Transgender and the new reality

  Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen it to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
“Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.

— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

This is one of my favourite bits from The Hitchhiker’s Guide. It nails for me the absurdity of some logical reasoning: you can apply as much logic as you like, but unless it aligns with reality then it’s worthless. I love the idea of mankind proving that black is white – and thus getting run over on the next zebra crossing. As if such a thing could happen…

Which neatly brings me to the thorny issue of reality and our minds. Some diseases, such as dementia or schizophrenia, can cause a person to suffer delusions – to believe things which are not actually true – that is, what their minds believe does not match up with reality. At the same time, other conditions include believing that one’s birth sex is different – that one was ‘born in the wrong body’, so to speak. Reality does not match up with one’s internal state. This is known as Gender Dysphoria. The current action of the NHS in such a case is to cautiously move forward with things like hormone therapy, and even surgery to permanently transition. (Since 2004, the government also allow sex on a birth certificate to be changed, as happened with Rachel Mann, for example).

In these cases, the transition – although it may be permanent – is only really a ‘patch-up’ job. Scientifically speaking, it is currently impossible (and perhaps will be forever impossible) to transition from being a man to a woman or vice versa. Every cell in the human body declares that we are male or female. A blood test on a man who has transitioned to a woman, for example, will still yield the result of a man. Someone who begins hormone treatment will need to be on that treatment indefinitely – i.e. for the rest of their lives. Treatment, such as it is, cannot alter reality.

Why do I say all this? Why am I stepping out into this delicate and precarious minefield? Consider the case of Germaine Greer: she recently made comments – in her usual, ahem, ‘robust’ way – that chopping off your penis did not make you a woman. Her comments were branded ‘grossly offensive’ and ‘misogynistic’, and a group of people petitioned to prevent her scheduled lecture at Cardiff University from taking place. Greer has subsequently been demonised by activists, calling her – no prizes for guessing – a “bigot”.

But now the government has got in on the act. The Women and Equalities Committee has just published the results of a transgender inquiry, which states that trans people are being failed by the NHS and many other parts of society. As Melanie Phillips writes, the results of this inquiry will actually have the biggest effect on children:

Trans and gender issues, says the committee, should be taught in schools as part of personal, social and health education.

We can all predict what will happen. Gender fluidity will be actively promoted as just another lifestyle choice. Under the commendable guise of stopping the minute number of transgender children being bullied, the rest of the class will be bullied into accepting the prescribed orthodoxy — that gender is mutable, and any differentiation in value between behaviour or attitudes is bigoted and prohibited.

This comes in a week where teenagers in a school in Brighton were given a (government-sponsored) survey with 23 options for gender, including terms like ‘Gender fluid’, ‘Genderqueer’, ‘Tri-gender’, ‘In the middle of boy and girl’ and so on. It’s truly staggering.

What worries me about all this is that, under pressure from certain vocal activist groups, an alternative vision of reality is being foisted upon some of the most vulnerable people in our society – children and teenagers. Scientists have known for some time about ‘neuroplasticity’ – the way the brain can rewire itself. This is none more so than in the brains of teenagers, for example pornography can have a much bigger effect on a adolescent brain than it can an adult:

Between the ages of 12 and 20, the human brain undergoes a period of great neuroplasticity. The brain is in a malleable phase during which billions of new synaptic connections are made. This leaves us vulnerable to the influence of our surroundings and leads our brains to be “wired” around the experiences and information that we receive during that time period.

Anyone who’s ever been through puberty will be able to testify – growing up as a teenager is a difficult time of life. It’s confusing, lots of changes are happening, and you are in real need of guidance. It seems to me that presenting teenagers with a list of 23 gender options will actually exacerbate the issue, rather than helping. Teaching children and young people that there are a plurality of gender options will make what is a confusing and difficult time even more confusing and difficult.

There have been a number of cases recently where very young children have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria (on charity claims up to about 80 children per year) – and the response is sometimes to administer powerful puberty-blocking drugs. I simply cannot believe this is the right response to these circumstances.

There’s a phrase from the Bible which has passed into our English language: “they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). It worries me that this is what’s happening with our society today: I think we are sowing seeds in young lives which we’re not going to see the fruit of for a generation – but one day we will reap the whirlwind. 

Gender Dysphoria is undoubtedly a real phenomenon and I feel deepest sympathy for anyone who suffers with it. But I think our government is very wrong in its solution. I would encourage anyone who has GD to find a way to feel comfortable in their own body, however hard that might be: to engage in transitioning from one sex to the other might seem to be the solution, but in reality it often does not deliver what it promises.

From the Melanie Phillips article I quoted above:

In fact, gender fluidity itself creates victims. Professor Paul McHugh is the former chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins hospital in the US. In the 1960s this pioneered sex-reassignment surgery — but subsequently abandoned it because of the problems it left in its wake. Most young boys and girls who seek sex reassignment, McHugh has written, have psychosocial issues and presume that such treatment will resolve them. ‘The grim fact is that most of these youngsters do not find therapists willing to assess and guide them in ways that permit them to work out their conflicts and correct their assumptions. Rather, they and their families find only “gender counsellors” who encourage them in their sexual misassumptions.’

In fact, there is a whole website devoted to the issues around sex change regret and examples of people who have made the transition ‘back again’, so to speak.

In conclusion, it seems that the government has bought into a particular agenda and understanding of gender – one which is controversial at best. But, worse than this, the new gender orthodoxy is not open to questioning – as the case of Germaine Greer demonstrates. And it troubles me that our society, once again, is sleepwalking into the whirlwind of its own creation as our children are raised in a world where desires can override reality itself.

Further reading

I’ve linked to a few pieces in the post above, but here are a few other articles which I’ve found helpful:

Note on comments: I have decided to disable comments for this post. If you would like to reply to me, I welcome feedback via other channels. I might publish and engage with feedback if it is constructive and respectful.

Hymnology: And can it be – “My chains fell off…”

Last weekend I travelled down to High Leigh for a residential weekend with my fellow curates in the Chelmsford Diocese. On Friday evening we sang ‘And can it be’, one of my favourite hymns and one of Charles Wesley’s finest (in my opinion). The hymn tells the story of salvation from a first person perspective – it’s written in a very personal style. Like In Christ alone you could spend hours dissecting every verse of the song, but let’s focus on one for now:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay

What do those first two lines mean – “Long my imprisoned spirit lay / Fast bound in sin and nature’s night”? The answer that the Bible gives us that we are held captive by sin. This is what Paul is at pains to demonstrate in his letter to the Romans, throughout the first part of the letter. As he says in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. But it’s even more than that: some people say that sin is simply a bad example – we sin because we see other people sin. In other words, there is nothing intrinsically sinful about us – we can choose to do good or evil, and sometimes we choose what is wrong, but basically human beings start out from a neutral perspective.

But the Bible goes further in describing our fallen condition: we don’t start out from a neutral place. There is something inherently sinful about our very nature. This is what Paul says a bit further on in the letter, Romans 6:16-18:

Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

We don’t start out from neutral: we are either slaves to sin, or slaves to righteousness. There is no middle ground. Paul is not the only one to use this language – Jesus says in John 8:34, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The point is, we are all held captive by sin: there is no way out by ourselves. All of us are, by nature, “fast bound” in sin.

Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray

And that’s why we need God to step in, as the next line of the hymn goes: “Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray”. Quickening is a word we don’t use very much these days, but in this sense it means “to give or restore life to”. Although we couldn’t escape slavery to sin by ourselves, nonetheless God stepped in to our situation and made us alive. Paul puts it like this:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. Ephesians 2:1-5

Paul describes the state of slavery to sin here as being ‘dead’. Those who are without Christ are “dead in transgressions and sins”. I’m not a doctor, but I do know that one thing dead bodies do not do is come back to life again by themselves! A dead body cannot raise itself. As with our physical bodies, so we who are spiritually dead cannot raise ourselves: but God “who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions“. Salvation is not of our own doing, but from God. He is the one who looks upon our helpless state, and makes us alive – even when we were still dead.

We didn’t make the first move towards God. Because of our sin, we would never make the first move to God – we are so sinful that we would never have chosen Him. Paul is clear that the one who makes the first move is not us, but God: “For he chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” John puts it like this: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Without God making the first move towards us, without him sending that “quick’ning ray”, we are dead in our transgressions and sins. But God, who is rich in mercy, makes the first move towards us, he brings us from death to life by his sovereign choice and power.

As I am an Anglican, I think it’s always helpful to look to the 39 Articles to see how Cranmer and our reformation forebears put it. This is what Article X “Of free-will” says:

THE condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

This is standard reformation theology, following Augustine. It is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6).

breaking_chains_by_midori_vanityMy chains fell off

And so we come to the end of the verse: “My chains fell off, my heart was free / I rose, went forth, and followed Thee”. This describes the response to God, once He has made that first move and stepped in. To continue the quote from Jesus I mentioned earlier, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Once God has set us free, we take up our cross and follow Christ – putting to death our flesh with its passions and desires, and seeking to love God and love our neighbour as we walk in step with the Spirit.

Christians have been set free from slavery to sin. That does not mean that Christians do not sin, of course – but that the curse has been lifted. It is no longer our master. Jesus is our master, and his righteousness. And one day we know that the work which God has begun in us will be completed – we will be completely free from sin! This is a great promise for those who are struggling.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

A brief note on free will and predestination…

I appreciate that I haven’t really touched on the thorny subject of predestination in this post. My aim is to return to it in a future post, as it’s a huge topic of which this is only a small part.

However, I think it’s worth reflecting on the words of the 39 Articles here, and with this I will close. Article XVII, Of predestination and election:

As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God … we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.


This is part of my “Hymnology” blog series.

Hymnology: In Christ Alone and the wrath of God

As I said in my introductory post, I’m starting up a new blog series about hymns and their theology (which I’ve called ‘hymnology’. Great name, right?). I thought it would be appropriate to kick off the series by thinking about one of the most well-loved modern hymns, ‘In Christ Alone’ by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty.

This is a hymn which has attracted some controversy over the line in the second verse: “Till on that cross as Jesus died / The wrath of God was satisfied”. A couple of years ago, that line kept the hymn out of the Presbyterian Church hymnal. Some places avoid the question altogether by leaving out that verse when singing it (I’ve included one such version at the bottom of this post). It seems to have become increasingly popular for the church to question the idea of God’s wrath being satisfied on the cross – for a good articulation of the problems some people have, see Ian Paul’s post from a couple of years ago (although note the length of the comment discussion!)

So I thought it might be worth spending a little while thinking about that one line. I can’t go into all the ins and outs of the debate now, but I want to outline what it is that I believe and how it flows from the Bible.

Recently in church, I was preaching on a passage which talks about the judgement and wrath of God (John the Baptist’s speech in Luke 3, which begins in v7 with: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”). The wrath of God is seen consistently in the New Testament as something which is coming on those who do not believe in Jesus. This is clear from a number of places, for example John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” 1 Thessalonians 1:10 talks about Christ “rescuing” believers from the coming wrath. And, at the second coming of Christ, he will return to “judge the world with justice” (Acts 17:31). This event is described in Revelation 19, when Christ will “[tread] the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.”

To my mind, the natural question to ask then is: what provokes the wrath of God? Why would God be wrathful against us? The short answer to that is a little word: ‘sin’. This is what 2 Chronicles 19:10 says.

In every case that comes before you from your people who live in the cities – whether bloodshed or other concerns of the law, commands, decrees or regulations – you are to warn them not to sin against the Lord; otherwise his wrath will come on you and your people.

Sin is disobedience, sin is hostility towards God, sin is wanting to cast God down from his throne and place ourselves there. Jesus defined the most important commandments as to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. When we don’t do that – which is all the time – we are essentially rejecting the good way that God has made us and thus rejecting Him.

Consequently,  Sin creates a rift between us and God: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). God is perfectly righteous and just, and God cannot and will not let sin go unpunished. Every one of us is under the righteous and just condemnation of God, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

The confession from the communion service in the Book of Common Prayer puts it well. (I appreciate that the language is old fashioned, but I happen to be a bit of a fan of the Book of Common Prayer so no apologies from me.) It begins:

ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.

Sin, as John Stott put it, is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards: its essence is hostility towards God. All of us by nature are “deserving of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). That’s pretty bleak news, isn’t it?

But – the good news is that Christ Jesus rescues those who believe in Him from the coming wrath. How does that work?

One of the clearest pictures of Christ’s work actually comes from the  Old Testament, the picture of the servant of God given in the book of Isaiah. There are four ‘servant songs’ in Isaiah, which culminate in the fourth song – the breathtaking chapter 53. There we read:

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

This is a picture of Christ and what he accomplished on the cross. He was “pierced for our transgressions … the punishment that brought us peace was on him … the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” On the cross, every single sin was laid on Christ. He was, in a very real sense, punished in our place. He endured the wrath of God, the wrath that you and I deserve, so that all those who believe in Him may not have to endure it.

Peter in the New Testament picks up on this very passage in 1 Peter 2, and then in 3:18 he says: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Jesus – the one who was sinless and righteous – suffered for sins.

The apostle Paul writes in Colossians 2:

When you were dead in your sins … God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. (v13-14)

Isn’t that amazing? The sin which separates us from God, the sin which makes is guilty before him, is nailed to the cross. When Jesus died, he died the death that we deserve. He endured the wrath which by rights should be ours. But, gloriously, as our substitute we can have his perfect and righteous life, and through his resurrection we can share in his eternal life.

The theologian Jim Packer puts it like this in his chapter on wrath from Knowing God:

Between us sinners and the thunderclouds of divine wrath stands the cross of the Lord Jesus. If we are Christ’s, through faith, then we are justified through His cross, and the wrath will never touch us, neither here nor hereafter. Jesus ‘delivers us from the wrath to come’ (1 Thess 1:10, RSV)

When we sing ‘In Christ Alone’, we can sing it with true confidence that the wrath of God has been satisfied and is wonderfully no longer a concern for the believer. Those who believe in Christ have been justified, saved, rescued, and brought into friendship with God. As David says in Psalm 103, “he does not treat us as our sins deserve / or repay us according to our iniquities.”

Praise God that the wrath of God was satisfied on the cross.

A little extra…

I really like this version of In Christ Alone musically, and I like the little bridge they added – but sadly they do leave out the verse with the controversial lines. I can commend singing this arrangement in church if you reinstate the missing verse!

New blog project: Hymnology

HymnalI feel like I’ve been neglecting this blog a little of late. Part of it has been the fact that the last term was quite busy (for some reason I always find the Autumn term the busiest one of the year), but part of it is that I haven’t really felt compelled to write about anything in particular. Over the past few years I’ve written about marriage quite a bit, I’ve written about atheism and secularism, I’ve written about a number of things – but, quite frankly, I think those subjects have been done to death and I’m not sure it really helps to be blogging about them.

I was thinking the other day about maybe following up my post about I the Lord of sea and sky with another hymn, when it struck me: so often we sing hymns which have profound and deep theological roots, but we simply gloss over them. I think many people sing hymns without really understanding what they mean.

I am a firm believer in singing hymns with both good tunes and good words – heart and head working together, so to speak. I think this is what Paul meant when he wrote Colossians 3:16:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

And it struck me that it might be helpful for the word of Christ to dwell “richly” in us to blog occasionally about a particular hymn or song and expand on the theology of the song. I’ve found it very helpful in the past when the preacher has connected the sermon with a song that we were about to sing – for example, I always remember a sermon Mike Neville preached at Fordham on the book of Romans referring to the end of “And can it be”. I often think of it when we sing that verse. (I think it’s also helpful sometimes to pick out dodgy theology, as I did in ‘I, the Lord of sea and sky’ – we need to know what to watch out for!)

I’ve picked the name ‘Hymnology‘, simply because it means something like “the study of hymns” – and that’s what I want to do here. In order to sing hymns and songs better, it’s good to think more deeply about them. I’m excited about this little project, I hope it’s beneficial to you too.

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas to one and all! I’m sorry for being a bit light on the blogging front this year, but thank you everyone for engaging.

I’ve just returned from our candlelit carols service, and we looked at the difference between Santa and Jesus.

At the end of the service we had this reading, which I’ll close with (as I did last year):

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 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. (John 1:9-13)

Confused by ‘I, the Lord of sea and sky’

HymnalJust the other day, someone was saying to me how much they love the song “I, the Lord of sea and sky” – it’s one of their all-time favourite hymns. I remember once visiting a church to have a look around, and they were holding a “hymn request” month – people could write their favourite hymns on a bit of paper. This particular hymn came up a lot. On various things I’ve been on with the Church of England with my fellow curates, this song has been requested. It seems to be one everyone’s list of favourite hymns – it’s just one of those hymns with a great tune that makes you want to pump your first in the air and shout “YEAH!” at the end of it.

So – it is with a sense of trepidation that I dare to say: I’m really not sure about it. I’ve had a gut feeling about the hymn for a while now, but I haven’t really thought through why it is that I don’t like it until recently. Hopefully putting it into words will help crystallize my thinking.

I think the essence of the problem, for me, is being uncomfortable with the way the song uses “my people”. In the Bible, the phrase “my people” is used by God to refer to the Israelites. So, for example, Exodus 7:4, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” Or Leviticus 26:12, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” Or 2 Chronicles 7:14 “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Now, I believe that the New Testament requires us to see that the promises God made to Israel in the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ (see Rob Dalrymple’s book which I reviewed recently, ‘These Brothers of Mine’). Consequently, Old Testament references to “my people” are ultimately fulfilled in the Kingdom of God – his people, the Church, the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).

So, let’s go back to the song. Does the song use the phrase “my people” in that way, i.e. referring to those within the Kingdom of God? I don’t think so. The whole first verse seems to be talking about people who are currently outside the Kingdom: “All who dwell in dark and sin / My hand will save.” And I think this is where I get confused with the song. (As an aside – not to mention the fact that “All who dwell … my hand will save” seems universalist, although I think this is probably not intended).

The song’s imagery is largely drawn from within the people of Israel. Isaiah was called as a prophet to Israel. Samuel was called to be a judge of Israel. The song references the call of both of these men. The second verse says “I have born my people’s pain” – a reference to Isaiah 53:4, which – again – is talking about God bearing the sin of Israel, ultimately of those who trust in Jesus.

The chorus finishes with the line, “I will hold Your people in my heart”. By the time I’ve sung the rest of the song, I’m just not sure who the “Your people” actually are, or what I’m supposed to be doing for them!

Am I being a needless pedant over this? Perhaps. It is certainly true that those in the Kingdom of God were chosen “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) – and as such ‘my people’ in a sense includes not just those who have trusted in Jesus, but all those who will trust in Jesus. God says to Paul in Acts 18:10, “I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” But then, we don’t know who they are. That’s the point of the Parable of the Sower – we spread the word, and there are a variety of different responses. And we don’t call those who have yet to trust in Jesus “my people”. Saul, for example, while he was breathing out murderous threats against God’s people was certainly not a member of the Kingdom of God!

At the end of the day, I feel like the song is trying to make the (excellent) point that God is the one who saves us, that he plans to work in particular people’s lives, that he acts first, steps in and brings light to our darkness, and that he calls and uses us in his mission. That much is all worthy of singing about.

But I feel like the song is also a little confusing, and a little vague – I can well imagine two people from very different theological backgrounds singing the song and meaning different things by the words. Perhaps that’s why it’s so popular in the Church of England, and other Christian groups: it’s not specific enough for any one group to disagree with!

All in all, I’m not going to start a campaign to stop us singing it, but I think it’s worthwhile thinking through what we are singing – especially our most popular hymns. Even if I am being a needless pedant…

Bigotry and legalism in our culture

Intolerance will not be toleratedThree years ago, I lamented the use of the word “bigot” especially in the context of same-sex marriage. In the last week or so, I’ve read a couple of other things which have really said what I wanted to say much better.

Firstly, Brendan O’Neill writes about “The New Bigots” as he considers the treatment of  Germaine Greer after making her comments about transgender women. O’Neill is someone who I would probably disagree with fundamentally on a number of issues, but he is always well worth reading and this is no exception: I think it’s very insightful. Who are the real bigots – people who hold opinions like Germaine Greer, or those who try to silence those opinions?

Secondly, the webcomic Adam4d posted up a cartoon about intolerance, which makes a very similar point. Having a different opinion is not intolerance.

As I was reading these two pieces, it made me reflect on the nature of our society today: why is it that those with dissenting opinions – particularly on matters such as marriage – are often accused of being ‘bigoted’?

Let’s just take a detour into a little thought experiment for a second. Imagine a racist, let’s call him Racist Tim (I don’t know why I chose the name Tim, apologies to all the Tims out there.) Racist Tim is a member of a certain far-right political party and often expresses his support for them in conversations with his friends. Most of his conversation is focussed on the evils of immigration and the dangers of Islam.

Now, Racist Tim has views which are not acceptable in society at the moment (racism). What do you think would help him to change his views? (1) his friends all telling him that he’s stupid; (2) everyone on Facebook and social media telling him that racism is stupid; (3) him having a change of heart and realising that racism is wrong?

Now I appreciate that those three options are not mutually exclusive, but the one which really matters – the one which will really make a difference – is (3), isn’t it? At the end of the day, however much Racist Tim’s friends or the internet tells him that his views are stupid and wrong, it isn’t going to make much of a difference unless he can realise for himself that he’s wrong. Now, it is a possibility that (1) and (2) will help towards (3) – but what I think is more likely to happen is that the more Racist Tim gets abused for his racist views, the more strongly he will hold them. I’d say what is much more effective in that situation is to engage with kindness and compassion and to show Racist Tim why his views are wrong and help him to see that for himself: he won’t realise if he’s just abused, he might just realise if people engage him with gentleness.

Why do I say all of this, and what relevance does it have to intolerance? The point is, at the moment our society basically engages in (1) and (2):  telling people who hold unacceptable opinions that they are wrong, that they are ‘bigots’, that they need to change their minds. But the problem is, I don’t think this will actually change anyone’s mind.

But from a Christian perspective, I also believe there is something even more fundamental going on: the issue of the human heart. As someone once said, “The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.” Jesus said in Mark 7:20-23,

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.

In context, the disciples (and the Pharisees) thought that ceremonial uncleanness – what made them ‘unclean’ and separated from God – came from outside. But Jesus says, no – uncleanness comes from within. We have a heart problem, one which is inside, rather than one which is merely external.

We human beings, by nature, love to make all our problems external. We believe that if we just follow a set of rules, we’ll be OK. We love to believe that we can set a list of rules for ourselves, and all we need to do is simply keep them. Then, once we’ve followed our list of rules, will we be good and righteous. “Don’t be racist: tick. Don’t be homophobic: tick. Give to charity from time to time: tick.” If you get ticks in enough boxes, you’re a good person. This is known as legalism – that the route to being a good and righteous person is by keeping the law.

From this perspective, it’s not surprising that our society is intolerant, is it? Our society is profoundly legalistic. If you ‘break the law’ (i.e. express the wrong / unacceptable opinion), you’re not a good person. Instead, you need to say the right words, spout the right ideas, keep in line with societal orthodoxy… or at least appear to do these things. Because, truth be told, the fruit of legalism is hypocrisy: people who appear to be keeping the law on the outside, but internally are just the same. Let’s go back to our example of Racist Tim. Let’s suppose that he recognised that expressing his racist opinions drew him lots of abuse, so he stopped. Let’s say that he learned to say the right words so that he could sound enlightened and most definitely not racist. Do you think his heart would have changed too? Or would he just simply be a hypocrite, saying ‘inclusive’ things on the outside while quietly feeding his racism on the inside? He could spend the rest of his life saying the ‘right’ things (or at least, avoiding saying the ‘wrong’ things) while inside still believing his racist thoughts without anyone knowing.

And this is where the Christian message speaks into our society: all of us have a heart problem. All of us have things inside of us we know are wrong which can’t be fixed by giving ourselves a set of rules. But God promises to give us new hearts. He promises to change us from the inside out. This is what God said through the prophet Ezekiel:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

Christianity, unlike every other major religion, doesn’t say “do this”: it points to the Saviour, Jesus Christ, and says “done”. It doesn’t say, “if you try really, really hard – you’ll be OK.” It says, “You can’t do it on your own. Trust in Jesus, who has done it for you – and God will renew you and give you a new heart that wants to obey Him.”

At the end of the day, I don’t think Christians should be surprised at our society’s current obsession with the word ‘bigotry’: our society is simply doing what human beings do best – legalism. But the only real solution to intolerance is not more laws, is not more accusations of bigotry, but a new heart.  That’s the only thing which will make any difference in the end.