‘Change or Die': is the church doomed?

A BibleA popular line of argument these days is that the church must either change or die. More specifically, the ‘change’ to happen must include being affirming of same-sex marriage. Vicky Beeching wrote this on Twitter a few days ago:

Today many predict that #LGBT inclusion will ‘split the Church of England’. Perhaps it will just follow the same #womenbishops trajectory. (Link)

One thing’s certain: the Church cannot afford to move as slow on #LGBT as it has on #womenbishops. Otherwise there’ll be no under 20’s left.

Young people see Church on the wrong side of moral justice when it’s against #LGBT inclusion. If we want them in the pews, change is needed.

It’s unfathomable to kids my niece & nephew’s age that the Church isn’t fully inclusive of #LGBT Christians. It’s not even a debate to them.

This is a fairly common argument – for example, at the end of 2014 there was an event called “What future for the Church of England?” From reading reports of the event afterwards, it seems like most of the speakers basically said the church needed to stop being so mean to LGBT folk or else it was going to die.

But does this line of argument stand up to scrutiny? I don’t think it does, for two main reasons.

1. It ignores God

This is my biggest problem with the argument. If God has created marriage as being between a man and a woman, then it doesn’t matter what society believes: this is God’s world (Ps 24:1 – “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof”), and the church must proclaim God’s words rather than whatever happens to be in vogue in society at the time.

I’m sure Vicky Beeching is correct in that there are many people in society at the moment who think it is bizarre that the church is not affirming of same-sex marriage. But then, there are many people in society at the moment who think it is bizarre that the church believes we are all sinners and need to repent and believe in the gospel. There are people who think the idea of God becoming man and dying on a cross is a contemptuous idea. We do not give up on these because society finds them strange, distasteful, or even immoral. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29, NLT).

However, even if this particular teaching of the church is deeply unpopular within society, there is no reason to suppose that the church will die: those who come to the Lord will always find that with Him is “life to the full” (John 10:10). God’s will for our lives is the true vision of human flourishing. God is the one who calls people to Himself, and people will find that a life lived in obedience to Him will always be worth it – whatever the cost. If God has indeed said it, then if the church proclaims it – some will listen.

Now I appreciate that some in the church (including Vicky Beeching) don’t think that God created marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. However, surely the important question is not what society thinks but what God thinks: we shouldn’t base our theology on what society thinks of it, but rather on what God thinks of it! No Christian church should ever do otherwise. Whether society finds a teaching of the church acceptable or not is really irrelevant to the question of whether the church should teach it: all that matters is whether God has said it.

2. It ignores all the evidence

My second problem with the “change or die” line of argument is that it ignores the evidence from a number of places:

Firstly, it ignores the historical evidence. The first-century Roman empire was a pretty diverse place in terms of sexuality. Not so different from today, really. The traditional Christian ethic of marriage would have sounded just as bizarre in that culture as it sounds today. And yet, Christianity grew and grew. Clearly, being out of step with culture wasn’t a problem for them.

Secondly, it ignores the evidence of churches today. If you look round at the church today, most of the churches that are growing are theologically conservative. In my limited experience, the churches I know which preach the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – and hold to the traditional teaching on marriage – are generally not dying out. In fact, the ones I’ve been part of often have good numbers of children and young people. If the traditional teaching on marriage really was a barrier, you would expect all of those churches to eventually die out. That is not happening as far as I can see.

Thirdly, it ignores the evidence of other countries. There are other churches in other countries who have approved same-sex marriage. For the purposes of the Church of England, the best comparison is probably the Episcopal Church in the USA. The ECUSA is currently “near collapse“. The church is shrinking (it lost a quarter of its attendance since 2003), and it has been embroiled in about $18m worth of litigation against former Episcopalian churches which have chosen to leave. Of course, the situation of the ECUSA is not the situation of the Church of England – but does what  happened in the USA give us any confidence that something similar won’t happen here?

Given all of this, I think the “change or die” argument is wrong and I hope that it soon disappears. For me, as someone who believe the Bible is clear about marriage, I think actually the reverse is true: if the church does change on marriage, it will be a disaster. The more the church begins to look like society, the less people will want to go: on the other hand, if people are meeting with the living God, nothing will be able to stop it.

Reflections on the same-sex marriage debate within the church

Image by Sabtastic
Image by Sabtastic

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been involved with a Facebook group set up to discuss same-sex marriage (SSM) within the church. This has been set up as the CofE undergoes a “shared conversations” process to talk about the issue. This has been the first time I’ve really spent much time actually talking with people within the church who believe in same-sex marriage (or ‘affirming’, as I will use in this post as a convenient shorthand). Although I have had brief conversations with affirming people before, most of them have been pretty fleeting so it’s been good to have the chance to engage with people over an extended period of time.

I thought I’d share one or two observations about the debate as I’ve observed it over the past few weeks. I do think there is a difference in the way the two sides think and approach the question.

Firstly: the debate is all about the Bible. This one is pretty much a no-brainer. Obviously the debate was going to focus on the Bible, it is the heart of the disagreement: does the Bible call same-sex relationships sinful or not? When I joined the group, I was expecting to spend a lot of time discussing the Bible.

Having said this, what I’ve found interesting is that the debate has not really been about the Bible texts themselves. We have spent a little bit of time discussing interpretations of the Bible, but in general the group does not spend much time discussing the various interpretations of Romans 1:18-32 (for example). I wonder whether this reflects the fact that there really is very little scope for interpreting the Bible any differently to the way it has traditionally been interpreted. Diarmaid MacCulloch (who is himself strongly affirming of SSM) has said: “Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity, let alone having any conception of a homosexual identity.”

It seems instead that people would rather talk about almost anything about the Bible other than the Biblical texts themselves. We talk about the Bible’s clarity, interpretation, translation, history of interpretation on slavery and so on… almost anything other than the text of what the Bible actually says.

This leads me onto the second point (where I contradict my first point, but please stick with it…): the debate is not really about the Bible at all. It seems to me that the debate is not actually about what the Bible says. It’s not even really about interpretation, or any of those other issues surrounding how we understand the Bible.

The debate is actually about the presuppositions we bring to the table. As we’ve been discussing, what I’ve come to believe is that most affirming people see SSM as a matter of basic justice. When asked for a Bible text to justify SSM, a lot of people come out with “love your neighbour as yourself.” Now unless I’m missing something, Jesus doesn’t here mention marriage – rather, the idea is that the most loving thing to do for our neighbour is to allow them to enter into a SSM if they want to. So SSM is argued for on Biblical principles rather than on the text of the Bible itself.

I find this interesting because although equality, justice etc. are all Biblical principles – you can’t just extract them from the Bible and use them in isolation from the Biblical context. Especially when those principles are being used to argue against other things the Bible does actually say. So, for example, although I think ‘equality’ is a Biblical principle, it doesn’t stand on its own – it only exists within the larger framework of other things the Bible says about what it means to be human. Similarly, ‘inclusion’ is a Biblical principle – Jesus ate with sinners such as Zacchaeus – but we must also read it in tandem with its radical exclusivityJesus’ demand is to repent and believe in the good news. So, in this example we can’t just take ‘inclusion’ as a Biblical principle and apply it in isolation – that would be doing a big disservice to everything else that the Bible says.

My sense is that most people on the affirming side of the SSM debate come to the table believing that SSM is an inalienable right – that no-one should be denied the right to marriage because of their sexual orientation. In our society this is a hugely powerful idea which draws on a lot of things our culture believes about identity, humanity and romance. Given this foundational belief, when coming to Scripture one essentially has to presuppose the conclusion one wants to draw: because if the Bible did actually call same-sex relationships sinful, that would be wrong. So the answer is already decided before the Bible is even opened.

Recently someone made the perceptive comment that a theology of SSM is actually highly elusive: although many affirming groups criticise the traditional interpretations of Scripture, there are very few people who actually attempt to go through the Bible and build up a theology of SSM. A few have tried but their efforts haven’t achieved anything like a consensus. Most people seem content to simply point the finger at a range of interpretations, no matter how good or bad those interpretations are – just their very existence validates the fact that at least one of them must be correct (see my third point on this post).

But I think it serves to highlight the differences in our approaches. Although many affirming folk would claim the Bible as their authority, I think in reality the Bible’s authority is relativised and set aside. Our current cultural narratives about equality, justice, romance etc are taken as axiomatic and take precedence when interpreting the Bible – without any real theological reflection about the nature of equality etc.

In sum, I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to discuss this issue with people – it’s always good to try to understand other people’s views better, and it has helped me to clarify my own thinking. But it has made me realise even more that there is a huge and unbridgeable chasm between our two perspectives – and I think to affirm both within one church would be absolutely unworkable.

Just what is a Priest anyway?

PriestOn Sunday afternoon I was ordained Priest in the Church of England. Up until a few years ago, I would never have used the word ‘priest’ to describe myself. What changed? And what is a priest anyway?

A few years ago, whenever I heard the word ‘priest’ the main vision I had was of a figure from the Old Testament (such as Aaron), someone who served in the temple and made sacrifices for sin and so on. Now, all of that – the sacrificial system – was done away with in Jesus. He is the sacrifice for sin, the sacrifice which all the other sacrifices foreshadowed. So, to my mind, ‘priest’ was something of an anachronism: although Christians are described as a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) – I believe in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ as they said at the reformation – I don’t think there are priests today like Aaron.

So why does the Church of England use the word ‘priest’? I think this is where we may have to do a little bit of digging for the etymology of the word. According to the online dictionary:

Old English preost probably shortened from the older Germanic form represented by Old Saxon and Old High German prestar, Old Frisian prestere, all from Vulgar Latin *prester “priest,” from Late Latin presbyter “presbyter, elder,” from Greek presbyteros

Now this is where we get in a bit of a muddle. The word translated ‘priest’ in the Bible is kohen (Hebrew) or hiereus (Greek). But the English word ‘priest’ apparently derives from the Greek word presbyter – which is used in the New Testament, and is translated ‘elder’. For example, Paul writes to Titus: “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town.” The New Testament elder is somewhat different to the Old Testament priest: the New Testament (and the early church) never described ministers as priests in the Old Testament sense. So, which one is the Church of England actually referring to when it talks about ‘priests’?

The answer is in the title to the ordination service liturgy: “The Ordination of Priests, also called Presbyters“. If you read the liturgy itself, ‘presbyter’ is also used several times just to make it crystal clear. So the CofE makes explicit that it sees the ministry of a priest as being that described in the New Testament of a ‘presbyteros’ – an elder.

So we end up in the slightly confusing situation where I am ordained ‘priest’, and yet not in the Old Testament sense. I am a priest in the general sense of all Christians (‘the priesthood of all believers’), but I am also a priest in the specific sense of being ordained presbyter. Unfortunately the English language has managed to get itself into this situation and I’m not sure there’s an easy way out. But I hope this post manages to shed a little light…

On God “Herself”

Gender“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18)

On Twitter today, something of a kerfuffle has broken out about whether it’s right to call God using feminine pronouns – ‘her’, ‘herself’, etc. John Bingham wrote about it in the Telegraph yesterday; today Rev Kate Bottley (the Gogglebox vicar) has written about it today in the Guardian. The debate itself has been going for some time now, for example there’s an article in the Christian Today magazine from last year: “Is it wrong to refer to God in the female?”

As I understand it, the arguments for referring to God as female boil down to these:

  • Referring to God exclusively using masculine pronouns devalues women. According to the Telegraph piece above, a spokesperson from WATCH (“Women at the Church”, who campaigned for Women Bishops) said: “to continue to refer to God purely as male is just unhelpful to many people now”. Using exclusively masculine language for God reflects a patriarchal time and there is no reason for it any more.
  • Biblically, male and female are made in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In other words, because men and women are both created in the image of God, God therefore embodies both male and female characteristics. God transcends our language of gender.
  • Following on from the point above, God is described at various points in the Bible as having feminine characteristics. For example, in Matthew 23:37 Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” So Jesus uses a femine metaphor to describe himself.

I hope I haven’t misrepresented these arguments or left anything major out – the articles I linked to above have some fuller discussion. However, I remain strongly convinced that the church should not change its liturgy on this matter, and continue to refer to God using masculine pronouns. Once again (like the question of sexuality), I think this issue really boils down to a question of the Bible, its authority and its interpretation.

The most important question for me is the one introduced by the quote I started out with from John’s Gospel. How do any of us know God? John answers that question, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” In other words, Jesus, the Son of God, has made God – the Father – known to us. And, as such, if we are Christian we have to say that the revelation that Jesus gave us of God was a true revelation.

This was significant in the church’s debates around Arianism (around 3rd-5th centuries): for example, when Jesus instructed his disciples to baptise people “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), were those names simply terms of convenience or did they actually represent something important about God? The Arians wanted to make Jesus a created being, and in a sense actually deny that Jesus was a true Son. However, the early church ecumenical councils decided that those names did actually mean something beyond labels of convenience: the Father is a real Father; the Son is a real Son – not in the human sense, but in an eternal sense. Although it is of course true that human language lacks the capacity to describe the infinite, we are nonetheless able to apprehend something of the truth by the terms “Father” and “Son”. So Jesus’ revelation of God is a true revelation, and it reveals that God is eternally Father, Son and Spirit.

I think you can see something of the difference in approaches here by looking at Rachel Held Evans’ blog post about this issue last year (she was accused of heresy for describing God as ‘she’). Rachel says, “while God is often referred to as Father [my emphasis]”. ‘Referred to’? I think rather the traditional orthodox position would be revealed as. If you think that Jesus simply referred to God as ‘Father’ out of convenience rather than out of meaning something significant, that is moving away from a traditional understanding of the Trinity.

Following on from that, was Jesus simply using the words “Father” and “Son” due to the society being patriarchal? Could he, in another society, been born as a woman and called God “mother”? In a nutshell, would it ever be right to call God “Mother, Daughter and Holy Spirit”? I’m always a little suspicious of the patriarchy argument: it seems to be a lazy way of glossing over what the Biblical text actually says, reading back into the text modern notions of patriarchy and assuming that if the Biblical authors had been as enlightened as we are they would have written something different. Whatever you think of these texts, you have to wrestle with Genesis 2:18, 22; 1 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:11-15 and so on. What Kate Bottley does in her article is emphasise the human aspect of the BIble in saying that it was written into a patriarchal context, while seemingly downplaying the divine aspect of the Bible. I believe that the Bible is ‘God-breathed’, although it was written by men it is nonetheless the Word of God. So I think to talk about ‘patriarchy’ is to downplay the fact that God might actually have something to say to us on gender in our society: it overrides anything the Bible might say with our own society’s conceptions of gender (which are not based on the Bible).

It is of course true that there are times when the Bible uses feminine metaphors to talk about God. However, a feminine metaphor is not defining. For example, I know men who have some stereotypically feminine characteristics – does that make them female? No! I simply can’t get past the fact that Scripture always calls God by masculine pronouns – even by Jesus who, as we have already seen, is the only one who ever walked this earth to be in a position to really know!

Incidentally, I do find it interesting that those who advocate for calling God by feminine names (e.g. WATCH, who campaigned vigorously for women bishops) do so on the basis of the differences between men and women. It seems like much of the campaign for women bishops rested on minimising if not erasing differences between men and women (such as the constant misuse of Galatians 3:28). Although I am aware that many did not campaign in this way, the idea that there could be any actual God-ordained differences between men and women was often downplayed. So I think there is a tension there, although I won’t go into that now.

Anyway, in summary, I don’t think changing our liturgy to include God ‘herself’ would be a good thing!

The Bible: “That’s just your interpretation”

A BibleOver the past few weeks on Facebook, I’ve been in a group discussing (what else?) sexuality and the church. One of the themes that comes up again and again is the issue of interpretation: we all interpret the Bible differently on this, and there is no way of judging between different interpretations, so we may as well just give up and agree to disagree now. Now this is a topic I’ve blogged on before, but I’d like to return to the issue because of the way it comes up so frequently in discussion.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts and observations having participated in these kind of discussions for a while now. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me to see that I don’t believe there can be many valid interpretations of Scripture on this issue (as well as many other issues).

1) What are the logical consequences of “that’s just your interpretation”? Can we say, for example, “but that’s just your interpretation” about any interpretation of the Bible? Does that mean that every statement in the Nicene Creed is simply an interpretation, and that other interpretations are available? Does that mean the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be thought of as an orthodox Christian church – after all, they simply follow a different interpretation of Scripture?

Additionally – where does “that’s just your interpretation” actually end? Are we free to hold an atheistic interpretation, for example? Who draws the lines? It seems that the “that’s just your interpretation” argument can be deployed anywhere against anyone, for an alternative interpretation can always be found – irrespective of whether it’s a good or bad interpretation.

With respect to the specific issue of sexuality – the traditional view of the Bible is that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others. If the traditional interpretation can be challenged one one area (man and woman), could it not also be challenged in other areas (e.g. could marriage be between two or more people, or could faithfulness be redefined?) I think claiming “that’s your interpretation” is actually shooting yourself in the foot: as soon as you do that, you open the door to someone else saying the same to you for whichever cherished beliefs you hold about marriage. There’s no rejoinder, because “that’s just your interpretation”.

Once you reduce the Bible to being a matter of someone’s opinion about interpretation, it seems to me that it’s open season on Biblical interpretation and you can simply interpret the Bible any way you like to suit you.

2) What does “that’s just your interpretation” say about God? Following on from the last point – what we think of God will determine what we think of the Bible and the way it speaks to us. I believe that God, as the one who created us, is able to communicate with us in a way which we will understand. I believe that God is able to speak clearly into our situation, even our situation today. How could God’s statutes be trustworthy and “make wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7) if it was impossible for us to agree on their interpretation?

One of the things which irks me most about the “that’s just your interpretation” argument is that it essentially seems to deny the fact that God might want to say something to us. God’s authority becomes simply human authority (you think God says that, but I think God says something different). Surely this negates God’s authority: if everything that He says is open to interpretation, in what sense can He be said to communicate with us? God’s voice becomes dependent on the interpretation of the one listening to it.

3) The strategy of the “that’s just your interpretation” group. I apologise for using the word ‘strategy’, which implies that this is something done purposefully. What I mean is that often those who advocate for “that’s just your interpretation” often use a particular line of thinking, even if they don’t do so intentionally.

So, rather than trying to advocate for another interpretation, they simply point the finger to a range of interpretations and say “there! there are a lot of options, take your pick. Clearly the traditional interpretation is not the only one on the market.” You can see this happening on Vicky Beeching’s “What does the Bible say?” blog post, to name one example. She doesn’t outline one particular interpretation which she thinks is most plausible: she simply points out a number of books which outline different interpretations. This essentially shuts down discussion (it’s not making an argument, it’s just referring to other people who have made arguments as if their arguments are conclusive).

To use an analogy, this would be like me saying that Jesus Christ was not eternally begotten of the Father and referring to works by Arius of Alexandria, the Watchtower Organisation and so on in order to prove my case. “Oh, there are lots of arguments for Jesus not being the eternal Son of God. Take your pick”. This would be bordering on dishonesty because it hides the fact that those arguments have been refuted for a long time by people such as Athanasius, Augustine and countless other theologians. Despite the number of people who argued against the eternal Sonship of Christ on the grounds of Scriptural interpretation – the church has simply not found their arguments to be persuasive (rightly, in my opinion).

4) Not all interpretations are equal. By that, I mean that not all interpretations of Scripture are correct. For example, Jesus himself refuted, corrected and relied upon interpretations of Scripture (Matt. 22:29-32; Mark 12:35-37; John 10:34-39 for example). It seems that there are better and worse interpretations of Scripture. Following on from the point above, it’s impossible to talk about different interpretations without actually dealing in the specifics. Some interpretations of Scripture are better than others – i.e. some are more faithful, explain the Biblical evidence better, fit in with the context, and so on. It’s hard work, but I believe that it is possible to compare different interpretations and come to a reasoned, defensible and persuasive decision on which one is best. We are not without tools to help us in this task.

In conclusion, my big issue with “that’s just your interpretation” as an argument is that it closes down discussion. It seems to essentially validate “my” interpretation while invalidating “your” interpretation (in the sense that you’re not allowed to hold that an interpretation of Scripture should be binding) – all done without actually looking at the specific interpretations and attempting to judge between them.

If I were to be cynical, I would suggest that the arguments about Biblical interpretation were more to do with people trying to cling onto Biblical authority: the only other option is admitting that the Bible got it wrong, which is a bridge too far for many people – even if there are some who go down that road. Walter Wink, for example, says: “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.” (‘Homosexuality and the Bible’).

Does social media stifle debate?

Social MediaHas it really come to this in our society? Has it really come to the point where we seem utterly unable to believe that someone can hold another opinion on a difficult issue without believing that they are a moral monster?

It started out two or three years ago with same-sex marriage. The media loved to portray everyone who disagreed with the redefinition of marriage as a bigot, pure and simple. Real debate was stifled, because any argument for traditional marriage had to be ruled out a priori – because, you know, it’s bigoted.

Then, more recently, a debate on abortion at Oxford University was shut down because a rather militant group of people (via Facebook) decided that they were going to cause trouble if the debate went ahead.

And then we came to the general election. One of the things which has really got to me over the last few weeks is the way that the Tories have been constantly vilified and accused of more or less being morally bankrupt. Not just that, but if you believe most of what is put on Twitter, the only person who would vote for the Tories is someone who cares nothing for the poor, someone who essentially has no moral compass and deserves nothing but contempt by any right thinking person.

Many people have spilled ink writing about the rights and wrongs of this – for example this article – so I will try not to rehash old ground.

Instead, I think it is worth reflecting on just what it is that is making our society so hostile to opposing views. How has it suddenly become normal in our society, a society which prides itself on free speech, to demonise whole sections of people and even make them scared of speaking out? (Witness the phenomenon of the ‘shy Tory’). Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about politics, and as I’ve been considering I’ve been coming more and more round to the conservative way of thinking (material for a future blog post, perhaps). The thing is, I would actually genuinely hesitate before expressing that particular view on Twitter or Facebook, mainly because of the amount of hatred and bile spewed at the conservative party by what seems like the vast majority of Twitter (certainly I don’t recall seeing many pro-Tory posts – although perhaps that’s to do with the people I follow).

It seems to me that social media, rather than encouraging debate, is actually stifling it. I’m not sure as to why that is, but I think there might be a few reasons:

  • I think Twitter and Facebook enable ‘herd mentality’ to kick in. It’s very hard to express a dissenting opinion when everyone around you is expressing a particular view. Especially when that view is portrayed as being crazy, immoral, ridiculous, and so on.
  • Twitter and (to a lesser extent) Facebook also make it very easy to find like minded people. The problem is, what you end up with is basically conversing with people who agree with you. You don’t have to converse with anyone you disagree with apart from the purposes of shouting abuse at them. OK, this is a caricature, but is it that far removed from the truth? I don’t really see much actual engagement on Twitter between those of different political persuasions, it’s simply people who already agree with each other slapping each other on the back. Rather than trying to understand where the ‘other side’ are coming from, it is simply assumed that they are wrong and acting out of selfish / immoral / absurd motives (etc). This is quite probably because of the following point.
  • The 140 character limit of Twitter makes it very hard to express much more than a soundbite. This is very unfortunate, because it seems that what spreads well in soundbites is usually a watered down version of the truth (i.e. one side of an argument) without any nuance or a chance for qualification.
  • Following on from this – I think misinformation spreads very quickly on Twitter. Over the past few months, I’ve seen graphs and statistics that say all sorts of different things about our country and economy. Some of them say that things have improved,  some of them say that things haven’t. Some of them portray the Tories in a positive light, some of them  don’t. I think a big part of the problem is the way you cut the data – the way you interpret it. (The old adage about lies, damned lies and statistics comes to mind). But what I think tends to happen is that the statistics / graphs which support the prevailing notion (i.e. that the Tories are evil) tend to get retweeted a lot, whereas the statistics and graphs which might show something different don’t get shared as much.

A few months  ago I thought about the dark side of social media when it came to the Top Gear Patagonia Special. And the longer time goes on, I see more of this kind of thing going on. I’m wondering whether social media might actually be having a detrimental effect on our society in general.

I don’t think that social media itself is a bad thing, but I do feel that the way it is set up – especially Twitter – makes it very easy to ignore other opinions and simply to convince oneself that one’s opinion is correct with all the accompanying self-righteousness. Although all this was and is possible without the help of social media, it simply exacerbates the issue.

So if this is a problem, how do we solve it? I think one of the biggest problems with the stifling of debate is the lack of understanding and empathy for opposing views. It seems to me that social media would be a lot better if people took some time to seriously understand the view they were criticising before criticising it. If it could be understood that on some issues different views can be held with complete integrity, and those should be respected. Perhaps this is a simply unrealistic dream in this day and age – but I think as we see the effects of this stifling of debate play out more and more in society, perhaps people will realise that actually we need understanding rather than polarisation and demonisation.

The Road to Emmaus: thoughts on seeing Jesus

Source: Wikimedia
Source: Wikimedia

“How do I see Jesus?” Not a question people ask very often, but nonetheless it has a lot of answers. Do I see Jesus by trying to be a good person? Do I see Jesus by praying a lot? Do I see Jesus by looking deep inside myself to try to find out what God is saying to me?

I think the story of the Road to Emmaus might help us to answer those questions. On Easter Sunday I preached on this wonderful passage from Luke 24. It’s a poignant and moving story, and there’s a huge amount you could say about it. What I was particularly struck by this time was how the story is like a metaphor for meeting and following Jesus for every Christian.

The story starts with two men, who had been followers of Jesus, dejectedly walking back home while talking about the events of the past few days (the crucifixion). As they were walking along on their journey, the risen Jesus comes alongside them – but they were kept from recognising him. It turns out that the Jesus they followed was not the Jesus who rose: they believed in a Jesus who they “had hoped … was going to redeem Israel” (v21): in other words, they believed in a Messiah who was going to be some kind of military conqueror, someone who was going to overthrow the Roman oppressors and lead an earthly kingdom. Although they did believe in Jesus, they believed in a false Jesus.

However, Jesus didn’t let them continue in this dejected state: he opens the Scriptures to them, and shows how all that has happened was a fulfilment of prophecy, and how all the Scriptures testify to himself. Before those two disciples could see him, Jesus had to open their eyes to the Scriptures. Finally, they invite Jesus in, and he comes in and eats with them – they share fellowship. As Jesus breaks the bread, then their eyes are opened and they see Jesus, and they return to the other disciples only to find that Jesus has appeared to them too.

What does this say to us about discipleship today? I’d like to suggest a few things:

  • Everyone is following a ‘Jesus’ – everyone believes in some kind of saviour. That saviour may not be a person (for example some people trust in politics, or reason, or money, etc). But each of us follows some kind of a saviour, some kind of a ‘fake Jesus’. Like those two disciples on the Emmaus road – the fake Jesus we follow will let us down, the fake Jesus will lead to despondency.
  • But, the good news is, the real Jesus – the risen Lord, the one who is alive and reigns with the Father – comes alongside us, even in the midst of our despair. Because Jesus is alive, he can come alongside us wherever our journey may take us and open our eyes to him.
  • Jesus doesn’t immediately reveal himself to them – he opens their eyes to the Scriptures. This is one of the key things about following Jesus: coming to know Jesus is coming to know God’s plan of redemption. It means understanding who we are as sinners, who God is as a holy judge, who am as someone in need of forgiveness. In other words, we don’t see Jesus in isolation – understanding Jesus requires understanding the bigger picture of God’s plan.
  • Only after Jesus opens their eyes to the Scriptures and they share fellowship together do they finally see Him. Jesus is the one who takes the initiative, he is the one who comes alongside them and opens their eyes.
  • Yet – once they see Jesus, he disappears from their eyes. They ‘see’ him with eyes of faith now – they do not need him to be physically present. Once their eyes were opened to the Scriptures, once he came and shared fellowship with them, they had by faith what they had previously only had by sight.

One big lesson from all of this is to do with seeing Jesus, as we started out thinking about. If you want to see Jesus, look no further than a Bible. Pray to God that he would open your eyes to see Jesus, and open the pages of Scripture. And the risen Lord comes alongside us and opens our eyes.