At the intersection between scones, nudity and theology…

And then, as we were serving tea and scones in the dining room, my brother David, in a heavenly voice, said without recourse to any current or prior conversation:

“I think that the problem with nudity, the reason it seems offensive, is not so much the sight of genitals (which are hardly what you’d call offensive), but because clothes help to designate our place in society.

Public nudity is in this sense highly a/anti-social, kind of like a denial of normal social codes because there is no place for it except in the brief intermediary space of the changing room. It isn’t the imagined threat of another’s sexuality that offends, but their taking up of a position outside of considerations of status or social context.

We need to be able to place people, and clothes go a long way to helping with that. Since we rely on social codes all the time to function, someone stepping outside of them is equivalent to having two fingers stuck up at the bulk of humanity. Personally, I don’t care if people want to go around naked, and I actually like swimming nude, but doing it in public seems a pointless and immature thing to insist upon, like growing ridiculously long fingernails or not washing – you’re free to do it, but what kind of freedom is that?

Also, just to add a theological note on this (which, naturally is by far the most offensive thing anyone can possibly do!), the animal skin clothing that God made for Adam and Eve in the bible was not particularly about making sure we covered our naughty bits up to satisfy a strangely schizoid deity’s need for modesty. It was meant to be read allegorically as a sign that our attempts to hide our shame (a consequence of the knowledge of good and evil) are inadequate, and so God replaced our fig leaves with something he provided for us. The twist in the story is that, in Christ, he is himself the lamb-skin that protects us.

But anyway…”

But anyway indeed.  More tea?

The Visitor and Inquisitor

One day, Jesus comes back.  He wanders through the streets and squares of a southern town, where just the day before 100 so-caleld heretics had been burnt at the stake.  The story-teller narrates, ‘He appeared quietly, unostentatiously, and yet – strange, this – everyone recognizes him.  Saying nothing, he passes among them with a smile of infinite compassion.’

The_Brother_KaramazovPeople who touch his garment are healed, a blind man’s sight is restored.  He even raises a small girl from the dead.  The crowds erupt, shouting and sobbing.  At this very moment, the Grand Inquisitor, a man of ninety, emerges from the cathedral.  The crowd meekly parts, and they bow their heads to the ground.  He then has the Visitor arrested.

Later, recieving the prisoner, the Grand Inquisitor says to him, ‘I know who you are.’  He accuses the prisoner of meddling.  The old man sentences the Prisoner to being burnt at the stake the next day.

The gist of his accusation against the Prisoner is that whereas the Prisoner has acted to ensure humanity’s freedom, the Grand Inquisitor acts to ensure humanity’s happiness.  He ensures their happiness by providing them with bread, with certainty, and with belonging.  The people, claims the Grand Inquisitor, cannot bear the freedom that Jesus has left them with; it was uncharitable of him to attempt this.  All those centuries ago, by refusing the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus had said no to buying people’s loyalty with bread, or with a display of miracles on demand, leaving them only their free wills and consciences from which to act.  ‘But the people are mere sheep,’ said the Grand Inquisitor, ‘and you have asked too much of them.  The freedom is an intolerable burden, which we have toiled for fifteen centuries to remove.’

The only response the Prisoner makes is to draw near to the old man, and kiss him on his bloodless ninety-year-old lips.  The old man shudders and cries, ‘Go, and do not come back . . . . do not come back . . . . . ever!’

A paraphrase from Chapter V, ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, in Fyodor Dostoesvsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, pg.227-54

Moor Sillouette

I took this on Dartmoor, Devon, UK

The 11th Plague: Pornography

Free CandyOver the years I have mentored and counselled many young men and older-to-middle-aged men on the addictions they have regarding internet pornography.  I am convinced this has to be at the centre of all discipleship discussions and in no way shirked by ministers and anyone in leadership responsibility.

In every case I have assumed it is happening in the lives of these men and I have never been wrong (in this at least)!  The prevalence of shame and guilt linked to this addiction is destroying not just marriages and relationships, but people as individuals.

shame

Pornography is the ultimate locust plague and the newest form of the Golden Calf; the ultimate consumerist need; a dehumanising consumption of humanity – by humanity – on a scale hitherto unknown.

It presents itself as something good, something delicious, but it is not; it may look like a nice cake but it is horse manure wrapped in icing that is laced with despair and brokennness.

Yes I know pornography is as old as the skies.  Yes I know the complexities of the nature-nurture debates and the desire-affections debates and the secret Victorian obsessions and the Canaanite fertility symbols that demonstrate in one way or another this is not new:  mankind is obsessed with sex.  But what we face today as a “postmodern” people in a global world is new.  Something has shifted, and the statistics below merely highlight the beginnings of this new-(but old)-world-order.

We are now beyond the territory of the erotic (marital) sex of the Song of Solomon, and we have walked blindfolded into the horror show of Ezekiel 16 and 23.  Some may say that since this blog is a Christian blog, that I am some sort of lemon-sucking prude, a proper Victorian anti-sex Puritan.  Well I’m not.  The statistics below (from but one country) will contain the detail of what and why I am against this vile trade in people who are made in the image of God.

The Guardian online recently published an excellent article by Laura Bates entitled ‘Rape is not a punchline or a way to sell Christmas presents‘.  She writes,

“In fact, there is evidence of some links between the portrayal of women as sexual objects and attitudes that underpin violence against women and girls. The government-commissioned Sexualisation of Young People review found evidence to suggest a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviours as the norm. And the 2010 report by the American Psychological Association on the Sexualisation of Girls detailed links between sexually objectifying images of women and girls in mainstream media and significantly higher levels of acceptance of rape myths, victim-blaming, sexual harassment and interpersonal violence.”

I find it astonishing we need government-commissioned reviews to reach this plainly obvious conclusion.  This runs in tandem with the idiotic advertising strategies of various corporations around the world to suggest and insinuate rape and abuse of women in order to sell their grubby wares!  It should take more than public shock and complaint to realise this; or is the saturation of our minds by advertising companies now so dense that enticements to rape and abuse are the thing that will keep our economies strong?  In fact, “woe to you” if that’s what it takes to run a business in profit, and maintain a strong economy.

BTW, this post is not about anyone’s right “to do what they want” or whatever narcissistic neo-liberal construct of society you choose to adopt (as though anything one individual does is completely independent of anything and everyone around them (whether you are a Christian or not) – what nonsense)!  It is simply about the fallout from this industry that is destroying real lives on an industrial scale.  

Continue reading

Hello Baals

Idolatry is alive and well in the world today.  We can too easily scoff at our alleged 21st century sophistication when we consider the claims of idolatry in the Bible, but idolatry is around us everywhere and in us all the time.  I recently described idolatry as anything that de-centres God from the place only God should be.  It is the thing that keeps us from a true worship of the Father.

Baal, as mentioned in a previous post, was a constant rival to YHWH, to God’s own covenant people.  It is quite astonishing that after four hundred years of Egyptian slavery, which, it must be said, was a total immersion into Egypt’s idolatrous culture, idolatry was the very thing that would plague the Israelites, even as they had been rescued by plagues from Egypt.

In Numbers 25:1-3 we read of the old generation making one final catastrophic mistake in the newly formed Yahwistic community:  “While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab.  These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.  So Israel yoked himself to the Baal of Peor.  And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.”  The very next chapter deals with the new census and the new generation that would go in to the new land.

Baal worship is a horrendous sexualisation of the human being.  2 Kings regularly refers to the ‘High Places’ of Baal worship, where sexual orgies, cultic dances, intoxicating binge drinking and debauchery, almost as if on an industrial scale.  The High Places were a massive problem.  “I look to the hills, where does my help come from…” as Psalm 121 begins.  He looks to the hills because they are so debauched and idolatrous, but thank God his[our] help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.

lionThe simple point in this post that I want to make is this:  Idolatry as it was alive and well in Biblical times, is certainly alive and well today.  1 Peter refers to the devil as one prowling around looking for someone to devour.  And just as idolatry is a state of human affairs that leaves nothing but devastation in its wake, we can say that idolatry, will, like the devil, stop at nothing until you are raviged – not merely in the sating of sexual desire by debauchery, but in the de-humanising of your very humanity, so that in your consumption, you are consumed.  This is what idolatry does, it consumes, like the locust, only the human heart is far more rapacious than any mere locust plague.

It is therefore a natural connection to make, that Bible idolatry seen in crass statues of little men, the symbol of the god and rival to the true God, are simply symbols denoting the human problem, they are the obvious outcomes of the human condition: sin.

'HELLO BOYS' WONDERBRA ADVERTISING HOARDING.. POSTER. BILLBOARDSSin twists and distorts, it makes good bad, and beautiful ugly.  And thus, in the sexualisation of culture, from Baals to porn, we see that Baal has a new face, it is seen in the porn industry, the advertising industry, the film industry, the pop music industry, and is a way that Baal of Peor is seen around the globe and that this reach is but a metaphor of his reach into every human heart.  Baal is brand, he is multi-named, he is black and white, he is your next door neighbour and your best friend.  Baal might have found a home in you.  The devil truly does prowl around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).  It’s not so much as Hello Boys but Hello Baals!

It is no accident that when Adam and Eve sinned they turned a paradise into a wilderness.  When Israel sinned at Shittim (perfectly named for the topic in-hand), they were literally in the wilderness when they sinned in their whoring after Baal.  The point is simple.  If you are in a paradise when you chase after Baal, you’ll end up cursed in the wilderness.  If you are in a wilderness and you chase after Baal, you will not inherit your promised land.  Either way, you yourself will become a waste land because waste is what Baal does best.  Only Jesus can save you from that state.

jesus feetThank God Jesus resisted the devil; that he did not attempt to force God’s hand through the idolatrous worship of the great deceiver.  Thank God, that in Jesus, it is he in the wilderness who, by his victory, will complete salvation history and turn heaven and earth into that great Paradise of God, and Baal, or whatever he’s called, will be banished forever.

Possessions

We should think rightly about the way we relate to our material possessions.  We are stewards, looking after things in trust, enjoying but not owning.  Obviously this is easier in theory than practice.  But it is a good thing to remind ourselves that all these good things actually belong to God and not to me.  I’ve found that when I actually manage this, the sense of gratitude for the incredible generosity of God brings in its wake a sense of freedom.

All things are loaned to us.  All things come from God, and that includes the very body that clothes us.  In this sense I have no rights and I do not possess.  David Nicholl writes about this:  “Once we realise that we own absolutely nothing…. a weight is lifted from us and our hearts grow lighter… at least we have made a true beginning when we can gaze around at all the possessions, qualities and capacities that are supposed to be ours and recognise that they do not really belong to us.  In fact a good exercise for us beginners is to scan slowly over the world we have built around us and say of every item in it “Not mine; just on temporary loan:  this house – not mine, just on temporary loan; these books – not mine, just on temporary loan; these fingers – not mine, just on temporary loan; my children – not mine, just on temporary loan.”

Getting to this level of contentment is of course not easy, especially when I realise that my beloved books are not mine but a gift from God.  Contentment is attractive and surely is the best way to live.  It implies I enjoy things as they are without becoming a slave to them.  Since I know they are only on loan, I rejoice in them, but I also feel detachment, delighting in them when I have them but not losing my peace of mind when they are taken away.

This is real freedom from the tyranny of assertiveness.  It is also freedom from the tyranny of appearing to be successful in a world which measures success by signs of outward possessions and prosperity and profit.  For if I am going to [try and] live in this way I am continuously brought face to face with the fact that everything in my life is gift and I am entirely dependent on God as Creator, Giver and loving Father.

Guilt, Atonement and a Little Old Lady

DSC_0556

 

This is about an encounter this very week with a dear old saint who had lived with a view of her own sin as too large to deal with because her Jesus was too small: Continue reading

God’s Sovereignty & Japanese Fighting Fish

JapFish

I asked Dr. Robert Knowles to give us a snippet of a smidgin of the theological behemoth that is Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-will.  Now make yourself a cup of tea and read it.  You’re welcome….

“God’s omniscience and sovereignty are so exalted that God can easily turn our rebellions into the service of his good purposes. God is like a master chess-player who easily capitalises on the hostile moves made by much more junior players.

But, to my mind, (a), God is even greater than this. And, (b), I believe that human freewill is much more constrained and limited than many seems to suggest. To my mind, God is so great, that the Fall of humanity was infinitely predicted by him, but is also infinitely contained by him too.

To provide an illustration, then Japanese fighting fish are pretty vicious creatures, and have to be kept apart to be prevented from killing each other (a bit like us at times). But, as fish they are still constrained to fish-tanks that the fish-owner can move around at will. More than that, the owner can at any moment reach into the tanks and overrule the will of any or all of the fish in the tanks.

Furthermore, the fish-owner can buy and sell the fish at will, decide to feed or not to feed the fish at will, and pretty much do anything he likes to the fish. At no point is the fish-owner’s “scope of sovereignty” affected by the freedoms enjoyed by the fish. And yet the fish do still enjoy limited freedoms as they swim around within their tanks.

Another example is a parent’s relationship to their toddler in a play-pen. At any moment, the parent can stop the toddler performing a particular manoeuvre with the play-bricks in the pen. At any other moment, the parent can refrain from stopping the toddler from performing that same manoeuvre. At any time, the parent can lift the toddler out of the pen, whether for the purposes of bath-time, bed-time, a trip out to the play-ground, or to the nursery, and so on.

And yet, within certain parameters – parameters that keep changing – the toddler has what in mathematics is called degrees of freedom. At no point is the sovereignty of the parent under any threat whatsoever, and is in no way constrained. The toddler’s freewill, however, is constrained, contained, and predicted and yet – very often if not always – seemingly completely liberated, from the perspective of the toddler.

So then, parental freedom is not “one kind of thing”, not like a “solid shape”, in practice, but varies according to the relational particularities of love. Similarly, the toddler’s freedom is not a “fixed solid shape”, but changes in shape and extent according to the particularities of relating that are going on at any particular time.

In the same way, the notion of “divine freedom versus human freedom” can be misleading if seen to be like a thermometer in which “two lengths” (the “mercury versus the empty part of the thermometer tube”) “battle it out” as though one can only advance at the expense of the other – as though if our freedom “increases”, God’s freedom must somehow “decrease”.

In reality, these two freedoms are not two simple “substances” pushing against one another, but two relational dynamics that are in fact both maximised together in heavenly relating – though divine freedom is never actually maximised since it is never threatened or reduced. Even if God restrains himself, this is his free choice, so his relational self-constraint is not a constraint of freedom. Self-constraint only limits the “freedom” of sin; self-constraint never limits the freedom of love, but is part of the freedom of love.

That is, biblically, freedom is either freedom as love, or “freedom” as self-negation that leads to slavery. Love is a “freeing” mode of being. In right-relating to others, we become ourselves, coming into our own identities as beings that are actualised when we are God-centred and others-centered.

That freedom, when used to choose to sin, not only leads to enslavement, but also leads to a place in which God’s sovereignty – which is never even remotely threatened – has an even easier task of pre-empting and predicting our actions.

Divine sovereignty even more easily contains our actions when we are in the prisons of repetitive sin than when we are relating rightly in freedom. It was less often sin and faithlessness that surprised Jesus, and more often righteousness and faith that surprised him. Even we can predict and pre-empt the actions of people who are trapped in sin – how much more can God predict and pre-empt their actions?”

Thank you Dr Knowles.