Announcement: Public event based around my research

In Maynooth on Sunday June 26 at 1pm I will be doing something I’ve never done before: trying to explain the last three years of reading and thinking and writing in a way that doesn’t require footnotes.

Basically, I have been invited by the church I used to work for, the Presbyterian Church in Maynooth, to give an introduction to the theology of wealth. I will be road-testing a theory I have about how to explain my academic research in ways that are accessible and meaningful and helpful. Invariably, it will be a horrendous mess and the people who take the time to attend will remember it only for comedic value.

Without giving the game away, I think that the only hope that wealthy western Christians have is prayer.

Please feel free to come along; I’d love to see you and I would really appreciate your feedback. The location details are here.

Now, I am going to go meet Ben Folds.

Your Correspondent, Actually is going to meet Ben Folds right now.

To Explain My Absence

I have not been around here very much but that is only because I have been furiously furrowing my brow in an effort to figure out how to talk about Jesus and parables, Mammon and Ireland, greed and grace, in a way that passes a PhD viva. I am making progress but it means I might not make anything for this place for a while. I am reminded of these wise words from Karl Barth:

Is it not, perhaps, a weakness of Protestantism that we speak too much, too quickly (without proper punctuation), and without due and proper reflection? Might not a reasonable asceticism in this regard be a valuable asset even in our Christians and theological circles? Is it not indispensable to a true speaking?

– (CD IV.2, 16)

So consider my absence an attempt to shut up long enough to maybe one day speak truly.

Your Correspondent, Gonna make like a tree, and get outta here.

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool: A Best Of for 2015

Prolegomena

Inspired by my Japanese apostle, John Mark Mullan, back in the mid-2000s my friends and I started an annual tradition called the Best Ofs. It is not unique but it is special. We reflect on the year through the music we have discovered and we make selections, mix-tapes, and in one very fine contribution, an entire movie. The CD was still dominant when we began and it sets the terms of the project still, a lovely evolving testimony to the fact that we are no longer young. So the rules are as follows:

  • The mix must be less than 80 minutes.
  • It must be more than a minute.
  • Artists can repeat.
  • Songs can be from any era, but just new to you in the last year.
  • Any and all genres are welcome.
  • Crazy ass remixes/mash-ups of familiar songs from long ago count as new
  • You can submit detailed supplementary content or just raw audio or anything in between.
  • You can post us all CDs, make a Spotify playlist, or distribute the files on A4 pages hidden around a local forest – whatever way you think gets the best balance between ease for you (the compiler) and ease for us (the listener). But we have a special dropbox if you want to keep things simple.
  • Anyone invited can feel free to invite others, because the Best of Project is a great way for friends to meet friends’ friends.

When I Think Back On 2015

So when I reflect on the last year I mostly think about books and the battles I wage with them. I have become ever more short-sighted, balding, grey-haired and troubled as I wrestle with my thesis and moving on from the purgatorial grey of Aberdeen. My writing becomes ever more obtuse. My conversation ever more arcane. I was never with it, and they may well have changed what it was, but right now I am definitively square. Marge Simpson is my spirit animal. Hence:

I do not have the skill or courage to write a retrospective of my year that is true or insightful. I do have the songs that resonated with me, which reveal that more than any year in my life thus far, I have been consumed with thoughts about God and life and how thoughts about God are not the same as faith and thoughts about life is not the same as living. The songs are sad or angry and only in one example deliriously triumphant. And that example is a theme tune to a TV show, so that says a lot about the state of my soul, right?

Still, I like to think in my thought and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do, that I am not a morose person. I aspire to be guileless like Marge and so even if life in the TheoLab is very much square, I’m happy there, even if I still look into cameras as if they are about to ask me a question I don’t understand:

TheoLab ahoy!

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool

So these are the songs that made it into my best of. In the version I will upload to the project, it comes in at 77 minutes and 44 seconds. So listening to it takes a commute to work and back again, probably.

This is the album cover, which is an image from the artist Ryoji Ikeda:

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool

Here’s a YouTube playlist:

Commentary

Here’s the tracklisting:

  1. The Decemberists – A Beginning Song:
    For various reasons, as the end of 2015 collapses on us, I have a growing suspicion while sitting in the Concrete Bunker that 2016 is going to be a decisive year for our little family. So the song that closes the Decemberists album opens mine, because in 2016, whether we like it or not, the next chapter begins.
  2. Dawes – All Your Favorite Bands:
    Wife-unit’s advice for making mix-tapes is complex and nuanced, but I boiled it down to: “Start strong, but follow it up with the home-run.” This is my single favourite song of the year. Its gentle guitar riff runs through my head constantly and the spirit of friendship and hope that it extols is both deeply resonant and comforting to me.
  3. Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian at Best:
    The jury was out for a long time on this Antipodean sensation. Wife-unit instantly warmed to the 1990s production style, and it definitely tickled my nostalgia for an adolescence full of wordy female songstresses. But in the end, the most raucous track on the album lingered in my memory.
  4. Kendrick Lamar – i:
    I did not wait with bated breath for the Kendrick Lamar album but when it arrived, it was overwhelming. Often it is hard to listen to because there is so much for black Americans to be furious about. Lamar, especially here, is a compelling voice in the midst of that injustice. This song is so damn good.
  5. Blackalicious – I Like The Way You Talk:
    I did wait with bated breath for the Blackalicious album. I waited ten freaking years for it. And when it arrived I was positively underwhelmed. I just built it up too much, I suppose. It’s an odd album because when I play it all at once it is almost anonymous and frequently annoying. But taken on their own the songs are great. Maybe I’ll revise my opinion as the months go by. That’s often the case with me; I am so naturally unmusical that the best stuff often takes a long time to settle in my ears.
  6. Sleater Kinney – Price Tag:
    There’s a famous Portlandia sketch where Carrie and Fred inadvertently open a sweatshop in their basement. This could be a soundtrack for that. But it is one of the most rocking of the album’s tracks (they almost all rock) and I love it because studying wealth and capitalism for the last few years, I am convinced that it is impossible to shop ethically. Best to scream about that than just lie down and accept it, right?
  7. Oh Pep! – Tea, Milk & Honey:
    Like other people in the group, I go to NPR Tiny Desk Concert to find new music regularly and that is where I found these great Australian chaps. This is such a lovely love song. The voices are unostentiously soaring and the person speaking to us through the lyrics has such humble adoration for their partner. “She sings like a church with a choir in it.”
  8. Craig Finn – Sarah, Calling From a Hotel:
    Craig Finn is my favourite song writer. Now that The Hold Steady are on indefinite hiatus, I am consoled that he seems dedicated to his solo career (although I’d swap it all for a novel from him!). No one tells a story like him and this song demonstrates that. This song is terrifying. “Oh God, I’ve gotta go.”
  9. Sufjan Stevens – John My Beloved:
    The last two Sufjan albums were not beloved, but they get more playtime from me with every passing year. I was expecting that whatever would happen with Sufjan’s new album, I would have to take a lot of time to get used to it. I was wrong. We all were wrong. Carrie and Lowell is a stone cold masterpiece and I could have just listed all the songs and then drawn this mix to an end. Instead I basically chose the two I chose at random.
  10. The Gregory Brothers – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Theme Tune:
    Certain things run constantly through my mind. Passages from Isaiah. Old Wesleyan hymns. Thomas Hardy poetry. My brain rarely rests, unless I sleep, in which case, it is busy making crap up but thankfully I rarely remember dreams. Now, new this year, the “Unbreakable! She alive damnit!” of this theme tune intrudes on my consciousness a dozen times a day. Making coffee in the morning. In the middle of a sensitive, pastoral conversation at work. Wrestling invading ninjas. At the most inopportune times this song breaks in with its exultant surprise and I submit to it. So now you’ll have to as well.
  11. Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta:
    The week after the Charleston murders, I was in America with my bumchum Taido. We were in Princeton at a fancy conference that drew hundreds of top scholars and students from around America and around the world. In the evenings, we’d go hang out with our friends Matt and Evie and that was a hands-down highlight of the year. Matt drove us around Trenton, the underworld that makes Princeton possible. He invited us to a prayer walk being held in remembrance of the victims of the attack, starting at the local AME church and winding its way through Princeton until it stopped with prayer and song and speech in the square in the centre of the town. We told the organisers of the conference and suggested they call off their evening schedule. “Think of how awesome it would be for these Christians if hundreds of their brethren from around the world joined with them, pausing their business to do the more important work of prayer?” They didn’t agree. A famous and much revered bishop was due to speak and they were not about to sideline him. “Besides,” we were told, “we shouldn’t miss his speech because it is so funny; it’s basically stand-up!” We skipped the ecclesial comedy (which was most certainly tragedy) and went to pray in the town. Who am I to have an opinion on the cultures I do not inhabit but it seems to me that America’s racism is more deeply embedded than the toolkit of the white Ivy League elites can ever hope to reach. Lamar was again an educator for me. Cutting the legs off the slave is not a thing of the past.
  12. Josh Ritter – Getting Ready To Get Down:
    Ritter is one of those people who I am meant to like. So many of my friends love him but I could never get into him, even though Ian Tracy had a brilliant track from him on one of his Best Ofs years and years ago. But his rockabilly Gospel record was great fun and how could I turn down a song about how, very often, studying the Scriptures distances us from the faithful and that spoke of “Just another damn of the damns not given”?
  13. Torres – Sprinter:
    I read Torres’ music described as arena rock for abandoned arenas and I think that is wonderfully descriptive. The songs are smart and long-arched and loud. This song, like so many in this collection, is haunted by the attraction of Jesus and the impossibility of the church. It is autobiographical, I suspect. It is definitely true.
  14. Will Butler – Son Of God:
    If pressed to explain how much I loved Sufjan’s Carrie & Lowell, I’d say it is my favourite album since Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. The Arcade Fire are among my very favourites and so the first solo album by Will Butler was bound to get a lot of my attention. This song is again about Jesus and ethics. Squaresville central.
  15. Vandaveer – However Many Takes It Takes:
    After that big fancy conference, Taido and I spent a weekend in New York, wearing holes in our shoes as we sprinted around the place. The first night there, after a heavenly dinner on a park bench in Union Square, we went to the Bowery Ballroom to see a band for whom Vadaveer supported. Vandaveer were better and this – yet another Squaresville tune about searching for salvation but not finding it – is my favourite of their songs.
  16. Sufjan Stevens – Drawn to the Blood:
    One of the (many) reasons Christianity is so deeply bloodless in the West is that it is presented as a solution to a problem. Lonely? Find community at church! Guilt-ridden? Find serenity in the liturgy! Nihilistic? Find meaning in the Gospel! These are half-truths and full lies. When the God of Elijah is your lover, life does not suddenly have meaning. Guilt does not suddenly lessen its grip. Loneliness does not magically stop stalking. The lyrics of this song fall away half way through but the story it tells swells on. Sufjan is putting aural shape around the stumbling that faith in the West in this age consists of.
  17. Alessia Cara – Here:
    An introvert’s anthem.
  18. John Moreland – Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars:
    I discovered this guy in early November and I basically haven’t stopped listening to his album since then. This is basically a thesis-statement-song for Squaresville: “Life will make you homesick for a home you’ve never had.”
  19. Jason Isbell – 24 Frames:
    I suspect Isbell was the most commonly occurring artist in the whole batch of last year’s Best Ofs and his new album is likely to also feature heavily in various playlists. “You thought God was an architect; now you know he’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow”? Squaresville: Yet another song about being unable to reconcile the deep mysteries of life’s hardness with the ever-present promises of God.
  20. Glen Hansard – Winning Streak:
    I remember a friend telling me a story about how, as a young musician, he encountered Glen Hansard and the Oscar-winner (who was then not yet a famous Oscar-winner) was a right dick to him. I probably mis-remembered it, knowing me. But the point is that for years I resisted liking Hansard’s music because he had been mean to my friend. In retrospect, that was both petty and self-defeating because Hansard is consistently astonishing. The latest album is his best yet, richly influenced from all over the place and resounding with a realistic hope that at times appears hymnal. This benediction, this good word of a song, is a fitting way to start landing the best-of.
  21. Glen Hansard – Grace Beneath the Pines:
    And this quiet song of resilience is the perfect way to draw the year to a close. Jason Isbell is a man of deep faith, as are many of the songwriters who feature on my list. But the most uplifting songs come from this Dubliner, who lives a few miles from my family home and from what I can gather, has no religion to speak of. However, to whatever extent the word spirituality means anything, Hansard’s songs are immersed in it.

If you want to download the album, this link should work.

Your Correspondent, He could go on talking, or he could stop

Insufficiently Christian Coffee Cups

It is over a week since I read an article on a dreadful website about how Starbucks’ Christmas-themed coffee cups had, this year, offended Christian groups. When I was last back home someone asked me why I didn’t blog anymore and the honest answer is that usually I am too busy working on a PhD. A subsidiary answer, that’s also true, is that I have become really good at not clicking links. So I rarely get caught up in the discussions that prompt blogging. This time I am in though. I kept meaning to go over to Starbucks and buy a coffee so I could take it back to my office and scrawl something unChristian on the side.

It’s a sunny Saturday morning and I am drinking coffee from a mug my dear friend Gillian bought us. It is turquoise and in block capitals stretching around its walls one reads the letters “OMG”. It’s a little private joke that means a lot to us in the way that tokens of friendship represent much more than the token itself. I never asked myself if my “ohmygod” mug was sufficiently Christian. No Christian who has ever visited my house have been served tea in and mused about whether it was God-honouring or God-mocking. It seems that no one really cares.

OMG Mug

And the mock outrage that I read on that dreadful website has been widely mocked by Christians since it was published. So many tweets and facebook posts and blogs were published about how the Starbucks coffee cups aren’t offensive that they together constituted an expression of internet outrage. We are outraged that someone thinks we could be outraged about something like a coffee cup.

Of course, on one level, the silly little kerfuffle allows us to reflect on a critical aspect of Christian discipleship. 1 Corinthians 13, that famous love-chapter that you have heard read a million times at weddings, says that love takes no offence. Jesus did not get offended easily. He got righteously furious. He burned with a sense of injustice at the oppression of the downtrodden and the sacrilege of holy space. But he took a fair vicious few insults with a shrug of the shoulder and an honest response. In an age of internet mobs and tabloid newspapers and tv dedicated to making you feel fear and offence, the Starbucks nonsense reminds us that we are called to exhibit winsome patience with those who insult us.

And then on a devotional level, the silly little kerfuffle does remind us that Christmas is not the primary Christian festival. Christians are Easter people. Christmas is an annunciation about the coming reconciliation of all things. And in that, a red cup is visually symbolic in a way that something covered with snowmen and Santa can never be.

And on an ethical level, the silly little kerfuffle brings to mind the fact that we are almost all addicted to this bean-drink, which depending on the week is the most traded commodity in the world. And the trade in that commodity is full of deeply disturbing excesses; excess profits and excess agriculture and excess hardship for those who actually cultivate the plants. Why does a copy-and-paste cafe from Seattle end up having such a global cultural weight? These are old questions, but we should keep asking them.

And then on a historical level, this silly little kerfuffle might prompt thoughts about how if Easter is the festival Christians look towards, Christmas is the festival that capitalists shape their year around. For long centuries, Christmas wasn’t even celebrated in the country I live in. The Scottish Presbyterian impulse towards ascetic austerity finds a partner in the much-maligned American puritans, who in a complicated way made capitalist Christmas possible by tolerating it on the grounds that it need not be imbued with religious significance. Christians sometimes fret about Hallowe’en, but it is Christmas that can actually be spiritually toxic.

I am sure there are other angles that other people, who like me are foolish enough to write about this, have spotted. But here is the real place where our thoughts should turn: politics.

If you go back to the original article, the reason I clicked on the link initially was because I wondered, “What Christian group has the time to offer an opinion on such nonsense?” It couldn’t have been the Church of England or the Catholic church and I doubt that the website would consult with any of the massive but basically invisible Pentecostal churches that are changing the face of urban Christianity in Britain. Then I read through the article and found the answer: The Christian Institute.

The Christian Institute is a lobbying group that:

exists for “the furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom” and “the advancement of education”.

I love how the scare quotes around furtherance of Christian religion and the advancement of education make it seem as if they are being sarcastic. This is a political charity that has no authority structure connected to actual churches, that seeks to insert itself into the political conversation at every opportunity. My first encounter with them was about 7 years ago, when I received an uninvited group email from them while I worked for a church in Dublin asking for my support in their efforts to oppose the Irish government’s civil union legislation. I sent an email back asking them why, in the light of centuries of imperialism, would a British political group think it can start lobbying over Irish legislation. I got no response.

In fairness, I also got no further emails.

Whenever you look for a Won’t somebody think of the children! response from Christians in the media, you find the Christian Institute. When Christians allegedly boycotted Tesco because one of their staff members called Christians evil on their personal Flickr profile page, it was the Christian Institute. The Christian Institute got nationwide coverage in the UK when it told the shocking story of a British Airways staff member who lost her job because she wore a necklace with a cross on it. When the Employment Tribunal published its report, the story was rather different. In their brave confrontation of the secularist agenda, the Christian Institute claimed that a long-running British soap-opera had covered up a cross while filming a wedding scene in a church. This got widespread attention. When the producers explained that they had not intended to cover up the cross, that prior scripts had the characters discussing how important a religious wedding was to them, that shooting in a 14th Century church is not a cost-effective means of screening Christianity out of a new secular Britain and that the scenes in question did actually feature crosses, it did not get extensive coverage. The Christian Institute did not even graciously acknowledge it.

Coffee cup and supermarkets, airlines and soap-operas: the architects of this secular agenda sure do pick the strangest places to attack Christianity.

Starbucks are tax avoiders, but a search for the Christian Institute’s comment on tax avoidance shows up nothing. Tesco pay unlivable wages, but a search for the Christian Institute’s comment on people being able to live based on the work they do shows up nothing. British Airways are part of an industry that accelerates climate change. A search of the Christian Institute’s comment on climate change is a passing reference to the need to protect the right of teachers making jokes about “man made climate change as a concept.” Soap-operas represent a fascinating form of shared cultural enjoyment but a search of the Christian Institute’s comment on the theology of culture yields no results. If you tinker with the searches however, you find many references to Christian heritage and our culture close together. “Christian”. “Heritage”. “Our”. “Culture”. Each of those four words need to be carefully considered by thoughtful Christians.

I could go on. The Christian Institute was heavily involved in the Ashers’ Bakery case in Belfast. They have links to Creationist groups. They have a history of opposing sex education in schools. But the triviality and paranoia that is combined in this approach to public life has hopefully been demonstrated. This red Christmas cup nonsense is not an emission of the American religious right. It is not a parody perpetrated by the Onion. It is a pernicious form of politics advanced by an “Institute” from the north east of England that declares itself “Christian”. Even on their own terms, if this is the threat that the Christian Institute is guarding us against, we have nothing to fear. The Gospel of Jesus primes us to see the threat facing Christians in this modern age to be Christians. Christians who are selfish and self-deluded, violent and petty.

Much more forcefully, the Gospel of Jesus primes us to face the world in all our complexity and confusion, our sinfulness and our selfishness, our red coffee cups and our gay-agenda promoting soap-operas without fear.

Buy your coffee from Starbucks or buy your coffee from a kiosk at the petrol station. Celebrate Christmas in all it’s tinsel tackiness or stand apart in reflective quiet. But please stop letting the boring and tedious politics of outrage mark Christian witness on this side of the globe. There never was a war on Christmas. But even if there was, Christians don’t fight wars. We break bread. We welcome the outcast. We sing because Creation is beautiful. When we follow the path of these lobby groups, it is not the coffee cups that are insufficiently Christians, it’s the Christians.

Your Correspondent, Building a Noah’s Ark for flat-earth advocates

Five Good Things for the Fifth of October

In my effort to get back into a blogging groove, let me return to one of the most basic ways of using a website. Before we had Twitter, blogs rose to prominence primarily as a place where people curated links that were fascinating. So here are five worthy things I have seen online recently, that you may or may not have missed:

1.

      I have supported Manchester City since I was a little boy. Yesterday I saw perhaps the most remarkable performance of any City player ever when their star striker, Sergio Aguero, touched the ball nine times in twenty-two minutes, scoring five goals. It is tradition that when a player scores three, they get to keep the game ball. Here is “Kun’s” claim:

Kun on five

2.
Jason Goroncy on the calling that creates Protestantism; an excellent essay that audaciously positions Mary as the Biblical figure who represents Protestantism:

It is a community that, as another great Australian theologian put it, is ‘prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church’ (Davis McCaughey). It is a community that continually risks the judgement of God’s Word, and that lives in such a way that it is entirely uninterested and uninvested in its own self-preservation. It is a community that lives faithfully with the receding horizon of postponed dreams and made free thereby to throw itself entirely into the embarrassing service of Jesus, and that not for God’s sake but solely for the sake of the world. It is a community, therefore, that is always learning how to fail, always rediscovering its uneven record. It is a community that risks even its life with God so that it might become contemporary with Christ.

3.
As someone who is studying the problem of wealth for Christians, I found this article by Mallory Ortberg where she replaces the word “tithe” in the Biblical text with “Ass, Grass, Or Cash – Nobody Rides For Free” absolutely brilliant. It’s actually not merely hilarious but wonderfully apt theology.

4.
A searingly vicious book review is among the hardest things to pull off. The great Terry Eagleton does just that in this hilarious, unflinching take-down of a recent biography of the British theocrat Elizabeth Windsor.

5.
Finally, wife-unit and I harvested some blackberries over the weekend and that reminded me of one of the great Séamus Heaney poems.

Your Correspondent, Lives perpetually in the site of his spiritual dispanting

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

Theological Reasons For Not Imposing Theology On Our Laws

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

Five Equal Reflections On Marriage

*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

Maybe If You Had Women Preachers, You’d Know How To Use The Word ‘Heresy’?

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.

The Depressing, Ever-Present Reality Of Christian Sexism

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.

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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.”

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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.

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I won’t be looking him up.

Your Correspondent, Folds faster than Superman on laundry day