Responding to false teaching: Lessons from 2 Peter

A BibleI’ve noticed a disturbing trend amongst evangelicals recently. I encountered it most recently in this blog post by Baptist minister and theologian Steve Holmes. This is how he puts it (you’ll have to read the full blog for the whole context):

No, I know Megan and Bill, I know that they call people to believe in Jesus. They are leading people on the highway to heaven (even if I presently think that they are fairly seriously wrong on at least one aspect of the nature of that highway).’

Sola fide. I have to stand on that. Because the Blood flowed where I walk, and where we all walk. One perfect sacrifice, complete, once for all, offered for all the world, offering renewal to all who will put their faith in Him. And if that means me, in all my failures and confusions, then it also means my friends who affirm same-sex marriage, in all their failures and confusions. If my faithful and affirming friends have no hope of salvation, then nor do I.

Steve puts it well, and I believe it’s an increasingly popular perspective. The argument seems to be that although traditional marriage is the correct interpretation of the Bible, other people teaching that same-sex marriage is right is not a really serious business. It’s not a salvation issue, certainly. So although Bob may believe strongly that the Bible teaches marriage is between a man and a woman, he doesn’t think Alice – who teaches that marriage is between two people regardless of gender – is not saved.

Personally I believe this is a disturbing trend, as I said at the beginning. I’ve already outlined on this blog why I believe evangelicals cannot agree to disagree on this issue, and I stand by what I said back then. But I’d like to add to that a little. Not long ago I worked through the book of 2 Peter with Peter H. Davids’ Pillar commentary. I’d like to share a few insights from 2 Peter which might help shed some additional light on this issue.

2 Peter is written in response to false teaching and false teachers. It seems that false teachers were teaching that the final judgement was not coming – perhaps it had already happened – and therefore there was no need to live a holy and righteous life. Because there was no final judgement to look forward to, there was no need to worry about restraining our sinful desires now.

Let’s take a quick tour of the letter to analyse what Peter is saying.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (Chapter 1)

God has given those who believe “everything we need for a godly life”. What does that look like? It is to “participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”. Participating in the divine nature is a strange phrase. I believe it means ethically – participating in the divine nature by increasing in goodness and love (Peter talks about God’s goodness in v3), in contrast with the corruption and evil desires in the world.

So the purpose of the Christian life is to add goodness, knowledge, self-control etc. (vv5-7) to faith, so that Christians will not be “ineffective and unproductive”. But, we are warned, “whoever does not have them is short-sighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.”

So – a cleansing from past sin does not give us licence to sin in the future. Here, as we see in many places in the Bible, salvation by grace does not mean freedom to indulge our sinful desires. One of my go-to passages about grace and right living is Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions…” The Hebrews 10 passage I referred to in my post about why we can’t agree to disagree also takes the same line: wilfully continuing to sin after receiving knowledge of the truth means all we have to expect from God is “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God”.

Peter continues in chapter 2:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

There were “false prophets” among the people of Israel – you can read about them in Ezekiel 13, for example. What did they do? They led the people astray – they said “peace, when there is no peace”. They prophesied out of their own imaginations. In particular, they led the people to worship false gods and did not see violations of God’s ethical commandments as being a problem. Peter says that, as there were false prophets then, there are false teachers “among you”. These were the people who denied the final judgement, who denied the need to live self-controlled and upright lives – and Peter says “their destruction has not been sleeping”. It’s possible that these false teachers even claimed that the Lord was ‘sleeping’ – that they would not receive the recompense for their wrongdoing. But Peter turns the tables and says that it is their destruction which has not been sleeping. What does he mean?

…if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. 10 This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.

To hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgement – this is what Peter is talking about. And this is “especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh” – those who indulge in their sinful desires rather than restraining them.

The chapter finishes:

17 These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. 18 For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for ‘people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.’ 20 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.

For such people – false teachers – “blackest darkness is reserved for them”. Why? They “entice” people escaping from the world back into sin (echoes of Jesus’ words in Mark 9:42?). Note that he uses the phrase “lustful desires of the flesh” – quite possibly having in mind sexual sin, it was as common back then as it is now. Sin is slavery (John 8:34), but if the Son sets us free then we shall be free indeed. To turn to Christ is to turn away from sin, to repent of evil desires and be freed from them. Yes, we know that anyone who claims to be without sin deceives themselves (1 John 1) – but sin is not a cause for celebration, but rather mortification and turning to Christ. These false teachers promise freedom but deliver slavery – just as Satan does. It shows who they are really working for (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

The worst thing about this passage is, I believe, that false teachers are leading people to hell. I think this is the implication of Peter’s words here – that it is actually worse for people who have begun to turn away from sin, only to be misled by a false teacher and turn their backs on the way of righteousness.

False teaching is that serious. It simply cannot be tolerated in a church, a denomination, or any Christian organisation.

Peter closes out the letter by looking forward to the day of the Lord, which will “come like a thief” – unexpectedly. What does that mean for believers?

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

Peter closes off his argument: because there will be a day of judgement, because there will be a day of wrath, because there is darkness reserved for the unrighteous – we ought to live “holy and godly lives”. God is not mocked. We look forward to the day when righteousness will dwell in the new heaven and earth. We look forward to the day when we will be righteous, and see the Lord face to face. We yearn for the day when sin is no more.

How can those who long for such a day continue to live in sin in the present? It’s impossible! Romans 6:1ff – we have died to sin, how is it possible to continue in it?

And, if this is the case, how can those in the church – thinking particularly about the Church of England but applicable more broadly – stand by and do nothing when the CofE is openly contemplating changes its teaching on matters of marriage?


I appreciate this post has gone on a bit (about 1600 words at this point!) but I’d just like to offer a few more brief reasons why I believe sexuality in particular isn’t something which we can disagree on.

  • I have rarely, if ever, encountered someone who is orthodox on everything except the nature of marriage. This could be because in order to affirm same-sex marriage you have to twist the Bible virtually out of all recognition (as I try to explain here). Interpreting the Bible wrongly in one area will lead to interpreting it wrongly in others – especially on a serious and core doctrine such as marriage.
  • As John Stott pointed out in The Cross of Christ, “sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards. Its essence is hostility towards God.” Sin is not something which God simply shrugs his shoulder about – it is something which Jesus Christ needed to die for to bear the wrath we deserve. To continue in sin wilfully is not simply being wrong or mistaken – it is an act of aggression against God. If same-sex sexual activity is a consequence of our idolatry (Romans 1), then I think this is applicable in particular. God cannot simply overlook such hostility towards him.
  • Bible teachers should be held to a higher standard – James 3:1. Someone who holds the wrong opinion on marriage ‘in the pews’ is less of a danger than false teachers, who can mislead many. This is why I believe that the apostles were so hot on false teaching, and why I believe we must be today. So someone ‘in the pews’, so to speak, might hold the wrong opinion on same-sex marriage – but at least they are not misleading many others. I believe it is appropriate to instruct them gently (2 Timothy 2:25-26). But those who are responsible under God for shepherding Christ’s flock which he bought with his own blood will be held to account. When the day of the Lord comes, I don’t want anyone’s blood on my hands (Acts 20:26-27).

Brexit. Trump. Where do we go now?

Isn’t it strange that over the last six months or so, the nations of the USA and the UK have both had major votes which have exposed massive rifts within the country? I don’t want to draw the comparison between Brexit and the American election too closely, but the parallels are fascinating. In both cases the voting was close, and yet in both cases the winning side was seen by the losing side as lacking moral legitimacy. In other words, both Brexiters and Trump supporters are seen as ignorant, bigoted, racist, etc.

Whatever you think about Trump or Brexit, it is undeniable that the USA and the UK are now divided countries. Where should we go from here?

From a Christian perspective, I think it’s interesting that both of these events have happened in close proximity. They have many similarities – most importantly, perhaps, they both exposed an underlying reality about the division in their countries. How should a Christian understand this? How should the nation understand it?

The USA and the UK are both nations which have a long Christian heritage. Former Prime Minister David Cameron once said, fairly recently, that the UK was a Christian Country. And yet, over the last few years, many things have changed: our countries have drifted increasingly from traditional Christian morality. In particular, of course, in the last few years both the USA and the UK have enacted Same-Sex Marriage – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For example the government are talking about sending Ofsted into religious contexts to combat ‘extremism’ – including (potentially) Sunday Schools. The USA and the UK have both moved well away from a traditional Christian understanding of the world, which I talked about after Brexit.

I believe Trump and Brexit are a ‘warning shot’, so to speak: God wants us to know that the USA and the UK – and other countries – cannot guarantee their good fortune and position within the world. Personally I believe that the success of the UK and the USA have largely been down to its Christian influence – I believe that the Christian faith truly does create community cohesion and knit society together in a way that nothing else can. We have been sailing on the back of that for some time now – but if we depart from the Christian faith, our status may well be taken away as well.

Recently I studied Joel – a very short book in the Old Testament – and the second chapter contains these verses:

‘Even now,’ declares the Lord,
‘return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.’

Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
and leave behind a blessing –
grain offerings and drink offerings
for the Lord your God.

 I believe these are words for the UK and the USA right now. ‘Return to me’, says the Lord. Remember who it was who blessed you so richly. Remember your roots. Don’t turn away – turn back to the Lord, and He will relent and bring blessing once again.

If we continue as we are, I suspect we will not continue to enjoy our privileged position in the world. God can humble nations as well as individuals. But if we turn back to the Lord, perhaps we will see real change for the good.

Hell and the church’s mission

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where

“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
    and the fire is not quenched.’

Mark 9:43-48

In one of our curate training days last year, we spent some time thinking about the church’s mission. What should we be spending our time doing? We had three speakers from different traditions come to talk to us, and we actually had quite an interesting discussion. One of the things which came up was – is the church’s mission simply proclaiming the gospel, or is it wider? To put the question a more practical way – does the church’s mission include practical help for people (such as food banks etc.)?

Unusually for a curate’s session we had a frank exchange of views and actually opened our Bibles and had something of a theological discussion. It seems that this is a pretty divisive issue amongst Christians: what should we as a church be doing with our time?

Over the past few months I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about hell, and I wonder whether it may actually help the discussion about the church’s mission.

Hell is not something that we spend very much time discussing – in most Christian circles, and especially within the Church of England. I’ve been on quite a few CofE training things over the past few years, and I don’t think I’ve heard hell mentioned a single time (apart from occasionally in the hymns that we sing). What’s interesting, though, is reading the gospels through: Jesus talks about hell more than anybody. The passage I started with is a case in point. Jesus consistently warns people about the dangers of hell – in this passage, saying that it is better to go through life maimed but be rid of sin than to have your limbs intact but go into hell for eternity.

This has particularly struck me about the church’s mission because the church is the only institution in the world which really has eternity in mind. Many charities exist which care about people’s needs in this life. Only the church cares about their eternal future.

This is what Jesus is getting at in Luke 12:

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

Jesus is saying that our lives should ultimately be controlled by the fear of Him who holds eternity in His hands. Not in the sense of being scared of God, but an appropriate reverence for Him. Jesus is now the one who holds the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). There is nothing, no hardship, no suffering, no bad thing in this life which will compare with an eternity in hell.

And that puts the church’s mission into perspective: food banks are a good thing. Looking after the poor and needy is a good thing. Of course they are. But, ultimately, if we give someone a piece of bread but don’t tell them about Jesus the bread of life then we haven’t really done anything to help that person. Jesus loved people, but he loved people enough to warn them about their eternal destiny.

This isn’t to say that the church should immediately stop doing anything which isn’t directly related to preaching the gospel! But what a church does should ultimately be controlled not by limiting its vision to temporal needs but by eternal needs. A church must always be reaching out – churches which do not reach out will die – but a church must always be reaching out with the message of reconciliation. This is what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

The ministry which God gave to the apostles, and through them to the church today, is the message of reconciliation: being reconciled with God.

I believe that if the church keeps a Biblical understanding of the gospel – including hell – it will enable a healthy view of its ministry and outreach. If we forget that the gospel is all about salvation, we’ll focus our energies on trying to love people in the here and now. But if we keep our understanding of the gospel, that will control all that we do.

Let me finish with an example. At our church here in Clacton, we run a lunch cafe every Friday. The food is relatively cheap – it’s not run for profit, it simply runs to help the local community to get a decent meal at a good price. It is very much a community service – we do it because we love our community. At the same time – our aim with the cafe is not simply to provide people with food: it’s a good place to build relationships with people in the community, to advertise church events, and so on. In short, it is a part of the whole mission of the church – the ministry of reconciliation. We pray regularly for the cafe and ask for God to use it – and He has.

It’s similar with the soup run. Our church helps out with the soup run in Clacton, and – again – this is done both to help out the community, and also to get to know people, have conversations with them, and talk a little about Jesus. Apparently we’ve given out quite a few Bibles over the past few years.

To see the world in the light of eternity gives the church an appropriate perspective on ‘doing good’ and helps to maintain an evangelistic edge.

As a footnote, I found Melvin Tinker’s book Salt, Light and Cities on Hills very helpful when it came to thinking through mission – he talks about the passages often debated in these discussions and I appreciated his conclusions.

 

The trouble with contemplative prayer…

contemplation
An artist’s impression of Contemplative Prayer…

A few months ago, at one of my regular curate review meetings, someone asked me about my ‘spirituality’ and asked me what sort of thing I did – “such as contemplative prayer”. Up until a few years ago I’d never heard of contemplative prayer, but when I was at college I did a course on spirituality and this was one of the topics we covered. Then, yesterday, Ian Paul posted a piece on his blog about whether mindfulness is Christian. One of the things mentioned in the blog was – that’s right – contemplative prayer.

On that course in spirituality I mentioned, I had to write an essay about contemplative prayer and I thought it might be worth sharing a few things I learned while I was researching it. If you want my summarised version, it’s this: contemplative prayer is not Scriptural, potentially harmful, and I believe Christians should avoid it. Here’s why.

1. What is contemplative prayer?

Contemplative prayer, as I discovered, is virtually impossible to define – and it is utterly impossible to define concisely. This is what one writer says about it (from the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality):

What is desired is the opportunity simply to express to God one’s loving, hoping, trusting, thanking, in as few words as possible. These few words tend to be repeated many times … A time comes when a deeper desire is revealed to the person praying. What began as fragmentarily verbalized loving or thanking becomes more than anything else an offering, though without this self-giving being mentally considered or understood

Do you get that? Contemplative Prayer (hereafter CP) is about moving from external things (such as words) to the heart or soul of a person. The goal is clear. In the words of Richard Foster: “To this question the old writers answer with one voice: union with God”. Everything about CP is meant to move towards union with God.

There are certain characteristics which writers on CP usually mention:

1. Spiritual maturity. CP is something which everyone says is not for the novice. In fact Richard Foster goes as far as to say, “These are people who long ago walked away from the world, the flesh and the devil”. The idea is that we are all climbing up a ladder towards union with God, and you can only begin CP once you have climbed a certain way up that ladder.

2. Moving beyond words. CP is something which words are simply insufficient for. Thomas Merton wrote,”The purpose of monastic prayer [including Contemplation] … is to prepare the way so that God’s action may develop this ‘faculty for the supernatural,’ this capacity for inner illumination by faith and by the light of wisdom, in the loving contemplation of God … It is true that one may profit by learning such methods of meditation, but one must also know when to leave them and go beyond [my emphasis] to a simpler, more primitive, more ‘obscure’ and more receptive form of prayer.” CP is seen as ‘going beyond’ normal forms of prayer – this is highly significant.

In particular, this is often justified by appealing to God’s fundamental unknowability – that logic and reason alone are not enough for us to know God. There must be something more – in order for us to truly know Him we must leave words behind.

3. Moving towards the heart. CP seeks to affect not the outward person but the inward person: right to the very soul, our inner being. Because our heart does not use words, words are virtually useless in that context: the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church says “Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love [my emphasis]. In this silence, unbearable to the ‘outer’ man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus”. So some words may be useful to begin CP, but once you’ve moved into the silence – then God can really speak to you in a way He never could using actual words. The hope is that God will speak directly to the heart of the one praying.

A Biblical response

1. Spiritual maturity

The idea of moving towards ‘union with God’ is something that derives from neo-Platonic philosophy than from the Bible. Theologian Louis Berkhof put it like this: “Every sinner who is regenerated is directly connected with Christ and receives his life from Him.” See e.g. Jesus’ words in John 15:4 – “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” Once someone is united to Christ by faith, no prayer is more or less effectual and no type of prayer should be excluded from them. We do grow in maturity as Christians as we walk in step with the Spirit – however the moment a sinner repents and believes in the gospel, they are united to Christ by faith.

2. Moving beyond words

It is true that God is beyond our comprehension or imagination, God is beyond our capacity to express Him fully in human language. However, as Gerald Bray says, “The need to go beyond the limitations of the finite does not mean that the finite can be ignored or rejected. The fact that the human mind is inadequate to embrace the divine reality in all its fullness does not make its mental processes invalid or unreliable within the sphere for which it was created … God has accommodated himself to our limitations and made our relationship with him possible.” God is a speaking God. Jesus Christ has made God known – John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

To move beyond words is actually to denigrate the revelation of Himself which God has given us. The Bible is not a collection of thoughts about how people have thought about God – it is God’s word to humankind. In the words of 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed”.

How do we know God better? As we understand His word better. How do we know God’s will better? As we understand His word better. How do we pray better? As we know more of God and His will: we do not pray to an unknown God, but our prayer is based on our knowledge of God and His purposes.

There was a discussion yesterday on Facebook about Ian Paul’s piece on mindfulness. I mentioned something about CP, and Ian suggested that there is a big Biblical theme about God being unknowable in the sense that our language is inadequate. He suggested that the Israelites at Mt Sinai was an example of that (the Israelites were told to stay away from the mountain, and only Moses could go into the cloud). However, it strikes me that this episode actually demonstrates the opposite: the unknowable God here was speaking – making Himself known. The issue was not Moses going up into the mountain, but with the people at the bottom who didn’t have God’s words who decided to make up a god for themselves… this is the problem with CP: without God’s words, without God’s revelation, it can easily turn into a form of idolatry.

3. Moving towards the heart

It is true that the heart is a fundamental theme in the Bible – for example Jesus’ famous words in Luke 6:45, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” The problem with us as human beings is indeed a heart problem.

However, the Biblical solution to the problem is not to go beyond words! The solution is to be transformed by the Word of God as the Holy Spirit works within us. Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” How can our minds be renewed without words? The Bible does not address our hearts directly – only the Holy Spirit can do that – but God’s word accomplishes His work (Isaiah 55:10-11).

Christian meditation is not about moving beyond words but filling our minds with God’s word, as Psalm 1 demonstrates:

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
    whatever they do prospers.

Ultimately our heart problem is a problem which can only be solved by the Holy Spirit. But as we understand more of God’s word, as we see more of His purposes and plans for creation and for us, we see more of His will and become more and more conformed to the likeness of Christ.

The potential harm of contemplative prayer

At the start I said that I thought that CP was potentially harmful. The reason is that a kind of prayer which doesn’t focus on words – i.e. based on God’s truth – is in danger of constructing its own truth. When you start looking beyond the objective truths of the gospel to the subjectivity of your own emotional state and ‘inner being’, you can run into problems. For example, if someone has depression I’d say the road upwards was not in seeking to have ecstatic spiritual experiences (part of CP) or attempting to focus on one’s own emotions, but rather by looking at one’s objective status before God as a forgiven sinner who Christ died for.

If in CP you move beyond what God has given us in Scripture, you can end up moving towards your own imagination – and that is a dangerous place to be. God does not condemn idolatry for nothing. And we know that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but principalities and powers – Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) – we must be discerning and careful that anything spiritual going on in our lives is soundly grounded in the truth and not in something potentially deriving from the father of lies.

As Christians we are encouraged to look not to ourselves or our own emotional states but to the objective truth of what God has done for us in Christ. We are never promised particular experiences in Scripture. We are simply told that if we repent and believe in Christ Jesus we will receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. That is something which is true regardless of how we feel, and it’s something we all need to focus on whether we’re feeling good or bad.

Hymnology: Dear Lord and Father of mankind

The hymn “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” is one of the UK’s most popular hymns. It is usually (in the UK at least) sung to a brilliant tune (REPTON) and its poetic lyrics capture many people’s imagination. It is a well loved traditional hymn and an established part of our repertoire. But there is one small question I’ve always wrestled with: what do the words actually mean? It’s more than a little puzzling! Is it truthful and helpful for congregations to sing?

One of the interesting things about the hymn is its history. The stanzas of the hymn are taken from a poem by an American Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier:

Entitled The Brewing of Soma, the poem dealt with various kinds of intoxication – by alcohol, drugs or fanaticism. Soma (a word later used by Aldous Huxley for the feel-good drug in Brave New World) was a sacred drink mentioned in ancient Sanskritic books of Indian religion. Whittier’s poem is prefaced by a quotation from Max Müller, the first professor of philology at Oxford, who had misty racial theories based on these immemorial rites.

Eleven of Whittier’s stanzas preceded the six retained for the hymn. They range over the Vedic hallucinogens, the dance of the Islamic Dervish and the trance of the medieval Christian flagellant.

(You can read the full poem online here – it’s not very long).

It seems that the poem itself is in the context of people inducing ecstatic religious experience by drugs or dancing and so on. In contrast, Whittier – a Quaker – believed that God was to be found in the stillness and quiet. This is fairly common Quaker belief, from the few Quakers I’ve actually talked to! The message seems to be – stop trying to find God in these strange ways, just be still and let God speak to you.

When you see it in that light, the lyrics are understandable. The whole thing is shot through with references to stillness or quiet: “without a word”, “the silence of eternity”, “deep hush”, “tender whisper”, “noiseless”, etc. It’s all about being still and letting God speak in the silence.

The problem is, I’m not sure this is really a very Christian idea. The song mentions Jesus once, where apparently he shared “the silence of eternity” with the Father. Jesus certainly withdrew to pray, although there’s no indication that he withdrew simply to enjoy ‘silence’ with God! The poem also has the line “speak through the earthquake, wind and fire” – a reference to 1 Kings 19, where God was in the small whisper rather than in the more dramatic events. But – God still spoke. You know, words.

The more I think about this hymn the more I dislike it: I disagree with the main idea – that in order to hear God speak you just need to be still. Yes, we don’t need frenzied dancing or drugs to communicate with God. But that doesn’t mean we can dispense with words altogether. (This is the same issue I have with contemplative prayer, although that’s a story for another time).

Sadly, I think – like Love Divine – this hymn should relegated to the history books.

Sexual harassment in schools: is education the answer?

sadgirlI’ve noticed a spate of worrying articles coming out over the past year or two. It seems that sexual harassment is on the rise among young people – especially in schools. It’s becoming such a problem that earlier this year MPs launched an enquiry into it. This is something which is especially an issue for young girls, who are often the victims of it – pressured into sending sexual pictures or having sexual contact before they really want to.

The other day I read an interesting article about girls dealing with pornography-addicted boys (the Fight the New Drug website itself is excellent and well worth reading).

In the survey report, entitled Don’t send me that pic, participants reported that online sexual abuse and harassment were becoming a normal part of their everyday interactions. And while the behavior seemed so common, more than 80% said it was unacceptable for boyfriends to request naked images.

Sexual bullying and harassment are part of daily life for many girls growing up as a part of this digital generation. Young girls are speaking out more and more about how these practices have links with pornography—because it’s directly affecting them.

The numbers are, quite frankly, frightening. It seems that we have a real problem on our hands with easy access to pornography – especially for teenagers. Watching pornography, over time, rewires your brain. This is especially true for teenagers, where brains are still developing (I believe the technical term is ‘neuroplastic’). Looking back to my teenage years, I’m very glad I didn’t have access to the internet – porn wasn’t a part of my daily life in the way it is for many people now.

What’s the solution to all this?

Christine Blower, secretary of the National Union of Teachers, is quoted in the Guardian – from the article I linked to at the beginning:

“As today’s report highlights, the pressures young people face are not going away. It is therefore vital that PSHE and age-appropriate SRE [sex and relationships education] becomes mandatory in schools.”

So, the solution is: education. Hmmm. If the message of sites like Fight the New Drug etc could be broadcast to young people – it could make a difference.  If teenagers could be prevented from watching porn then it might help – but I think that particular horse has bolted. It may do some good, but I think we have a deeper issue which goes far beyond our schools and young people.

In days gone by, pre-sexual revolution, sex was seen as something which should occur within the confines of marriage. Although that ideal was not always kept, I think there was a general understanding that sex should be reserved for marriage, and that when it didn’t there was a clear breach of a conventional moral standard. Now, however, sex is virtually encouraged for just about everyone – whatever you like, just so long as it’s consensual and not harming anyone. So, sex has become simply another consumer product: you do it in  the way that you want, to make you happy. Your happiness and satisfaction is the most important thing – no need to worry about making another human being happy long-term. If a sexual partner doesn’t satisfy, move on to the next one.

I think this is reflected in the statistics about marriage and family breakdown, as collected by the Marriage Foundation: it’s becoming increasingly uncommon for people to be married before having children, for example. Couples who cohabit have a much higher rate of break-up. Why is this the case? I think it is partly due to a consumer attitude to sex and relationships: romantic partners are seen as being there to serve our own interests, to make us happy, rather than being seen as an act of mutual self-giving (something which the CofE marriage vows make clear).

The logical end of all this is can be seen in the so-called “ethical non-monogamous community”. Carl Trueman wrote an excellent piece on this a couple of weeks ago. It’s worth quoting at length:

There was once a time when sexual intercourse was thought to be full of rich social and emotional significance. Now, even our language betrays our impoverished and negative attitudes. That we speak of “having sex” and not of “making love”—that the latter phrase can even evoke sniggers—is significant. A man can have sex with a prostitute. He can only make love to a woman he knows and about whom he cares.

So is Gracie X “sex positive” in her attitude? Well, sexual intercourse used to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. That has been taken away. Sex has been reduced thereby, as indeed has adulthood—the childish obsession of Gracie with herself is surely no accident. There was also a time when sexual intercourse was only considered legitimate between a man and woman committed to a lifelong partnership. It marked their exclusive relationship to each other. That too has been taken away. Sex is no longer the consummation of an exclusive bond. Now it is just a form of recreation. A bit like golf, but usually cheaper and generally without the plaid pants.

Fortunately, Gracie is an extremist, even by today’s standards. But she is the logical end term of our culture’s simplistic, pornographic, selfish, abusive, mechanistic, and, yes, negative view of sex. Sex’s sole significance is what it does for Gracie as an individual, and damn the consequences if that hurts anyone else. It is who she is, after all.

Sexual harassment in schools is simply the logical outworking of the message our society is sending out to young people: sex is all about you. It’s all about your pleasure, your desires, your fulfilment.

How can we change this? I’m not sure that there are easy answers.  Trying to change a society’s view of sex is a bit like trying to change the direction of an oil tanker. It takes miles and miles. There are a couple of things I can think of:

  • Trying to limit access to pornography. I’m not sure how this would best be achieved, but it seems undeniable that pornography is a huge part of the issue. If its impact could be reduced we’d be a lot further forward. There are many barriers to overcome – things have been tried and failed over the years – but with the right motivation I think we might get closer to a solution.
  • Promoting sex in the context of marriage. I think many young people are unaware of the benefits of marriage (which some people are cottoning onto – for example, this Guardian article earlier this year on how sex is more enjoyable within marriage). It’s not enough to simply say “thou shalt not” when it comes to moral behaviour – we have to promote a positive image of sex and relationships, and I think that is found ideally in marriage.

Rome was not built in a day, so they say,  and the sexual attitudes of a society do not change overnight. Nonetheless, I think we need to be realistic about the challenges that face us, burying our head in the sand will not help. Nevertheless, oil tankers do change direction – societies can change. We need to think about taking positive steps now to safeguard the future of our children.

Islam, extremism and political correctness

I’ve had a growing sense of frustration over the last few weeks and months. A lot of airtime has been devoted to the “so-called Islamic State” (as the BBC always says) and the many acts of terrorism which have been so much in the news.

My frustration stems from the fact that so often politicians and the media want to carefully avoid mentioning anything which might actually suggest the problem lies within Islam itself – so much so that it’s become almost obsessive. Not so long ago, whenever an act of terrorism happened you’d see an orderly queue of politicians lining up to say how it was “nothing to do with Islam”. The general picture to emerge is that Islam is basically a peaceful religion the world over, much like Christianity, and there are only a tiny fringe group of extremists who aren’t “real” Muslims causing the problems. And, of course, anyone who dares to challenge the status quo is branded Islamophobic, or racist, or a bigot, etc.

But even the press has got in on the act. Just yesterday Archbishop Cranmer posted a good example of the way newspapers are avoiding the issue:

(Check the source link. A newspaper – well, alright, the Mirror – reported a terrorist incident without mentioning Islam. This seems to be a running theme recently – newspapers will refuse to mention anything to do with Islam in connection with terrorism).

It seems that our situation at the moment is just …  well, it’s silly. We need to be free to discuss religion and extremism. And if there is a problem, we need to name it, rather than pretending there is no problem and sticking our fingers in our ears whenever more evidence is presented.

Anyway, I felt compelled to write something to try and present an alternative perspective, even if it’s not one everyone will agree with. Stifling discussion will not help, nor will assuming the conclusion before we’ve even begun.

Coping with complexity

I think one of the issues we have at the moment in the UK (and much of Western society) is that we can’t deal with complexity in public life. Certainly when it comes to religion, anyway. This is partly a problem with our education system – when I was at school, the religious education I had was pretty awful: I think I learnt a bit about the pillars of Islam but didn’t really learn much about its history or how different people interpret the Qu’ran. The teaching I had on Christianity was even worse.

I think the problem is most Western people think they know something about Christianity, and then assume that every religion must be something like that. People know that Christianity has an authoritative text (the Bible), basically one creed which is believed throughout the world, and they know its followers generally try to do good and avoid violence. Because this is the case for Christianity, it then becomes the case for all religions: Islam, therefore, has one authoritative text (the Qu’ran), basically one creed, and its followers generally try to do good and avoid violence. The problem with this is that it’s massively oversimplifying. I think the media and politicians are often to blame (how often do you hear about ‘religion’ as if all religion is the same?) And politicians lately have been talking about “extremism” as if the problem is one which cuts across every religion – as if every religion has an extremist problem.

The snag is, you can’t lump all religions in together. Islam is not Christianity, which is not Buddhism, which is not Hinduism, etc. Western society has decided that the problem is extremism, and as long as we can stamp that out we’ll be OK. Even if that means sending in Ofsted to inspect your Sunday school (and I’m not even joking – it’s crazy that the government would consider such things, even if they’ve now changed their mind).

Islam and terrorism

One of the most helpful people I’ve heard on Islamic extremism is Colin Chapman, who spent many years living and working in the Middle East and is an expert on Islam. A few years ago now he wrote an article: Christian Responses to Islam, Islamism and Islamic Terrorism. It’s not a short read but the whole thing is worth reading, as I think it is very fair and balanced.

I think one or two points are worth drawing out though. Firstly, as he points out, it is patronising and wrong for Westerners to be saying “there is a correct interpretation of Islam, and we know what it is…” Muslims must be allowed to define their own religion. But, here’s the rub, for that exact reason I think it is patronising nonsense for secular Westerners to be saying that Islam is clearly a peace-loving religion and anyone doing violence is not a real Muslim.

As the article says:

There are significant numbers of British Muslims, however, who would not actively support the use of violence, but would not openly condemn it. And many would argue that if violence cannot be justified in the British context, it can be justified in certain other contexts like Afghanistan, Iraq or Israel/Palestine. Neat categories with clear labels do not fit this debate, and even among Islamists there is a wide spectrum of approaches from moderates (in sympathy, for example, with the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain) to extremists

Neat categories do not fit this debate – so the attempt by politicians and the media to foist their particular interpretation of religion onto us is as patronising as it is damaging.

Secondly, this is as much a problem within Islam as it is outside. There are verses in the Qu’ran which are quite sympathetic towards Christians, and there are others which are more hostile. There are interpretive principles which govern how the Qu’ran is understood. However, the matter of who is right on interpretation is perhaps not as settled as Western politicians and media would have us believe. As the article says:

The really obvious gulf is not so much between traditionalist, orthodox Muslims and politically involved Islamists, as between Muslims who practise and approve of violence and those who do not. So, for example, Ziauddin Sardar, a British Muslim, writes: ‘We must acknowledge that the terrorists…are products of Islamic history. Only by recognising this brutal fact would we realise that the fight against terrorism is also an internal Muslim struggle within Islam itself. Indeed, it is a struggle for the very soul of Islam.’

We must face up to facts and understand that we can’t simply make something true by repeating it ad nauseam. If there is a problem within Islam, then it helps no-one to pretend that it doesn’t exist and that the problem is instead generic ‘extremism’.

There are apparently 1.6 billion Muslims, there is a huge variety within Islam (some Islamic countries are quite friendly to Christians, for example; in others converting to Christianity could get you killed or arrested). To admit that there is a violence problem within Islam is not to tar everyone with the same brush. It’s not demonising a whole religion. But we have to face facts. And the facts are there for those who aren’t too politically correct to find them.

Those who want to look more into the history might enjoy reading Tom Holland’s book, In the Shadow of the Sword, which I talk a little bit about here.

Or you could simply have a look at what’s going on around the world today. Open Doors, a Christian charity which serves persecuted Christians worldwide, sends out a prayer email which I subscribe to. Very often the persecution is being done by Islamic extremists. On their news page as I write this, for example: Nigeria: Blasphemy rumour leads to eight dead – Islamists burnt down a house in Northern Nigeria on 22nd August. The Sudanese Pastors who have been imprisoned for months in an explicitly Islamic regime. Hawa, a believer from a Muslim background who was rejected by her family. The list goes on. (And, I could add, occasionally things have happened in the UK too – e.g. a man who was battered with a pickaxe in Bradford for converting from Islam to Christianity.)

The secular worldview

A large part of the problem is the way our society currently thinks about moral issues. We think that our liberal Western democracy basically fell out of the sky – we still believe the lie that our morals and values are simply common to everyone and that all roads do in fact lead to the Rome of liberal Western secularism.

But, of course, our culture – particularly in the UK – largely depends on Christianity. As Tom Holland pointed out a while back, even a liberal secular democracy would not exist without Christianity. We in the UK hold certain views about violence, respect, tolerance, etc. These are not ‘obvious’ or ‘secular’ values – I think they are Christian.

And this is what frustrates me most about the politicians / media presentation. All religions are seen as being equally problematic, and ‘extremism’ seen as a problem for all of them. Whereas the reality is completely different: religions are not all the same, and our society owes a huge debt to the Christian faith. The values our secular society now holds dear only arose because the Christian faith gave them in the first place.

It’s sad to see such cultural blindness even in our leaders, but I think it’s worse when we’re not allowed to raise this as an issue and have a grown-up discussion. If there’s anything we desperately need right now as a country is to be able to talk about the truth – not a nice, sanitised falsehood which doesn’t offend anyone. And if we can face facts and and deal with the actual issues we might just find we make some progress.