Curious goings on in England

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.

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Evangelical Alliance Ireland on the same-sex marriage Referendum

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

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.