Some thoughts (and questions) on pleasure

Ancient Corinth

We’re just back from a family holiday – and very enjoyable it was too. Not only the company, but also doing a bit of following Paul around in Corinth and Athens and other historical stuff – rather a lot of it lying around Greece.

To the words ‘enjoyable’ and ‘holiday’, I guess you could add others like ‘pleasure’ and ‘fun’ and ‘craic’ and ‘play’ etc.

Life is full to bursting with pleasures is it not? Each of us has our particular sources of pleasure. We are embodied creatures, each sense attuned to the physical world and able to connect with the joy and beauty of that world.

What are some pleasures that you enjoy from the physical creation ? Here are some of mine:

– a hug from a loved one

– the smell of the hot earth after long-awaited rainfall

– jumping into a crystal-clear azure sea

– splitting the fairway with a drive when you need a good one [golf obviously being the highest and purest form of enjoyment known to humankind]

– sharing a good red wine with friends over a meal

– tucking into a big plate of Linsen mit Spätzle made to a secret German recipe (it’s a lot nicer than it looks, honest!)

– hiking to the top of a mountain on a clear Irish summer’s day and drinking in the view

– singing along with your daughter trying to remember all the words of Dylan’s Desolation Row

– getting engrossed in a great story whether film, TV or book

– finishing a piece of writing that hangs together

And so the list could go on and on …..

And yet, if asceticism is an intrinsic Christian response to the material world, does not all talk of pleasure for Christians have a double-edged feel? To abandon ourselves to the pursuit of pleasure is to love the world and what it gives me. It is a form of selfish indulgence that also ignores vast inequalities and injustices.

Holidays are for the rich who have the luxury of planning their lives and the funds to travel to places that they are welcomed. Golf, wine, good food, hobbies, sport, books, computers and leisure in general are unimaginable luxuries to much of the world’s population.

So a Christian ascetic will tend to reject the frivolity and self-indulgence of enjoying the pleasures the material world offers. If you, like me, only have a little streak of asceticism, maybe it manifests itself in a vague sense of guilt after taking a holiday? All that time (and money) just to relax and enjoy ourselves? (help me out here if you can!)

But it’s here that other Christians say ‘NO!’ to such guilt. God has created this ‘very good’ world. He has given us senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. To reject pleasure is to reject the goodness of the creator and the life he offers.

Taste and see that the Lord is good! (Ps 34)

Good consumption enjoys the blessings of God’s creation; it is grateful, celebrating the created world around us and the rich diversity of experience it offers. We need to consume to live and God calls us to fruitful and full life. God is the ultimate hedonist who created pleasure.

Is such a tension simply contradictory? How can asceticism and enjoyment of God-given creation co-exist?  Do you feel a pull from one to the other, enjoying a feast at a good restaurant one day yet uneasy at the extravagance looking at the bill the next?  What counts as greedy self-indulgence and what is ‘good consumption’? How the heck can such questions be negotiated without falling into petty legalism on the one hand and thoughtless pursuit of selfish pleasure on the other hand?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[All this btw is to seamlessly set up Laura Hartman’s next chapter of The Christian Consumer on embracing creation.]

Irish evangelicals and evangelism

Reading about an evangelical Christian being sacked from South Tipperary County Council for persistent evangelism and subsequently winning the court case, prompts some (wildly generalised) thoughts. Please do add your own to a conversation – these are just descripitve musings ‘out loud’ rather than value judgements. Perhaps you will disagree or want to add your thoughts. I’m no lawyer and could be off on a tangent here:

First, there is a strong cultural strand to this story; it just would not have happened in Belfast with long familiarity with evangelicalism. Now I don’t know Mr McAteer and how he does evangelism. There are winsome ways of sharing the gospel and there are ways that I imagine could get people’s backs up (monologuing etc). But however done, Mr McAteer’s behaviour was interpreted as culturally alien. Irish Catholic culture tends to have a deep-seated suspicion of personal talk of Jesus and the Bible, it is, for many, much too ‘in your face’. If Mr McAteer had been a passionate Tipp GAA man who always talked hurling, I somehow doubt he’d have lost his job.

Second, here’s equality legislation working in favour of minority religious views and associated behaviour (evangelism). The ruling took the view that John McAteer was dismissed not because of anything to do with his work, but that he refused to stop talking to colleagues and members of the public about Jesus during work hours.

Now this is an interesting interpretation of European legislation: someone’s practice of religion is covered within the Employment Equality Acts. In other words, evangelism (seeking to persuade, communicate and tell the gospel) is actually protected in the workplace. Do you see implications for this at your work? What, for example, are implications for those in health care or counselling, where (as I understand it) there are relatively strict guidelines about ‘talking about God’ with patients / clients? What about in a corporate setting – is ‘religion’ out of bounds at the lunch table in Google or Intel?

Third,  reading between the lines, it seems that the management of South Tipp Co Co took the view that insisting on talking about Christianity was seen as inappropriate, out-of-place and socially awkward.

In other words, their reaction pretty well mirrors that of most contemporary evangelicals towards evangelism.

In the past, public evangelism was a primary marker of evangelicals.  I’m talking about door-to-door, street work, tract distribution, mission campaigns etc.  While they haven’t disappeared altogether, like McAteer, those that continue to engage in evangelism with strangers in a public setting are in the small minority and tend to make most other evangelicals as uncomfortable as the management of South Tipperary County Council.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The story of Edgar Sawtelle

I’ve been trying to make space to read some novels this summer – they tend to be ones recommended by the progeny.

The-Story-of-Edgar-Sawtel-001Just finished The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.

Stephen King says, in his typically sparse prose, that ‘I flat out loved this.’ I like Stephen King (especially his wonderful little book on writing) and have to concur – this is a gem.

I ain’t going to give anything away, ‘cept to say that you won’t look at a dog the same way after reading this book.

Unforgettable: lovingly written, ruthlessly honest, Shakesperian in its tragic scope, brilliant in characterisation (especially the mute Edgar, but all the Sawtelles are richly drawn).

Happy it is not, true it is.


The Christian Consumer (3) ‘To Avoid Sin’

Laura Hartman identifies 4 Christian responses to the challenge of consumerism and then unpacks each in detail. She wants to draw on Christian tradition to develop a wise response to contemporary consumerism.

This approach is helpful – it captures how complex the challenge of consumerism is. There is no one obvious ‘Christian response’ but there is depth and riches in the Christian faith by which to think about and engage with consumerism.

Here’s the first one:

1) ‘To Avoid Sin’

This is renunciation of consumption: a call to counter-cultural living as a route to holiness and virtue. Over-consumption is both physically and spiritually damaging.

This is a form of resistance to consumerism that takes the form of frugality, asceticism, self-denial, simplicity, avoidance of complicity in the sin of unneccessary consumption.

Being spiritual is to avoid getting sucked up the desires of the world.

This response has a rather long pedigree since it begins with Jesus and his call to pursue the kingdom of God before material needs.

Hartman takes three representative voices from Church History:

Francis of Assisi (no intro needed): a radical life committed to prayer, preaching and poverty. He ate little, fasted regularly and wore simple clothing.  This ‘avoidance of sin’ was controversial then and even more so after his death.

Francis’ asceticism was a path to holy non-attachment – an act of resistance against the pull of the material world. He is reputed to have said that if he took more than he needed, he would be robbing from the poor.

John Woolman (1720-72, Quaker Abolitionist, who urged avoidance in complicity in the slave trade. For example he refused to use silver, sugar and molasses due to their inextricable link to slavery. (All new to me, sounds like a fascinating character.)

If Francis pursued poverty as an ideal, Woolman sought simplicity. This is far more than a ‘simple lifestyle’ that yet still fits comfortably in the prevailing culture, for the Quakers it was plainness in dress and active detachment from possessions. Woolman resisted luxury since it contradicted God’s will. Luxury is a fruit of evil – it results from overuse of God’s resources (including slaves). Like Francis (and Sider), accumulation of luxury is at the expense of the poor and is sinful.

Ron Sider of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger among many other things. His clarion call has been for rich (Western) Christians to simplify their lives in order to better help the poor.

Sider’s prophetic style ministry has been designed to shock Christians complicit in a consumer culture into confronting global poverty. If they really believed the Bible they would divest themselves of affluence and develop a passion for justice.  It is evangelicals, who claim to believe the Bible, who are ‘liberals’ when it comes to interpreting what it says on wealth. His call is one to repentance.

Beyond individual responsibility, Sider argues that those who have benefitted from affluence while knowing it is built on systemic injustices and yet do nothing are guilty of sin against God and neighbour.

Sider’s way to be free of sin (or complicity in sin) is for individuals to practice a graduated tithe based on the bare minimum to live on ($30,000 income = $6,300 tithe based on an early chart in 1997).

His point is what should Christians measure their lifestyle on? Rather than taking their base against the norm of a capitalist consumer culture they should begin in comparison to the world’s poor.

Hartman sums up this ascetic tradition well: saying NO to your own desires is saying YES to something better. At its best it is a vision of human flourishing (rather than a negative denial of life).

The ‘avoidance of sin’ or ascetic tradition is not without its critics – but Hartman (rightly) contends it is essential to any truly Christian understanding of consumption.

Here’s my brief observation / question – the ascetic tradition, despite its long and honourable legacy, now seems to be so marginal in Western Christianity as to be almost invisible. It appears to have been swamped by hyper-consumerism and technology as to appear not merely old-fashioned but almost incomprehensible in the modern church …

Or am I missing something?



Christian Consumer (2) shopping as an ethical act

Laura Hartman contends that Christian ethical reflection (on consumerism) is not about defining whether particular types of consumption constitute low moral or social status, the real purpose is to discern what is right.

(I liked her example of cheap, low-cut jeans having low social status and low moral status!)

Moral questions around consumption relate to concrete questions around its physicality: its extraction, transportation, production and the environmental and social impact that follows.

She’s concerned about how buying, having or using the item may impact a person’s spiritual condition and his/her relationships with others.

Consumption ethics, is, at bottom, a species of stewardship ethics, asking questions such as: What does God intend for humans in their interactions with the material world? What is creation, and what are humans to do with it? How are humans to relate well to one another concerning the proper use of the material conditions of life? (15)

Coffee is a classic example that could apply to all consumption: at least 4 ethical realms come into play

i) The impact on the individual consumer – health & well-being. Coffee like most products has mixed attributes here. Overconsumption of most things leads to bad outcomes.

ii) Immediate social impact: coffee is consumed mostly in social settings (cafes, coffee shops, work etc). This gives work and income; it facilitates relationships, but regular consumption of over-priced drinks can mount up to significant strain on finances.

iii) Impact on others the consumer does not know and can barely imagine: regional managers of coffee shop chains; executives running large companies; marketeers etc. Consumer preference for Fair Trade coffee begins to impact the growers in getting better prices for their raw materials. Global demand for coffee can mean land-grabs and the ruthless expulsion of native indian communities (I added this last sentence see also this post by Daniel Kirk on ‘The Dark Side of Chocolate’).

iv) Impact on the non-human world: Hartman quotes a study that concludes that the unquenchable Western desire for coffee has had devastating  effects as vast tracts of rich bio-diverse rain forest are cleared for coffee plantations. Each stage of subsequent production from roasting, to packaging, to transportation all contribute to environmental impact.

Hartman’s purpose is simply to illustrate how all consumption is an ethical act on multiple levels.

Now, even to begin to think about our daily consumption in those terms is, I propose, a radical shift from our default Western assumption that all the stuff in the supermarket just ‘is’.

It is there for our convenience and need – always has been, always will be. We don’t begin to think about the people and processes by which it arrived on the shelf. The only thing we have to think about it is what to consume (depending on choice and money).  Ethics and morality belong in church, they don’t have anything much to do with shopping – except maybe for gross conspicious consumption of luxury goods or when ‘we’ are ‘ripped off’ in the prices we pay compared to somewhere else.

In other words, our thinking about consumption is generally self-centered and shallow. And it is very much in the interests of many major companies to keep it that way, especially around points iii) and iv).

So how to begin to ‘think Christianly’ about consumption without ending up in ‘paralysis by analysis’ every time you go shopping? Hartman begins to go there next.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Lasting Work

work mattersThis is the last of a few posts giving a flavour of R Paul Stevens’ book pithy and thought-provoking little book Work Matters: lessons from Scripture

Towards the end he has a reflection on work and the future, when for many work is something to be endured and lacks any telos.

What then is work that carries spiritual significance – even into the new age to come?

He rejects a sacred / secular divide that sees explicitly ‘Christian’ work as that which really matters – stuff like preaching, evangelism, Bible study etc. Behind such a split is a dualism between the ‘spiritual’ (good)  and the ‘material’ (bad).

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the outpouring of the eschatological Spirit are both powerful indicators of how the future is already here in the present.  Stevens sees continuity (not annhilation) between this world and the new creation.

Stevens goes to three key Pauline texts on work. The eternal significance of our work lies in relationship with the living resurrected Lord.

1 Cor 3:12-15 ‘if anyone builds on this foundation[Christ] their work will be shown for what it is ..’

1 Cor 13:13 ‘The greatest of these remain: faith, hope and love’

1 Cor 15:58 ‘Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord for you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain’

There is, Stevens argues, then hope of redemption of not only our lives or of creation but also our work.  The damage done by negative work – the environmental, social, cultural and political scars left by destructive work – may yet be transfigured in the new creation.

How’s this for a positive vision of daily work in light of future hope to think about next Monday morning?

Clearly, through our daily work we leave our mark on the cosmos and our environment, on government, culture, neighborhoods, families, and even on the principalities and powers. The Bible hints that in some way beyond our imagination our marks are permanent. The theological truth that undergirds this fascinating and challenging line of exploration is the statement that Christ is the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15) and firstborn from the grave (1:18). If Christ is truly the firstborn of all creation and the firstborn from the grave, then all work has eternal consequences, whether homemaking or being a stockbroker. This brings new meaning to those whose toil is located in so-called secular work – in the arts, education, business, politics, the environment, and the home. Not only are ordinary Christians priests of creation past and present; they, along with missionaries, pastors, and Christian educators, are shaping the future of creation in some significant way. This means that we are invited in Christ to leave beautiful marks on creation, on the environment, family, city, workplace, and nation. (158-9)

The Christian Consumer (1)

How do you feel when shopping in a supermarket?

Just normal life, thousands of products sitting there (magically) to be chosen at will?

Or do feel like Laura Hartman in her opening in her book The Christian Consumer?

At times I find shopping to be just short oppressive. In stores, narrow aisles with hundreds of brightly colored products loom over me as if they are about to collapse under the weight of the choices they represent. Long after others have grabbed their selections and moved on, I might stand in front of the vegetables lost in thought, my mind looping through environmental factors, the family budget, and the claims of my community as I choose among produce that might be local, mid-range, or international; organic low-spray, or conventional; fresh, frozen, dried, or canned; nutrient dense and gourmet or quotidian yet still nutritionally sound. After I make the selection, I might still wander the store, trying to determine whether to settle on the less-than-ideal item in my hand or to search for an organic, fair trade, less expensive, or locally made version elsewhere, already anticipating my buyer’s remorse before I’m through the checkout line. Is it really so simple for those other shoppers I see in the store, filling their baskets and moving on with their evening plans?

In what follows she outlines a Christian way of thinking about the moral, creational, relational and industrial complexities of modern consumption. This looks like a really interesting book. But we’ll get to the theology and ethics later.

Back to the question. What for you are some of the issues, emotions and questions floating around that most challenging of activities – shopping?

Darrell Bock on gospel

Irish Bible Institute was set up to provide good quality biblical and theological training for leaders and lay people in the Irish context. We do this through developing our own undergrad and postgrad programmes, designed for our context, taught by teachers engaged in local ministries (this includes our full-time staff) and meant to be applied practically into everyday life and ministry.

It’s a privilege to work here. And one of the bonuses is that we have been blessed with some wonderful guest teachers for short Summer Institutes over the years. Basically, we’re cheeky enough now and then to ask top notch speakers and scholars if they’d like to come teach and often it has worked out that they can.

So it was fun to get to know Darrell Bock and his wife Sally on their recent visit and show them around a bit before they left for a lecture tour in Australia and New Zealand. I even grew a beard in preparation (we have similar ‘hairstyles’).

An open lecture was on the Gospel in Luke-Acts


There is I think no more important topic than the gospel for Christians to be wrestling with and thinking about. Not primarily for the negative reason of tying down ‘correct theology’ and identifying error (although that is always a partial role of theology). But because Christians first need to be re-envisioned, excited, thrilled and energised by the good news if they are ever going to begin to reach out to a post-Christendom culture that thinks it has ‘heard’ all there is to hear about Christianity.

And, in my opinion, too often it is Christian semi-understandings of the gospel which have reduced it down to something that is not that thrilling, exciting or transformative.

So – to Darrell Bock’s lecture – and the notes which follow are my own and they may well not be an accurate representation of what he said.

– the good news revolves around the identity of the Messiah

– the Messiah is the one who brings the promised Spirit

– thinking Jewishly – it is the Spirit who cleanses and who brings renewal and restoration to Israel

– In Acts 2, the big point is how Pentecost is fulfilled promise, the new era has dawned. God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ. How do we know this? Because he is the one who has poured out the Spirit of God.

– So often the gospel is presented as a solution to a negative plight. ‘You’re a miserable sinner, you shouldn’t behave like that’ or ‘here’s how to avoid hell and spend time in eternity with God’ (the gospel is about personal survival)

– the astonishing good news of Luke-Acts is how the Holy Spirit of God is given as gift by God even to pagan Gentiles. This inclusion is orchestrated by God alone. This is unexpected and boundary breaking. Peter knows God has included the Gentiles because they are cleansed and forgiven by the gift of the Spirit through faith in the Jewish messiah.

– Gentiles are ‘cleansed vessels’ Acts 15:7ff. The Messiah and the giving of the Spirit fulfilling the promises of God is what the gospel is all about.

Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.

– James and Paul and Peter all agree on this in one way or another

– The gospel is therefore about the renewing and life-giving presence of the Spirit. Without the Spirit we are DEAD (and Darrell lay on the floor playing the Last Post at this point which you don’t see every day]

– As Paul puts it, the gospel is the POWER of God for salvation

– The good news is of a new community of faith, empowered by the Spirit

– We undersell the gospel by reducing it to a check box of belief and ‘we get what we pay for’ – a message with little expectation of necessity of personal and corporate transformation.

– The whole purpose of the good news is a new relationship with others and with God that issues in a renewed life.

What I found particularly helpful was Bock’s insistence on the integral place of the Spirit in the good news. No artificial distinctions between faith as mental assent to a message that might, or might not, result in changed life and behaviour. Luke of course is the great theologian of the Spirit. Luke insists on the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ leading to a response of faith and repentance and the gift of the Spirit of God. The result is life from death; an empowerment for holy living and for mission. And all of this is the surprising and unexpected plan of God (a big theme of Luke).

Popular understandings of the gospel as merely a solution to personal need have at least two major problems:

1) They fail to do justice to Luke’s narrative of the good news. It de-stories the gospel and abstracts it from the fulfilled promise to Israel. It is literally an unbiblical reduction of the gospel.

2) They lead to an anaemic gospel that has little or no place for the powerful, enlivening and transforming presence of the Spirit to purify and change Jew or Gentile believer in the here and now within a renewed community of faith.

In ‘gospel debates’ swirling around evangelicalism, those who want to equate the gospel narrowly with the cross and personal salvation (‘Jesus died for our sins’) and those who want to equate the gospel broadly with the good news of cosmic reconciliation under the Lordship of Jesus the King, need to listen to each other. Bock argued that Luke’s unpacking of the gospel gets beyond an unbalanced emphasis on one aspect of the good news. We need the whole story.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The sluggard – the misdirected desire of the lazy person

work mattersIn his book Work Matters: lessons from Scripture, Paul Stevens turns to reflect on the sluggard. What a great word.

Before we get to what he says, some questions:

We hear a lot these days about overwork and stress, but when was the last time you heard much about its other side – laziness?

Is laziness similar to wasting our time? When we get distracted by useless things? And since we live in an age of terminal distraction, is it fair to say that we have 24/7 opportunity for slothful frittering away of time that could be used constructively?

And if that is the case, do we need seriously to think about laziness in a technological age?

What counts as a waste of time? When is such waste being lazy and when is it rest from work ? When does self-indulgence of spending hours on Facebook (or whatever) become slothful and sinful?

OK – to Stevens:

Proverbs gets stuck into sluggards with a dose of ironic humour:

Sluggards dip their hands in the bowl but are so lazy they can’t bring their hands to their mouths (19:24)

Sluggards are married to their beds, groaning when they turn over it’s like a squeaky door as it rotates in its socket (26:14)

They use the excuse of danger not to get out of bed. (22:13)

They don’t bother to plant seeds in season and then go out to look for a harvest (20:4)

The lazy are restless with unsatisfied desire (13:4; 21:25-6), helpless in the mess of their lives (15:9) and useless to anyone who employs them (18:9, 10:26)!

Stevens locates this in desire – for the wrong things. The lazy person is locked in himself, futilely pursuing emptiness. He lacks a positive theology of work. [just as a workaholic is also destructively locked in himself, pursuing work at the expense of all else].

Work properly understood is a gift and a blessing that leads to all sorts of positive outcomes – harvest, provision, helping others.

A destructive attitude to work is seen when even the thought of work is a drag – a constant physical weariness and lack of energy to complete tasks. Mental laziness in not seeing what needs to be done. A moral laziness in failing to take up the virtuous benefits of work. Spiritual sloth is not caring about God or his purposes.

Quite a bit of what he describes here could be someone who is seriously depressed. But let’s leave depression out of the picture as a cause of an unwillingness to work.

Stevens goes to the desert Fathers and their deadly serious confrontation of destructive inner thoughts through solitude and reflection and prayer. It is only in a willingness to change before God can the heart be renewed.

… those who would be converted must take up the disciplines of responsiveness: waiting on God and confronting self in solitude, cultivating new thoughts about work (both its intrinsic and extrinsic value), taking decisive action even when they don’t feel like it, and reminding themselves continuously for Whom it is they are working

This book grows on you. Stevens has distilled a lot of learning and reflection into pithy and deep meditations.