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Who Owns Marriage? (3) counter-cultural witness

10/04/2015

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Who_Owns_MarriageAlongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me).

Here are my comments on chapter 2 in which Nick unpacks evangelical beliefs and values around marriage, sex and society.

Nick’s discussion of four core values for evangelical thinking about same-sex marriage forms a really helpful and honest chapter. I particularly liked the description of relationship-based morality which gets to the heart of evangelicalism ‘at its best’. At the end of this discussion Nick concludes that

“an Evangelical passion for holiness, and our search for morality, should lead us more to self-examination and repentance than to an obsession with judging and condemning the actions of others.”

This is so refreshing to hear! In a ‘culture war’ any admission that ‘our’ side might not be completely in the right is an admission of weakness. Nick’s appeal for evangelicals to be self-critically reflective shows that he has no interest in scoring points or trying to control culture. The most significant challenge for all Christians in this debate is not winning a vote ‘from the top down’ but embodying the transforming beauty of loving marriages from ‘the bottom up’. For the reality is that Christians of any hue are fooling themselves if they think that marriage can be ‘saved’ by defeating the same-sex Referendum in May 2015. Trusting in the law to preserve or enforce ethical or moral good is a Christendom instinct and is, I believe, a profoundly mistaken way to witness to the gospel of Christ. Ireland’s recent experience of Christendom should have taught us that. For the reality is that traditional heterosexual marriage is already in deep trouble in Ireland. Over 50% of children in Limerick Ireland are now born outside of marriage (the figure nationally is about 35% which is similar to EU averages). Relational breakdown is pervasive. The Referendum is only a symptom of a much deeper process of cultural transformation driven by the West’s embrace of capitalism and consumerism: the autonomous individual; freedom of choice; privatised morality; the pursuit of happiness; and the right to express our own identity – whatever it is (within the law).

The 1937 Irish Constitution was framed in a culture where the individual’s rights were circumscribed by family, faith and nation. It was assumed that the state had a ‘maximal’ role in shaping law to reflect the Catholic values of the vast majority of the population. Remember De Valera’s vision of his ideal Ireland? It was a place of frugality, spirituality and simplicity in which Ireland’s isolation protected the people from the unspiritual forces of modernisation, materialism and capitalism. Those hopes now seem quaint in a globalised world. Let me illustrate it this way. At the top of O’Connell St in Dublin you can go the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. At its base there is a quote from him saying “No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation.” In his day, the individual was subordinate to the greater cause of the nation. Today, we could paraphrase Parnell to say “No man or woman (or anyone on the gender spectrum in between the two) has a right to fix a boundary to the onward march of the individual.” Now the nation is subordinate to the rights of the individual – and is legislating accordingly.

It is in this sort of context that Christians are to live and witness. This is where Nick’s call for repentance and self-reflection is so important. First we need to look at ourselves. How well are we living up to the high ideal of Christian marriage that Nick describes? The American ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that treating marriage as a private relationship of mutual satisfaction is a very modern development that has led the church to neglect the public and political nature of sex in Christian theology. If marriage is nothing more than a union of two people ‘in love’ with each other then the church’s reluctance to grant this status to homosexual couples seems arbitrary, hypocritical and prejudiced. It also makes a breakup more likely when this mutually enhancing relationship goes wrong.

Of course love is a pretty important part of Christian marriage! But I like the way Hauerwas challenges popular perceptions as he talks about a minister asking a young couple getting married if they love one another;

“What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you are in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.”

If this sounds strange maybe it is because we have been more shaped by our consumerist and individualist culture that we would like to admit. This isn’t the place for detailed discussion of the development of Christian marriage since Bible times save to make a few brief points. For centuries marriage was a communal and political ‘institution’ that provided the context for sex, the raising of children, giving them legal status, and the ordering of property rights. Interpersonal love had no significant place in Christian marriage from the New Testament, up through the Middle Ages to the Reformation. For much of this time marriage was seen as a lower spiritual option than the religious life of celibacy. After all, both Jesus and Paul (a widower?) were single men and Paul, while seeing both marriage and singleness as good valid options, preferred the latter (1 Cor. 7). More negatively, Augustine’s theology of sex as the means by which original sin is transmitted and the only legitimate sex within marriage being for the purpose of procreation would cast a long shadow over Christian attitudes to sex. It was at the Reformation that marriage received a new theological assessment. While rejecting the Roman Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament, Luther considered marriage a God-given and most natural form of life, to be lived in faith by the grace of God. Sexuality is a good gift of God, to such a degree that Luther could not imagine a woman or man living without sex unless they had been given the rare gift of chastity. He also spoke against forced marriages and the need for the couple to have desire for each other. This was a new appreciation of women as marital partners. He, with other Reformers, saw marriage as a high calling, a vocation for a couple to bring up their children well. Marriage in this sense is far more than mere legitimation of sexual desire or a private partnership for mutual fulfilment.

Hopefully, this quick review helps explain Hauerwas’s comment. The emergence of love as the overriding motivation for marriage is a recent development, yet ‘mere’ romantic love or hopes of conjugal bliss will not sustain a marriage through difficult times. An authentically Christian view of marriage needs to be robust.

It’s time to make some concluding points (and I’ve run out of space to comment on chapters 3 and 4!):

First, an authentically Christian view of marriage stands in increasingly sharp contrast to the personalised romantic understanding of marriage as a private affair between two individuals of whatever gender that now dominates Irish and Western culture. The basic orientation of a Christian marriage is outward, towards the church community and wider world. The man and woman’s love is a transformative gift of God that goes beyond their mutual desire and enjoyment to serve and bless others. Marriage in this sense is a pathway of God’s grace. As Christians are by definition people who have been forgiven, so they are to be people of forgiveness (Roms. 15:7). For without forgiveness a marriage will not survive, grow and flourish. The calling of Christians to get married and stay married is a sign of the presence of God’s grace and forgiveness being worked out in everyday life. This vision of marriage demands my complete self-giving to my other and a willingness to be transformed by that relationship of difference as it is worked out in relationship with God and with others in the community of faith. All of this is to say that for Christians, sex and marriage serve a very different vision and purpose than they do in our contemporary society.

This is why I agree with Nick Park’s suggestions about civil partnerships for all and the state withdrawing from the marriage business in Chapter 4. For the state to take upon itself the right to extend a redefined notion of ‘marriage’ is exactly the wrong direction to be going. This is why I will be voting ‘No’. Justice and equality can better be served by civil partnerships for all. It is a very curious aspect of the Referendum debate how marriage is being viewed as an idealised status to which everyone has a right to aspire. The law should not be used primarily as a stamp of societal approval and recognition of personal desires – which is what the legislation is primarily about. (But neither do I believe the sky will suddenly fall in if and when it passes).

Second, more recent emphasis in Christian marriage since the Reformation on the necessity and high calling of marriage has actually marginalised the equally if not more valid Christian calling of singleness. As a result many single Christians can be made to feel second-class citizens within the church. We need to beware the ‘idolatry’ of marriage and the family of 2.2 children as the ideal Christian vocation. The fact that Christians are followers of an unmarried Jewish man should be a reminder that marriage and sex is not essential to live a completely fulfilled life! Also, Jesus’ teaching on the temporary nature of marriage in this life should also give us pause about unduly exalting marriage as the ultimate goal of happiness, personal fulfilment or affirmation of identity (Luke 20:34-5).

Third, it’s fascinating just how counter-cultural the early church’s practice of family and marriage was. The first Christians were accused of undermining the family structures of the Roman Empire by allowing men, women, Roman citizens and even slaves to be baptised into their community quite independently of the permission of the patriarchal head of the Roman household. The church became the ‘household’ of God (a word used frequently of the church in the NT) whose head was the risen Lord not the pater familias. It’s hard for us to imagine how radical this was in a highly stratified world. Just imagine a slave with the gift of teaching instructing his master in the church gathering! Or a woman prophet prophesying to a mixed gender community. The basis for membership of this new family was faith in Christ. Their common father was God whom they could even call ‘abba’. Anyone could join – across the great gender, social and religious boundaries of the ancient world (Gal. 3:28). It was to be a united household marked by love, acceptance and forgiveness not power or control. Significantly it did not require the establishment of biological families. The household of God was to be ‘propagated’ by witness and mission. The goal or hope of the new community was future orientated to a new creation to come.

None of this was to diminish family structures but it was a radical departure from a Roman way of seeing the family and the world. For this reason the early church was seen as a threat to accepted societal norms and posed an implicit (non-violent) challenge to Empire. In time, this challenge would result in violent persecution by the state.

I mention all this neither to suggest that Christians today are about to face state persecution nor to equate the Irish government with the Roman Empire! My point is that for Christians, family, marriage, sex and sexuality is part and parcel of their identity to live counter-culturally. Christians belong to a different story to that of the world. During Christendom this distinction got covered over and many Christians assumed the state would always be ‘on their side’. As we move more and more into a post-Christendom secular Ireland, the gap is widening fast. The same-sex Referendum is a reminder that the state does not remotely share a Christian view of marriage and the wider culture reflects the values of hyper-consumerism more than any other belief system. This should not be a surprise to Christians. The challenge it poses to us is what does it look like to be a counter-cultural community of Christians in 21st century Ireland?

Finally, linked to that last question and to Nick’s comments about evangelicals and social justice, I believe that there is a question that evangelicals too often overlook or ignore in this whole debate. Namely, how do we respond to those that are different to us; who have opposing objectives; whom might even be seen as ‘enemies’? Jesus’ command is pretty clear – love. At the very least love means listening well. It must mean opposing stereotypes and ‘doing unto others as we would have them do unto us’ in terms of how we speak and think. To love gay people will include building communities where everyone is welcomed and respected without fear of being singled out, shamed, embarrassed or judged. Can evangelical churches be places where people of same-sex orientation can feel secure enough to be open about their sexuality as they explore the Christian faith? Are Irish evangelicals ready or able to encourage, affirm and rejoice in an openly gay celibate Christian using his or her gifts in ministry in their local church?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Own’s Marriage? (2) the issue of religious liberty

08/04/2015

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Who_Owns_MarriageAlongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me).

Here are my comments on chapter 1 of the book in which Nick sets the context for the debate: I’m picking up on his personal experience of how hostile and polarised the debate has become.

Nick develops some reasons why it is important for Christians to speak into this debate rather than stay out of the fray. I find myself in agreement with most of his arguments. I think it is an overstatement to say that how evangelical Christians speak into this Referendum “may well determine the long term future of the Evangelical movement in Ireland” but he is surely right to say that the real challenge is to engage in a way that manifests “the presence and influence of Jesus Christ.” Redefining marriage is an important issue and Christians need to be making a positive contribution rather than staying silent, both in what they say and how they say it.

As citizens of this state, Christians have exactly the same opportunity and right as anyone else to articulate their vision of what sort of society will best lead to human flourishing. Part of this task will include opposing harmful and destructive policies and ideas as well as developing positive practical proposals for a way forward (Nick develops the latter in chapter 4). Of course, the ‘rubber hits the road’ in articulating what sort of society should evangelical Christians be arguing for and what should they be arguing against? Let me focus on one theme that I think is very significant that Nick alludes to – that of religious liberty.

Nick comments that increasingly where one stands on same-sex marriage is indeed being “viewed as a litmus test for being a decent human being”. There is a rising level of hostility to, and impatience with, people who do not jump to ‘get with the programme’ of same-sex legislation (to quote David Cameron lecturing the Church of England in Parliament a couple of years ago). The same-sex marriage campaign has developed enormous political and social capital, such that it would be a shock (to me anyway) if the Referendum is not passed in May. It resonates deeply with themes embedded in our Western culture: individualism, the pursuit of happiness, equality, freedom, liberation from oppressive institutional structures and tolerance. This is a narrative of progress, inclusion and justice as compared to the old repressive ‘Catholic Ireland’ of the past. To be perceived to ‘belong’ to the anti same-sex marriage camp is to be labelled as someone who has an regressive agenda to control the individual, promote unhappiness, endorse inequality, restrict freedom, reinforce oppression and maintain intolerance. Now that is a hard place from which to gain a hearing! Such labelling acts to exclude those who dissent from the majority position as voices not worth listening to. Potentially I can imagine such exclusion leading eventually to legislation to withdraw state support (funding, charity status etc) from organisations that do not ‘get with the programme’.

Nick talks about the fragmentation of postmodernism. One of the biggest political and social questions in Ireland in the years to come will be “How do we live with our deepest differences” when those differences appear to be getting deeper and deeper? If, in the past, tolerance in a free society was tolerating views you disagreed with or even found distasteful, today tolerance seems to be in the process of being reformed to mean only tolerating views with which you agree. Os Guinness has written about how the liberal pursuit of equality can become an illiberal imposition by the state of its values at the expense of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. In this context, and especially coming from our experience as a small minority, I think it is the role of evangelicals in Ireland to be actively contending for religious liberty.

Now, too often Christians in the West only get all hot and bothered when it is our rights that are being mildly threatened (like not being able to wear a crucifix to work or being sued for not baking a cake for a gay wedding). The real challenge, I believe, for evangelicals is to look beyond themselves to argue for religious liberty for all citizens, whether religious or secular. In other words, whatever rights we wish for ourselves, we should be willing to defend for others. For it is this sort of society that will be most free – where believers and atheists, Muslims and agnostics can live together within a civil public square. By that I mean where the state gets on with its job and citizens have some sort of shared vision of the common good while having the freedom of conscience to be themselves. Some may say this is a naive pipedream, but what is the alternative? Are we going to replace a dominant Catholic Christendom that had little room for minority voices with a dominant secularism that has little room for minority voices? Are evangelical Christians just going to shake their heads at the big bad world and withdraw from it? Or are we going to love that world by seeking the best for our fellow citizens by trying to help to build a civil society that promotes maximal freedom: a freedom to be human; a freedom to worship; a freedom to share our faith; a freedom to practise Christian marriage; a freedom to disagree without silencing each other.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Owns Marriage?

07/04/2015

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Alongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me). I have read the core text but not the other contributions yet – copy of the book on the way.

Who_Owns_Marriage

This is what I said about the book.

To begin, I want to congratulate Nick Park on his initiative, clarity and courage in getting this conversation going about ‘Who Owns Marriage?’ There have been probably millions of words written about Christianity, homosexuality and same-sex marriage – many generating more heat than light or simply repeating already well-rehearsed positions. Nick writes with an all-too-rare capacity for critical self-reflection about his own community. He also demonstrates a keen understanding of the LGBT experience of exclusion and marginalisation combined with sharp insights into the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of Irish culture and politics. If all contributions to this debate mirrored such attitudes it would be a much less hostile and polarised discussion.

I use the word ‘courage’ because he has even invited contributors like me from a wide range of perspectives to comment publicly on what he has written! In the process he risks getting ‘shot at’ from both ‘sides’.

On the one hand, many Christians still have a default assumption, shaped by centuries of Christendom and our recent experience of ‘Catholic Ireland’, that it is the state’s duty to legislate in accordance with their moral intuitions. Nick rightly unpacks and questions that assumption while developing proposals that to some Christians will seem like going in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, he is not afraid of articulating a Christian understanding of sex and sexuality that does not recoil from using words like sin.

It is this sort of robust conversation that helps get beyond easy stereotypes and hidden assumptions. Whether you agree with everything he says (which is unlikely given how fractious this issue has become) I believe that we should all be grateful to Nick for how clearly he has explained the complex range of religious and political issues around the same-sex marriage Referendum while simultaneously giving readers an honest and authentic look into how evangelical Christians are wrestling with those issues. As a result, both Christians within the evangelical spectrum and others to whom the word ‘evangelical’ may be little more than shorthand for ‘fundamentalist’ will profit from reading and engaging with this book.

I’ll post my contributions later and hopefully some engagement with the other contributions when I’ve read them.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Curious goings on in England

23/03/2015

Discussion between a radio presenter and the Bishop of Leicester about a person who has been dead 530 years

Presenter: “Is he forgiven, Bishop?”

Bishop “Of course he is forgiven. As we all ultimately are.” (or words to that effect, not sure of exact quote)

King Richard III ProcesssionThey were talking, of course, about King Richard III who is to re-buried in Leicester Cathedral on Thursday. About 35,000 people lined the route to the Cathedral y’day, via the Battle of Bosworth site, and thousands are queuing for hours today to view the coffin.

What do you make of this?

No shortage of interpretations and opinions floating about I’m sure: for me it seems to highlight what a peculiar and conflicted place contemporary England can be.

All in all a rather strange and eccentric mish-mash of sentiment, fuzzy theology, contemporary campaigns to recover the last Plantagenet King’s unjustly tarred reputation (had you heard of a whole movement of ‘Ricardians’?), historical tourism and search for English identity.

Sentiment: – people throwing white roses on the coffin: a sense of grief; some sort of emotional connection to a long dead king.

Fuzzy theology: as quote above. The Bishop seems to be advocating some form of ultimate reconciliation. The sub-text you pick up from wider coverage is that the Established Church’s assumed role is to baptise and bury everyone regardless of life and evidence of faith. For those holding to this sort of ecclesiology, normally then final judgement would be left in the hands of God’s grace and justice. But the Bishop is pushing this further: it appears that God’s role is to love and accept all since that is what he does? I wonder how Justin Welby who is officiating on Thursday will put things.

Contemporary politics:  I don’t know enough about English history to get how and why rehabilitating Richard III is so significant to a lot of people .. anyone help me here?

Historical tourism: as always in our ‘economist’ society, just under the surface is a barely concealed delight at the fantastic financial boon the finding of Richard III’s body will be, and is already, for Leicester. There is a whole tourist industry in the process of formation.

English Identity: every day English news and media is dominated by immigration, UK Muslim insurgents going to Syria to join ISIS, the loyalties and identity of the UK’s Muslin population; fear of Islamic insurgence and terrorism on UK soil etc etc. This sits starkly side by side with the Richard III story. I wonder if the fascination with Richard III is a sort of reassertion of English identity – a reconnection to the past in the face of a much more internally complex, global and uncertain future?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Evangelical Alliance Ireland on the same-sex marriage Referendum

21/03/2015

This is the text of a recent statement by EAI on the upcoming Referendum in May on introducing same-sex marriage.

Feel welcome to give your reactions and comments to what they say. (I should say that I have not had any involvement in this statement but I will be one of the contributors to the planned book mentioned below).

STATEMENT ON THE FORTHCOMING SAME-SEX MARRIAGE REFERENDUM

Issued 25 February 2015

The forthcoming referendum on same-sex marriage has provoked debate among Evangelical Christians. Many of us have friends and family members who identify as gay or lesbian, and there are those who worship in our churches who have been profoundly impacted by same-sex attraction and relationships.

Evangelical Christians in Ireland hold a wide variety of opinions. A minority within our movement interpret Scripture in such a way as to sanction same-sex marriage. Others prefer to ignore the issue, not wishing to create controversy or to be labelled as ‘homophobic’ (a term that should be reserved for those who fear, hate or abuse, rather than as a description of anyone who holds a different view on the definition of marriage).

However, the majority of Evangelicals hold a conservative biblical view of marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman, united as one flesh in the sight of God for the duration of their lifetime. EAI urges Evangelicals to promote and affirm this view of marriage during and after the debate.

We remind all Christians that our primary goal is to represent the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. This is more important than winning a culture war. A ‘victory’ in debate is not a genuine victory if, in the process, we insult, belittle or treat others with disrespect or discourtesy. Those who address this issue should do so truthfully and graciously – and that includes our interaction with Christians who hold different viewpoints.

EAI does not expect the State to impose anyone’s religious views on anyone else. Under Irish law and the Constitution, married couples are currently favoured over other domestic arrangements (including unmarried heterosexual couples, same-sex couples and civil partners). It is fair to question whether a secular nation State should so favour married couples, or indeed why the State should have the power to control and regulate the definition of marriage. In its submission to the Constitutional Convention, EAI argued that the laws on civil partnerships could be amended to address inequality.

The referendum, then, is more to do with marriage redefinition than it is about equality. The meaning of words evolves over time but this is a deliberate redefinition of a term that carries a deeply spiritual significance for many.

In the past there was an assumption that everyone meant the same thing when they referred to marriage. The term ‘marriage’ is increasingly minimised to simply mean “two people making a public commitment to one another”. This ‘hollowing out’ of marriage may have a more profound effect on society than the issue of whether same-sex marriage is legalised. Such a redefinition makes ‘civil marriage’ indistinguishable from a civil partnership and certainly very different from the biblical covenant.

However, the majority of marriages are still solemnised in places of worship, according to the traditions and customs of that church (or religion). Irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, there is a need for discussion as to the relationship between religious and civil marriage.

In all matters, Evangelical Christians should vote according to their consciences. EAI would advise a ‘No’ vote in the forthcoming referendum on the grounds that the State is going beyond its legitimate sphere in attempting to redefine marriage itself.

[EAI is in the process of preparing a more detailed response to this issue in the form of a short book which will include multiple contributions to the conversation. This is scheduled for release in early April.]

Refusing to worship the cult of the body

19/03/2015

I’m teaching a course on faith and contemporary culture at the moment. We focus in on the values, beliefs and narrative of consumerism as a case study. By definition consumerism is never satisfied – the (temporary) answer is always more .. and more.

A couple of weeks ago in class we talked about the relationship of consumerism with the body. Here’s Werner G Jeanrond on this theme in an unjustly little known book I’ve just started reading called A Theology of Love.

Fasting, painful sporting activities, beauty operations, all sorts of medicines and remedies are recommended in order to reach a higher level of control over the body. A new and perfect body is longed for – a kind of secular object of salvation. The desire for the perfect body seems to have replaced the desire for the perfect soul in many quarters of Western society. This fight against the present and imperfect body and for the new and perfect body can, of course, never end. Asceticism, once the hallmark of religious aspirations, has made a comeback in the secular cult of the body. This cult of the body has seemingly reached eschatological proportions. Moreover, this desire for perfect bodies has become an inexhaustible source of wealth generation for those market forces that have offered their mediating remedies to meet this desire, fully conscious of the fact that this desire can never be stilled. Love cannot be made through the production of perfect bodies.

The tasks of a contemporary theology of love, therefore, ought to include the demythologization of the ongoing cult of the body and the reconstruction of possibilities for Christian respect and care for the body. (12)

As someone without a perfect body, I say AMEN!

The destructive goal of the cult of the body is the creation of feelings of dissatisfaction and envy. The motive is money. The promise is love and acceptance by self and others. The effect is destructive of self-esteem and erosion of identity. Its target is particularly women, but has increasingly moved on to men (in order to broaden the market).

Such is the saturation of our imaginative and cognitive space by consumer messages about the body, that we don’t, I think, in the church talk, preach, teach and reflect on the corrosive impact of the cult of the body. Assumptions that ‘our’ culture is somehow ‘neutral’, ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ are naive at best. For culture continually ‘forms’ and ‘shapes’ us. It acts, as James K A Smith would say, as a ‘secular liturgy’ that trains our hearts and loves.

We, I think, need active ‘reconstruction’ of a Christian theology of the body. John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body‘ represents a major serious Catholic response to the body in contemporary culture but I doubt that too many Protestants and evangelicals are aware of it.  An authentic Christian theology of the body will liberate people from the relentless demands of the secular cult of the body. It speaks of a radically different story and identity. I’ll come back to this in another post – this one is already getting long

The idealised image of the perfect body is telling us what the good life literally looks like. It is telling us (well me anyway – don’t know about you!) that I am not perfect. I don’t measure up. Something is wrong, broken, lacking. But the optimistic good news is that it can be fixed! Happiness and love can be mine. Implicit in this contract is that the key to salvation lies with me – to spend money on the right products or procedures, and/or to pummel my body into shape through diet and exercise.

This is a secular ‘gospel’ of sin and redemption.

Put like this is seems a pretty silly, thin and unconvincing sort of ‘gospel’ doesn’t it? I mean who really believes that shopping and/or exercise or a perfect body is the key to a happy life? But this objection fails to appreciate how consumerism works ‘below the surface’ – at the level of unspoken images, emotions, feelings and dreams. Described rationally it looks silly and superficial. But it is anything but – it is the driving force of Western culture worth mega-billions.

Why? What is so powerful about consumer images (like that of the perfect body)?

And this leads to one place where I disagree with Jeanrond’s language (and it’s not characteristic of the book). He talks about the desire for a perfect body replacing the desire for a perfect soul. But Christianity does not hope for a perfected soul. It hopes for a perfected resurrection body.

What consumerism ‘get’s in a way that some dualistic and overly rationalistic forms of Christianity do not, is that we are embodied creatures. We think, but we also feel, imagine, touch, and dream as we engage with the physical world in which we live. Smith again: we are ‘lovers’ and ‘worshippers’ who explore our way through

“an affective, gut-like orientation to the world that is prior to reflection and even eludes conceptual articulation … we are the sorts of animals for whom things matter in ways we don’t often (and can’t) articulate.” (51)

This is why pictures tend to be more powerful than words – try talking to someone who is watching TV or playing a game on a tablet. Images and pictures get into our hearts more easily and immediately than propositions and words. Images of the perfect body, for example, are designed to awaken our desire – not just sexual though that is certainly part of it – but desire for an attractive vision of an alternative life to one we currently have.

So the power or ‘genius’ of contemporary consumerism is that it instinctively understands human nature. We are holistic, not dualistic, creatures; we all desire some sort of kingdom; we all worship something; our lives are shaped by our loves. Smith puts it like this

I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry – which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination – is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church … they rightly understand that we are erotic creatures – creatures who are orientated primarily by love and passion and desire … meanwhile, the church has been duped by modernity and has bought into a kind of Cartesian model of the human person, wrongly assuming that the heady realm of ideas and beliefs is the core of our being. These are certainly part of being human, but I think they come second to embodied desire. And because of this, the church has been trying to counter the consumer formation of the heart by focusing on the head and missing the target: it’s as if the church is pouring water on the head to put out a fire in our heart. (76-77)

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A Dangerous Business

27/02/2015

Here’s the text of an article I wrote on the ‘Dangerous Business’ of theological education, published in the latest Irish Bible Institute newsletter. One of the most encouraging things for me in re-reading this is how it ties in with what students actually said themselves about the transforming power of theological education. In other words, the three themes talked about below are actually happening; it isn’t just theory or nice ideas or empty words.

Feel welcome to contribute to a discussion on these. If you have studied at a theological college, what sort of experience did you have? Are you put off going to a Bible College for some reason (other than time and money)? How well can the sort of things described below happen outside a college setting in a local church? Would you list different priorities of what theological training is all about?

A DANGEROUS BUSINESS

January 2015 marked 20 years that I’ve been involved in theological education. So this is a good time to reflect! What difference does Bible College actually make in the lives of students? Let me share three themes that I hope and work and pray to see develop in the lives of students who come to IBI.

  1. Learn more about God’s redemptive story and your place within it

The ultimate source of Christian theology is the Bible. Therefore the Bible is (or should be) central to all Christian ministry and all theological education. So far, so obvious – I teach at a Bible Institute after all. But what do we mean when we say the Bible is central to Christian training?

When I started out teaching, I assumed that the ‘right’ way to introduce students to the highpoints of Christian theology was in systematic categories. Isn’t that what most evangelical statements of faith do? – a series of bullet point summaries of what is believed about God, Scripture, Man, Jesus, Spirit, the future and so on. But after trying this for a while I (and I think the students) felt increasingly something was missing.

Now of course this might just have been the teaching (!) but it felt too much like a series of disconnected topics. It also felt too much like the purpose of the exercise was primarily to ‘know’ the ‘right’ information and so the content became too much about ‘us’ – defining ‘our’ theology. The biggest problem was that there did not seem to be much connection to mission and discipleship – the heart of the Christian life.

I’d better throw in two clarifications here. I believe in the importance of right doctrine and the supreme authority of Scripture. But over time I’ve come to love and appreciate the Bible more and more as one great all-embracing narrative with Jesus Christ at the centre of the story. And the purpose of that story is not given to us just as interesting information, but for personal and corporate transformation.

The Bible tells the (true) story of universal history. Its opening chapter begins with creation and its closing chapter ends with new creation. In between, we are given the story of Israel which, after many twists and turns, culminates in the promised saviour. Jesus is the ‘shocking’ Messiah no-one expects: a crucified man who is also creator, judge and resurrected Lord of both Jews and Gentiles, before whom every knee will bow (Phil 2:10).

Too often we reduce this story down to Jesus as my personal saviour. While this is true for every believer, on its own it individualises the gospel and narrows the Bible story to be ‘all about me’. This is why I have re-shaped my teaching to a more narrative shape. This changes how we ‘do’ theology profoundly. It is the Bible asking questions of us. It puts us and our narrow concerns off centre and in their proper place within the flow of God’s work in the world, and taking our (small) place within the story of God’s people (more of that in a moment).

The more you read the Bible this way, the more all the great doctrines of the Christian faith – such as justification by faith, sin and salvation, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the mission of the church, the future hope – make sense. I want students to ‘get’ the biblical storyline, and how the myriad of sub-plots fit within the redemptive mission of the triune God. This draws them in afresh to that story and their place of serving the Lord within the story of their own lives. And that’s one of the most satisfying and exciting things to see happen in someone’s life.

  1. See your whole life as a calling to participate in God’s mission within God’s people

But there is more to biblical theology than even this. It’s also exciting to see students ‘get’ how intimately the gospel is connected to God’s choice of a people to bear his name. In other words, understanding the Bible as a narrative connects individual faith with the mission of the church.

This goes against the grain of our individualised, consumerist, Western culture where, even for Christians, church becomes an ‘optional extra’ to ‘my’ faith. But the Bible will have none of this. The identity and mission of each individual Christian is to be worked out within the role given to the church within the mission of God. It is an incredible privilege and high calling to be invited by God’s grace to join in with others in his redemptive work in the world! How many job offers like that do you get in a lifetime?

This leads to how good theological training is taught and lived out with others in a local church community. A goal of going to Bible College is therefore far more than mere academic progress; it should help to equip and train students to preach, teach, do pastoral care, evangelism, lead, listen, and model a life of service to Jesus alongside other brothers and sisters within the family of God, wherever exactly God has placed them (Eph. 4:11-13).

  1. Being transformed by the Spirit to love God, love others

A third theme is how God’s primary agenda for students, and for every Christian, is personal transformation into the likeness (image) of his Son (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor.3:18). As Jesus both taught and demonstrated, love is both the motive and the practical form of a truly Christian life. Love is the primary result of the Spirit’s transforming presence. It is love alone which is eternal (1 Cor. 13:13) and without love all Christian ministry is a waste of time (1 Cor. 13:1-3). Love is most supremely demonstrated at the cross of Christ and gives shape to all Christian ministry (1 Cor. 9): it is not about the self – our own agendas and ambitions and achievements, but about loving and serving others for whom Christ died (1 Cor. 8:11). And for many Christians globally, sacrificial love leads to suffering.

So it has become clearer and clearer to me over the last 20 years that love is the first and most essential ‘mark’ of authentic Christian ministry. It is why ‘character’ or ‘Christian maturity’ is in Scripture the primary ‘qualification’ for any ministry. This is why the relational track record of someone in life and ministry is of primary importance, not just a footnote at the bottom of their CV. Therefore any form of theological education that does not place a high importance on Christian character is failing to do its job.

Conclusion

Understanding the Bible; knowing your true identity and calling; joining with others in serving the risen Lord; participating in God’s mission to redeem this broken world whatever the cost; being transformed, head, heart and hands, to love God and love others – this is what going to Bible College is all about. It’s a dangerous business – might God be daring you to give it a try?

Patrick Mitchel

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