It’s a legitimate question: if you’re an outsider, it looks like the church wants to talk about nothing else at the moment. One obvious answer to the question is that sex is the area of our culture which rubs up most obviously against the traditional Christian understanding – hence the clashes. In previous years there have been others, this is just the most obvious one for our society.
But why, to continue the question, is the church so obsessed with its traditional view of sex and sexuality? In other words, why can’t the church just get with the programme? Why can’t the church just change its mind? One of the commenters on a previous blog post here asked me why I couldn’t just shut up about sexuality. Why is it such a big issue?
The answer to that is essentially this: the debate about sex and sexuality within the church is a debate about the nature of God. It has massive implications. That might seem strange, but allow me to try and explain.
Quick bit of obvious advice today: Don’t rely on a single translation of the Bible when you’re doing some serious Bible study. Today I was preparing a sermon on John 1:19-34. And, because I’ve been learning New Testament Greek over the last couple of years, I feel like I needed to get my money’s worth by looking at the passage in Greek first.
Anyway, as I was looking at the text and reading the commentaries I noticed that I actually preferred the NIV reading of the text over the ESV. This may not sound like much, but the ESV is often held up as a good example of a ‘literal’ translation for serious study as opposed to the NIV (which is a ‘dynamic equivalence’ translation – i.e. it’s less ‘literal’ but is designed more to convey the sense of the original language). I think many people who move in evangelical circles in the UK hold up the ESV as an example of a good, faithful translation – while the NIV seems to have moved a little bit out of favour.
But I think there are a couple of examples where the NIV gets it right over the ESV in this passage. Firstly, v24 is treated differently in both translations. The ESV translates it as a paranthetical remark, whereas the NIV links it more explictly with the clause in v25. What’s interesting is that in his commentary, Carson goes for a translation more like the NIV’s – and I think I agree with him. It does seem to make more sense to me: the Greek grammar is a bit unusual here but I think the NIV translation is probably preferable.
Secondly, the ESV – again, bearing in mind that its major selling point is that it is a literal translation – makes an unusual translation decision between v19 and v34. Here, two Greek words (μαρτυρία and μεμαρτύρηκα) which stem from the same root martyr- (where we get the English word from, and meaning something like ‘testify’ or ‘witness’) are translated differently. v19 has ‘testimony’ and v34 ‘borne witness’. I think that’s an interesting decision: although conceptually the link is there, verbally it has been obscured a little. This is significant because I think the whole passage is talking about testimony, using several different words, and it seems those two words form the bookends around a little section in John. The NIV goes for ‘testimony’ and ‘testify’, which I think maintains the verbal link better as well as the conceptual.
So, as I said: don’t think one translation is always right. If you’re leading a home group or preparing a sermon or generally trying to understand a Bible passage, it’s always worth at least checking in a few translations to see if it brings something out you might not have spotted otherwise.
The title of this blog post is taken from an article I read yesterday. The Guardian basically asked a few different people what secularism meant to them, and published their responses. To be honest, the article doesn’t encompass a huge range of beliefs (most of the people there seem to be atheist / humanist in outlook), but I think it’s an interesting window into a what a cross-section of people think ‘secularism’ actually is. Especially when the most visible thing about secularism recently is the National Secular Society’s campaigns, most lately against the Church of England’s role at the Cenotaph on remembrance day.
Anyway, I’d just like to pick up on a few comments from the article because I think they’re worth dealing with. In particular, I think many people seem to be confusing secularism with being ‘secularist’: to be secularist means the systematic eradication of any religious influence on public life; whereas secularism as I understand it is about a level playing field between competing views. (See my previous post about secular law for more thoughts on this – in particular I believe a secularist society is a tyrannous society).
Recently, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey warned that the Church of England was in danger of dying out within a generation. (Synod has responded by “voting to set up a committee” – oh, how Anglican… at the same time, positive that the church is actively looking towards evangelism.)
It seems to me that with this along with the Pilling Report shortly to be published as well as the move towards women bishops, the Church of England stands at something of a crossroads. The church faces the question: what is it that the Church of England is all about?
This is a quote from the article I mentioned above:
Archbishop Sentamu told the Synod: “Compared with evangelism everything else is like rearranging furniture when the house is on fire.
“Tragically too often that is what we are doing – reorganising the structures, arguing over words and phrases, while the people of England are left floundering amid meaningless anxiety and despair.”
I think he’s hit the nail bang on the head. “Rearranging furniture when the house is on fire” – exactly what I think is going on with the Pilling Report and, to a lesser extent, women bishops (see my previous post on last year’s women bishops vote for some more thoughts on that matter).
I believe there are two competing narratives at play here. One is saying, “We’re losing numbers. Quick! – let’s get with the times. Culture is changing, let’s change with it. Let’s bring in women bishops, let’s bring in gay marriage – that will halt the decline and reverse the trend. People will flood back into church if it’s relevant to them.” That’s one narrative, a narrative which the Episcopal Church USA seems to have adopted.
The other narrative is more like this: “We’re losing numbers. Quick! – we need to get back to what the church is all about, preaching the gospel. Offering salvation to sinners: Evangelism and the ministry of God’s word to his world – that’s the only thing which can halt the decline and bring people back into church”. In other words, basically what Archbishop John Sentamu said to General Synod.
Judging by what’s happening to the Episcopal Church, it’s pretty clear that the first route will lead to the Church of England’s ultimate demise. That doesn’t bode well.
But I prefer to see this more positively. I think this is a time for the Church of England to take stock: what is it we’re here for? What is the Church’s mission? The church has Five marks of mission, the first of which is: “To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.” I hope and pray that the Church of England will rediscover its identity as an organisation which proclaims the good news of the Kingdom, and any furniture rearranging in the future can take a back seat.
I’ve just finished reading “Is God anti-gay?” by Sam Allberry. It didn’t take very long – it’s less than 100 pages long! In the book, Allberry uses his experience as a pastor who experiences same-sex attraction (SSA for short) to write a sensitive and compelling piece about what the Bible says about sexuality.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who wanted to understand more about what the Bible says about sexuality (Christian or not) – it may not change your mind but it will hopefully give a different perspective. Not all of the book will be relevant to everyone, I think Allberry tries to write to accommodate a wide range of potential readers, but that’s not to detract from the main message of the book.
I’d suggest that this would be a good book to put at the back of churches for people to browse; this issue isn’t going to get any smaller in future years and having something to explain things in a concise yet accessible way will be a real plus.
I’ve just finished reading “The Story of Christianity” by David Bentley Hart. He is, as you may recall, the author of “Atheist Delusions” – a book I highly recommend. Anyway, I came across the book recently, and as I’d enjoyed Atheist Delusions – and as the Kindle edition was 56p on Amazon (still is, at the time of writing!) then I decided to give it a go.
Let me say this: the foundation degree at Oak Hill includes a two-year church history and doctrine course (which is what I’ve been doing for the past couple of years). This book basically goes through all that we’ve done on the “church history” part. In fact, if you wanted to do the course that we’ve been doing in book form, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Most of the major events and people are covered (some things in more depth than on our course), and the whole thing is written well and engagingly. To give you an idea – I’ve been able to follow it while at the same time suffering from sleep deprivation from a one month old baby. That speaks well of the book!
There are a few areas where I’d disagree with Bentley Hart, mainly I think in theological emphasis or interpretation of particular events, but as a historian he does a great job. And although most of the events are covered, this isn’t the book to go to if you want to look at church history in great depth – it’s a popular-level overview.
I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone who has an interest in Christianity and who – like me until a couple of years ago – is ignorant of much of church history. Let me give you a few reasons why I think this book is worth reading:
- You can’t understand the state of the church today without understanding where the church has come from;
- I thought Bentley Hart’s presentation of the crusades – an area which people often talk about without actually having any historical facts to hand – was very helpful;
- Similarly, his chapter on science and Christianity was very helpful (this is a topic he covers in more depth in Atheist Delusions);
- Although the book is not in huge detail (by design), there are some book recommendations at the back and a general overview is often a good starting point for further reading. It will introduce you to many of the key players throughout the church’s history.
Most importantly, many people have misgivings about the future of the church at the moment. This book will help to put things in perspective: the church has survived a tough 2,000 years. Christians have been persecuted in the past, and indeed today many endure persecution (apparently Christians are the most-persecuted world religion). And yet, Christianity is still growing fast in many places. This book certainly gave me a lot more confidence in the church’s future, which is surely worth it!
I read something interesting today: the American Psychiatric Association (APA) now classifies Paedophilia as an orientation:
In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), the American Psychiatric Association (APA) drew a very distinct line between pedophilia and pedophilic disorder. Pedophilia refers to a sexual orientation or profession of sexual preference devoid of consummation, whereas pedophilic disorder is defined as a compulsion and is used in reference to individuals who act on their sexuality.
I’m just not quite sure what to make of it at the moment. Here we have a particular sexual desire – an ‘orientation’ – being seen as acceptable, whereas acting on this particular orientation is not. (Edit: this article (see comments) indicates that the article is based on a misunderstanding and is not actually the case. However, given the article in the next paragraph, I think this post still applies, if only as more of a hypothetical – there are certainly those who would wish to change paedophilia to an orientation and it has been discussed in official circles.)
What’s even more interesting is another article on Paedophilia from earlier this year: it suggests that the ‘harm’ aspect of Paedophilia – which I would imagine most if not all people would see as proscribing any kind of paedophilic behaviour – is actually more gray and complex than you might think.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times now, lately I have become a Dad. Now that Lydia is four weeks old, I thought it might be worth sitting down to type up a few reflections on my experience so far. It may be interesting to look back on, and if anyone else out there is looking forward to becoming a parent any time soon – it may be interesting to read.
I’m not going to make this long, but here are my thoughts in handy bullet-point format:
- It’s really, really hard to describe what it feels like. On Monday, the day before Lydia was born, I had a normal day at college. A few short hours later, there I was – with another little life. It’s really strange.
- Neither of us needed to worry about bonding with Lydia. In fact, it was lovely to watch Mrs Phil (who was a bit worried about it beforehand) being given the baby for the first time and immediately being a loving mother. I’m not really a “baby person”, if that makes sense, but I think Lydia is the most gorgeous little girl I’ve ever seen.
- The only thing anyone ever talks about beforehand (in my experience, at least) is all the hard bits: sleepless nights, nappy changes, crying, that sort of thing. I think we’ve been lucky with Lydia, but as yet we’ve had things pretty easy. The first two weeks were probably the hardest sleep-wise: she usually didn’t settle in her moses basket and would only go to sleep if someone was holding her. Also, babies are born nocturnal (or something like that) and so are usually more wakeful at night. Fortunately, Mrs Phil’s Mum was staying with us for the first week so and could take Lydia at night (with three of us, we all managed to get some sleep in turn). But things improved gradually: at first she would be happy to sleep in our bed with us, then in her moses basket. Now she’s getting into more of a rhythm. Mrs Phil has it worse at the moment because she’s breastfeeding and so needs to be up more during the night, but I don’t think it’s as apocalyptically bad as I was led to believe (plus – naps are invaluable!)
- Speaking of sleep, I’ve been reading up a little bit about sleep training on the internet lately. One thing I’ve found is that there is a huge amount of conflicting advice out there. Even from among the experts. It’s worth remembering that every baby is an individual: babies are not machines who are programmed to do things at certain times. They are born with personalities… anecdotally, plenty of people have told me how their children were all different e.g. one sleeping through the night at an early age, one not sleeping very much at all for months etc. Take any advice you receive with a pinch of salt.
- The strangest thing about all this? How normal it’s seemed. I think I was worried about having a little person coming into our house, how disruptive it would all be (very self-centred, I know…) But what I’ve found is, we’ve just had to get on with it – when you have a baby to look after you have to do what you have to do. We’ve had a lot of help from various sources (thanks to family, friends, college and church) but at the end of the day we’ve survived.
All in all, being a parent is an amazing feeling. It has its ups and downs, but it’s worth it. And we’re surviving. I hope that, reading this, if you’re in a similar situation to our situation a few weeks ago this is an encouragement!
I’ve just finished reading Freedom and Order by Nick Spencer, who is research director at Theos Think Tank. Some of their output recently on secularism has been excellent, and I also went to hear Nick Spencer do a talk about English politics and the Bible at Westminster Abbey a couple of years ago (about when the book was released – strangely enough I don’t think I blogged about it at the time).
Anyway, I very much enjoyed reading the book. I’d simply never understood before just how big an influence Christianity and the Bible has had on English politics. In short: it’s massive. One story I liked was hearing about one MP who was told by one of his constituents that he wasn’t in parliament to preach – apparently this particular MP had been talking about the Bible too much! Another interesting fact – apparently William Temple (Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-44) came up with the phrase ‘Welfare State’. The number of political groups who have not only been influenced by but explicitly grounded in the Christian message and scripture is staggering.
As someone who isn’t very ‘political’, if that’s the right word, some of the book went into a bit more detail than I really cared for – it’s not a light bedtime read – although I’m sure if you’re into politics and history you would enjoy it much more. I would recommend the book to anyone who had an interest in English political history and religion, I think Nick Spencer has done an excellent job detailing just how British political life has been affected by it.
We seem to be living in an age where people want to cast off the religious roots of the UK, and I believe books like this are important to help us understand why that would not be a good idea – or at least, to ensure that we do it with our eyes open. So much of what we take for granted today has been hard won and fought for by people in the past, often using explicitly Christian arguments.
At the start of the book, Spencer quotes John Locke, which I think sums it up:
He that travels the roads now, applauds his own strength and legs that have carried him so far in such a scantling of time; and ascribes all to his own vigour; little considering how much he owes to their pains, who cleared the woods, drained the bogs, built the bridges, and made the ways possible.
- John Locke, “The Reasonableness of Christianity”
Just a quick post again to say that I am keeping my head above the water! Lydia is now ten days old, I can’t believe how fast the time has gone. This week I’ve been gently trying to ease my way back into college life, which has gone fairly well.
Lydia is beginning to get into a routine and, I hope, sleeping a little better than she used to. Phil’s Mum – who was staying with us – has now gone home, so it’s just us and Lydia in the house! That’s a scary thought but also a nice one.
Anyway, I just wanted to post a quick update to say that things are going well and returning to ‘normal’ (well, the new normality, if that makes sense). I still don’t know if I’ll be able to do much blogging any time soon, but I will do when I can. Probably when the next big religious media storm hits, if not before…