secret conversations

A funny thing happened this week. I was in a discussion with some Christian friends about predestination, hell etc. (you know that conversation, we’ve all had it). One of those friends works for a church. Afterwards, he took me aside: ‘I can tell you’ve been thinking about this and you’re not really satisfied with the traditional view.’ He was right. He was about to recommend a book to me, when we were interrupted. So, just as I was leaving, I asked him about the book. ‘I’ll let you know in an email,’ he replied.

The email came the next day and he explained that he wasn’t willing to recommend the book in front of others, but that I should read it.

On googling the book, I discovered that not even the book’s author would associate his name with it. It was written under a pseudonym.

(you all want to know what the book is now!)

Burning books

So my question is, what is going on? Why the secrecy?

I do it myself. I’d much sooner ask a tricky question of the internet than of my pastor. I’d much sooner post my ideas here than in a Bible study.

We can’t burn books anymore, but do churches have a culture of silence which attempts to achieve the same effect? If we did, can it succeed? Are people actually sheltered from dodgy ideas? Or do they just sit quietly in the pews with their own thoughts and questions, sharing them only with google?

Is it naive to think we should talk openly about our questions and our about ideas about Jesus’ teaching? After all, there is certainly a role for experts; ignorant discussion can take you to some very strange places. So is it better for some things to stay ‘hush hush’ until you’re absolutely positively sure you’re correct? But how can you be sure you’re correct unless you open your ideas up for discussion?

Should we challenge this culture of silence? What would healthy discussion look like?

(and the book is The Evangelical Universalist by ‘Gregory MacDonald’)


What’s the matter with capitalism?

No, I’m not proposing a communist or even socialist utopia (I live in the real world), I’m talking about Danel Bell’s book The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World. He talks instead about God’s ‘Divine Economy’ and how it triumphs over the capitalist economy of our world today.

But first, this interview with Michael Sandel sets the scene from a secular perspective: What Money Can’t Buy: the moral limits of the market.

Does capitalism work?

You’re asking wrong question, says Bell. When Christians argue over that question one side will hurl their stats at the other, the debate is ‘as endless as it is fruitless.’ According to Bell its obvious productive capacity has proved that it does work. But it’s the wrong question. What we should ask is ‘what does capitalism do?’

What does capitalism do?

Many accept that capitalism often exploits the poor and perpetuates injustice. But that’s not the whole story of what it does. In fact, Bell argues that capitalism would still be wrong if it made everybody rich. He turns to the Christian belief in human purpose. What did God make us for?

People are for desiring and delighting in God and reflecting God’s glory. We are created for friendship, for communion with God. The Trinity is a communion of love into which we are invited. Of course, this friendship is not merely a matter of me and God, of me and Jesus. After all, Scripture reminds us we cannot be friends of God if we hate our neighbours and that redemption involves breaking down the walls of hostility that divide peoples; hence, the commandments as succinctly summed up in the exhortation that we “love God and neighbour.

But what does capitalism say people are for?

The question, What are people for? has everything to do with capitalism because capitalism embodies a very different answer to the question than the Classic Christian tradition. Put a bit more pointedly, the capitalist economy of desire is a manifestation of sin because it both corrupts desire and obstructs communion. Capitalism is wrong because it discipline distorts human desire. it corrupts desire so that it no longer flows according to its proper, created end; it twists desire and in so doing obstructs our friendship with God, one another and creation. In other words, the problem with capitalism is not simply that it may not work but that even if it does increase aggregate wealth, even if made everyone on the planet a millionaire tomorrow, it still is wrong and is to be opposed because of what it does to human desire and human sociality. The problem with capitalism is… that it does not facilitate, and instead actively works against, the divine will for the renewal of communion with God and humanity.

Capitalism is premised on scarcity (the idea that there’s not enough for everyone), on competition (making our relationships means to getting ahead) and it promotes insatiable desire. It turns neigbours into competitors. It encourages us to desire the wrong things. The ‘invisible hand’ takes the place of God, but this god is a harsh and fickle master; there’s no guarantee that if you work hard and invest well the market will reward you.

Is there another option?

Well yes. Bell’s book doesn’t just leave us with that depressing state of affairs – he points us to what Jesus has done and his Kingdom as the answer (it always is). God is ‘healing our desire of its capitalist distortions’ so that we can desire what is good. Discipleship is ‘the redemption of desire, this faith and hope that desire can be healed’.

But what exactly is God doing to heal desire of ‘its capitalist distortions?’ Bell turns to Jesus work to ‘overcome the capitalist economy of desire’ in the atonement and its effect on human desire: the ‘Divine Economy’. And I’m going to quote this whole section directly because he articulates it much clearer than I could.

Our consideration of what God is doing now to heal desire of its economic distortions begins with the Christian doctrine of the atonement, of Christ’s work on the cross. In particular, it begins with what is commonly called the satisfaction or substitutionary account of Christ’s work on the cross… developed most notably by the medieval theologian St Anselm…

Typically the satisfaction or substitutionary understanding of the cross holds that Christ’s death on the cross satisfied the debt to God humanity incurred on account of sin, that Christ is the sinner’s substitute on the cross, paying the penalty of that sin. Anselm’s argument can be summarised as follows: in the face of human sin, which is an offence against God’s honour, God, as one who must uphold justice, cannot simply forgive sin but must enforce a strict accounting of what is due. However, because humanity already owes God everything, it has no surplus with which to repay its debt. In this situation, the God-man, Christ, steps forward and fulfills justice, renders what is due, and pays the debt through his substitutionary death on the cross. In this way, redemption is the result of the payment of a debt incurred through sin by means of a compensatory death that satisfies divine justice.

At first glance, this account of Christ’s work on the cross might not seem particularly relevant to either the matter of economics in general or to liberating desire from the distortions of capitalism. On the one hand, it appears to have little to do with economics, with the circulation and use of scarce resources; on the other hand, insofar as it might have some indirect relevance, it does not appear to present a serious challenge of any sort to the capitalist economy of desire. Indeed, to the extent that Christ’s work of redemption on the cross seems to work entirely within a logic of scarcity and debt, communitative exchange, equity and strict accounting of what is due, it would appear to reinforce the material logic that underwrites the capitalist economy of desire. Divine accounting, it seems, is not that different from capitalist accounting. Just as capitalism functions according to a contractual logic of debt, equality/equivalence (via the dollar and dominance of exchange value), retribution (as in an exact accounting and rendering what is due), and finally death (for it is death that gives scarcity its power), so too, apparently does the atonement. Redemption requires a full settling of accounts, communitative justice. Christ’s death is an exchange accounted equivalent to our debt that settles the divine-human balance sheet.

Yet notwithstanding its widespread popularity, this reading of Paul and Anselm is a profound misreading. It reflects not the divine economy of salvation revealed in Scripture, expounded in the tradition, and lived out by the church, but rather reflects the way that our imaginations have been so disciplined by the capitalist economy of desire that was beginning to emerge during Anselm’s time. As a result, we have blurred vision (like the blind man at Bethsaida) and so misinterpret the work the crucified (and resurrected) Christ was doing; we misconstrue the character of God’s economy that heals desire of its sin.

When understood rightly, the atonement is neither irrelevant to economy nor a tacit endorsement of the logic of the capitalist economic order. Rather, rightly understood, the cross reveals the gift of Christ as the incarnation of a divine economy that turns the capitalist order on its head

God needs nothing and no necessity compels God to act as God does in redeeming us from sin. Already the standard interpretation of the cross is in trouble, insofar as it asserts that necessity compels God to exact compensatory suffering as the penalty for sin. Anselm then goes on to say that God does not demand bloodshed, that divine justice is not in conflict with divine mercy, and that God’s power and dignity cannot be diminished by human insurrection. All of which is to say that whatever is happening on the cross, it is not about a strict settling of accounts and a rigid enforcing of commutative justice. Indeed, as Anselm argues, in the work of the atonement, God in Christ both dismisses any debt and gives a gift that far exceeds any settling of accounts, since in Christ we are renewed even more wonderfully than we were created.

What is going on, Anselm says, is not God collecting on accounts receivable but rather making good on God’s intention on creating humanity… Sin is indeed an offence against God’s honour in the particular sense that it is not fitting that God’s will or intention for humanity be thwarted… Sin is an offence against God because it is the thwarting of God’s desire that humanity enjoy, find its rest or communion in God… As such, honour is the origin of God’s free act to provide humanity with a path to renewed communion. God’s honour demands not that one pay for thwarting God’s intentions but that God’s intentions for humanity not be thwarted.

I’ll stop here or else I’ll end up just typing out the whole book for you.

All that was a long way of saying that what was happening at the cross wasn’t a settling of accounts according to a capitalist economy but a cancellation of debt and a display of immeasurable generosity. The ‘divine economy’ is not like the capitalist economy.

What does the ‘divine economy’ mean practically?

Bell explains that Christ’s work of atonement ‘renews desire in its true modality of gift, donation and unending generosity.’ It’s exciting stuff. Because God has been so generous to us, we’re freed from seeing the capitalist economy as an ultimate reality. We already have everything we need. Having received Christ, our life ‘becomes a surplus with which to serve our neighbours.’

You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor so that you, by his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9)

In this reality:

  • Everything we have is a gift from God. We are not ‘possessive’ like in capitalist possessive individualism.
  • The material stuff God gives us is not simply for meeting our own needs but the needs of others. Sure, there’s still private property, but private property no longer means having the right to do ‘whatever I want with my stuff’ but becomes a means of serving the common good. Ownership is not a licence but a responsibility.
  • We are freed to give in a way which honours the receiver of the gift. Christians don’t give out of their wealth to demonstrate their benevolence, expecting the ‘needy’ person could give them nothing in return. They acknowledge everything they have is a gift from God anyway. ‘Being vulnerable to receiving is a prerequisite of Christian giving.’
  • We are freed to work for the common good and serve others.
  • We can find rest from the rat race and the market. Rest is found in communion with God.

Now I completely skipped all the French philosophy Bell engages with, much of his analysis of postmodern capitalism and I hardly touched all the implications of God’s generosity to us in Christ. You must read this book. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

evangelicalism as contextualised Gospel

I’ve been reading Andrew Walls’ The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Not a flashy title, but a fascinating book. It was published almost 20 years ago, so I’m a little slow on the uptake – perhaps everyone else has already been here, done that – but his writing about the incarnation as God’s translation of the Word for us, and the on-going re-translation of the gospel is just beautiful. If, like me, you’re also 20 years behind the times on missiology, it’s worth reading.

But something else about this book caught my eye – it articulated something I’d been thinking about but not quite able to put into words – evangelicalism as a ‘contextualised’ gospel. He argues that the success of the evangelical revivals in the 18th and 19th Centuries were that they made the Gospel meaningful for northern European Protestants, they answered the deep questions these people had at that time.

Western Christianity faced a cultural crisis – attrition of its basis in Western culture, with the weakening of the sanctions of the institutional church, the increasing efficiency of the centralised state, and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. The Evangelical Revival was perhaps the most successful of all the reformulations of Christianity in the context of changing Western culture… It retained the medieval concern (deep rooted in the European psyche) for propitiation. It also extended and clarified the Reformation idea (particularly as developed by the English Puritans  of a life of holy obedience in the secular world and in the family. Above all, it combined the traditional framework of the Christian nation and the established church… with serious recognition of individual selfhood and personal decision. That reconciliation bridged a cultural chasm in Christian self-identity. It helped to make evangelical religion a critical force in Western culture, a version of Christianity thoroughly authentic and indigenous there. To use the appalling current missiological jargon the Evangelical Revival contextualised the gospel for the northern Protestant world. 

The contextualisation was so successful that people found it hard to imagine there was any other way of following Jesus.

There is, of course, a lurking peril in all successful indigenisations. the more the gospel is made a place to feel at home, the greater the danger that no one else will be able to live there. And the missionary movement required people whose personal religion had become effectively (though critically) aligned with Western cultures to transmit the Christian message in non-Western settings where the assumptions that shaped their religion did not apply.

Walls is still very optimistic. He looks at the history of African missions and the dissonances between the missionaries’ culture and the Africans’ and concludes that both heard and responded to the gospel.

The fruit of the work of evangelical missionaries has not simply been a replication of Western evangelicalism. The Christian message that they set loose in Africa has its own dynamic, as it comes into creative and critical encounter with African life with its needs and its hurts. Exactly the same thing happened with the Evangelical Revival bridged the culture gap for northern Protestantism with such spectacular effect. Africans have responded to the gospel from where they were, not from where missionaries were; they have responded to the Christian message as they heard it, not to the missionaries’ experience of the message.

When we tend to talk about contextualising the gospel, what we normally mean is re-contextualising evangelicalism, never seeing that evangelicalism itself is a contextualised gospel.

But then, does this really matter? As Walls sees it, Africans in the past were able to seize what they understood from the missionaries’ message and creatively respond. The spread of the Gospel was not contingent on the missionaries’ ability to ‘contextualise’ it. Perhaps what’s more important is to remove barriers as much as possible, cultural stumbling blocks, and give indigenous people the freedom to do the contextualising themselves. What do you think?

I’ve also been thinking about Evangelicalism and print-culture. It’s a reading religion. It’s a very literate Christianity with hymn-books, quiet-times, bible-studies. It’s a Christianity contextualised for a (19th century middle class?) literary culture.

But what’s going to happen as we increasingly move towards an audio-visual culture? We already receive most of our information this way, how much longer do we expect books to hold on? Can evangelicalism adapt for an audio-visual culture? Perhaps – and maybe the answer is along the lines of those slick TGC monochrome clips with the Great Men in earnest discussion. Or perhaps evangelicalism will evolve, re-contextualise, translate itself into something else altogether. What do you think? Is evangelicalism prepared for the future?

‘God’s good design’ or ‘The message of women’

It was my birthday last week and I found myself in the possession of an amazon book voucher surveying all the tantalising books that could be mine.

For the record I got the Economy of Desire; Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World and  Justice in Love (I don’t normally do philosophy, but apparently this one’s so well written that it’s worth reading just as an example of philosophers communicating clearly). But to max out my shipping (this is the only time I wish I lived anywhere but Australia – internet shipping costs) I needed one more book.

If you’ve been following my blog, you’d know I’m trying to work out what the Bible teaches about gender. Two books came out last year on the Bible’s teachings on women:

  • Tidball & Tidball The Message of Women which is about ‘women in Scripture’
  • Smith God’s Good Design which sets out to explain ‘what the Bible really says about men and women’

I was only going to get one. Both have the intro available for free online (here and here) to help me make my choice. This is what I learned from their introductions.


First up, the Tidballs implore the reader not to skip to the end to the bit on women in leadership because they’re concerned to understand what the whole Bible says about women (not just leadership).

When playing Monopoly the unfortunate player may be instructed to ‘Go to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.’ Regrettably we fear that many who read this volume will fall into the equivalent trap and go straight to the chapter on women in leadership, bypassing all the other chapters en route. We beg you not to do so. One of the most interesting reflections on writing this book is how many people have assumed in conversation that it was about women in leadership rather than women in Scripture. While the issue of women in leadership, Scripture has much more to say about women than whether they can be ordained or not. Moreover, we would contend that it is by isolating this issue from the rest we are liable to misunderstand what Paul was teaching.

Claire Smith, on the other hand, begins her book with that very issue, starting at  1 Timothy 2 – women preaching in church. The following chapter is on 1 Corinthians 11 (head coverings) then 1 Corinthians 14 (women speaking in church). The books’ theology of men and women is entirely built on the difficult and contested passages. She explains her selection of content in the introduction:

 This book is a text-by-text, verse-by-verse, and sometimes word-by-word look at passages that many of us have put in the ‘too hard’ basket.


The Tidballs structure their book according to the Bible’s own overarching narrative (creation, fall, new creation). It’s a Biblical theology of women.

The book is divided into four sections. First we lay some crucial foundations about women in creation and in the new creation. Then we survey the rich Old Testament material concerning women…The third section examines the Gospels…The final section deals with both the practice and teaching of the early church and fully examines some of the more controversial (and misunderstood?) writings of Paul.

Smith structures her book according to our 21st Century questions about women – what’s their ‘role’ (not a Biblical term) in church and marriage? She does the opposite to the Tidballs; she deliberately does not consider passages in the light of each other so that each chapter can be read in isolation.

The book falls into two parts. The first looks at those texts that deal with the roles and relationships of women and men when Christians gather together for what we call ‘church.’ The second section of the book focuses on their relationship within marriage, and in God’s original design for creation. Each chapter is written as a discrete unit dealing with a particular text, and so can be read on its own or as part of the whole.


What’s their approach to interpreting the Bible? The Tidballs say it’s difficult and complicated. Smith says it’s straightforward and that any difficulty is due to sin and our cultural biases (i.e. feminism).

This is what the Tidballs said about interpretation:

When we approach Scripture with integrity we find it speaks on the issue of women in ways which are diverse, complex and particular. Diversity demands we look to the range of the Bible’s teaching and do not merely select those passages which suit our particular viewpoint. Complexity demands we study the text carefully…Particularity means we must locate the text in its original cultural setting and the issues that were around then…before we consider how it applies to our very differenct cultural context and questions today.

And Smith:

The problem [of the difficulty we experience in understanding the Bible’s teachings on men and women] is not really with God or with his word. The problem is with us. The difficulties we have with those texts that deal with the responsibilities of men and women lie in us – not in the clarity or goodness of God’s word. We can expect God’s word to speak clearly. And it does.


The Tidballs are going for a more academic tone (though still very accessible), whereas Smith is writing for a popular audience. The Tidballs seem careful to explain their position with humility and graciousness towards those who understand the Bible differently.

Humility demands that we eschew calling one another names. Sadly a good deal of name-calling goes on in the church and some feel that labelling an opponent’s view as ‘feminist’ or ‘reactionary’ is sufficient not to consider thoughtfully what they are saying. This is part of a wide cultural trend which finds moral discussion difficult and thinks all questions are resolved by labelling those with whom we disagree. Such a trend…is deeply unworthy of the followers of Jesus Christ.

Smith, on the other hand, is ready to insinuate that egalitarians have a low view of scripture and are therefore unfaithful pastors.

Why would God’s word say one thing and yet mean the opposite? This is, in fact, what the various ‘egalitarian’ interpretations do. They claim to be uncovering the true meanings of these texts, and yet their conclusions fly in the face of the words themselves….

Sometimes…Christian brothers and sisters who at other times have been beloved and reliable teachers and shepherds in their sermons and books…tell us that these words of Scripture cannot be taken literally or that they no longer apply today, or that the evangelistic turn-off of these texts is baggage the church cannot afford to carry and that being missional means moving with the times and fitting with our culture.


Well, no prizes for guessing which book I bought after comparing their introductions. I am actually  surprised that Smith’s book has received so many recommendations (if you do recommend it and have read it please feel free to let me know why) when, as she indicates in the introduction, she starts with the contested, difficult passages and uses them to work out a theology, rather than interpreting the hard bits in light of what we know for sure from the clear passages, the Gospel and the overal story of the Bible. If her aim were simply to exegete hard passages, that’s fine, but to base her teaching of ‘what the Bible says’ on only the hard bits worries me. A Biblical theological approach, starting at Genesis 1 right through to Jesus’ New Creation – using the Bible’s own framework – seems to me to be a more reliable way of understanding what the Bible really says.


You may be interested to read some reviews of people who’ve actually read the books.

Reviews of God’s Good Design

Reviews of The Message of Women (couldn’t find any negative reviews of this one, perhaps it’s slipped under the complimentarian radar because everyone’s been so busy dealing with John Dickson)

the death of Christian Britain

Death of Christian BritainI read Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain this week. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting anything particularly interesting – I was reading it for study, not for fun. You know the story: the Enlightenment, Darwin, the world wars, the end of Empire, the 1960s. After all that British Christianity dies a death of many cuts.

He got my attention when he argued that this story, the one I expected, is pretty much an invention of the 1950s and 1960s and that Britain actually went secular around the very same time as these stories were being spun.

How British Christianity got to the state it is in the year 2000 is currently understood almost universally in terms of the theory of long-term secularisation which was developed academically initially by sociologists, but since the 1950s has been adopted in whole or in part almost universally by historians. The theory of secularisation posits that relgion is naturally ‘at home’ in pre-industrial and rural environments and that it declines in industrial and urban environments. The rise of modernity from the eighteenth century… destroyed both the community foundations of the church and the psychological foundations of a universal religious world-view. Secularisation, it is traditionally argued, was the handmaiden of modernisation, pluralisation, urbanisation and Enlightenment rationality… For most investigative scholars of social history and sociology, British industrial society was already ‘secular’ before it had hardly begun.

In the 1950s and 1960s…British people re-imagined themselves in ways no longer Christian – a ‘moral turn’ which abruptly undermined vritually all of the protocols of moral identity. Ironcially , it was at this very moment that social science reached the height of its influence in church affairs and in academe. Secularisation theory became the universally accepted way of understanding the decline of religion as something of the past – of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The 1960s viewed itself as the end of secularisation. But by listening to the people themselves, this book suggests that it was actually the beginning.

Brown reaches this conclusion because his approach is different to the social scientists’. Instead of counting things – bums on seats, Sunday School enrolments, confirmations, ordinations (he claims this is a shallow Enlightenment way of understanding religion) – he looks to what people were saying and thinking, how people framed themselves and their society in Christian terms. He finds that Britain was Christian until the 1960s

What changed?

This was the other surprise. He says women.

Women were the bulwark to popular support for organised Christianity between 1800 and 1960s, and it was they who broke their relationship to Christian piety in the 1960s and thereby caused secularisation.

Brown takes us back to the nineteenth century and traces discourses of  evangelical femininity and piety.

One of the great mythic transformations of the early nineteenth century was the feminisation of angels. Until the 1790s, British art and prose portrayed the angel as masculine, or at most, bisexual – characteristically muscular, strong and even displaying male genitalia, and a free divine spirit inhabiting the chasms of sky and space. But by the early Victorian period, angels were virtuously feminine in form and increasingly shown in domestic confinement, were no longer free to fly. Women had become divine, but an angel now confined to the house.

17th Century Angel

17th Century Angels

19th Century Angel

19th Century Angels

In the Middle ages and early moden period, the way for women to model Christian virtue was to act ‘masculine’. ‘Icons of female piety, such as martyrs and ascetics, had been represented as ‘masculine,’ while femininity, menstruation and childbirth were regarded as dangerous and polluting to piety’. Women were considered prone to superstition. From the 1500s, he explains, ‘a wife’s feminity was a threat to piety and household, and a husband established his moral status by controlling her’.

But around 1800, as the re-imagining of angels reflects, religion became a feminine attribute and masculinity the antithesis of religiosity. Women, now, were to control the immoral ‘masculine’ tendencies of men. Women were the cornerstone of the evangelical scheme for moral revolution – their moral and domestic qualities would sanctify the home  and thus the nation as a whole. He does, of course, address ‘muscular Christianity’ as an ‘attempt to redefine manhood’, concluding that it never managed to change the dominant negative discourse on male religiosity.

Whereas in the nineteenth century, pious women were believed to have a positive moral and converting influence on men through providing a happy home, by the twentieth the happy home became the ends in itself.

The artefacts of male temptation – drink, betting and pre-marital sex – were no longer the problem: it was the discontented rather than immoral manhood which the woman had to combat in the home, and to do this she had to make the home an unremittingly happy place…

Women were no longer being required by discourse to challenge men into submission to a pious domesticity, but to provide a contented domesticity for them.

Femininity, your identity as a woman, was so tied to Christianity and morality that, though men had been gradually leaving churches and Christianity for a while, this was not really an option for women.

From early in the twentieth century, there is plenty of evidence…of men disavowing churchgoing, and even rejecting Christianity. But for women, this type of personal journey away from religion was extremely difficult and comparatively rare before the 1950s. It was difficulty because a woman could not just ‘drop’ religion as a man could; her respectability as a woman, wife and mother, wether she liked it or not, was founded on religion whether she went to church or not.

Women were pious and piety was feminine. British Christianity itself rested on a domestic ‘Christian’ womanhood.

the 1960s

You can see where this is going. Everything changed in the 1960s.

The 1960s was a key decade in ending ‘the Enlightenment project’ and modernity. In its place, the era of postmodernity started to mature. Structural ‘realities’ of social class eroded, and there was a repudiation of self-evident ‘truths’ (concerning the role of women, the veracity of Christianity, the structure of social and moral authority)…

Just as environmentalism and the anti-nuclear movement started to challenge science in the sixties, so post-structuralism and feminism would come within a decade or so to challenge social science.

But the immediate victim was Christianity, challenged most influentially by second-wave feminism and the recrafting of femininity.

We know what happened. Women find new ways of being women – strong and invincible.  Women started finding their identity in work, rather than home. They secularised their identity. Women pointed out the double standards, the freedom men enjoyed and the restrictions they endured. Women stopped going to church. They had had enough.

The keys to understanding secularisation in Britain are the simultaneous de-pietisation of femininity and the de-feminisation of piety from the 1960s.

Before 1800, Christian peity had been a ‘he’. From 1800 to 1960, it had been a ‘she’. After 1960 it became nothing in gendered terms. More than this, the eradication of gendered piety signalled the decentring of Christianity – its authority and its cultural significance.

Brown isn’t sure if this is what happened in Australia and New Zealand, but it seems likely. North America was a bit different, he argues. Over there, the discursive challenged has emerged but not triumphed – there is still a conflict underway.

concluding thoughts

I have never quite understood the evangelical reaction to second wave feminism, the complete disdain for a movement which, as I understand it, was mostly a good thing. Of all things to hate, why feminism? Why not consumerism or materialism or something else? Equal pay, equal rights, equal respect, equal opportunities and equal moral standards – justice – all seem perfectly compatible with Christian belief to me (I would even say they originate in Christianity). But, if feminism was the blow which took out Christian Britain (and Christian Australia?), then I understand the gut reaction to all things feminist and the zeal of the current complimentarian movement.

A better response to this experience, I believe, is not to try and turn back the tide and restore femininities and masculinities to what we imagine they once were (whether you find ‘Biblical’ gender roles in the 1950s, 1800s or 1730s). As we have seen, pinning certain virtues onto one gender or another is a dangerous path: it ends up excluding some and burdening others. Righteousness is neither masculine nor feminine, it’s for all Christians, women and men (as is submission, gentleness, patience etc. etc.).

Instead, we need to think about what might be other ideas and identities we have put our faith in and called ‘Christianity.’ The reconstruction of femininity in the 1960s, I believe, was a good thing. The problem was that Christians had allowed their faith to be so attached to a culture of moral, domestic, idolatrous femininity that when this was challenged and abandoned, Christianity no longer made sense. What beliefs or identities other than ‘follower of Jesus’ are we relying upon today that, were they to be challenged or swept away, would risk bringing Christianity down with them?

What do you think of Brown’s analysis? I’d love to hear what people who were actually there for the 60s think. What other identities or ideas do we risk pinning our faith on now?

we need to talk about the old testament

I’m often not sure what to make of the Old Testament. More than often, most of the time.

It often upsets me. It offends me. Not in the evangelical ‘the Bible is offensive because it tells me that I’m sinful’ way. No. It offends me when it appears not only to condone, but to promote actions and attitudes which are not simply a ‘softer’ version of Jesus’ teaching but actually in direct opposition to Jesus’ teaching. The racism, the violence, the tribalism, the sexism. There are parts I love – the imagery, the poetry, the drama. But so much of the Old Testament worries me so much so that I hardly read it anymore.

I just don’t know how to read it. I don’t have the tools. I don’t have a framework.

Let me explain where I’m coming from.

I’m doing a PhD in history. I spend all day every day reading historical sources, not only for the information they immediately convey, but reading them ‘against the grain.’ That is, interrogating the source for the information that the author didn’t necessarily intend to share. I hunt for the author’s biases, assumptions, motivations and blind-spots. Especially, I think about the ways in which she might by trying to manipulate her readers (everyone writes with an agenda – myself included). That is how I spend my week.

Then, after work, I come to reading the Old Testament, and can’t quite take my historian cap off. I’m not even sure I should take it off: these are historical documents after all.

Suddenly the Old Testament reads like very human literature. I find documents that appear to serve the ruling elite, the priests, the nobility, the Yahweh cult. My beloved Psalms read like nationalist propaganda. I used to be concerned by the genocides in Joshua, now I’m not even sure they really happened (but I can see how the stories would be great for legitimising land claims and tribal boundaries). Likewise, Judges would serve very well for asserting the interests of the ruling family (just look how bad it was when there was no king). I my instinct is to deconstruct the text.

Having talked to others (especially those trained in social sciences and humanities), I am not alone in being unable to shake my suspicion of texts. Moreover, I think with generational change, it will become increasingly common for people to be thinking this way – to intuitively read the text against the grain.

Putting issues of motive and bias aside, there are still questions about historicity. What actually happened? You only have to go to Wikipedia on the Old Testament to learn that the Torah was written down after the Exile (by people whose political and religious interests it secured). That is, it was recorded centuries after the events described. A few more google searches point out how similar Genesis is to earlier foreign literature; how there may be multiple authors for a number of books; how there are internal contradictions etc. etc.

My real question is what does all this mean for divine inspiration?

The authors are human. But In what sense are we dealing with human documents? The authors are shaped by their context, we all acknowledge that. But does ‘context’ also mean that their writings reflect their sinful biases, ambitions, prejudices and presuppositions? Did these parts of their lives make it in? Or did God edit those bits out? (things which can’t be answered by appeals to progressive revelation) Does acknowledging ‘context’ mean accepting that authors may have held different understandings of what constitutes an historical fact? Should we accept all parts of the Old Testament equally (including the offensive bits), or assess them in light of the overall thrust of the Bible, particularly Jesus’ teaching? Am I even allowed to question a Biblical author?

We need to talk about this, not just at Bible colleges, but in our churches.

In years of attending evangelical churches I’ve never heard anything about historicity of the Old Testament (other than Jesus believed it so it’s good enough for me) or how to read it (other than ‘it’s all about Jesus’) in a way that acknowledges these criticisms. Perhaps pastors don’t feel qualified to train us on these issues. Perhaps they don’t want to scare us or confuse us. Perhaps it’s easier to pretend that the Bible fell from heaven. Whatever it is, I’m not sure why we’re not talking about these issues.

The problem is that while we’re not getting leadership and teaching on these issues from Christian leaders, Christians are going to come across it from other places. Most of my knowledge of debates surrounding the Old Testament originally came from atheists – atheists friends on facebook wanting to pick a fight. The thing is, we’ve all got internet. Christians in the pews are getting more and more exposure to critiques that previously just touched the academy. Moreover, as long as leaders aren’t willing to raise issues of source criticism, it will remain a taboo issue. A lonely question you can’t ask and a doubt that festers.

The Evolution of AdamFinally, I will just mention that Peter Enns is one evangelical who is willing to talk about this stuff with a popular audience. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but at least he’s opening a conversation. He is author of The Evolution of Adam and Inspiration and Incarnation (which argues that we must consider the Bible to be both human and divine) and blogs here.

How do you approach the Old Testament? Do you know people who are talking about these issues? Where would you go to discuss them?


Happy Friday everyone.

On the atonement

I’m halfway through these lectures from Fuller and loving them. What DID Jesus Do? The Atonement Symposium Videos

On the weather and climate

Tim Flannery As Australia burns, attitudes are changing. But is it too late?

On lust

When it comes to dressing modestly, I generally think that if my conscience is clear and I’ve dressed to attract no one else but my husband, then if a guy lusts it’s his own problem. Morgan Guyton Lust patriarchy and capitalism made me re-think this.

On church growth

Nathan Campbell Spurgeon v Augustine; Egyptian gold, “faithful preaching”, equilateral triangles and church growth

On good books

I confess to having read none of these books. But I will. Scott Stephens Why the best books of 2012 were so good

On the trolls

Jon Acuff Proverbs 9

On violence

This one’s a challenge. I mostly posting it because I read Nahum last week and am still in shock – I had much the same concerns. Wil Gafney God, the Bible and rape

Also, on the recent shootings and masculinity: David Leonard The unbearable invisibility of white masculinity

On compulsory voting

Mungo MacCallum Visionary voting reform if it works in your favour

On women in ministry

Michael Bird has written a response to Peter Bolt’s review of his book – The Achilles heel of two complimentarian objections

I’ve been pretty disappointed by the responses to Dickson’s book (Lionel Windsor excluded). Dickson’s been dismissed out of hand with little engagement with his argument – a little embarrassing from people who should know better.

On alcohol

This is from Prohibition, what did they do with all the booze? Literal rivers of booze.


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Dickson on why 1 Timothy 2:12 doesn’t prohibit women giving sermons

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

Could there be anything else to say about 1 Timothy 2:12? According to John Dickson, yes. He’s just come out with a new e-book: Hearing her Voice; A Case for Women Giving Sermons. He says something I haven’t heard before. Not everyone in Sydney thinks alike.

‘Hearing her voice’ is a bit of an odd title because it’s not really about ‘her voice’. He doesn’t give much space to discussing why ‘her voice’ might be worth hearing or why we’re missing out by not hearing it (i.e. that she might offer a different perspective to men).

The second half of the title – women giving sermons – is the point. This book is almost exclusively about women giving sermons. Dickson doesn’t stuff around with warming examples or analogies, he doesn’t pursue other ideas to see where they might lead us. The book gets straight to the point. I like that. You can read it in one session. His argument is simply that 1 Timothy 2:12 does not prohibit women from giving sermons.

These are his key points:

  1. ‘Sermon’ and ‘teaching’ have become virtually synonymous for evangelicals. ‘Teaching’ in the New Testament, however, meant something very different to the expository preaching of today’s sermons.
  2. Teaching, exhorting, evangelising and prophesying were all distinct types of speech in the New Testament. ‘Exhorting’ was likely the closest to our present day sermon. Only one of these types of speech (teaching) is restricted in 1 Timothy 2.
  3. Before the New Testament was written and circulated widely, ‘teaching’ was ‘preserving and laying down for the congregation the traditions handed on by the Apostles’. Teaching had more to do with memorising an oral tradition so as to speak authoritatively to the congregation, than explaining or applying it. It was transmission of the ‘deposit’, not exposition of scripture.
  4. Now that we have the New Testament recorded in writing (and audio, youtube, iphone apps etc.) the role of teaching has transformed. Dickson says that ‘no human being preserves and lays down the teaching of Jesus and the apostles anymore.’

Since giving a sermon is not equivalent to ‘teaching’ in the New Testament sense (moreover, ‘teaching’ is rare these days) and since women are encouraged to prophesy, evangelise and exhort, there is no reason to restrict women from the pulpit.

Moreover, Dickson urges those who reject his argument about teaching to consider the other types of speech open to women and to find practical ways of allowing women to share their voice at church – women clearly spoke publicly in the early church.

Read the footnotes. There are hidden gems.

I was disappointed that he didn’t discuss the rest of 1 Timothy 2 (though, this was simply a book on women giving sermons, he did not promise anything more). In a footnote, Dickson reluctantly put himself in the ‘complimentarian’ camp, though he, like me, dislikes the labels ‘complimentarian’ and ‘egalitarian.’ He reads 1 Timothy 2 as applying to all women (rather than wives in relation to their husbands, Ephesian women or undereducated noisy women).

He doesn’t explain why teaching – even in the sense of transmitting the oral tradition – is limited to women. We only get ‘because Adam was formed first…’ and so ‘was the original custodian of God’s revelation’. It seems arbitrary to me – what has timing to do with teaching? (though I can’t really blame Dickson for this, I’ll have to take it up with Paul). But then this was just a book on women giving sermons.

I found I needed to do a bit of just ‘trusting the expert’ in the book. I don’t know Greek nor am I an ancient historian, so I’m glad to learn from people like Dickson. I’m not in a position to critique the finer points of his argument, but I look forward to reading a response.

I exhort you (I’m allowed to do that) all to download this book for a summer afternoon. It’s only $4.22. It’s refreshing to read someone who’s trying to promote a dialogue between two increasingly entrenched camps. It’ll make you think and it might change your mind.

Meet Jesus at Uni also has a good review of it here.

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a year of biblical womanhood – what I thought

This book is fun.

Here’s the deal – Rachel Held Evans spends a year applying the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible. She camps in a tent during her period, adopts a ‘baby-think-it-over’ doll, visits women in Bolivia, sits on a roof, eats kosher, wears a head-covering, attempts to sew and bake and calls her husband ‘master.’ She assigns a ‘womanly’ virtue to each month: gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valour, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence and grace.

biblical womanhood

The great strength of A Year of Biblical Womanhood is that Held Evans writes to you, not like a theologian delivering a lecture or a pastor sermonising, not like a self-help book or a manual talking down to you. Her book reads like it’s written for a friend. She confides in you. She makes you laugh. She tells you her doubts and fears and hopes. She’s open to correction. She just wants you to share the experience she’s had and to dwell on it with her. After reading her book, I feel like I know her, and I think we’d be friends.

For this reason, I’d recommend it to almost anyone who reads for fun. Read it at the beach on your summer holiday. Someone who is not yet Christian could read this and enjoy it and even come to understand a little of the joy of following Jesus. My complimentarian friends: If you put aside your theological disagreement with her for a minute, as you would when chatting with a friend you love but with whom you don’t see eye-to-eye, you could have a bit of fun with this book too.

There seems to be a universal consensus among people of faith that God is a morning person. The Dalai Lama rises at 3.30am to meditate. Pope Benedict begins his day around 5. I don’t know what time Oprah gets up, but I bet it’s before 7. Even as a kid I remember hearing stories about our pastor’s “morning quiet time,” that magical space between dawn and breakfast when God told him exactly what the Bible meant and what to say about it on Sunday morning. But I didn’t experience any magic or inspiration when I rose with the sun to meet God. Instead my Proverbs 31 routine went something like this: wake up, make coffee, choose a centring word for meditation, fall back asleep, wake up again, feel guilty, drink coffee, lift my five pound weights for three minutes [‘she girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong’], practice knitting, give up, write. After a few days, I ditched the centring prayer altogether to revert to the old standby – a hurried, half-awake Lord’s Prayer while I washed my hair.

“You look like a hippie,” Dan said, “But it’s not that bad. I promise.” 

I stood in front of the bedroom mirror in a billowing brown peasant skirt, matching brown tights and flats, a simple lavendar cardigan buttoned all the way to my collarbone, and a white, loose-knit beret on my head. No makeup. No jewelry. No product in my nest of hair.

“I look like a religious freak,” I wailed. “I can’t go out like this. People will think I’m – I don’t know – homeschooled.”

Dan sighed. (Have I mentioned that he was homeschooled?) “Hon, this was your idea, remember.”

The cool washcloth over my eyes did little to dull the relentless pulses of pain assaulting my sinuses, head and shoulders. I’d slept for eleven hours straight, and still no relief. When I tried to sit up, it was as though a magnet pull forced me back down into the damp, twisted sheets. I was too tired to throw up again, too nauseated to move. My limbs felt heavy. The room spun around. So I lay in the fetal position for hours more, listening to the gentle swoosh of the ceiling fan and praying for death.

No I didn’t get typhoid.

I quit coffee, cold turkey.

Of course there is a serious agenda to the book too which is why our American sisters and brothers have so many issues with it (I haven’t heard anyone speak up against it in Australia yet though). She is not a complimentarian. She describes her position as ‘mutalist’. Mutuality means that husbands and wives mutually submit to one another, mutually lead the home and mutually minister to others. It means that men and women are equal partners rather than the husband as the ‘head’ of the wife who submits.

So she gets a little cheeky in her month of ‘silence’.

My advice to women is this: if a man ever tries to use the Bible as a weapon against you to keep you from speaking the truth, just throw on a head covering and tell him you’re prophesying instead.

She does not give us a thorough exegetical argument for her mutualist position – that, after all, is not the point of the book and many others have done this. Nonetheless, I found some of her critiques of complimentairan teaching valid and quite concerning. These, however, were done in a spirit of concern (and a little frustration), rather than with a desire to tear down. This was perhaps the most direct attack:

…Wayne Grudem offers equally confounding advice for women by extracting from 1 Timothy 2:12 and eighty-three-item list detailing exactly what women can and cannot do in the church. A woman can be a choir director, but not preside over a baptism or a communion service, he says. She can write a book about theology that is read at Christian colleges and seminaries, but she cannot teach theology at Christian colleges or seminaries herself. She can teach vacation Bible school to children, but she cannot lead a Bible study with adults.

I’ve watched congregations devote years to heated arguments about whether a female missionary should be allowed to share about her ministry on a Sunday morning, whether students older than ten should have female Sunday school teachers, whether girls should be encouraged to attend seminary, whether women should be permitted to collect the offering or write the church newsletter or make an announcement ..It that’s not an adventure in missing the point, I don’t know what is.

Fortunately, in my experience, churches in Australia aren’t distracted by the same fruitless controversies or pharisaical regulations. Though sometimes I worry that we’re on our way.

Held Evans is not a liberal. She’s evangelical. Her disagreement with complimentarians is by no means based on a decision to simply ignore parts of the Bible (she reads them as culturally particular). Rather, her concern is for the gospel.

McKnight wisely asks: “Do you think Paul would have put women ‘behind the pulpit’ if it would have been advantageous ‘for the sake of the gospel?’ The answer to that question should be a lot simpler than it has become.

I could feel Held Evans’ deep love of the Bible throughout the book. It is her love for the Bible, her hunger to understand it and to wrestle with it (ok, and the prospects of writing a great book) which drive her to undertake this crazy experiments.

It was her love of the Bible which draws her to what I found was the underlying question of the book – not ‘what is Biblical Womanhood?’ but ‘how should we interpret the Bible?’

The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual. It isn’t a flat perspicuous list of rules and regulations that we can interpret objectively and apply unilaterally to our lives.

The Bible is a sacred collection of letters and laws, poetry and proverbs, philosophy and prophecies, written and assembled over thousands of years in cultures and contexts very different from our own, that tells the complex, ever-unfolding story of God’s interaction with humanity.

When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word (like manhood, womanhood, politics, economics, marriage and even equality) we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible which don’t fit our tastes…More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the BIble to say than what it acutally says.

So after twelve months of ‘biblical womanood’ I’d arrived at the rather unconventioanl conclusion that there is no such thing. The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth…

I believe that my calling, as a Christian, is the same as that of any other follower of Jesus. My calling is to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and to  love my neighbour as myself. Jesus himself said that the rest of scripture can be rendered down into these two commands. If love was Jesus’ definition of ‘biblical’, then perhaps it should be mine.

How should we interpret the Bible? This is a such great question. Unfortunately I didn’t feel like Held Evans was equipped to answer it. She argues that everyone inevitably ‘picks and chooses’ when it comes to reading the Bible and that we usually find what we want to find. She suggests we adopt ‘an approach that creatively interprets with love.’ This is a good start, but not a satisfying answer.

I’m even less qualified than her to suggest an answer, but rather than a mere hermeneutic of ‘love’, I’d put forward one of ‘Jesus’ – interpreting the Bible in a way which assumes it’s all about him, interpreting it in light of our new status as followers of Jesus, co-heirs with him, inheritors of the promises, understanding that the New Covenant and New Creation have already begun, and the New Creation is soon to be brought into its fullness.

So, she doesn’t really give a thorough answer to big questions of hermeneutics, but at least she’s asking the question and raising it for a popular audience, getting it out of the seminaries and making it fun and relevant. Perhaps someone should write a response (‘Biblical Manhood’ anyone?).

At the end of the book, there were 10 things she resolved to continue once her year was finished.

  1. try a new recipe every week
  2. eat more ethically – it’s worth paying extra to know we did our due diligence to ensure the food we eat does not perpetuate the exploitation of other people
  3. identify and praise women of valour
  4. embrace the prospect of motherhood
  5. nurture the contemplative impulse
  6. make room for ritual and remembrance
  7. champion women leaders in the Church
  8. partner with World Vision to work for the education and empowerment of women around the world
  9. honour Dan (her husband)
  10. keep loving, studying and struggling with the Bible.

Not bad at all.

What do you think?

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Friday again!

On Australia cutting itself out of its own migration zone

Scott Stephens Thuggery in Humanitarian Drag

Waleed Aly Shattering the Facade of Kindness

Clarke and Dawe had something to say about it too.

On the race that stops Melbourne

Benjamin Myers Trampling Creation

On babies and abortion

Tamara Mann My Involuntary Miscarriage

Bianca London Think you are ready to have children? Hilarious new parent test. Actually hilarious.

On Jesus

Brian Le Port Jesus of False Dichotomies. Is Jesus either the Lamb of God who saves us from sin, or the champion of the oppressed? He’s both.

On ‘Biblical Womanhood’

I’ve had a pretty hectic week, so my progress reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood has been slow. I’m still not finished.

But the Gospel Coalition finally got around to reviewing (and slamming) it, they were a bit slow off the mark. I feel like Kathy Keller kind of missed the point in her review. She criticises Held Evans for just doing crazy things because they’re ‘in the Bible’ – that’s not a Christian way to read the Bible – but it seems to me that’s exactly Held Evans’ point.

Held Evans is trying to show that ‘Biblical’ is a pretty slippery hermeneutic and to start a discussion about how we interpret the Bible. She argues that anything in the Bible can be called ‘Biblical’, so we need to do better than just tack ‘Biblical’ (or ‘what the Bible really says’) onto whatever we’re advocating and think that this settles things. We need to think about how to interpret the Bible in light of being followers of Jesus. More to come on this.

Don’t let that turn you off Keller though, other things she’s written are great, especially ‘The Meaning of Marriage’ which she co-authored with her husband.

Morgan Guyton responded to Keller’s review here.

And Held Evans herself responded here.

And finally here’s a complimentarian review of the book from Matthew Lee Anderson. He doesn’t dismiss her as a ‘dangerous influence’, but gets into the hermeneutical discussion that she opened. How refreshing.

On Words

Jasper Copping Why Hitler Hated Being Called a ‘Nazi’.

On the Trinity

Fred Sanders The Trinity in the Gender Debate. We look to the trinity and tend to find whatever we wanted to find, so be careful, he says.

On Disability

Garry Kerridge Bottom of the League argues that the fact that Australia ranks last in terms of people with disabilities living in poverty indicates that the Disability Discrimination Act isn’t doing its job and must be strengthened.

On Beauty

The Hoopla Body Perfection; a New Religion. We’re obsessed.

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