The Emperor has no clothes

emperornewclothesWhen I was a child I learned Hans Christian Andersen’s short story, The Emperor’s New Clothes. A couple of weeks ago I was at the library with Lydia and came across a children’s version of the story, and we read it together. Lydia really enjoyed it – and I did too. And it struck me once again how wise and prescient the story is for our troubled times.

Today, for example, the BBC carried a news story: Ruth Davidson announces she is pregnant. Ruth Davidson is the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, a prominent LGBT figure, and is in a same-sex relationship with Jen Wilson.

Here’s the thing. How many of the news articles or people responding on Twitter mention the blindingly obvious thing: two women (or two men) cannot, you know, have a baby. Not without some external help. (I should add, I don’t want to pick on Ruth Davidson – it was the same when Tom Daley and Dustin Lance announced some months ago they were ‘having a baby’).

How many of the news outlets even mention the fact that this child will have a father who it doesn’t know? The baby is not even born yet, and already it is doomed to be born into a fatherless environment.

Near the end of Andersen’s story, he says:

So off went the Emperor in procession under his splendid canopy. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!” Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No costume the Emperor had worn before was ever such a complete success.

I suspect that no-one is pointing out the bleedin’ obvious here because we have, as a society, collectively bought into the lie that two men or two women can have a baby.  It’s seen as a mark of being modern, intelligent and progressive – rather than those backwards, bigoted, anti-LGBT folk, who still take the common-sense view that making a baby needs a father and mother.

The reason why this matters, and the reason why I can’t simply stay silent on this issue, is best explained by reading some stories of people who were brought into the world via anonymous third-party reproduction. For example, this one:

Anyway, there is so much I want to know, and no easy way I can ever find that information out, and it’s NOT FAIR. What do you look like? Do you have medical conditions I should be worried about? Do I have biological siblings? What’s your family history? Do you have a bunch of weird allergies, like me, or did I just lose the genetic lottery? What kind of things do you like? What do you do for work? What are your passions? What are your fears? Do you struggle with mental health issues like me? Who ARE you, and how much of who I am is from you?

Dear provider-of-my-genetic- materials;
I don’t want your money, I don’t need your love, I don’t need you to raise me. I just want to know who you are, and want to ask you so many questions.

Reading the stories is heartbreaking. How many children have to be brought into the world in this way, how many of them will have stories just like this one, full of questions, even crying out for the love of a father or mother who they were separated from before they were conceived?

Andersen ends the story:

“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.

“Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”

“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.

So often children are the ones who speak the obvious truth –  it’s the adults who hold back in fear.

One way or the other, I hope it won’t be too long before we as a society realise the emperor has no clothes.

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Sermons available

St Paul Preaching
Raphael: St Paul Preaching in Athens (1515)

I have decided to try and record sermons I preach, and these will be available on the sermons page. I won’t make a new post each time I upload one, but I may refer to them from time to time!

I’ve just uploaded a sermon I preached this morning on Luke 17:20-37 from our Wednesday Worshippers – about the Kingdom of God.

Sex is burning the house down #MeToo

Metoo

Sex is like fire. In the fireplace it keeps us warm. Outside the fireplace it burns down the house. Ray Ortlund.

Apologies if I’ve reminded you of a song by the Kings of Leon (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself fortunate). I came across the quote above recently and I found it immensely helpful. Sex is a powerful thing – within the confines of marriage, it is contained and we enjoy its benefits. Outside of marriage, it destroys everything. This is exactly what I believe we are beginning to see as a society.

I’ve been reading a book called Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy by sociologist Mark Regnerus. It’s a fascinating – albeit slightly terrifying – read. Then, yesterday, I read an insightful article about the #MeToo movement, entitled: “Sex was Never Safe: Why Consent is Not Enough in the Post-Weinstein Era.”

They have helped to bring home to me just how lost our society is about sexual ethics. The Regnerus book is about how sex has become ‘cheap’: in an era where fewer people are choosing to get married – and those who do get married do so later on in life – there are very few barriers to sex. One of the things which struck me most was research about how many people have sex on the first date – in fact, Regnerus theorised that having sex is often the thing which causes people to move from fairly casual dating to more formally being in a relationship.

The whole book simply worked to underscore for me the fact that so much of our society is now based on a fairly consumer attitude to sex: people ‘try out’ different sexual partners, waiting for the one who will bring them most personal satisfaction. Sex is seen as a commodity, not something sacred which is to be held within the confines of marriage. Easy access to pornography has had a big impact. And it goes on.

The upshot of all this is that our society seems to massively value sexual freedom – the search for personal sexual fulfilment, with very little in the way to channel or restrict that freedom.

Then, we have the #MeToo movement. A lot has been written about the #MeToo movement, so I’m not going to rehash all that here. In many ways I can sympathise with it. But I think Joel Looper, author of the article I linked, picks up on something significant – is there an inherent contradiction with sexual freedom and #MeToo? His argument is that if we want to solve the problem which #MeToo is highlighting, this will logically entail the end of the Sexual Revolution. He says:

The Sexual Revolution was possible because women had ready access to birth control. Not long before, only men could sleep around without the fear of becoming pregnant. By the 1960s women could too. Among heterosexuals at least, the freeing of women to enjoy sex without that pesky natural consequence of the sex act also freed men. Sex became, in economic terms, a buyer’s marker. It was easier for both men and women, but especially for men, to obtain. The average age of marriage in the United States in 1970 was twenty-three for men and twenty for women, but by 2015 it was twenty-nine for men and twenty-seven for women. Marriage was no longer even typically a precondition for sex. By the mid-1990s, having a couple partners before finding the “right one” had become normal, perhaps almost normative in most parts of the West.

This is exactly what Mark Regnerus’ research was highlighting. Sex has become cheap, and is no longer seen as needing to happen within a committed relationship. This is the fruit of the Sexual Revolution. Although things didn’t change overnight, what we see today is the logical consequence of what happened back in the 60s.

The only value we see today is consent. That is, so long as the sex is happening between two (or more) consenting adults – then no problem. One-night-stand? Fine, so long as it’s consensual. Sex on the first date? Fine, as long as it’s consensual. What the #MeToo movement is highlighting is non-consensual sexual abuse of various different stripes (some more serious, some less so). But what action is needed to change anything?

What have we learned? What is the take-home value of #MeToo? Is it that men need more education? That society must be more vigilant in punishing men who commit sexual crimes? No. It is that consent does not constitute robust enough criteria for sexual intercourse. All the education in the world will not change the male libido. It is hardwired into men. Sure, most men are trustworthy most of the time. But many men are somewhat untrustworthy some of the time, and a few men (or is it far more than a few?) are downright dangerous. Birth control and at least sixty years of open discussion of sex have not changed this.

The point is that consent is not enough. Consent will never be enough to prevent people doing things they shouldn’t sexually. It can’t be changed with education, or by a movement on social media. A few months back I questioned whether education was enough to end sexual harrassment in schools (short answer: no). So what can be done?

Reestablishing the connection between marriage and sex is only part of the solution since – after all, women are sometimes assaulted by strangers and other times by their own husbands. We must have the cultural memory to recall that until quite recently sex, again in Berry’s words, was “everybody’s business.” The wider community had an interest in what went on in people’s bedrooms, even between “two consenting adults,” because people could be harmed behind those bedroom walls. They are today more than ever. Relationships are shattered behind those walls, worlds crumble, and often enough it is the male libido that is the destroyer of worlds. Anyone who denies this, whether in theory or practice, is living a fantasy.

Reconnecting sex and marriage – not, as the article says, the whole solution – yet it is part of it. Sex is not simply about personal freedom and individual choice. It’s not about individuals pursuing happiness, or “two consenting adults”. But sex has a wider scope – it is part of society. Society has an interest in what two people do behind closed doors – sex matters to more than just the two individuals concerned. Of course, as the author states, if we accept this – then it will spell the end of the Sexual Revolution.

As a society, it seems we have a choice to make: either we carry on as we are and pursue sexual freedom – which will lead to the kind of things the #MeToo movement is protesting, as well as other side effects such as driving men and women further apart. This is the way we are heading at the moment, and, if I may return to the quote I started with, we are beginning to see how hot the fire can burn.

Or – as a society, we realise that sex matters beyond two consenting individuals, that #MeToo is a symptom of a sex-obsessed society which cannot be solved simply by education, and that marriage is the only real solution we have (or at least, a nonnegotiable part of the solution).

One of the things I’m  often struck by is how everything would be better if people simply listened to what God wanted us to do in the first place. Sex is designed as a wonderful gift from God, to be used within the context of a lifelong union of a man and a woman, but outside of that it is immensely harmful. Peter says in his first letter: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). I think it’s possible to see how our sinful desires, in this case sexual desire, wages war against us. We desire to find fulfilment in sex, which leads many people to shopping around for the best sexual partner available to them. But the irony is, they do not find fulfilment. The only fulfilment is found in obedience to God, in line with the way that he has made us.

The lost art of Catechism

Catechism (n):

  1. an elementary book containing a summary of the principles of the Christian religion, especially as maintained by a particular church, in the form of questions and answers.

In our church we regularly run courses for people who want to find out more about the Christian faith. In the past we’ve run Alpha, and more recently we’ve started running Christianity Explored. By the grace of God we have seen a number of people come into the church over the last few years, partly as a result of these courses. In my home group at the moment we have a number of folks who have only come into church in the last few years and I’ve had a chance to get to know them pretty well – and get to know their needs, spiritually speaking.

What I’ve been finding is that people who come into faith these days are coming from a background of virtually no knowledge about God, Jesus, the Bible, the cross, etc. There is just simply no background knowledge of the Christian faith. Everything has to be built from the ground up, which takes time.

The realisation that I’ve been coming to is that we need to rethink the way that the church disciples new believers. Sunday services are a good start – but we’ve found it’s tough to encourage people to come when there are so many other competing demands on time. Church is a big commitment – a commitment which is absolutely worth it, for sure – but I think it’s hard to understand just how significant it is for people to make that commitment. According to some research I read recently, even those who are committed will come twice a month – something which we see in our church here. Is twice a month enough to understand the Christian faith? And even if someone comes more – sermons are not generally designed to teach faith in a systematic way. Church services are a good start but they’re not enough!

Bible studies are usually the next step. And for good reason: I have benefited so much over the years from them – but again, they have limitations. What I’ve found in my home group these last few years is that the newer Christians have actually struggled more with Bible studies because they do not have the Christian worldview to go along with it. Understanding the Bible takes time and effort, and in particular one needs to understand the ‘big picture’ of the Bible and its theology alongside the individual books and chapters. The two feed into each other – growth in one leads to growth in the other.

So the question in my mind is: how can we, as churches, focus on being intentional about teaching a Christian worldview? Especially for new believers – who have heard nothing but the world preaching to them for their whole lives. To put it another way, how do we best equip people coming from a background with virtually no Christian understanding to come to a mature faith?

Bible study will get you there – but it will take time if you work your way systematically through books of the Bible. There is an alternative, which has been used by the church for centuries but has fallen somewhat out of favour these days: catechism (or catechesis, but let’s not complicate things). A catechism is a series of questions and answers designed to teach the faith, which are designed to be learned by members of a church – in the Anglican tradition, the catechism was designed to be used before confirmation. (There is a catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, but we’ve never used it in our church and I think most churches don’t use it).

The idea is that it teaches believers a kind of ‘Christian basics’ course, which covers things like who God is, the Bible, the ten commandments, the creed, etc. It’s a (relatively) short summary of the Christian faith. Tim Keller says: “classic catechisms take students through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience.” It is, in other words, what all believers – but especially new Christians – need to get going in the Christian life.

Personally I think that revising the catechism format for the 21st century would be a great way of discipling believers to face the problems of a post-Christian world. That’s not to say it should replace Bible study, but rather complement it.

I’m not the only one saying this – and, in fact, I was very heartened to see that one church has produced the New City Catechism. This is a catechism which is taken from a number of classic catechisms but updated for the 21st century – you can read it all online or via an app, alongside a few paragraphs of explanation. There are 52 questions and answers – one per week over the course of a year. (Not too taxing!)

Personally I think this is a great idea and I’m going to try and start using it at every opportunity. I’ve actually started vlogging my way through the catechism, if you’d like to join me you’d be very welcome – here’s the first video (the introduction basically says just what I’ve said here).

Learning doctrine has been immensely helpful for me in my Christian life – not simply reading the Bible (although that is essential), but putting the pieces together. The catechism is an excellent way of starting to do that. If you’ve not done it before, I would urge you to give it a try.

Videos & the blog – update

I’ve just uploaded the last in my series on “How to grow as a Christian” – looking at the cross from Mark’s gospel.

I apologise that my blog has become even more neglected over the last month, but I have been uploading videos weekly.

If you want to follow these videos, the best thing is to subscribe to my channel there (click the Subscribe button on that page). You can also subscribe on Facebook, but I tend to find Facebook a bit more unreliable for showing you new content.

I will try to get a mailing list set up with new videos as that is probably the safest way! But the best bet for now is to subscribe on YouTube.

I’m not going to close the blog, but I just wanted to explain where I am while I’m not here…