols at dawn. But the Gospel pushes us over the lines into unacceptable behaviour and it is forever aligning us to love those we are logically meant to fight.

Other arguments can be offered. For example: one could read Hauerwas’ many references to Walter Rauschenbusch as a lesson in how successfully changing society for the better can still lead to Christian unfaithfulness. I could offer a theological argument for the value of tolerance, grounded in the doctrine of hospitality. Tolerance, remember, implies disagreement. But welcoming those we disagree with is central to who we are meant to be as people of the Eucharist. We could argue from history and consider the hellish place Ireland often was when Christians got to make up the laws to suit themselves.

But I think thinking about our failure to think about usury is a good way to approach this question because of how it implicates us. The things we fight for reveal the things we believe. Christians genuinely do want to see strong families and so on, and hence some people are very vexed about gay marriage. But the things we don’t fight for also reveal the things we believe.

Usury shows us that we don’t believe we can bring in the Kingdom by passing laws.

Your Correspondent, Would raise a white flag, but even that is too much participation

*On How Strange Is The Collusion Between Christian Marriage And Civil Marriage*
One afternoon in 2004, I got two buses across Dublin with my girlfriend and knocked on the door of a nice house on a tree lined avenue. A harried, welcoming woman showed us into the living room, littered with the debris of an abandoned board game and we waited awkwardly for the man of the house to return. This he did, within minutes. He was bearded and friendly and he was prepared with a set of forms that we were to sign in his presence.

He was a Presbyterian minister. We wanted to get married. He was the Presbyterian minister designated with taking care of the marriage forms on behalf of the Presbytery. Those forms needed to be dispatched to a government office and arrive there not less than six weeks before the well spoken woman sitting beside me agreed to become Wife-unit.

I am sure I have friends in the Anglican churches who can make a strong argument that there is something gracious and meritous about the fact that our covenantal commitment to each other on our wedding day was so immersed in form filling. But ever since Henry VIII decided he wanted to have a religion of his own, God has had to maintain an office building in heaven. Anglicans are eternal bureacrats and they get bored in paradise if they don’t get to photocopy things and file them.

The rest of Christianity suspects that the excellence of marriage might be somewhat diminished by having to stop in the middle and apply for a tax write-off.

Administration

Why did we start doing this?

***

*On How Biblical Marriage Is About God, Not A Political Campaign*
The Bible is almost as long as the Harry Potter books. So it is impossible to isolate particular themes and elevate them to supremacy. There’ll always be contestation about interpretation. But I think a reasonable Christian summation is that the overarching story is about God and the God in question is whoever it was who raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.

I think it is also a reasonable bet that Christians, who worship that insistently particular God who took on flesh and dwelled among a few hundred people in a small village in the armpit of the Levant, tend to be suspicious of big overarching stories. They will want you to show them how that compressed movieposter summation works out. When you look inside the books, you find very often that the story works out along the plotlines of marriage.

This is why Christians fall into the trap of talking about Biblical marriage. There is so much of it! They say that Adam and Eve is the beginning, even though they definitely didn’t meet Rev. Alan Boal and get their papers processed. The subsequent chapters of Genesis are full of horrendous polyamory and misogyny that is so brutal, it is a wonder we let our kids read it. Women are property and security and playthings. The first book of the Bible is full of dysfunctional families and it doesn’t improve from there. David killed a man to take his wife. Solomon kept a harem. The book of Esther tells the story of a kind of heroic divine prostitute, who wins a competition to become a concubine of a foreign king. God tells the prophet Hosea that he is to marry Gomer, a prostitute, and what happens next is the clickbait worthy book called Hosea. Even the Holy Family fails the tradition test. Mary is a teenager when she hears the news from Gabriel. There is nothing comfortable and suburban and sanitised about marriage in the Bible.

Stoneybatter

In fact, a sustained sensitive reading might lead one to believe that the Scriptures expose – in the brokenness of the stories it unflinchingly depicts – the ways in which marriage can break us, especially those of us who are women. It is an institution, and therefore Christians should be wary of it because institutions get corrupted. We are meant to believe that guys. Not just as a generally observable fact but as an eschatological reality. The powers and principalities with which we engage are not neutral.

Easy talk about God’s will for marriage is easy because it isn’t wrestling with reality. True language is hard fought.

Below the surface stories of marriage is a deeper narrative arc. God’s faithfulness to the promises made to the Iraqi pagan called Abrahm is again and again depicted as a marriage. Israel is to be the bride of YHWH. Israel is adulterous. The church is to be the bride of Christ. The church is adulterous. Marriage takes on a significance not because it is so romantic or because it is what human beings are made for or because of some natural law. It is significant for us because God uses it as an analogy to describe what his faithfulness looks like. When we consider the paltry trustworthiness we can muster for ourselves, by negative reflection, the Scriptures suggest, we can come to see what God’s gloriously reliable trustworthiness looks like.

Biblical marriage talk shouldn’t lead to a conclusion where we talk about ourselves. Biblical marriage should lead us to pay attention to God.

I am not opposed to us wading into public squares and getting all hypostatic about our unions. We should be unashamedly Christian in our political speech. The Gospel is public truth. We can’t stop being Christians when we come to deliberate as citizens. Jesus is Lord means Caesar isn’t! But if you follow the Biblical theology I am sketching out in the broadest terms, then you begin to see why “Biblical marriage” is not the engine of an electoral argument. It doesn’t result in a message we can put on a billboard, or even cram into a manifesto.

Living in a republic, we have theological reasons for not imposing our theology on laws. That is not a capitulation of theology any more than it is an elevation of republics (both mistakes can be made but are not necessarily going to be made!). When we take the deep story of divine marriage that comes to its climax in Revelation and instrumentalise it to a political argument about how people’s relationships can be recognised in a state with a dwindling number of Christian adherents, we might be making a theological, missional, and political mis-step.

***

*On Natural Laws And Slippery Slopes*
I am writing this on a sunny Saturday afternoon because my friend sent me an email during the week and asked me to write. She had heard that when the referendum passes, all sorts of bills will automatically be passed. This is not how republics function. This referendum affirms a reorganisation of a clause in the constitution that has already been passed in the Dáil. It doesn’t do anything else. When that bill becomes law, it is like all other bills – passed by the representatives we elected. That will continue to be the case. We did not need to have this referendum. Because of the fact that the constitution never thought to stipulate gender in the marriage clause, the Dáil could have just passed this law. They didn’t do that because of a perception that this law is culturally significant and needs the unusual imprimatur of a general referendum.

One of the drawbacks of a yes/no referendum is that it can only ask a yes/no question. And as everyone who has ever been part of a home Bible study group can attest to, the conversation that follows from that kind of question is usually crappy. In this instance, the conversation has been full of inflated rhetoric about the inevitable march of liberty and equality and fraternity from the Yes campaign and ramshackle digressions about natural law and surrogacy and feminism and all sorts of distractions from the No campaign. If I was home for the vote, I’d be tempted to spoil my vote with a hastily composed cartoon of a dog marrying a cat and “MAKES YOU THINK” scrawled over it.

One of the concerns that Christians have is that this is a redefinition of marriage and that starts us on a slippery slope. Of course, in 1996 we redefined marriage when we permitted divorce. And we redefined it when we made the idea of rape coherent within marriage. And we are currently redefining it to make it illegal to arrange kinship marriages. We call that “forced marriage” and Christians gladly support that redefinition, even though it raises questions of religious liberty.

It is absolutely clear that the referendum presents a redefinition of marriage. I have tried to suggest above that our political goal ought not be to make the law look like our theology. So if the redefinition is occurring, Christians who are ambivalent about divorce and wholeheartedly against forced marriage need to justify some serious grounds for calling this redefinition a slippery slope.

And here I think it is useful for us to remember how law happens. It is not truly the case that after the referendum, gay people in Ireland will suddenly be able to form unions that fulfill all the requirements of civil marriage. There are gay couples living in such unions in every city and town and village in Ireland. The law is catching up with life as it is lived. We are not at the top of a slippery slope. We are at the base of a mountain of injustice.

I am an evangelical Christian. I am a proponent of the traditional Christian sexual ethics. I think marriage is for life and between a man and a woman and that sex should happen inside marriage. But I am an evangelical Christian. I am an heir of the nuanced and deep social thought we can draw on. I don’t expect my non Christian friends to see their marriages like I see mine, or to live their sex lives like I failingly try to live mine.

But while my friends who were married in a civil office approach their relationships with a very different set of justifications and hopes and desires than Wife-unit and I in our deeply Christian worship service, the end result in the eyes of the state is the same. The Republic of Ireland determinedly ignored Rev. Dr. Keith McCrory’s words at the end of our service: “What God has brought together, let no man pull asunder.” The forms we signed mean that there are a bunch of reasons for this man or my woman to pull the union asunder, because fundamentally, the state acts as if God doesn’t exist. We might lament that, or celebrate that, but let’s not be confused about that.

In a society that lives etsi deus non daretur, there are many people who have meaningful relationships that mirror marriage. They are marriages in the eyes of the state. They are monogomous sexual unions where intimacy extends to all material aspects of life. That people can selflessly serve each other for decades and then find at the end that there is no way to let the other care for them in their dying or that they can sacrificially give to each other and yet not have that bond recognised by the society is an injustice. Marriage redresses the injustice.

“But it is against nature!” say some. “But I am a Christian!” I answer! After Easter Sunday, after the Incarnation, after the call of Abrahm, we don’t make arguments from nature. There is no more secular argument.

“But what’s to stop people marrying 3 people, or their sister, or their garden fence?” query some. “Nothing!” I answer. We can live as counter-witnesses, faithful to what the Spirit calls us into. We can form communities where our distinctive and strange marriage is practiced. We can show grace to each other and grace to our neighbours. And we can hope things get better. But if they do get worse, law is one way we can limit excess and if in decades we need to make more redefinitions, we shouldn’t mistake acknowledging how things are with how we want them to be.

Slippery slopes

We’re Christians. Of all people, we should be invested in telling it as it is. We’re religiously devoted to the truth!

Here’s my mischievous question to the natural law folk: Why do so many gay people want to get married?

It used to be that homosexual life was a genuine sub-culture, forced into the shadows at the margins of our shared life. It is no longer the case now. Do we think that vice can flourish more easily today? Do we think that virtue is hampered by tolerance? Homosexuality used to be disparaged for the wanton culture that it was associated with. Now it is synonymous with gentrification and farmer’s markets. If you want to make an argument from some critical redefinition of how reality is, it seems that this radical community has been converted to desire the most conservative of institutions.

The Iona Institute should see this massive movement as its historic victory. Give people space, and they form society-constructing, economy-driving units of suburban flourishing!

I jest, but only in part.

And here’s my deathly serious question to the slippery slope folk: What else is a slippery slope?

My friend Geoff Lillis has shown that the Irish Catholic bishops seem to be unable to do basic moral calculus because they think gay marriage is a grave threat but couldn’t find the same potency in their words about systematic child abuse. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has issued letters about both the civil partnership bill in Northern Ireland and the marriage referendum in the Republic but has said absolutely nothing about seven years of the most depraved austerity. The Evangelical Alliance released a nuanced but ultimately cautious statement but for all the midweek events happening in churches ahead of the referendum, there has never been an event (that I am aware of) about how the Irish state colluded in the “War on Terror” alliance and so supported a global network of torture.

Violence against children, class war, and participation in torture machines – these are slippery slopes. You can be a No voter. You can even be a No voter and argue from natural law or slippery slopes. But I would urge Christians to ask themselves why certain ethical issues exercise them and others don’t.

***

*So What Should We Do?*
I don’t even have a vote. Irish citizens who live outside of Ireland are, inexplicably, not allowed to vote in referenda. If I was home, I would vote yes. But it would be an apathetic yes. I don’t think a yes will bring about the end of civilization, nor a utopia of mutual respect. I think it will lead to a lot of joyous days for couples whose relational bond deserves our respect and gratitude. It is good when people are good to each other. I also think it will lead to a lot of alterations in what future generations think is normal. But I carry a black piece of plastic in my pocket with a clear screen on the front. When I tap it, it answers every question I ever have. I take it for granted. If I showed it to someone from 1995 they’d think it so abnormal that they’d mistake me for a wizard. I suppose if I was time-travelling, that would make me sort of a wizard. My point is that what we think of as normal is always fluid. “Normal” is not a category Christians aspire to – just ask any nerdy friendless church kid. I am quite sure my grandchildren will think my habit of taking short-haul flights to be a habit of grotesque, selfish depravity. To me it is just normal.

Things change.

We should change too. We should stop doing the state’s job. Christians have a fascinating and rich and complex approach to marriage that is a witness to God’s grace in the world and it is utterly obscured because it is ubiquitous. Why confuse it with civil marriage?

We don’t need a referendum, a campaign, or even little logos stamped on our social media images. We can just start having a civic marriage on an anonymous Wednesday afternoon when it suits us. And on a different, special day we can have a thing called a wedding and invite our communities to raise the roof in praise of the God who is faithful in a way that we can sometimes, vividly discern in the close friendship of marriage. What this does is reorganise our shared life so that we are less likely to think that it is our job to make the history of Ireland turn out well. It is a habit of reorganisation that would teach us that the vibrancy of our shared life and the legitimacy of our praise is not dependent on the state agreeing with it, or pretending to not disagree with it. We are followers of the one whose first miracle was to make 500 litres of wine for a wedding party. There were no forms filled in. There was no regard for tax individualisation. There was rejoicing.

Now is a good time to commit to a different way of being Christian. Whatever is coming after Christendom is going to be a place where we are set free to be irrelevant. Juicy things will come from that freedom.

***

*Conclusion*
There were other forms we filled in in 2004 that I remember. There was a referendum that drew very little attention from Christian leaders. Churches were not organising mid-week meetings to ensure that congregations were informed and prepared. That referendum passed as rampantly as this one will. And it was a travesty that I often reflect on. We collectively agreed that babies born in Ireland weren’t Irish unless their parents were.

Nobody made a fuss about natural law that time.

There were no prominent churchmen grabbing the mic and shouting about the slippery slope of dehumanization that this law represented.

The Irish constitution now says that babies born in Ireland aren’t Irish unless other factors are met. How’s that for pro-life? How’s that for love-your-neighbour? How’s that for welcome-the-stranger-and-the-orphan?

The Irish church needs to reflect on how they fail to be prophetic. This campaign, that I have observed from a distance, has so little light or laughter or good news in it, one wonders where the Gospel actually is. Why is God so feeble that we can be so afraid? We are screeching, not singing. We have gotten it wrong so often, we should maybe think about taking a break from telling society how to live. We have a lot of housework to do. We have a lot of repenting to do. We can’t listen for the Spirit if we’re always talking (says he after writing 100 lines!).

Parts of the Irish church seems to find itself looking around and saying, “Where are we?” We feel we have woken up in a foreign place and an alien land. We cannot comprehend the decisions people make. We seem to use the language spoken here with a thick tongue, confusing people and offending people and boring people. We are in a foreign land. We haven’t yet woken up. When we do, we will set off on the long walk out of exile, towards our home. When we do, we will have moments of clarity where we remember the riches we have squandered and fear for the reception we will get from our father. On that long walk we won’t have time to influence power, or make the world a better place, or protect the natural order of things. We need to go home. We need to find the embrace of our father again. We need to rediscover our identity – not as kingmakers, or entrepreneurs, or gurus – but as sons and daughters who are beloved and forgiven. The scandal of our sin has not yet struck us and so we are worse than charlatans as we lament the sin in others.

There are fancy political theologies that we need to develop. And there are serious liturgical reforms that we need to initiate. But the problem that the Irish church faces today is the same one it has faced in all the years I have been a Christian: we still do not believe that to repent is to be set free. We cling to power and status and rules and law and concepts of righteousness and the divide between in and out and pure and dirty and with all that feverish activity, we don’t stop to listen. The Spirit speaks. The Spirit persists. We don’t need to protect marriage. We don’t need to save the family. We don’t even need to have the right theology of sexuality. We need to listen.

Your Correspondent, Going back to shutting up

Why You Should Define Your Terms
Peter Leithart is one of the most prolific theologians writing today and his books are always worth a look. He writes a blog – an old fashioned, often updated, here’s-what-I’ve-been-thinking blog – for the conservative American magazine First Things. Sadly, because it is a blog, he sometimes publishes things that I suspect an editor would stick a firm red line through. For example, last week he called feminism “gender arianism.”

One of the basic tasks of honest thinking is to do justice to your opponent. You will never arrive at the truth if you don’t account for those you disagree with in such a way that they would stand over how you have described them. Feminism is a massive, many branched thing. It is a splendiferous diversity, such that one can easily be a feminist (because you have strong allegiance with some or a large chunk of the movement) but you could never really be an anti-feminist (opposed to everything that could be called feminist). After all, each of the different waves and movements have one thing in common – they are activist movements that seek to end sexism and its associated oppressions.

Leithart offers no definition of how he uses the word “feminism” and he doesn’t even offer any clues to help us. There is no accounting for the diversity of feminist thought. There is just “feminists”, a conceptual unity, who apparently “reject the Genesis account of creation as misogynist.” I think I could find feminists who would reject this account of feminists. I would raise my hand but I am too busy angrily typing. Wife-unit would raise her hand but she is too busy burning her bra.

Pat Robertson

Who was Arius?
Feminism is, it seems, a form of gender Arianism. “What the hell is Arianism?”, asks everyone who has never been to seminary.

Arius was a 4th Century Christian teacher who became one of the first and most notable heretics in the church. As Rowan Williams has shown, Arius was not some evil caricature of a false teacher. He was a serious ascetic who felt that the language that Christians were using to describe Jesus’ identity was in error. All this talk of homoousia and pre-existing eternal divinity was an innovation to Arius’ mind and a dangerous one at that. The central concern for Arius was that Jesus was not pre-existent. He was not properly, originally divine. So Leithart summarises Arius well when he talks of a “twofold assumption behind Arianism.” The church decided that he was wrong. And his views about Jesus were ruled out of bounds. That is what heresy is. It is the markings on the pitch that determine where theology can play. You cross into Arianism and the ball is out of play.

File photograph of Arius, lounging around while the bishops do the hard work at Nicea

 

Now there are two big problems with what Leithart has written and they replicate enough in common Christian conversation: Misapplication of the word “heresy” and blindness to where your argument really leads.

Stop Dropping the H(eresy)-Bomb
The first is the colloquial use of the word “heresy”. Arianism is a heresy and a heresy is a sort of border we cannot cross. But heresy is the most formal language that the church can deploy. It would be a dreadful mistake to take the ancient heresies and start applying them willy-nilly, wherever their resemblances could be discerned. We could no doubt make a superficially scholarly argument that that kind of habit should be called rhetorical Donatism but Donatism is an ecclesiological heresy and we would be warping it to, well, apply it willy-nilly, wherever a resemblance could be discerned!

Serious Christian speech involves taking care of our language. Let us not start comparing feminism to Arianism, unless of course a specific feminist starts teaching Arianism. Heresy is a special category, determined by councils, not individuals and specified with precision, not as a stylistic flourish to short-cut an argument.

The alternative is that you’ll start calling me a Star Wars Marcionite because I want to cut out the first three movies when I am giving any hypothetical future kids an education in film. And while there is an elegance in combining the nerdiness of Star Wars with the nerdiness of church history, it is probably a bit over the top to call someone a heretic for disagreeing with you about Jar Jar Binks.

The Incoherency Of Complenetarianism
Leithart’s argument is a variety of what might be called complementarianism. This is the position within the church that holds that men and women are equal, but different. They complement each other, see? The difference argument sometimes is a tedious Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus variety and other times is an even more tedious argument from some “natural law” but what it amounts to is that men get to preach and women get to listen.

That mansplaining remains a Christian doctrine is a sad thing.

Complementarians are happy to live under the authority of a female President, as they are happy to live under female Supreme Court judges, female surgeons, female police officers, female primary school teachers, female basketball coaches, female environmental health inspectors and female playwrights but they draw the line at female preachers. Their reading of Scripture leaves them in this strange quandary.

Whenever I press my friends – and I have dear and beloved friends of both genders who fiercely hold this position – they tell me that this is what the Bible says and that Eve was made from Adam so there is some intrinsic ordering at play that means that preaching and priesting is a male-only thing.

That the first creation narrative in Genesis doesn’t have ordering is never fully acknowledged. That Paul who references this argument elsewhere praises female teachers and gives guidance for how women should prophesy in church is not fully acknowledged.

And this is where Leithart’s argument is very werid. I’ve been mulling it over this week and I think it reveals an incoherency in the complementarian position.

Leithart’s argument is that feminism has a blanket rejection of Genesis and that rejection is based on a perception of misogyny. (Let us skip over the fact that there are so many reasons why individual feminists might not take Genesis as sacred, most fundamentally that they might not be Jewish or Christian!) The critical move comes right at the end. Leithart says that the misogyny in Genesis is diagnosed by feminists because they think that “to be second is to be subordinate.” Arius thought that too. So feminists resemble Arius. And QED: feminism is gender Arianism.

Am I imagining this? This argument freaking DESTROYS the complementarian position.

If priority does not equate to primacy, then that the first priests were male in no way excludes women from being priests today, or bishops, presbyters, elders, pastors, deacons, ministers, or whatever title you want to give to the people who hold the keys. If priority does not equate to primacy, then the entire edifice of cultural reasoning that allows some Christians to block the way of women with gifts and calling from the pulpit falls away.

TL;DR
You can’t call people you disagree with heretics, unless they are guilty of that specific heresy (and found guilty of that in an actual council of the church!). You certainly can’t do ad-hoc extensions of heresy so that 4th Century disputes about the nature of the Trinity become grounds for attacking 21st Century feminism. But the one thing that Leithart gets right in this post – that coming first doesn’t make you best – is completely misapplied. That is not a stick with which to beat feminists. It is the collapsing walls complementarians have constructed around the Bible.

When your defensive walls fall in on yourself, maybe you’ve misidentified your enemy?

Your Correspondent, From Earth, like all women.

My mother worked as a teacher all through her working life. She left for school before me and got home after me. Me and my five siblings never fully understood all the cultural nod-and-wink jokes about women wearing the trousers because of course women wore trousers. My mom dressed appropriately for corralling 36 little girls into tiny chairs to learn long division. Even as a very small boy, my perplexity at sexism was only matched by my fury. What kind of crap were these people spouting when they imagined there were some things that only men could do.

I became a Christian under the teaching of a woman. She was 16, so I suppose she was a girl, but she had the smarts and maturity to beat this confident atheist around every debating venue in which I dared to engage her. She batted away my trolling on Leviticus and forced me to confront the gentle genius of the Gospel of Luke and she had to come at me in a myriad of ways before that glorious gold coin of grace finally dropped and got what the whole thing – I mean everything – was all about.

I recently met an old acquaintence at a theology conference. In a room largely filled with old white men, she explained some of the profound difficulties that she faced as a serious scholar who happens to not have the required anatomy to be heard by much of the Christian church. I might think that it is my voice that gets me a hearing in the church. But it is my chromosomal make-up that invites me to the mic in the first place.

*

The Christmas story is very often overwhelmed by our familiarity with it. At the annunciation of the coming of Jesus, Mary breaks out into song. She is a teenaged girl, bound to a lifetime of speculative gossip over the birth of this baby outside of wedlock. But in her song, her worries are not her concern:

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Mary is reaching into the Hebrew scriptures, and remixing the song of Moses’ sister, Miriam, composed after YHWH had delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. With the baby gestating in her womb, Mary will at first hand see the long-awaited delivery of all creation from the slavery of sin and therefore “all generations will call me blessed.” But look at the end. God’s strength scatters the intellectual order of the elites (51), knocks potentates from power and raises street people in their place (52), satisfies the hunger of the poor and dwindles the confident investments of the rich (53). The God that she sings of is faithful to the promises made to the Iraqi pagan Abrahm and this God is one marked by mercy (54-55).

Mary is a phenomenal theologian. She is thoughtful too. Luke 2:19 says that in strange happenings after the birth of Jesus, “Mary treasured all the words spoken and pondered them in her heart.”

It is not taking a leap from this Biblical evidence to say that Jesus’ first theological teacher was Mary. Scripture poured out of her in her moment of trial. She pondered the acts of God in her life. It is undoubted that the toddler Messiah learned the Psalms from the voice of his mother. It is inconceivable but that the child Christ did not imbibe the Biblical fluency of his mother. Sometimes my sermons can be mistaken for attempts to mimic Trevor Morrow even though I have a Dublin accent. Well, consider the Magnificat again and you will see that Jesus’ sermons are more heavily indented by his mother’s influence than I have been by the preacher from Lambeg.

Jesus’ primary Bible teacher was a woman.

*

On Easter Sunday I read the resurrection accounts. I was struck with fresh force by the significance of the eye-witnesses. None of them had penises. The angels didn’t have penises, obvs. Neither did the humans.

In fact, Wife-unit and I both broke out into inappropriate giggles in church that morning, as the account in the Gospel of John was read aloud. For whatever giddy reason, both of us saw the text in a new light that day and realised the humour in it. You could almost say Jesus is pranking Mary.

Let me explain: Mary is weeping because the body is gone. She tells the angels that she doesn’t know where it has been taken. When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t recognise that it was Jesus. And he doesn’t enlighten her. Instead, he says, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” This is Punk’d, Bible-style. Jesus knows why she is weeping. He knows who she is looking for. It is almost as if John is sketching this as a scene where Jesus was drawing out the wonderful reveal for dramatic effect. He plays his role with deadpan proficiency so that she turns to him, “supposing him to be the gardener” and pleads, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

There is comedy, both in the formal sense of a story with a good ending and in the informal sense of the japery between humans that elicits laughter in this passage.

But the whole thing hinges on a woman being told to go and tell. To proclaim what she has seen. To preach about what she now knows. To teach people things they do not yet know. She hears the call of her Lord and she answers it: “Go to the brothers and tell them.”

*

On Sunday I stood in a pulpit. I was largely unknown to the congregation. Many of them couldn’t place my accent. They didn’t know about my penchant for flamboyant socks. Or that I was the nerd who was always on the school team sent off to the televised table-quizes. Or that I was a pacifist who refuses to attend church on Remembrance Sunday. I did not have to prove myself to them before they all sat and let me talk, at some length, about the most important questions humans wrestle with. And there is a list larger than the congregation gathered on Sunday of women I know who could do everything in the world to prove themselves and still would never be invited to do what I get to do for free.

I don’t have to prove myself. I won’t have to work as hard as my mother did. I don’t have the countless experiences of blatant rejection that the woman who brought me to faith has now endured. The old acquaintance I was re-acquaintanted with has a PhD and years of teaching and a long list of publications and a diverse range of research interests. She is ordained. I am not. But before I left it was me – a bumbling student – that got pulled aside by a fancy professor, who pressed his card into my hand and told me that the next time I was in his city, I should look him up.

*

I won’t be looking him up.

Your Correspondent, Folds faster than Superman on laundry day

I didn’t watch the televised, radio-broadcast, live-streamed debate of party leaders in the UK this week. I am more excited about voting in the Eurovision than in the British General Election. I’d be tempted to spoil my vote in May, but then I look at who the British people have put in office and I realise that the concept of a “spoiled” vote doesn’t really make sense.

Stanley Hauerwas jokes that the English are the most bloodthirsty nation in all of history but they somehow have a reputation for civilization because they are quite good at queuing. In the last ten years, Britain has been involved in at least two utterly unwarranted invasions and occupations of sovereign nations, participated in a global torture regime, engineered a globe-spanning surveillance program, and warmly welcomed the dirtiest industry in the world – finance – to set up shop in the centre of their capital.

The City of London

It comes as some considerable surprise then to find that Britain’s premier Christian magazine (humbly entitled “Premier”) bagged an Easter exclusive this week penned by David Cameron, Prime Minister of the country I live in. In it, he assures us that he will “be making my belief in the importance of Christianity absolutely clear” tomorrow.

*Scene: Grey street in Grey Aberdeen during Grey April*

Friend on the street: “Where you going this early in the morning Kevin?”

Your Correspondent: “Why, it is Resurrection Sunday! So I am going to make my belief in the importance of Christianity clear.” Muffled through the munching of chocolate, “ABSOLUTELY clear.”

*End Scene with Your Correspondent jogging on intently, not sharing his Easter eggs because in Britain people don’t live on hand outs but from hard work!*

Hauerwas says that Britain is bloodthirsty. Cameron says:

The values of the Christian faith are the values on which our nation was built.

Cameron and Trident submarines

*

What are the values of the Christian faith? In his letter to the churches of Galatia (the region of Turkey from whence came the Celts, who eventually settled Ireland and Scotland, two countries historically subjugated by England), Paul writes:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

That might stand as a single-sentence declaration of what Christians value. Note that Paul says the fruit, not the fruits. Christianity always resists being turned into a list that can be checked off. The Spirit of Jesus somehow unifies these virtues. Love for the enemy, joy in God’s abundance, patience under suffering, goodness under hardship, faithfulness in trial, gentleness in conflict, self-control as a way to bless others. I am not being some knee-jerk Brit-basher from Dublin when I say that the values of Christianity are not the values upon which Britain has been built. No country has been built on these values. You can’t hold a monopoly on violence (which is what a State is) and declare that you love your enemies.

(Well you can try of course, and lots of theologians do. They say that killing your opponents in war can be a form of love. But as Hauerwas says in response, “It’s hard to love your enemy if they’re dead.”)

Cameron is much more powerful than Paul ever was. And so he feels entitled to offer his own summation of Christian values:

compassion, forgiveness,
kindness, hard work and responsibility

Cameron and foodbanks

*

Cameron doesn’t want to come off as some theologian or divine. He’s not putting himself forward as a role-model disciple or anything like that. But this faith he thinks is important does give him important “gentle reminders” – “every once in a while” – about how important it is to be “a better person, father and citizen.”

I can respect that. Jesus’ words are inspirational in this regard. After all he said “Why do you call me good? No one is good–except God alone.” He also said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” And don’t forget that he openly defied his political ruler, insulting him by saying “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.'”

You respond to this by saying, “Come on Kevin, you are proof-texting!” Indeed I am. But notice that in an article for an evangelical Christian magazine, Cameron never once quotes Jesus. He quotes the Incinerator of Dresden but not the Prince of Peace. This is a Christ-less Christianity. And that is the secret of his foundational sentence. He believes in the importance of Christianity as a social movement that encourages a certain kind of local, almost apolitical activism. He silences the Christ.

Jesus is ambivalent about family, openly sarcastic to Imperial rulers, deeply subversive around questions of money. His followers constantly want to take responsibility and he tells them they don’t know what they are asking. The compassion he shows to foreigners and the sick and the moral untouchables is a compassion that definitively does not mark contemporary British society. Christians should be furious about this essay. They should scrawl “JESUS FOR PRIME MINISTER” over their voting cards.

Jesus for Prime Minister

*

Due to be published at Easter, this is a very peculiar essay. Paul Tillich and Karl Barth were two of the most influential theologians of the 20th Century. Tillich worked in New York and went to dinner parties with fancy people. Barth worked in Basel and went to the prison to smoke cigars with the inmates. Tillich talked about God being the “Ground of Absolute Being”. Barth talked about Jesus being “God who is for humanity.” When Barth came to comment on Tillich’s work, one word sticks out: “BLOODLESS“. A good description of this essay by a man with considerable spilled blood to atone for. The Christianity that Cameron presents here has nothing to do with the wandering Judean going from town to town remixing the Jewish scriptures. It is non Jewish. It is non Palestinian. It is a vague cultural memory of a teacher of wisdom. The last thing it is is a portrait of a man who could so incite the fury of the political and military might of his day that they would torture him and then execute him.

No one gets hung on the cross for teaching “hard work”.

Cameron’s essay is blasphemy.

Cameron and crosses

*

This week I have been reading the poetry and plays of the South Korean dissident Kim Chi Ha. He has a short play called “The Gold Crowned Jesus”. A starving leper stands desolate under a public statue of Jesus on the cross, which bears a gold crown paid for by a crooked property developer. His tears evoke God’s empathy and the statue comes to life. Jesus tells the leper to take the gold and sell it, using it to get medical care for him and his friends, and to save the prostitutes in the area. The leper gets apprehended and when the crown is placed back on Jesus’ head, the statue loses its life. It becomes concrete again. When powerful people praise Jesus, they can make such a racket that we can no longer hear what our Lord is saying. He speaks this week to Christians on the island of Britain from under a crown of thorns, not gold. And Chi Ha has him say:

You know them well. They are like the Pharisees. They locked me in a shrine for their own gain. They pray using my name in a way that prevents my reaching out to poor people like yourself. In my own name, they nailed me down to the cross again. They boast about being my disciples, but they are egotistical, they cannot trust each other, they do not suffer loneliness, and they are without wisdom, like those who first crucified me. They shun the poor and hungry, ignore the cries of the suffering, and dwell only on the acquisition of material gain, wealth, power, and glory. And this stops up their ears so they do not hear my words of warning or the laments of people like you. It is for these reasons that they have imprisoned me.

Jesus and the leper

*

This Easter, may the Spirit of God liberate David Cameron and all the world’s powerful from the delusion that they can imprison the Lord who even the grave could not contain.

Your Correspondent, Dances to the beat of bad kissers’ teeth clicking

The cover story for The Atlantic this month is a 10,000 word piece by Graeme Wood about the religious motivations behind ISIS. What they really want, Wood asserts, is the end of the world. And this is an Islamic desire. So when people like Islamic leaders or Muslim intellectuals or the first Muslim President of America Barack HUSSEIN Obama say that ISIS is not Islamic, they are all talking out of the side of their mouth. Wood knows, because he talked to lots of people before writing his article. Some people were in ISIS. Another chap is an expert in Islam at Princeton.

It is important that we learn about the inherently Islamic nature of ISIS’ beliefs because having that knowledge will “help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.”

Wood has lived an interesting life, it seems. He is Canadian, and a graduate of Harvard, having first attended the prestigious, elitist anti-school Deep Springs College. He has lived and worked in the Middle East and Cambodia. He lectures now at Yale. He is a clear, cogent writer. And yet he blithely assures us that “Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes.” The validity of that sentence depends on where you think theology ends. If you grant that theology is involved in idolatry, then World War II starts looking like a pretty arcane theological dispute very quickly, as does the homelessness epidemic in Athens and Thessaloniki right now. The German finance gurus explicitly talk in religious terms; sacrifice and redemption.

My point here is not just that NAZI-ism might profitably be understood as a pagan religion. My point is that you need to be pretty sure of yourself to situate yourself as part of a society that used to kill over arcane theological issues but has seen the error of their ways, while talking about a society you claim still does that. You are necessarily setting yourself up as superior. You are offering an understanding of theology that is paper thin, almost as if you want to pretend theology isn’t alive and kicking in the cultures descended from a peace treaty signed in Westphalia in 1648 (the notional end of the religious wars).

Wood thinks that the West is beyond such religiosity and that we then export our assumptions to the Arab world, under the mistaken belief “that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.”

This is a critical sentence. Wood’s argument is:

    ISIS is religious.
    The West mis-reads ISIS by downplaying its religiosity.
    This mis-reading is dangerous.
    This mis-reading is caused by the fact that religion isn’t a big deal in the West.

Does this seem credible to you? Is religion not a big deal in the West? If that is true, then why have “tens of thousands of foreign Muslims” left “France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Australia, Indonesia, the United States, and many other places” to go fight for ISIS? It seems that if ISIS is religious, then large numbers of people in the West share that characteristic.

So a critical question we need to ask is: why are they not included in Wood’s understanding of the West?

Recall that list that summarised Wood’s argument up above. We have to flesh it out because the kind of religiosity that he claims ISIS represents is “apocalyptic.” Wood’s claim is that ISIS’ apocalyptic Islam leads them to hope for an “epic good-versus-evil battle” that will bring an end to the world. This might be true, but it is unfortunate that he doesn’t dwell more on this category of apocalyptic. Apocalypse literally means unveiling. It is a tradition present in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. When Jesus tells you to turn the other cheek, it can be read as an apocalyptic teaching; he is revealing the true nature of reality. Much of the apparently palatable teaching of Jesus relies on a claim about the secret nature of reality: the guys with the biggest sticks won’t win in the end, instead the grain of the universe goes with those who carry crosses.

The world teems with variety. And just as there are a bunch of different ways you can draw the globe, and there are South Korean versions of popular American sitcoms, your apocalypse might be different from mine.

And that is really my killer point. Woods can talk casually about people killed by America as “drone-splats” and he can carelessly throw it out there that Mohammed, “whom all Muslims consider exemplary,” also owned slaves. Did not the prophets of America own slaves? Jefferson, Washington, Ulysses S. Grant who was president as recently as 1877 – they all at one time or another “owned” people. Wood’s piece reflects practically everything I have ever read about ISIS. It dwells on their frightening and depraved violence, while sliding over our frightening and depraved violence. It stands aghast at their setting fire to people, while forgetting (or never learning) that America dropped 388,000 tonnes of napalm – a chemical weapon in the form of a gel that sticks to human skin and then incinerates – during the Vietnam war. I do not mean to make ISIS and America seem like equivalents. Such moral calculus is beside the point. Instead, what I want to suggest is that Jesus has many hard things to say to people who judge out of their self-delusion.

Ms. Entropy

Everyone who holds the Bible as their scripture is apocalyptic in some way because the Bible claims to tell you that the meaning of history will be revealed with the return of Jesus. My Christian faith is apocalyptic. If ISIS’ belief system is apocalyptic, that neither proves it is Islamic, nor demonstrates why that question matters. America is undoubtedly apocalyptic. It believes the meaning of history was prophesied in their Declaration of Independence and came to fruition with the collapse of the Soviet Union. History has ended. The perpetual present is our future; a world of neo-liberal capitalism, rhetoric about freedom, and increasingly rampant self-determination as our heavenly vision. The apocalyticism of Jesus tells you to forgive 70 times 7, to love your enemies, and to pray for them. That bears as little resemblance to America’s unveiling of the meaning of history as your local Mosque has to ISIS.

But when that fancy American magazine tells you that ISIS is religious, that ISIS is Islamic, that ISIS is apocalyptic, you should believe them?

Theology is not something that happens only in university departments and old-fashioned pulpits. It happens on battle-fronts and in war propaganda. That holds for ISIS and for NATO. If Christians do not learn how to read the ways in which their nation states are parasitically robbing and perverting their vocabulary, then they will never be able to see the world accurately. That blindness will be lethal.

Your Correspondent, Slow down sir! You’re going to give yourself skin failure!

One night last week, I battled for an hour and a half over a blog post. That is about 15 times longer than I usually spend on writing something here and the time wasn’t taken up (just) fixing innumerable typos. I was trying to address or re-dress or just fully recant my recent foray into apologetics. My little screed about the Stephen Fry interview was the most visited piece I have published on this blog since I stopped updating regularly. But I had all sorts of anxiety after writing it. I published it at the encouragement of Wife-unit and then when it went live I had even more ambivalence about it.

I realise I am inventing a peculiar kind of obscurity when I navel gaze about a post written for a Theological Ethics blog read by 11 people.

So to work out my tension, I wrote this thing about why we can never declare people “spiritually blind” and why the objections that Fry raised were not brave and were not serious. By extension, what I was trying to write was that my apologetic endeavour was a waste of my time.

It went live for 5 minutes and then Wife-unit said I should really take it down and re-write. In trying to say that it is a waste of my time, I ended up saying it was a waste of everyone’s time. Which ultimately could come across as saying “you are a waste of time” to anyone who wasn’t as effortlessly sophisticated as I am.

Whatever good was in that tortured and confused writing was based on a reflection about how important Francis Spufford’s last book, Unapologetic, is for Christian leaders. I had quibbles with that book when I first read it but as the years have gone by, I am more and more convinced that it is a book that every pastor needs to read and study carefully.

Francis Spufford

Spufford’s book re-orientates apologetics so that it is carefully and intentionally disciplined in the face of “proof” questions – the kind of arguments that present themselves as philosophically robust but have no strong connection to lived human existence. Refusing to grant legitimacy to the “gotchya!” dilemmas that internet atheists are so fond of, Spufford’s Christianity still “doesn’t exist in blatant defiance of some obvious demonstration of its groundlessness.” (68)

So Spufford engages the problem of evil that Fry raises, but he does it in a way that gives credit not to the outlying horrifying instances of child-hunting parasites, but the sort of things people normally suffer:

From meteor strikes to car crashes, falling masonry to early-onset Alzheimer’s, anything can happen to us and to the people we love. At any moment you can have it sharply demonstrated to you that where we live, events are not governed by what people deserve. (89)

The responses available to the believer, Spufford suggests, are self-deception, argument, or the other option that is the lived reality for most mature, serious Christians. This is a long quote, but it is important:

We take the cruelties of the world as a given, as the known and familiar data of experience, and instead of anguishing about why the world is as it is, we look for comfort in coping with it as it is. We don’t ask for a creator who can explain Himself. We ask for a friend in time of grief, a true judge in time of perplexity, a
wider hope than we can manage in time of despair. If your child is dying, there is no reason that can ease your sorrow. (105)

The horrendous secret of atheism is that it has no better explanation for the lived experience of suffering than Hindus or Scientologists, Raelians or Presbyterians. No reason can soothe the grief of the death of your loved one, whether it comes calmly in a bed surrounded by people who adore them or suddenly and painfully on a spring morning. To expect reason to account for this is a tragic category error.

When Spufford writes about suffering, or about repentance, or in the book’s glorious high-point, about Jesus, he bypasses these dead-ends. He does it because he has done the hard work of listening to his culture, his church, and himself. He has ears to hear, and as a result he has words to speak that make surprising sense.

Spufford is wiser than me and he didn’t comment on the Fry interview. He did offer an explanation of why he didn’t weigh in, however. Quoting the New Zealander Elizabeth Knox, Spufford shares:

Go back into the quiet room, the room empty of everyone but yourself. Go for a walk. Stand still and stare at something inhuman and alive, or inanimate and kinetic, like a river. Be with yourself and think, ‘Who am I apart from all this? What is the world to me? What is my life to me?’ Put out your hand and touch the top of the skull and think about life, what a short time there is in which to be yourself – your good self – and do good.

We get distracted so easily. We have a short time here. The only true apologetic is love, and love looks like Jesus. Let Fry rail about gods that don’t exist. Let Dawkins tweet about freeing the Muslim world with porn. The work of the people of God is quiet prayer and gentle hospitality and patient listening. Seeing, and hearing, and welcoming without wanting to win is the work we should be doing.

Your Correspondent, Frequently checks credit at Moral Bank hole-in-wall




Subscribe

Subscribe to my RSS Feeds


Back-End Business