Introduction: On Learning To Read Beloved Writers Critically
Wife-unit scolds me whenever I find a new writer that I get very excited about. She fears that my enthusiastic nature leads me to too easily embrace whatever the writer espouses. I have gone through phases where Bonhoeffer and Marilynne Robinson, C.S. Lewis and Stephen Jay Gould were all devoured and perhaps uncritically accepted. Latterly, things have been made easier because my two main influences, Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas are never wrong. Especially not when they contradict each other!

Wife-unit is probably right. I would say that however, since my enthusiasm over how brilliant she is makes me liable to agree with whatever it is she proposes! But recently I have worked on developing a more critical reception of ideas. Now I can even tell you some of the ways I suspect Hauerwas goes awry (it’s a short conversation).

Tim Keller is a a Presbyterian minister in New York that I have learned a vast amount from. I listen to his sermons every week and apart from Trevor Morrow, nobody has so directly influenced how I preach. But continuing with my maturation, I have to take major issue with an aspect of what this writer, who has deeply inspired me, has published. The question that drives this essay is: “Can a single very bad mis-step ruin an otherwise fine book?

I wrote this all out and found that I could easily spout 5000 words on reflections inspired by the book. Perhaps that is a really good thing going for it? But I have torn that up into a week of posts in an effort to stop myself from killing you all with boredom.

The Three Main Themes of the Book
The book in question is The Meaning of Marriage, which he co-wrote with his wife Kathy. I deeply enjoyed reading it. Well, most of it. Wife-unit and I listened to the sermons he delivered on marriage before our wedding and we found them very helpful. On one hand, this book is a good example of what I love about Keller’s work. He draws together his sources so sweetly. He riffs on Auden and then moves on to an article in the New York Times and then ties it altogether with some succinct exegesis. Throughout it all is the hunt to expose what grace does to transform us. This is all to be praised.

There are three main aspects to this book.

Firstly, the Kellers want to interrogate the cultural narratives that surround marriage. This is typical of their style. Tim talks often about the importance of finding the submerged stories that people are trying to live out.

The second viewpoint is the pastoral, which again makes total sense. This is not a systematic theology of marriage. This is not a philosophical ethics of matrimony. You read this book and you find yourself in it. The authors are concerned with shepherding people into verdant pastures.

But it is the third emphasis that leaves me so troubled and that is the espousal of a very narrow and limited theology of gender towards the end. The Kellers are notable for how excellent they are at welcoming and respecting different viewpoints, but this book veers off into the darkest and deepest and choppiest waters of American evangelical theology, leaving even supporters like me confused as to why this has happened.

Tomorrow I will write more about the problem with this third emphasis but for now I will draw your attention to the parts of the book I really appreciated.

The book begins with an investigation of the conflicting desires around marriage that our culture exhibits. We are tired with the institution and are suspicious of it. And yet we make such stringent demands on whoever would dare to enter into it with us:

If your desire is for a spouse who will not demand a lot of change from you, then you are also looking for a spouse who is almost completely pulled together, someone very ‘low maintenance’ without much in the way of personal problems. You are looking for someone who will not require or demand significant change. You are searching, therefore, for an ideal person – happy, healthy, interesting, content with life. Never before in history has there been a society filled with people so idealistic in what they are seeking in a spouse.

- Tim (and Kathy) Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, 33.

Even better was his section on how the essence of marriage is covenant. This is a recurring motif in his preaching – the centrality of God’s covenant in any coherent understanding of what the Bible is saying. His claim that “promising is the key to identity” (91) seems to be one of those casual lines that collapses the world from under you. Without being people who bear our word, our identities slip away. We all commit to doing things, and the put-together-ness of our sense of self (and others’ sense of us) is bound to how well we honour those commitments.

Similarly, he is wonderfully clear on the mission of marriage. The entire book is to be read as an exposition of the marriage section in Ephesians 5. The mission is the sanctification of your spouse. “What keeps the marriage going is your commitment to your spouse’s holiness.” (123) If that sounds very abstract and spiritualised, the Kellers bring it down into real life. For example: “If your spouse does not feel that you are putting him or her first, then by definition, you aren’t.” (128)

How rare it is for a pastor to be able to give such practical advice without sinking into legalism. That is avoided by constantly returning to the source of our hope. The wedding day should not be considered the happiest day of a couple’s life:

Not if you and your spouse wield the power of truth and love with grace in each other’s lives. Not if you are committed to the adventure of spiritual companionship, to partner with God in the journey to the new creation. Then, to the eye of God, as the years go by, you are making each other more and more beautiful, like a diamond being cut and polished and set.

- Tim (and Kathy) Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, 169.

So if this book settled on examining the cultural attitudes to marriage and then offering pastoral advice about marriage that is grounded in grace, how great would it be? Very great is the answer. Sadly, that is not all it does. More on that tomorrow. (Has there ever been a less suspenseful blog series??)

Your Corresponent, Thinks marriage is a lot like an orange. First, you have the skin… then the sweet, sweet innards…

<Spoiler Alert> This isn’t a review so much as a series of thoughts prompted by a novel. If you want to not know what happens in the book, go read this glorious take-down of a different book notionally connected to Bonhoeffer.  </Spoiler Alert>

Magnus by George Mackay Brown is the strangest book inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer I have ever come across. Even weirder than that so-called biography by Eric Metaxas. The legendary Orcadian poet weaves together the story of the ill-fated Magnus Erlendsson, who competed against Haakon Paulsson for rule over Orkney and Shetland in the early 1100s. This story about Viking culture on the islands to the north of Scotland is also about a 20th Century Lutheran pastor.

Embedded within the story of civil conflict in medieval Scotland is the story of the holocaust and the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You remember Bonhoeffer? He was the great German theologian of the 1930s, who opposed the NAZI rule, sought to protect the German church, evacuate Jews and uphold the Gospel. He was also put to death at Flossenbürg, weeks before the end of the war, having been found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Hitler. Earlier, in 1937, he had written in his classic book on discipleship:

When Christ calls a man, he bids him
come and die.

So the story that unfolds in Magnus is a disjointed and complex one. This medieval saga is told in a very modernistic fashion. We see things from the perspective of soldiers and peasants, tinkers and monks, but rarely from the view of Magnus or Haakon. Yet Brown leaves us in no doubt but that in some ways, history is made by powerful men using their power. It’s just they don’t seem to have a choice. Events overtake them. Things spiral out of hand.

This book should be better known among Christians and I encourage you to track it down. But there are three points in it that I specifically want to focus on.

Early in the novel, Magnus is pressed into marriage, before he can discern his vocation and he comes to make peace with it in a very unsatisfactory way. But in discussion with his friend Hold, he cannot express himself in a way that is understood. Things are too fraught with meaning. Hold is left smiling “with simulated understanding, but in truth he was more perplexed than ever” after the Earl had explained his marital difficulties by saying:

This crucifix is the forge, and the threshing-floor, and the shed of the net-makers, where God and man work out together a plan of utter necessity and of unimaginable beauty…

- George Mackay Brown, Magnus, 73.

The cruciform shape of human life that Bonhoeffer bears testimony to is summed up in this “deep sincerity” which Magnus can only express “in falterings and sudden fluencies.” The darkness of human anguish does not exhaust the hope of the Gospel, even if we cannot imagine God bringing beauty out of it. This is part of Bonhoeffer’s witness to us.

Perhaps already you can see the two aspects of this book that are very striking. It is a book suffused by the Christian faith that deeply reflects the Gospel and yet because it is a modernist novel, this is all under the surface. It is the working of the logic of the thing, that only occasionally and in brief reveals itself unambiguously to the reader. It was neither JM Coetzee nor Thomas Pynchon who said after they had told a great story, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Books

The theology does poke through. I loved Brown’s reflections on the eco-systems of the islands. The seals and the tides and the birds are ever-present characters. This paragraph lingered with me, because it draws out a very mundane fact that we can easily forget now that the most important ingredient in our agriculture is petroleum. But farming is an act of faith. It always was and always will be:

Now that the seed was uttered upon the land the peasants waited for the sun and the rain to do their bit. What they had performed was an act of faith. They trusted that the seed they had buried would return from the grave, first the shoot, then the ear, then the stalk with a full burden of corn in the ear. But this yearly resurrection of the seed was encompassed with dangers. The rain might fall in black deluges on the hill all the month of June. The sun might shrivel the crop with unwonted ardency while it was still green. More terrible still, the black worm might bore into the root.

The peasants had done what they could.

- George Mackay Brown, Magnus, 93.

Yet the connection that I made at the end of this novel is probably the one that will linger the longest with me. It is no spoiler to say that Magnus is killed, martyred as a sacrifice for the sake of the islands. After years of wasteful civil strife, he is axed in the head to bring peace, to make atonement between the battling factions, to inaugurate one and only one as Lord.

Both within the literal pages of the book and the thematic momentum of the book, here we are at close parallel with Bonhoeffer. He imagined himself as a sacrifice for the sins of Germany, for his middle-class Berliner people, for his comfortable Christian congregations, for the complacency and violence of his civilized nation. Peace came soon after his death.

That Bonhoeffer was wrong about this should be no limit to Brown making art. At the end of the book he artfully places us three years into the peace. While they toil at harvest, the peasants are robbed by some tinkers. One of the peasants wants to make an example of the thieves, bring them to justice, even see them hanged. His wife is more benevolent and wins the day. Having reminded her neighbours of their surplus and how desperate they were for sustenance in the years of war, Hild, says:

- Remember this, man. We’re only as rich as the poorest among us.

- George Mackay Brown, Magnus, 190.

Hild does not know of the violence that erupted at the peace talks which led to Magnus’ death. Hild is unaware of how the peace she now enjoys was won by the murder of a saintly man. Hild is ignorant of the fact that the government for which she is so thankful was only raised to power by an act of cowardice.

The sincere and magnanimous leadership of Hild appears superficial and cynical when we zoom out to take in the entire picture. The poorest among them is the ghost of Magnus, who was slain to make their peace. He does not even have his life anymore. The success of the state always rests on the violence exerted on the people we cannot see.

This too echoes with the legacy of Bonhoeffer. We Europeans live in the recent shadow of the carnage of the World Wars. We praise our liberal governments for securing our peace and facilitating our prosperity. We issue forth the lofty words of social democracy, saying things very similar to Hild. But we can only do so by remembering to forget who are the poorest among us. We use legal and social and cultural devices to make sure that the poor who would challenge our ease are non-persons. Thus we live amongst but ignore the asylum seekers in “reception centres”, the mentally disabled aborted before they are born, the slaves who sew our clothes and assemble our phones and harvest our food.

This is the strangest book I have yet read about Bonhoeffer. But it is marvelous.

Your Correspondent, His usual order is one Kwik-E-Dog, one bubblegum cigar, and the latest issue of “Success” magazine.

Anytime you establish a world of your own,
you get thrown.

I’ve been thinking about marriage the last few days, and how it is a place where we get to put flesh and bones on the Sermon on the Mount.

The Both’s album is probably my favourite of the year so far. After Aimee’s beautiful opening line, Ted answers later in the song by singing:

Anytime you establish a need to atone,
you’re prone.

They say, and by they I mean opinion columnists in newspapers who have a deadline approaching, that marriage is under threat. Heated debates rage about who gets to be married and statistics indicate that fewer people are getting married and lots of people who are married decide that they no longer want to be married and end up divorced. The societal ambiguity towards matrimony can be found everywhere we look. It is summed up by the comedian Chris Rock who quips that men don’t settle down, they surrender. Marriage here is seen as a female plot.

This hesitancy about marriage isn’t new. Bertrand Russell argued that it was time we progressed beyond this institution way back in 1929, in his book Marriage and Morals (which he claims was the reason he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950). He conceived it as a male plot to subjugate women. He wished that society would in the future design things so that our institutions and our moral conventions would keep expectations about self-control to a minimum.

The use of self-control is like the use of brakes
on a train.

This, I think, gets to the heart of the objection towards marriage. We are suspicious of the discipline it imposes on us, what Russell revealingly mis-describes as self-control. After all, what he advocates for is just that – that the autonomous self would be free to do whatever they liked, unencumbered by the claims made on them by others. This is the opposite of marriage, where a couple encumbers each other with the claims of the other. It can seem like the Bertrand Russell’s of the world have won the day and marriage is an outmoded way of doing things. I presume this is why in this country and in others, Christians expend a great deal of energy “defending marriage”, constructing a final bulwark against change.

But the Sermon on the Mount might be a good place to think about what we are talking about when Christians talk about marriage. Whether marriage is suspected as a matriarchal trap to bind men or imagined as a patriarchal plot to oppress women, the funny thing about contemporary scepticism about marriage is how romantic they are. Marriage is a problem because it limits possibilities, and arrangements should be developed that do not close out our options like this.

In other words, if only we are free to be who we truly are, we would be happy and satisfied. The simple, single-shot solution to human discontent is nothing if not displaced romance.

We read the Sermon on the Mount and it doesn’t look like it is talking about us. We are not the poor in spirit, we do not hunger and thirst after righteousness, we are not merciful, pure in heart or peacemakers. The last thing we are, even Christian bakers who refuse to make wedding cakes for gay couples, is persecuted because of our righteousness.

For centuries we have idealized the Sermon on the Mount away. That doesn’t apply to us in a straightforward way, we say. How could it? Look at us! We could never live up to it.

But the romanticism of the opponents of marriage and the advocates for spiritualising the Sermon on the Mount meet at this very point: they imagine we know who we are. They think there is no great mystery about who we are, where we are, why we are and what we want. They just look inside themselves and find the answers to those questions. The marriage-sceptics look inside and conclude that impositions from outside are confinements. The Sermon on the Mount-sceptics look inside and conclude that Jesus is just pointing us towards some unreachable standard as a teaching aid to grasp grace more fully. Neither thinks the problem facing them actually includes them.

But in my experience marriage has been most excellent at least in this area: it has shown me how little I know myself. I had no idea what I was getting myself in for when I wed my bride, even though I was as wise as one needs to be to make that decision. Marriage has revealed to me the complex ways in which I am not my own. I did not make myself. To misuse Whitman, I contain multitudes, from my parents and my siblings and R.E.M. and Douglas Coupland and my next door neighbours growing up and of course, my wife. Who I am isn’t answerable from looking within myself. Where I am can only be located by reference to others. Why I am cannot begin or end with myself and what I want is greater than any answer limited to whatever falls under my humble “I”.

Even though I didn’t know myself, nevermind know what I was doing, when I said yes to Wife-unit, a world was opened up to myself where I could discover the meaning of what I had done and in the process, uncover something of what it means to be myself. There is something so fitting here about the Biblical idiom for sexual union being “to know one another”. I said yes to Wife-unit and by extension said no to everyone else in certain ways. My yes was yes, and my no was no. If only in that moment, I spoke with a truthfulness that lived up to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:37), even if I couldn’t know it at the time and only know it now by faith.

So in marriage I discover I am different from the person I thought I was. I am more flawed and more broken and more able to change than I could have imagined. And in the Sermon on the Mount I find that the person I am called to be is very different from the person I am. I am an adopted son of God, hence peacemaking is my vocation. I will see God, hence I will be pure in heart. My righteousness does not surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, but it will. I haven’t stood by my wife in sickness and in health, until death us do part, but I will.

Individualist accounts of humankind are especially toxic to Christians because we do not simply have to learn to insist on the social embededness of our being like everyone else. I am made by my wife and my friends and my family of origin as much as I make myself. But we go further and insist that the society that shapes us most primarily is the community we call Trinity. Marriage can be a plot to bind men and it can be a trap to oppress women and it can be a place where God sets us free to actually discover who we were made to be. In that, marriage is not the template for the Christian life. Singleness can be a way of life that similarly exposes the reality of things. But marriage in the New Testament is a constant illustration of the meaning of existence. The Scriptures begin with a wedding in a garden and end with a wedding in a city.

Aimee Mann, not even close to singing about this particular claim says that every-time you establish a world of your own, you get thrown. If we try and fabricate reality, it will hurt. Ted Leo sings in response, every-time you establish a need to atone, you’re prone. But being vulnerable in the confession of our weakness is closer to reality than anything than even Bertrand Russell has managed to say about marriage. To repent is the truest thing a human can do. The logic of marriage and the logic of the Sermon on Mount meet at just this point. To declare we are poor in spirit is to begin to tell the truth.

Your Correspondent, Talking about a profound mystery

Who’s rearing your children? Do you know where they are? Are they worshipping Satan while playing Dungeons and Dragons? Are they learning magick on World of Warcraft? Is that them in the other room playing a game … of MONOPOLY where they are socialised into disregarding the fundamental cornerstone of Catholic Social Teaching – the universal destination of material goods – and instead learn to love the twisted and perverted pursuit of profit without any regard for other humans or the created environment?

THE WORLD IS FULL OF FEARFUL THINGS OF WHICH YOU SHOULD BE AFRAID!

Or at least that is what this article by Breda O’Brien, a woman with a lovely voice, has had published in the Irish Times this morning. The Irish Times is the newspaper of record in Ireland, not some kind of clickbait, publish-anything sort of internet endeavour. And yet here we are, gathered as a nation sitting over our Aldi-brand cornflakes of a Saturday morning, enduring sentences like this:

If you want to experience blistering hatred, try posting content on Tumblr as a white, male, straight, middle-class Christian.

As a white, male, straight, middle-class Christian, I can honestly say that in any given week I am the recipient of far more aggression on the streets of Aberdeen while driving my little Yaris than I have received in my entire life on the internet, which began in 1994.

I have dabbled in this “Tumblr” over which O’Brien wishes to start a moral panic. It is true that there is a vast amount of smut available on there. I’m not just talking about porn where people dress up as polar bears and pretend to be, I don’t know, politicians, or whatever. People on Tumblr seem to spend way too much time on animated gifs of Dr. Who and reposting trite lists that basically find innumerable ways to enumerate the importance of self-esteem and other vague ideas.

For O’Brien, the “biggest worry is not that young people are more narcissistic, but that social media functions as a giant mechanism for conformity.” Yet for me, Tumblr has been a place where I found a surprisingly vibrant little culture of very thoughtful Christians sharing a rich variety of interesting things. Like out in the bricks-and-mortar world, there is conformity and strange cul-de-sacs of culture and there is also diversity and disagreement and complicated overlaps.

O’Brien writes of the alleged liberal consensus on Tumblr:

“If you spend enough time on Tumblr or other such sites, you may begin to believe that this is only way to think, unless you have very strong, real-world social networks to act as a corrective.”

There is so much wrong with this sentence taken on its own. When you factor in that O’Brien is writing as some sort of Christian ethicist (!), it is catastrophic thinking. To begin with, the corrective to thinking there is only one way to think is… to think. Strong real-world social networks are wonderful, but they are barely even necessary for the low bar of ethical empathy that O’Brien is calling for. The internet is the real world for one. It doesn’t reside in clouds, but in actual hard-drives sitting in actual servers in actual buildings. The task of delineating what a social network is has been made more complex since the world-wide web, but Christian ethicists are meant to have some what of a head-start on that conversation since their entire activity takes place within and is directed towards the social network called church.

But let me not wander off on some Hauerwasian adventure. Instead, let me keep talking about a trivial social media network operated by the Yahoo corporation, which is listed on the NASDAQ and is in the business of returning profit to shareholders, not advocating for some kind of cultural revolution. If there is money in maintaining a platform that exchanges Anchorman memes, Tumblr will keep doing it. If it suddenly became lucrative to exchange Patristic poetry, then Tumblr would start doing that.

O’Brien argues that “These young people have been socialised to believe there are some opinions that are so shocking they should not be heard at all.” Are we still talking about Tumblr, where pro-ana sites are commonplace, porn is traded freely and I presume racist bile is spouted without censure? Does this pass for informed Christian comment? Why am I not a columnist for the Irish Times? I’ll tell people how brilliant things can be found on Tumblr, which is surely a better theological beginning than strange warnings about being “cool with the internet raising your kids.”

For example:

Terrible Real Estate Agent Photos reminds you how dangerous it is to leave your child unattended with Monopoly, lest they become a real life profit-seeking landlord in adulthood.

Even worse, they could become very bad architects and design houses in Belgium or get addicted to 20th Century ideologies and re-start a Brutalist phase.

While Breda might be slow to admit it, the old-skool print and telly media do a hell of a lot of damage to the socialisation of our young ‘uns. If we aren’t careful, our kids might end up being so astute with photoshop and so deft at media studies that they produce something like an entire gossip page dedicated to superheroes.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows hasn’t been updated in six months, which deserves a word all of its own because it is a haven of humanist beauty.

Breda is a member of the Iona Institute think-tank, which among its many theological mis-steps places a huge weight on natural law thinking. The only fittingness that a good Barthian like myself is willing to get behind is the fittingness of things fitting into other things. Thankfully, there’s a tumblr for that.

Nutella biscuit. Mmm.

There is a social network that has caused serious disruption to the Irish economy that probably has never been criticized in the pages of the Irish Times. Amazon. And there is a very amusing Tumblr that collects the worst Amazon reviews together for your delighted perusal.

Flannery O’Connor has a Tumblr. Can someone please tell the Catholic think-tank!

Francis Spufford has a Tumblr. Can someone please tell the Catholic apologists?! And also, tell Francis, who is a white, straight, male, middle-class Christian. He might not know that he is hated.

Finally, I have some “friends” that I made on Tumblr. I have never met these people but I think of them as friends because when I read their Tumblrs I had that realisation that the “secret thread” that runs through my interests and loves and fascinations runs through theirs as well. This is what a social network does best. It crosses divides and connects people who otherwise would never meet. Breda and I are part of the only generation in all of history who will have had the experience of both living with and living without the internet. The future generations will be socialised the same way that previous generations were. By living in society. The idea that we face some horrendous threat of a “liberal agenda” or a “PC brigade” or whatever other bankrupt and tired trope of conservatism you prefer because now we have http:// is beyond the pale of what is reasonable.

Naming Animals, Irregular Theology, Bogwitch, and Invisible Foreigner are among the people I look forward to having coffee and beer with in the future, who I initially encountered on the internet. They are part of what it means for me to be socialised. Not one of them conforms to the pattern of this world, but are being transformed by the renewing of their minds. If only to account for the brothers and sisters in the mix, O’Brien and similar Christian cultural critics should be much more careful.

What tumblrs would you send Breda to, if we wanted to help her revise her opinion?

Your Correspondent, Found a social media page that has that full C.S. Lewis quote.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury has demonstrated how preposterous the application of “conservative” and “liberal” labels is to Christianity by coming out in favour of the Assisted Suicide Bill proposed in the London parliament by Lord Falconer. What is notable about his position, aside from the fact that he published it in The Daily Mail (!) is that it makes only passing reference to God. A friendly reminder from an etymological bore might have helped. Theology means God-talk. Christians come to their conclusions theologically. I will leave the reader to conclude what should be made of this article.

Yet even if you do not share my strange obsession with a 1st Century wandering Jewish teacher, you surely will notice that Carey’s entire article is argued from the spectator’s perspective. “Anyone who has had to watch a loved one…”, “I visited her regularly in hospital. I saw the ravages of the illness on her body…”, “When I visited her again, I must have looked very miserable…”, “Even the most devout believers will find their faith tested by the sight of a dying person in torment…”. It does not auger well for the justice of this law that already the actual vulnerable, suffering person is objectified in our very important and oh-so-considered gaze.

What we are to make of the claim that in standing up for the sanctity of life “the Church could actually be sanctioning anguish and pain — the very opposite of the Christian message” is surely that the particular Christian message now advocated for by this “conservative” former bishop is not one that leads to martyrdom. For Carey, martyrdom is incoherent. For Carey, in other words, Christianity is now an embarrassment.

He even utters these words:

The Church must start to face up to the reality of the world as it is.

The reality of the world as it is that the Church has to start facing up to is the reality of a world where God became man, was nailed to a tree and forced to asphyxiate under his own body weight in the glare of a middle eastern midday sun while the soldiers of empire stood guard. The Christian message is not heedless of the reality of anguish and pain in this world. It declares that God is not heedless of it either.

Whatever about the “shameful blot on our country’s great reputation for caring for others” that Carey alludes to, the combination of drastically reduced medical funding, overworked medical workers, and exhausted administrative systems means that the sheer economic rationale of assisted suicide will prevail. Judging from Carey’s authorial perspective in the article, the decisions will be made in the vast majority of cases informed by the onlookers. Who wants to be a burden? Nobody. Assisted suicide makes sense.

That people think they can live in this world without burdening the other human beings they share space with is the clearest sign of all that we live in a post-Christian age. Forget Katy Perry kissing girls and liking it. The culture warriors were raging and all along their compadré was waiting to betray them.

I wonder what Carey means when he says: “There must, of course, be safeguards against abuse of the so-called right to die. It would be outrageous if it were extended beyond the terminally ill.” If as he has granted, the right to die is a human right, on what grounds do we exclude people from carefully constructed legal processes? Forget my over-intellectual fears about how medical doctors serve today as secular priesthood and have authority vested in them that means that laws like this are bound to be corrupted. You just need to know a trace of 20th Century philosophy to realise that we are creatures born towards death. Heidegger will haunt Carey until his dying day. Life itself is a terminal disease. The reality of the world as it is is that only the Church dares to disagree.

***

It leaves the soul heavy to go to war with such arguments. I am bone tired of Christians saying things in public that they wouldn’t have the courage to say in my local church. Whether that is Carey and his pro-suicide position or whatever bigot who has said preposterous things about Muslims in a Belfast megachurch, it just gets tiring.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland sent out a letter when the Stormont parliament debated (the certain to fail) gay civil partnership bill. They did not send out a similar letter when in September 2008 the Irish government guaranteed not just the liabilities of privately owned banks but the bondholders as well. We rail against gay rights while we ignore economic injustice on a gross scale. Even without the blatherings of Carey, there is a reason why the wider world doesn’t respect us.

A brilliant core of people within the Church of England this week successfully extricated the church from its investment in Wonga, completing a process that began with the founding of rival companies – credit unions in effect – that will, over time, drive payday lenders out of business. But this huge ethical success will get no coverage compared to the ramblings of an unelected old man who has in the past defended Pinochet and the arms trade.

We just don’t know what we’re about. We confuse being in the room with powerful men as having power. We confuse having power with being powerful. Politicians exert power by getting elected. Christians exert power by getting humbled. This distinction is lost on us. So we campaign about the things that scare the powerful men in our midst and we ignore the business our Master has set for us: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

I’d like a break from churches led by people who are more at home in London debating chambers than council estate food-banks. I’d like some downtime so we can consider how it is we react to these changed days. We can’t hold back assisted suicide, especially with articles like Carey’s being published. We can care for our dying though. We can love our sick and we can include our disabled and we can have patience with our own frailty, confident that running the race that the Lord has set us will mean hardship. We can’t (shouldn’t?!) hold back gay marriage but we can practice fidelity in our own relationships, hospitality to everyone who comes through our door and simple things like accountability over what we look at on our computers. We can’t stop abortion, but we can adopt and foster and spend our money on the care of people who are pregnant and aren’t entirely sure that they want to be.

We can be the church. We don’t have to be the world.

The Lord has given us a job to do, and it’s not to make sure history comes out right.

***

It might leave the soul heavy to read these caffeinated thoughts of a distressed disciple. So let me close with three pieces of art that touch on Carey’s theme. The first is the best song I have heard this year, by Jason Isbell, called “Elephant”. No one dies with dignity, we just try to ignore the elephant somehow.

The second is a poem by G.M. Hopkins, a man who knew pain and anguish. “Spring And Fall : To A Young Child” has been set to music by Natalie Merchant and it captures the inner dynamic that drives us to try to legislate death away. The little girl is grieved by the passing of Autumn, but it is for herself that she mourns.

Finally, Dylan Thomas’ famous poem, read by Dylan himself. When I was first becoming a Christian, I was also first reading Thomas’ poetry. “A Refusal to Mourn” closed with lines that I took up as a slogan for myself. “After the first death, there is no other.” Whatever Dylan meant by them, they mean for me that I will die just once, at the time appointed by the Lord and even then, it will be well with my soul. Here I have presented the much more directly relevant “Do not go gentle into that good night”.

***

Your Correspondent, Hasn’t he learned anything from that guy who gives sermons at church… Captain what’s-his-name?

To answer the title of this post: It’s possibly because I just don’t understand him.

This Oliver O’Donovan chap is one of the most influential voices in theological ethics in the last generation. I am reading through his major works during the mornings of this month and I think I see why he is so spectacularly influential. His robust sense of objective truth gives a firm platform from which to build a theological ethics and he fearlessly wades into contentious territories. So he gives us a foundation from which to begin and then he starts the ball rolling by talking about transsexualism or liberal pluralism or what have you. He is also a very capable exegete. He handles the New Testament very well.

Oliver O'Donovan

So far so surprising: esteemed Professor demonstrated to be quite good at thing about which he professes.

But there is a fundamental disconnect between me as reader and O’Donovan as writer. Hauerwas quipped about O’Donovan’s seminal Resurrection and Moral Order that there was too much order and not enough resurrection and that begins to get at my difficulty. The apocalyptic, disruptive, in-breakingness of Christianity doesn’t seem to indent the beautiful schemes of O’Donovan’s theorising.

That leads me to another concern I have which is sin. The vast spiderweb of unreality that pervades even our thought processes doesn’t seem to be properly accounted for in O’Donovan’s work.

The sheer completeness of it leaves me very suspicious. This pursuit of an understanding of the totality of things (O’Donovan, it should be noted, never thinks we can get a total understanding) is one of the reasons people find his work so provocative. I am left unsettled. A theology that doesn’t anticipate surds, irrational leftovers that cannot be accounted for within the terms of the system is potentially a theology that replaces the complexity of reality with an elegant deception.

So one of the topics O’Donovan returns to constantly is whether or not we can think in terms of generic classifications. Are the classifications by which we think about the world (“male and female”, “alive, dead, never alive”, “mammal, lizard, marsupial”, and so on) mere concepts that we find useful or can we strongly say they describe reality as it is? He thinks the moral order of the universe can be apprehended by us in a fairly straightforward manner. This “generic ordering” we discern is objectively true. In Resurrection and Moral Order he argues that those who disagree with that and think our subjective concepts are much slippier cannot sustain their argument:

One does not observe a regularity between two occurrences without observing the relation between them, which is to say, their generic ordering. The empiricist dilemma, then, either proves more than it pretends to, or less. It either proves that no generic order, not even regularity, is really ‘observed’, but is all a construct of the mind; or else it proves merely that our conceptual knowledge of kinds is a provisional construct of the mind based on our actual discernment of kinds in the regularities of events, which is true, but not was intended.

- Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 80-81.

I can understand why readers get excited by this kind of confidence. He has defended a traditional understanding of the nature of things which both supports orthodox theological convictions and conservative political and social positions. But I am not sure he has defended it as well as it appears. After all, the thoughtful “empiricist” does not want to deny any generic order. The person who says “gender is a social construct” also believes that “social construct” is a social construct. Hence there is some generic order that they are drawing upon. It’s just their grasp of it might not be the end of the story. In the same way, “fox” might not always be studied as mammal, but fox will always be studied against the creatures that live in the sea or fly in the air. Generalisations can be made.

It is just those generalisations are flexible.

In other words, the “too less” that O’Donovan thinks empiricists can prove is actually the “just enough” that they intend to prove. The “empiricist” doesn’t try to say no order exists. They simply say that the orders exist as concepts that have an imperfect correspondence to reality. Or in language that casts light on the over-confidence of O’Donovan, our conceptual knowledge of kinds is provisional, needing correction, based on our incomplete discernment of reality.

This can be demonstrated I think. Let us continue with thoughts about parenthood (this is an example O’Donovan uses directly before the quotation selected). In an age of adoption and IVF, gay couples raising kids and families falling apart in divorce, we get easily confused about what parenthood might mean. Invariably the conversation elides into gender and the moral order argument thinks it can make great progress here because it is evident to us that gender falls down into male and female.

But what of the Bugis people of Indonesia? Jenell Williams Paris has written wonderfully about how their combination of Islam and tribal beliefs has resulted in society being structured around five genders. There are men and there are women, but there are also calalai, calabai and bissu. The gender constructs that prevail in our society can be related to the gender constructs that prevail among the Bugis. We’d expect that since we all share the same reality. But their fivefold gender arrangement is very different to ours. The calalai are masculine women and the calabai are feminine men. The bissu are transgender shamans. But notice that we are describing them in our terms because we can’t escape engaging with reality in terms of the subjective provisional constructs that make up our conceptual knowledge of the world.

O’Donovan’s assertion of order too easily slips away from what alternating voices actually advocate for. It is not simply the case that we do not have to reference some timeless moral order to make ethical accounts balance. It is that we cannot reference any timeless moral order. We may speak of some fundamental ground of being, some ontological foundation, some bedrock of reality upon which our conceptions of life rest but none of us can reach down past our toes to touch and investigate and describe that reality without using our conceptions.

So we need to expect that our theological systems, even at their most elaborate, will still have gaps that we can’t fill. We need to expect that our grasp of reality in a fallen world will be warped by sin. We need to expect that without the unaccountable revelation of God which is beyond our finest reckoning our theology is mere philosophising, a game we play to distract us from how lost we are.

Your Correspondent, Just once he’d like someone to call him ‘Sir’ without adding ‘You’re making a scene.’

One of things people commonly aren’t aware of is how the New Testament continues to tell a story even after the Gospels end. Just as the story doesn’t begin at Christmas, but has the longest prequel ever in the history of Israel, the story doesn’t end with Ascension. Through the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul and the writings of Peter and the dense apocalyptic visions from John and everything else in between, the New Testament is constantly referencing itself and its world. Technically I think it is called intra-textuality, but who cares. Peter fights with Paul and Paul talks about it to the Galatians. This doesn’t look like a set of texts amended together by a conspiring cabal of later editors and more like the mess created as a dynamic movement gets off the ground.

One of the major events that serves as a back-drop to the New Testament is a famine that afflicts Jerusalem. It is referenced all over the place and modern critics make a great deal of it. I’ll write in the future about that. But right now, I want to look at what the discussion of the famine reveals about what Christianity is. In Paul’s second letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth, he asks the churches to make a collection to alleviate the suffering in Judea.

It is a fascinating example of a very tricky thing. Paul is asking for money. Not for himself, but for others, and that still is a difficult thing to do. He asks by first reminding his friends in Corinth that their friends in Macedonia have already answered the call. Their “overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” He is eager to point out that this is not some strong arm religious Mafioso shake-down. “I am not commanding you.” Instead, he sees the need of others as an opportunity for the Corinthian Christians to test how clearly they understand what they are proclaiming. After all, they claim to know the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” This is a stunning move when we think about what the Christian attitude to wealth ought to be. The wealth that might be found in the communities of those who follow Jesus is a gift from God, not the result of hard toil from job-creators, innovators, disruptors and those most blessed of God’s creatures, entrepreneurs.

“We all know Jesus was some kind of Divine Commie,” you say. Big deal. Well I think it might be. Because what Paul is doing here is construing God as the source of all wealth. In the context of the day, he is being presented as a supreme Patron. But what that means is that to those who receive his blessing (everyone), there is no distinction that bears commenting on. The Macedonians in-land, to the north, and the Corinthians in their bustling city and the Hebrews in Jerusalem – these diverse and differentiated cultures and places are all amassed under Paul’s “we”. He does not ask his readers to imagine a starving Jewish toddler. The only reference to Jerusalem’s need at all is an oblique reference in verse 13.

This is the difference between charity and mission. The goal isn’t directed towards simply alleviating some crisis need. There is no reference to suffering, instead there is focus on God’s generosity. The intention isn’t to mark out one group “the rich” who can help another “the poor”. Paul isn’t appealing on the basis that “we the benevolent Gentiles can help those deserving Jews”. Everyone is included in the “we” and there is no one who has been cast as “them”. Desert does not apply, only need. There is no reference to what they can get from the equation. There is no promise of reward. There is no argument based on some utopian politics. There is just God. He is just. He is the patron above all patrons. We are all his clients, so to speak, enriched by him. It is fitting to be like him – overflowing in joy, rich in generosity, regardless of extreme poverty.

“At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.” The walls that divide the Jew from the Gentile have been torn down. The walls that divide the rich from the poor have been torn down. The walls that divide Us from Them have been torn down. The tearing down is as a result of Jesus’ coming down, from wealth to poverty, from security to danger, from heaven to hell. Christianity is an insane proposition. It dares to say not only that these miraculous and unbelievable things have happened in space and time, but that incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection and ascension define what it means to live in the humdrum and mundane of everyday life. It assumes to tell you fanciful tales about God become man and assumes that with that in mind you can go to war on all the assumptions that have violently constructed the social world we share.

Mission is better than charity. Its goal is reality- as Paul puts it, equality. Equality not simply based on legal rights, or biology, or ontology (although all those things might be involved), but equality based on our shared and magnificent dependence on God.

Your Correspondent, Dinosaurs died from over-taxation

I got my parents fancy tablets over the last year, but I handed them over with trepidation. After all, my parents may be young at heart, but they are certainly old enough to be considered in the risk category for sending “FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: This doG is so cute FW:F” emails three times a day. As it turns out, my parents use their tablets to read novels or look at maps of the night sky and I am spared having the quiet guilty feeling that follows creating an email filter to mute the people whose DNA built you from scratch.

Which made it all the weirder that D.L. Mayfield implicated me in some lame-ass blogging round-robin where writers talk about their (ugh!) writing process. I must conclude with her that I would hate it if it wasn’t so darn interesting. Plus, being compared to Joel Osteen and N.T. Wright is a compliment a sane person could not ignore.

Before I begin, it probably doesn’t need stating but for completeness’ sake, let me state it anyhow: I am not a writer. Sadly, this increasingly describes my method:

My writing secrets

1. What are you working on?

I am always working on an academic project. I am a PhD student in Theological Ethics, so that dominates my writing, and my reading, and it schedules when I eat, how much I sleep, which World Cup games I get to watch, and pretty much everything else in my life.

This week I am writing a short presentation on a part of a book written by the Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan. There is a sort of intense summer-school in Cambridge at the end of the week that I am presenting it at, in the company of Ollie himself. My sense is that whatever about my presentation, Prof. O’Donovan wouldn’t like me to call him Ollie.

That lovely, small, tidy and compact writing task, is a welcome respite because this spring was dominated by me having to construct a fairly comprehensive “uncontentious” history of the Irish economy since 1922. This turned out to be a small book-length project that lays out a chronology of the different eras of economic policy that have prevailed in my homeland, along with a more in-depth engagement with four critical industrial sectors and a brief contextual discussion of how social spheres relate to the economy.

If this sounds boring to you, it is because it is boring. But it is an essential preliminary ground-clearing for my larger project. What I think I have demonstrated is that Irish economic policy is embedded in culture, which is another way of saying we choose to build the world we find ourselves in. I also argue that Irish economic policy is shaped by political decisions. Those political decisions are often not made in Ireland, which is another way of saying we live in a globalized world. Simple.

But the straightforward answer to the question is that I am working on a PhD thesis that will seek to present a theology of wealth. If Jesus wasn’t messing when he said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich people to get to heaven, then you and I are screwed. I hope to re-read the parables of Jesus through the eyes of earlier Christians, who lived and worked and traded and sold and prayed and worshipped in an age before capitalism. My suspicion is that we can only re-connect with what Jesus says about material abundance if we get our heads out of the assumptions of capitalism. Our wealth is perverse. Mammon literally bends our ability to see reality clearly.

The PhD thesis is not an end in itself. I am training to be a Presbyterian minister and my goal in all this research is that I would be able to go back to the pulpits of Dublin and help me and my friends make sense of their anxieties and have joy in the real treasure of the Gospel. So always in the back of my mind I am sketching out two popular books about the topic, one for Christians who don’t have the time or energy to read something loaded with 83 pages of endnotes and another, briefer work for people who don’t even agree with me that a Jewish carpenter is the saviour of the world.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?
I am a pretty successful student for someone who has never specialised in anything. I have a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Sociology and a degree in Catholic Theology and now I find myself in a very Protestant university department studying Theological Ethics, a sub-section of theology that I couldn’t properly define for you if you demanded a justification for my existence right now.

My comparative advantage within my genre (we call it a “field” in the academy, dontchyaknow!) is that I might be able to draw on all that superfluous fiction reading and watching of movies and playing of computer games to talk slightly more clearly when in the company of the mythical “Average Joe”.

I could talk more about the strangeness of my various motivators within the academic sphere, but that would definitely be “inside baseball” talk and far outside my remit in terms of talking about writing. Suffice to say, whatever about my writing, my thinking consists of a loud shouting match between all these dead intellectual friends of mine, who quite often directly conflict with each other.

3. Why do you write what you do?
I write what I do because I am a religious nutjob. More precisely, I have a vocation to be a preacher. I did not volunteer for this job and I can think of many other jobs I would be more comfortable in. I don’t just mean defensive lynchpin in the Manchester City midfield either. I could be a lawyer and I think I’d be very good at it. I think teaching primary school might be the sweet-spot for me. But those rational and practical concerns have melted away because I have been gripped by the realisation that there is a God and he is astonishingly compelling and I want to introduce people to his upside-down wisdom. I encountered his grace and that is why I write what I do. I study theology because I hope to spend the rest of my life sitting with people studying the Scriptures and experimenting with how to put it all into practice. And I write because I find that the theology I get to study is almost as beautiful as the God it’s all about.

Theology literally means talk about God. I write because I love to talk with people about God.

4. How does your writing process work?
I am literally paid to read books and eventually write something. I have an office, which I share with two other trainee theologians. We usually work Monday to Friday, 9-5, with three breaks through the day for lunch or coffee. One Friday every month we doss off work early and go to the pub and another Friday everyone else in the department is invited to our office to drink whiskey, but for the most part we work like it is a job in a normal office and we egg each other on gently to be productive.

Productive means that I try to read 100 pages a day and write 1000 words. If that sounds simple, you haven’t read much from the last generation of British theologians (if any of them are reading this, of course I don’t mean you!). I do actually sometimes fall asleep at my desk. I rarely get to consider a day productive based on these metrics. If anyone in the office achieves any of these standards, they get the right to a purple Snack bar, which is a delicious piece of chocolate-covered cardboard that I inexplicably love and my colleagues have grown to rely on as rewards. You can only get them in Ireland, and when friends visit they refresh our stocks. We have a fridge crammed with them.

When enough reading and note-taking is done, I go into a batch-writing mode for days on end and the words flow quickly and editing takes place in dialogue with Wife-unit and then later, critically, my supervisor. Hemingway talked about writing as sitting at the typewriter and bleeding. When I graduate to writing fiction, or if I ever dare to try to write for non-academic publication, then that may be true for me. But as it is, my life is so ordered around investigating the narrow little part of reality that is my PhD project that when deadlines approach, I’ve been quietly cogitating on the topic for a very long time. This is one of the reasons I am so rarely here on this blog anymore. Before I was a PhD student I blogged very regularly but now I tend to either blog upon request, when someone asks me to write about something or when I have hit a wall in a day’s productivity.

I realise this isn’t making me look very good. My blog writing process consists of unjamming intellectual constipation and my academic writing process consists of accumulating enough fragments of insight to trick people into thinking I’ve made an argument. But I refer you back to my Calvin and Hobbes cartoon up above. And if that doesn’t work, I’ve got this fancy powerpoint presentation to show you…

***

I am now meant to tag some other people into this Ponzi scheme of navel-gazing. The first person I pick on will have to be Patrick Mitchel, who is my friend, and a theologian who teaches at the Irish Bible Institute. He has been on sabbatical for a semester this year, so I’d love to hear what is up with him.

My other victim is Alison Chino, who is my Arkansan friend in Aberdeen. She is married to my officemate and she probably keeps the most impressive blog of anyone I know. She is a travel-writer, who shares her kitchen genius and aspects of her life, in between persuasively encouraging me to get over my antipathy to this grey city by writing about the beautiful walks she discovers.

Now I will stop writing, and go watch Belgium play USA, while thinking about how to tell D.L. that she spelled my name wrong…

Your Correspondent, Starts as close to the end as possible

Book Review: Everyday Sexism

While I am more than suspicious of #hashtagactivism, seeing it in the large part as the end product of the conversion of politics into identity-expression, my ethical vision of the world in which I live has been aided immensely by subscribing to the EverydaySexism twitter account. Over the last few years my morning feed of jokes, mathematical discussion of soccer tactics, and links to theological articles has been interrupted by accounts of women as they describe in short, terse sentences the daily slog that it can be to simply live with an XY chromosome.

A few months ago the curator of the project, Laura Bates, published a book and I finally got around to reading it a few weeks ago. I found it very hard going. The content in the opening chapters was so distressing that it was relegated from the bedside table. The opening chapters, about the tipping point where women were unable to take harassment anymore, the difficulties that women face in electoral politics and especially the chapter on how pre-pubescent girls are afflicted by the ramifications of patriarchy left me unable to sleep easy.

Which is as it should be.

I joked with Wife-Unit about how I wanted to put the book in the freezer, like Joey did on that one episode of Friends. Of course, Joey is a walking personification of everyday sexism and the book that he was so affected by was Little Women.

It’s funny when men are moved by stories with female protagonists!

Having finished it and reflected upon it, I conclude that the book, for me, was strangely invigorating. I am a preacher and I use my opportunities in the pulpit to unashamedly address a number of issues: the spiritual danger of wealth, the literary merit of Kurt Vonnegut, and the fact that the New Testament and early church history are ignored quite blatantly when it comes to the role of women in many congregations. I have decided to become an even more annoying preacher as a result of this book. I am going to bang that drum until people get up and leave, or get out of the way and let women use the gifts that the Holy Spirit has decided in her ineffable wisdom to bestow on them.

That isn’t to say that the book is without fault. Bates is a superb community organiser and her ethical voice is clear. But there are gaps all over the argumentation and places where her points actually fold-over themselves and cut against sections that are directly prior. The discussion about abortion is ideologically committed to one position, which neither does justice to the feminist spectrum around the issue, nor to the severity of the ethical problem the issue poses. The writing is unpolished in places.

But having said all that, I’d love if the previous paragraph was read in subscript. After all, if I went looking for a book on feminist theory, I wouldn’t have found a book that distressed me in such a healthy way. And if Bates nuanced her arguments and amassed her sources with academic rigour, she simply wouldn’t have 152,000 people following the project. Furthermore, she explicitly states that her methodology and her use of data, while sincere, is not intended to be exhaustive. As such, many of the complaints that I would levy against the book are out of bounds. It is superb at what it is meant to do.

I am unlikely to ever have even 152 people follow a project I curate. But my obscure academic interest was piqued throughout the work. I am sure that dozens of PhD students will, in the future, find inspiration (constructively or not) from this bestselling work. When I read this passage, I was struck by how Bates is describing how our societies are in some senses, vice-forming. Our shared life encourages the worst in us, instead of our best:

These inherently potent messages about gender-biased power and control surely help to shape the way our children see the world around them. We understand how it works: the everyday becomes the accepted norm, accommodated in the way we live; by making this allowance we reinforce the idea of acceptability and compound the sense of entitlement; that assumed prerogative is then exercised to an ever-increasing degree; and naturally we then find ourselves with even more of an everyday problem… To tackle street harassment, we have to break through the pernicious cycle. We have to abandon the mistaken idea that street harassment is nothing more than a minor inconvenience, or a compliment taken the wrong way.

- Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism, 169.

Without getting bogged down in philosophy, this passage made me think of the work of the philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. For MacIntyre, contemporary liberal society is unable to deal seriously with shared ideas of the human good. Everyone is left to judge for themselves. I am sure that the philosophy of a Marxist Catholic, heavily engaged with Thomas Aquinas would meet much objection in the wider feminist community but surely to some extent what Bates is calling for looks like feminism as a counter-movement within broader society, a community in which certain deep human virtues are cultivated. MacIntyre says:

The best type of human life, that in which the tradition of the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved.

If #hashtagactivism is ever to amount to more than the exhibitionism of the right-on political pronouncements, it must cultivate forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved.

And of course, we cannot consider feminism without considering the role of capitalism. Actually, scratch that. I am sure you can consider feminism without considering capitalism. But it will be desperately thin and won’t account for reality. While Bates doesn’t launch any kind of systematic attack on the relationships implicit between the commodification of the feminine and the commodification of, well, everything else, she does have good leading words to start the conversation:

… the most flagrant example of this came in June 2012, when two editions of Now magazine hit newsstands at the same time. One was a regular issue, featuring a front-page image of model Abbey Clancy beside the melodramatic headline ‘Oh no! scary Skinnies’ and a caption that warned: ‘Girls starving to be like her’. Inside, an article claimed that Clancy had become so dangerously thin she was a role model for damaging pro-anorexia websites. The second issue, which appeared directly alongside it on the shelf at my local newsagent, was the Now Celebrity Diet Special. This too featured Clancy on the front cover, but beside the headline: ‘Bikini body secrets… The stars’ diet and fitness tricks REVEALED’. Yes. In the same week they claimed that emulating her look could make young women dangerously ill and used the promise of helping reader look like her to sell copies.

- Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism, 201.

The internal contradictions of capitalism laid bare as clearly as anything you’ll find in Marx. But the point here isn’t that it is important to be vigilant against the creeping corrosion of Mammon, or even that you should immediately send bundles of money to whatever young theologian you might know of who is studying that topic. The point is that this media massaging of lies is intended to generate profit for the men who own shares in the companies that advertise in these magazines and the companies that publish these magazines and the companies that distribute these magazines and the companies that stock and sell these magazines. Human immiseration for the sake of profit didn’t go away when we stopped sending children down mines. We send them to newsagents instead. Just as much profit gets made and now you don’t even have to spend money on feed for the canaries.

The final chapter is entitled “People Standing Up”. It is a fitting humanist response to the penultimate chapter which details how around the world and in your housing development, office building and church, women are under threat. Sexism is “an eminently solvable problem”. It involves nothing so dramatic or revolutionary as refusing to support those cultures that treat women as less than men. For Bates it will be achieved by objecting at work when maternity leave is conceived as a problem, among friends when gender essentialism is used to explain away injustice “because that’s just what men are like”, or on the street when we refuse to pretend to not notice when women are verbally harassed.

I am not as optimistic as Bates. Theologically, I suspect patriarchy is a symptom of a bigger problem that won’t fully go away until Kingdom come. That is no invitation to resignation however. In the here and now, we are compelled to struggle ceaselessly to make the world we live in more like the world we are called to live in. Christians should follow this movement. Christian preachers should read this book. Every woman I have talked to about this book has told me heartbreaking stories of everyday harassment.

It should end.

Your Correspondent, Subscribes to the idea that men are from Earth and women are from Earth.

Moving to Aberdeen has involved many new challenges. As you can imagine, the sun rarely shines here. But the citizens have decided to build everything out of the same monotonous grey granite, which serves as camouflage against the grey clouds and leaves the average pedestrian disorientated, occasionally momentarily frightened that they are floating in air, in purgatory.

Navigating church communities in Aberdeen is also difficult. The church here is riven by divides. I don’t need to rehearse them here – if you care to know there are plenty of websites by people better placed to explain what has happened here. But one of the things that weighs heavy on me and my wife, ever since we became Christians, is the scandal of Christian disunity. And in the midst of serious disunity here, we have been warmly welcomed in different ways by all the “sides” in the disputes.

That is one of the saddest things about the scandal of disunity – taken on their own every side can embody the hospitality and grace of the Gospel. (I am not just talking about Aberdeen here of course, but around the world!) I was trained by priests in a Pontifical Seminary and I will be forever grateful for the education and care I received there, but I was not able to share Communion with them. Here in Aberdeen I am most likely to be found in the living rooms of Pentecostal Christians, even though the fact that I cannot speak in tongues leaves me as a slightly second class Christian. Liberal Protestantism has only ever been warmly welcoming to me and liberal Christians seem to welcome my teaching with an unusual enthusiasm, even though they are appalled at my views on abortion and sexual ethics. As an evangelical Christian, I eat lunch with my Orthodox colleague and study under my supervisor who is a member of an Episcopalian church and talk about what authentic faith looks like with my Catholic sister. But try to get us all together to worship the God we all proclaim and hell will break loose.

I use those words carefully.

Yesterday I was reading a classic old book and I was struck by a chapter on the shape of the strange communities created by the first Christians. The ekklesia would have made a sort of sense from the outside. If we were pagan Greeks looking in on the churches that met in the houses of wealthier Christians in Corinth or Ephesus, we would have seen a resemblance to the large households that were the fabric of Roman society. But as Wayne A. Meeks puts it, we would be confused by “the sense of unity among Christians in the whole city, the region or province, and even beyond.” The Christian gatherings would also look like the voluntary associations that had become common across the Empire. But instead of sharing an interest in a particular profession, these Christians professed a particular God. Of course, if we looked in from the courtyard at the entire proceedings, they would remind us of a synagogue, but women would be playing a much more prominent role. Perhaps if we were cultured pagans we might think that these gatherings were a strange form of philosophical school, gathered around the traditions of Jesus. But if the gatherings were about expounding the teachings of this great sage, why did they replicate – not just in every major city, but repeatedly and in the little towns and ports and everywhere the followers could travel?

Meeks argues that the first Christian gatherings were utterly distinctive, which doesn’t mean they were absolutely unique. There were parallels between what went on in worship with the rest of the society. Of course there were. Christianity was a missionary endeavour. It welcomed culture.

This is helpful for me because the emphases that a sociologist today would find in Pentecostal fellowships or Presbyterian congregations or Catholic parishes would have secular echoes. Hence, the presence of the much derided “prosperity preaching” common in some parts of Pentecostalism is a strong indicator of social mobility in an area. Similarly, where Presbyterianism takes root, literacy will follow and where Catholicism grows strong, you will soon find a preponderance of social justice initiatives. There is no need for a reductionist conclusion: that somehow God has fractured the church into many splinters to meet all these different needs. Instead, we can simply find one piece of solid ground by suggesting that churches, embedded in their contexts, will express distinction in relation to what surrounds them.

It doesn’t solve the problem of church-disunity, but at least we can say that church-difference is to be expected.

***

But Meeks goes on to talk about the way in which these early Christian communities established boundaries. Looking just at the evidence we can find about these communities from Paul’s letters, Meeks highlights the sense of belonging evident in these groups. They are “called”, they are “elect”, they are “known” by God and they are God’s “saints” and “holy ones”. They are “brothers and sisters” who have actually been “adopted” by God. This new status is a new identity, tantamount to a new life and the Pauline letters talk extensively about this transformation of self-description through reference to the liturgical acts of baptism and eucharist, and through descriptions such as being “one body”, having “put on Christ” and even in places, how this new identity destroys the boundaries that mark out life out in the city, eliminating race and class and even gender. All who are “new humans” leads to “all are one”.

The internet atheist sees in this the marks of a “cult”. But modern sociologists would talk about the “resocialization of conversion” and the “creation of fictive kinship”. Regardless, while the early ekklesia were coherent from the outside, by comparison to established social institutions, from the inside there is a clearly revolutionary understanding of what it means to be a human being unfurled and developed. Against the divisions of the world, the church of Jesus is unified.

Perhaps I am viewing the issue too resolutely through my evangelical lenses, but the divisions that beset the church today are expressed in terms of dogma. Crudely: The liberal church divides from the evangelical church over the doctrine of how doctrine evolves within Christian communities. The evangelical church divides from the Catholic church over the doctrine of how we become members of Christian communities. The Catholic church divides from the Orthodox church based on who gets to decide what passes for Christian communities.

In reality, church division is a complex mess of sin. One can trace a path from imprecise doctrine preached lazily and expressed poorly in our worship and when that stretches out over a generation or fifteen you arrive at Martin Luther writing out his Theses. But the historical reality is that the European Reformation didn’t have to happen. Compromise could have been reached and wasn’t and still hasn’t.

Doctrine matters. Dear Reader, you might not have noticed, but I’m one of those born-againers. I love me some doctrinal dispute. But doctrine isn’t the only boundary that the church maintains against the world. And the whole point of erecting those boundaries in the first place was that the church of God was not like the cities of the world – divided and torn apart. Now we maintain our dogmatic boundaries and therefore destroy the critical doctrine of unity.

I sped-read the chapter Meeks wrote on “The Formation of the Ekklésia” yesterday because I wanted to watch Germany play the USA. But I re-read it carefully this morning because I realised that there is something here that we need to wrestle with. The boundary language of Paul’s letters absolutely involves doctrinal warnings. We are to beware of false teachers, for example. But Justin Welby and Francis I are not false teachers. Perhaps we can grant that where the boundary language of Paul’s letters isn’t expressly doctrinal, it can be translated out to be doctrinal. But that translation, by the nature of being translation, will be inherently plural. In different places, in different cultures, in different eras, that translation will look different.

The church in Scotland is in a dreadful state. The church around the world is in a dreadful state, torn apart by old schism and by new. Today we talk about it as if unity will be achieved only when we can find an agreement in ideas. The ideas matter. Of course I say that – I am an evangelical theologian! But the schisms don’t happen purely over ideas. The story of every major church split can be told as the story of very mundane human disagreement, mired in ego and resentment, arrogance and double-dealing, buried motives and missed opportunities. By thinking about specific instances of church disunity in other terms alongside doctrine we won’t somehow heal the rifts, but there might be enough space for the Holy Spirit to bring us together. That that is our only hope is yet one more thing that every “side” can agree on.

What would happen if the “liberal” wing of the Church of Scotland considered its alignment not just with destructive ideas of autonomy but with a set of middle-class privileges and assumptions that shape views of mission? What would happen if the “conservative” wing of the Church of Scotland considered how appeal to “tradition” can be disguised violence (protest against which was one of the reasons the Church of Scotland started in the first place!) and how knowing the dance-steps to “being Biblical” can often lead us to bypass the Scriptural witness? What would happen if members of these competing congregations showed welcome to each other as warm as they offer to an outsider like me?

Probably nothing. It’s probably not worth the effort. It’s the other side’s responsibility anyhow. Let’s finish organising the summer fête or start up another Alpha course…

Your Correspondent, Plans to strike out Jesus in the World Series




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