forgoing the blessing of children 3

This is my third post in a series about being Christian and ‘childfree’. I’m working through three points.

  1. Intro
  2. Marriage is not about kids.
  3. The New Covenant people are different to the old. Jesus is the one who fills and subdues the earth through his Church and God’s people are those born of the Spirit. In the Church, ‘family’ has a radical new meaning.
  4. Christians are free to make wise and loving decisions in the Spirit. This may mean forgoing earthly blessings (even family) for the sake of the Kingdom.

In this post I’m working through children in the Old and New Covenants. This is going to be a long post.

The need for offspring

Under the Old Covenant, the way you had ‘eternal life’ and ensured the continuation of your ‘name’ was through male offspring. This was how your ‘house’ continued forever. For example, the laws around Levirate marriage (where you have to marry your dead brother’s wife, see Deuteronomy 25) were all about ensuring the continuation of your dead brother’s name. That’s also why there’s such strict laws about kicking someone in the balls – you had to be able to procreate! If you failed to have children, it was like you were ‘blotted out’, deleted from history, as if you were never there.

It follows from this that women’s main role in the Old Covenant people was to be mothers. Being a mother of Israel was a high calling. Still, it put heaps of pressure on women to have lots of male babies. For a woman, to be infertile in ancient Israel meant you could not fulfill your social role, your main duty in life.

In addition to ensuring the continuation of your name, having children was the way that God’s people grew. That’s why there’s so many genealogies. So, in Malachi 2 we learn that God wanted Israelite marriages to produce ‘godly offspring.’

You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

The hope of a new covenant

Surprisingly, the prophets spoke of hope when not having kids no longer meant being cursed or ‘blotted out.’ The prophet Isaiah spoke of an everlasting name even for those those who did not have children.

Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the Lord says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.

In Jesus, this hope has arrived

Jesus fulfills this hope. In the New Covenant, your children are no longer your salvation. Eternal life and a name that ‘endures forever’ is not found through baby boys but through Jesus. Our names will never be ‘blotted out’, in fact we are given new names, Jesus’ own name (Rev 2,3,14).

The people of God in the New Covenant don’t grow through childbirth. We are not a biological people, but a people born of the Spirit. John’s Gospel is pretty clear on this:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God…

Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Jesus is now  building a spiritual ‘house’, a spiritual people.

So Jesus also gives family a radical new meaning – it’s not your earthly family which matters any more – real family is in the Church.

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said,“Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

In Jesus’ Kingdom, being a infertile is no longer a curse. In fact, he teaches that people might actually choose this life for the sake of his Kingdom. This is something radically different!

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

So what why does the Old Testament talk so much about childbirth?

So if Jesus redeems us from a world where can only hope at eternal life through having children, if he actually gives us a name that endures forever and a real lasting family in his Kingdom, what was the point of having children in the Old Covenant? Why does the Old Covenant seem so pro-reproduction?

As I’ve already said, having children was the way that God grew his people in the Old Covenant. It was through Abraham, his offspring, Israel, that God would bless the whole world. Could it be that the point of childbearing in the Old Covenant was to bring the world our Messiah, Jesus?

Paul seems to imply as much in Galatians 3 when he says that Jesus is the ‘offspring’ or ‘seed’ of Abraham.

The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,”meaning one person, who is Christ.

Throughout the Old Testament there is a hope that perhaps the offspring of Adam and Eve will redeem the world. The very first mention of childbearing in the whole Bible is a reference to ‘offspring’ fighting with the serpent. Cain was a disappointment. So we have genealogies, lists of male children. Enosh gave us hope. Noah might have been a fresh start, then we get to Abraham and the promise to his ‘offspring.’

At significant points, God gives a miracle to an infertile woman, providing a child of the promise: Sarah and Isaac, Rebekah and Jacob, Rachel and Joseph then latter Hannah and Samuel. These reinforce the idea that God himself is building his people and it is God who will bring future redemption through the continuing line of offspring.

As Christians we believe that Jesus is the offspring of Abraham. God used the labours of all those Israelite women through the generations to bring us the Messiah. The genealogy in Luke, going all the way back to Adam and God, gives a hint that this was where all that childbearing was directed – to Jesus.

So when we read in Malachi 2 that God desired Israel’s marriages to produce ‘godly offspring’ how do we interpret Godly offspring as New Covenant people? God’s desire to see Godly offspring has actually been fulfilled. We know him. Jesus is the godly offspring.

Jesus fulfills everything for humanity

In Jesus the purpose of childbirth in God’s plans for redeeming the world has been fulfilled. Not only is he the fulfillment of Israel’s hope in ‘offspring’ which would bring God’s redemption. Jesus has fulfilled every requirement and purpose for humanity. He is the new Adam, those who are in him are the new humanity.

So he fulfills the command that humanity ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’

That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.

What about ‘fruitfulness’? Yes, that now happens, not by having babies, but by being in Jesus, the source of all fruitfulness.

Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

The ‘fruit’ in John is Love – but Jesus is the vine, we’re just branches. He is the source of our fruitfulness.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul brings together the ideas of fruit, filling the whole world, multiplying and having dominion, showing us that all this accomplished in the gospel of Jesus.

The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world …. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God…

And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

A final note about infertility in the New Testament

It’s no accident that the final miraculous birth to a ‘barren’ woman recorded in the Bible is Elizabeth and her baby John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Covenant. When a baby is born to the virgin Mary, it’s like a new beginning.

Women are much more prominent in the New Testament than in the Old. In the old, most of the women’s stories have to do with childbirth and contributing to a genealogy, but in the New Testament, after the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, there’s no interest in fertility or genealogies at all. The trope of the miraculous birth to the ‘barren’ woman abruptly ends. Jesus alludes to plenty of Old Testament miracles, but he doesn’t miraculously enable any women to get pregnant (ok maybe the bleeding woman, but the narrator doesn’t mention that she bore her husband a son – it’s not the point of the story). This is something new and different.

Instead of producing offspring, we hear about women’s responses to Jesus, their discovery of the empty tomb, their faithful service, their work proclaiming the Gospel. Women’s purpose in life is no longer to produce offspring for Israel, but to be part of Jesus’ Church.

Conclusion

Of course, having children has many good purposes – children bring great joy, they teach us many things about ourselves and about God, and they show God’s kindness across generations. But in terms of God’s redeeming plans for the world, the purpose of childbirth has already been fulfilled. Jesus fulfills the purpose of children in the Old Covenant – he is the offspring – as well as the command to humanity to be fruitful and subdue the earth. We’re fruitful too, not through childbirth, but through growing in love, in Jesus.

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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?

church in Australia

  • 88% of aussies who don’t go to church regularly still believe that church is good for the community
  • the term ‘practicing Christian’ has positive connotations, whereas ‘evangelical Christian’ is perceived negativeley
  • People would rather have a community centre or a youth centre than a church (though carparking would be even better) in their community, they would prefer crisis support services over spiritual serivces.

What do you think that means for ‘practicing Christians’? How can we use this knowledge to serve people’s and honour Jesus?

The infographic is from mccrindle research.

‘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.

Content

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.

Structure

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.

Hermeneutic

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.

Tone

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.

Conclusions

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.

Reviews

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?

in defence of generous orthodoxy

I like the attitude generous orthodoxy. That is, an approach to theology which values and strives for orthodoxy and truth, yet is generous towards people with whom you don’t quite see eye to eye. Generous orthodoxy holds fast to the Bible, yet is open to correction from fresh Biblical investigation. It assumes the best of others who interpret the Bible differently, because we all see through a glass darkly.

So Mark Thompson’s (the incoming principal of Moore College) recent post on ‘guarding the gospel’ made me anxious.

…there would always be those who wanted to claim the label ‘evangelical’ while actively working to undermine one or more of the basic convictions of historic ‘evangelicalism’.

You see, I am one of the people who identifies with evangelicals but who doesn’t hold all the convictions many evangelicals held in the past. Does he realise he’s pushing me outside the camp?

So who can claim to be evangelical?

I always thought that to be evangelical was to be ‘gospelly’ (‘gospel-centred’ as the current jargon goes). Evangelicals have been defined by the four values – biblicism, crucicentricism, activism and conversionism – that is, evangelicals are ‘Bible people’, they believe Jesus’ cross is the key, they get stuff done and they evangelise.

But now, according to Thompson, evangelicals are those who uphold ‘basic historic convictions’. He has redefined evangelicals: they are no longer ‘Gospel people’ but people who adhere to certain traditions and doctrines from centuries past. Thompson’s evangelicalism is no longer an approach or set of values but orthodoxy handed down.

This worries me. Even more concerning, our ‘evangelical heritage’, to him, is interchangeable with the gospel itself!

…This is what explains the regular call for vigilance among Christian leaders in the New Testament. It is a vigilance Marcus Loane understood to be part of our responsibility as heirs of such a magnificent evangelical heritage here in Sydney. Some may seek to caricature this determination to guard the gospel in a variety of ways…

This is why he is sceptical of ‘generous orthodoxy.’ He writes as if we got it pretty much all worked out (admittedly not perfectly, perhaps we’re just ironing out a few things), sometime in the past, and we need simply to guard our theology against ‘drifting’.

If the evangelical heritage were gospel, as Thompson implies, then generous orthodoxy would be dangerous. There would be no need for generosity because our theology would not need improvement.

But our evangelical doctrinal heritage is not the gospel! Generous orthodoxy is an approach that acknowledges that any theology is our human interpretation of God’s Word, not God’s Word itself. None of us can say we have completed the task of theology. We need, therefore, to be patient and generous with each other as we weigh up the strengths of various theological ideas.

Generous orthodoxy does not mean relativism. The orthodoxy bit of generous orthodoxy acknowledges that some theology is better than others. So we so we can strive for orthodoxy with a spirit of generosity towards others who have different interpretations. Yes, I appreciate the need to guard the deposit (and I am not saying we should be quick to discard theologies which have served us well), but sometimes guarding the gospel can be done through correcting our misconceptions, through refining our theology.

Whereas Thompson casts suspicion on those who ‘call for more nuance’ or ‘room for disagreement’ I believe this is precisely what we need if we are to develop richer theologies, if we are to better understand God’s Word and ultimately if we are to guard the Gospel. It is a healthy attitude of academic humility which is willing to learn from others, even from people with whom we disagree. Generosity means assuming the best of Christians with whom we disagree – rather than assuming the worst (and I am not accusing Thompson of this). Assuming the worst all too often devolves into witch-hunts, name calling,  guilt by association and dropping the L word (calling someone a liberal is like bringing nazis into an argument: as soon as you do it, it’s clear you don’t have an argument).

It would be a tragedy if people with the insights we need to learn, the rebukes we must heed, the corrections that could aid the church were silenced by fears of being pushed outside the evangelical camp. I hope we can be generous towards people who might have uncomfortable, but necessary things to tells us.

(see Reformed and always Reforming for more on this)

my first lent

Lent begins tomorrow. I’ve never done anything for Lent before. My churches have never observed it. Actually, I thought it might have a whiff of legalism and ritualism to it.

But seeing as it’s been practiced by Christians for centuries (our first record of Lent goes back to Irenaeus, who died in AD 203 – see a short history of lent), I now suspect there might be something to it. I suspect it might be a season of reflection and growth for many people.

So this year I’m giving it a go.

Simplifying_the_SoulI planning on working through a book I heard about from Anna Blanch’s blog, ‘Simplifying the Soul‘, by Paula Huston.Huston is Catholic, so the approach is a bit different to what I’m used to (thought, the more I learn of Catholicism from Catholics themselves, the more I respect it). The tagline is ‘Lenten practices to renew your soul.’ I struggle to pray. I struggle with doubt and disillusion. Renewal. This sounded like the book for me.

Each day  has a suggested practice, along with a verse and meditation  to guide your thoughts and prayers through lent. The weeks are themed – money, the body, the mind, the schedule, relationships and prayer – with Sundays off because they’re days of celebration. Over the next month I’ll have a go at:

  • clearing out a drawer of junk
  • praying on my knees
  • wearing my oldest clothes for a day
  • covering all the mirrors in my house
  • visiting someone in hospital
  • giving to charity
  • walking instead of driving
  • turning off my mobile
  • spending an hour in solitude
  • sitting in silence with a friend
  • praying for strangers I see

The aim is not to get holy points with someone: not you; not God; not even myself. Huston explicitly warns against that kind of approach.

This book is not meant to be a spiritual version of the Girl Scout honour badge programme, and if you look upon it as a handbook for self improvement, you’ll more than likely become frustrated and disappointed.

It can’t be like earning Brownie badges because the point, she says, is to learn humility.

I’m doing this because I believe there’s a difference between storing information in your head, feeling something in your body and knowing it in your heart. I hope, by giving my body a chance to feel things as I work through these practices, that God will be teaching me a bit more humility, a bit more patience, a bit more compassion, or maybe a bit of something else I can’t even predict. I hope I’ll slow down a little and notice the ways God has been good to me in the small and the big things.

Are you doing anything in preparation for Easter this year? What have you done in the past? Will you join me?

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?

christians and the human rights bill – part 4

part 4 of 4

Plaatje Christopher - Human RightsThe Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill (2012) is in draft from and currently before a Senate Inquiry and facing some opposition from Christian groups. In this final post I look at the issue of public perception of Christians.

Firstly, not all Christians oppose the draft bill. Here are two positive Christian responses:

Peter Sandeman from Anglicare If we believe all people are equal we must live this

Elenie Poulos from the Uniting Church Injustice not an article of faith for all churches

how are outsiders going to interpret this?

As I have argued before, PR matters. We need to be concerned about how we come across to outsiders so as not to create a barrier to knowing Jesus. So how do we look? What message do we project to the public when we object to this legislation?

David Marr’s article article in the SMH gives us a hint. He interprets Christian opposition as churches defending their powers to ‘punish “sinners” in the workplace.’

Most conservative faiths have most of the following on their lists of the sackable: gays and lesbians, single mothers, adulterers – yes, even adulterers! – bisexuals, transsexuals, the intersex and couples like Gillard and Tim Mathieson…

Some see Christians as fighting for their ‘right to discriminate’. See Eleanor Gibbs or Ben Dorrington.

Or there’s Jeff Sparrow’s Religious freedom beats your rights at work

Religious lobbyists run the risk of winning this particular skirmish but losing the war. Even those of us who aren’t believers know that the scriptures spend far more time condemning the wealthy and greedy than obsessing about which sexual organ can legitimately go where. Do churches that already struggle for relevance really want to identify themselves so exclusively as the bedroom police, rather than finding something to say about the various moneylenders ensconced in the temples of the 21st century?

And Joumanah el Matrah Shutting out the ‘sinners’ feeds bigotry (not a secular perspective, but relevant nonetheless)

When the federal government assures religious groups they will have the freedom to discriminate against homosexuals and others they deem sinners (The Age 16/1), it not only undermines the rights of already vulnerable groups, such as same-sex-attracted people, it also undermines the substance and integrity of religion by reducing it to a collection of petty bigotries.

Finally, a cartoon

Image

The secular public does not understand Christians’ reasoning behind their opposition. Instead, Christians, by their opposition, confirm the public’s suspicion that Christians are sexist, homophobic and arrogant and that Christians believe they are entitled to special treatment.

Many of the Christian submissions regarding the bill complain that their free speech and religious freedom would be violated if they’re not allowed to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people.’ (note –  the word ‘offend’ was included in the draft bill because it comes from existing harassment legislation – I wouldn’t normally post something from the IPA, but Berg explains it here).

That does sound a lot like we believe that offending, insulting, humiliating and intimidating people are core parts of Christianity that need to be protected. The public could be forgiven for thinking so. They see the contradiction between what we say we believe and the ‘rights’ we claim.

I am not saying that we should let our beliefs be determined by public opinion, only that public opinion matters if people are going to listen to our message. We need to think seriously about which battles are worth fighting and what our opposition tells people about Jesus.

Because I’m worried that, worst of all, we’re creating a stumbling block to the gospel, a barrier to knowing Jesus.

concluding thoughts

There is a risk that Christians and churches may be taken to court for speaking the truth in love because someone was offended by it.

But there is a far greater risk that, by opposing this legislation, the public will get the impression that we Christians reserve the right to offend, humiliate, insult and intimidate people, to treat people unfairly, to mistreat people, to show favouritism and to ignore the injustices faced by the most vulnerable in our society.

There’s a risk they will think that we value our ‘freedom of religion’ over better protections for vulnerable people.

Would you not rather be taken to court?

christians and the human rights bill – part 3

part 3 of 4

Plaatje Christopher - Human RightsThe Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill (2012) is in draft from and currently before a Senate Inquiry.

The protections for religious organisations are largely unchanged. One exception which is causing concern is that the bill will:

Ensure that no provider of aged care services with Commonwealth funding can discriminate.  This includes religious organisations (although such providers can continue to preference people of their faith).

the consequences of being yoked

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

Ah yes, the ‘don’t date non-Christians’ passage. I worry that with this one we’ve been so concerned not to date non-Christians that we haven’t thought hard about the wisdom in this passage.

When we receive public money, we’re no longer working for Christ alone but also for the state. We become indebted to the government. We’re yoked. The government, as the employer or contractor has the right to set the agenda.

Perhaps, for some services, our values and objectives are so similar to those of the government that Christian organisations can work under them. After all, many Christians do work for the government in their normal employment – public servants, teachers, nurses – and honour God with their work.

Yet I think we need to consider the implications for Christian organisations to be dependent on public money for their operation. Governments demand KPIs and love to measure things (employment outcomes, hospital beds, efficiencies) which, for Christians, are often secondary, rather than primary concerns. Yet organisations dependent on government need to compromise their priorities work to achieve these government benchmarks. Governments are uneasy about evangelism and prayer (school chaplains anyone?), whereas for many Christians these are essential activities for someone in a public Christian position. It means our hands are tied. Not to mention the public perception that Christians get a free ride on public money.

In many areas, I believe it is not in our interests to opportunistically accept cash from the government. Our values are different. We serve Jesus.

Perhaps you think I’m wrong. Perhaps you think it would be better for us to use government money while we can for the Kingdom. What I’m proposing would need  some radical generosity from Christians. Do you think that’s possible?

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