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.

Brexit, politics, and counterfeit gods

_90076860_thinkstockphotos-526561176Every so often I am asked to contribute a short piece to end our local spoken news service – the Tendring Talking Times. This was my contribution for this week.

It seems like the world is going mad at the moment. The Brexit vote a few weeks ago triggered an avalanche of bad feeling in the country and exposed a deep rift in our society. Politics is becoming increasingly polarised: it seems that it is now almost impossible for people to respect someone with a different political opinion, let alone think they are a decent moral person. We don’t just disagree with people who have a different political persuasion; we think they are actually immoral. Something similar is happening in the USA with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – the country is divided over which political leader to support.

People seem to understand that there is something wrong with society, something wrong with our world, and they believe that these problems need political solutions. Some people believed that the right thing for Britain was to stay in the European Union – that things will all go downhill from now on. Other people believed that the right thing was to leave the European Union – it was the country’s only hope for a better future.

From a Christian perspective, all of these beliefs suffer from the same root problem: hope is placed in political leaders and policies when that hope should be reserved for God alone. I have just finished reading a book called ‘Counterfeit Gods’ by Tim Keller, a pastor from New York, and he puts it like this:

When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel.

To ascribe to mankind what should be reserved for God alone is what the Bible calls idolatry – worshipping the created rather than the Creator. In the book Keller goes on:

Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil. After the last presidential election, my eighty-four-year-old mother observed, “It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.” After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president as lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion.

Although Keller is writing about the situation in the USA, I believe he could equally be writing about Britain today: we have turned politics into a god and placed all our hopes in our political leaders and ideas.

In contrast, the Christian faith does not allow us to demonise or to deify any created thing. Nothing human, no person or political idea, is the cause of all our problems or the solution to them. The Bible is clear that the root of the human problem is not political but what it calls sin: as St. Paul puts it, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.

The biggest problem the human race has is sin, and it is a universal problem which cannot be solved by political leaders: it is a spiritual problem. A spiritual problem has to have a spiritual solution, and that solution is found only in Jesus Christ. St. Peter says about Christ, “He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness”.

The biggest issue of the human race is not political in nature but spiritual: we are sinners. But Christ himself bore the penalty for our sin on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness. That is the kind of salvation that we all need.

The Bible and (same-sex) marriage: Cutting through to the root issue

Marriage
Image by Sabtastic

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have blogged quite a few times about marriage, and in particular same-sex marriage. You can see my previous posts under the “marriage” tag. Anyway, it seems we are still talking about marriage: the debate has simply moved from society – where same-sex marriage is now a reality – to the church.

General Synod recently spent a few days finishing the two-year-long ‘Shared Conversations’ process in which the CofE has been trying to find a way forward on same-sex marriage. As part of that, a number of books have been released and a number of people have written quite passionately in support of changing the church’s current teaching. These include ‘Amazing Love’ by Andrew Davison (reviewed here and here), as well as ‘Journeys in Grace and Truth’ by Jayne Ozanne (reviewed here and here). What is notable about both of these books is that they claim to be orthodox Christian, Biblical accounts of why we should change the church’s teaching.

If you read the books, and look at the discussion it generates on Ian Paul’s blog (and elsewhere), the discussion often focusses on peripheral issues. It can be very difficult to digest what is actually going on and get to the heart of the issue. I’ve had an interest in this issue for a long time now, and I wanted to write to try and outline the issue at the heart of why I believe marriage can only be defined as the lifelong union of a man and a woman.

It’s easy to get lost in the details, but to my mind you can boil down the issue to one basic root issue, which is this:

What does the Bible say positively about marriage?

It is sometimes claimed that Jesus said nothing about same-sex relationships; however, he did say something about marriage. The Pharisees asked a question about divorce, and he replied with this answer (this is from Mark 10):

‘It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied. ‘But at the beginning of creation God “made them male and female”. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

So when Jesus was asked a question about marriage, he goes back to creation – he takes us back to Genesis 1-2 and to God’s original intention for mankind.

What does this teach us about marriage? Marriage was intended from the very beginning of creation to be a permanent relationship (hence why Jesus gave this answer to a question about divorce) – but he also says that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. In marriage, with apologies to the Spice Girls (and to you for putting that thought in your head), two become one.

Some people claim that Genesis 1-2 is only about a covenant commitment – that the male-female character of marriage is purely accidental. But given Jesus’ words here – the male-female nature of marriage comes across more clearly than being a lifelong union, doesn’t  it? If you argue that the male-female nature of marriage is purely accidental, then so is everything else about marriage from Genesis 1-2.

And this is the issue. Marriage becomes entirely what the reader thought it was before they looked at the Bible.

Jeffrey John once wrote a book “Permanent, Stable, Faithful” in which he argued that same-sex marriage was in accord with the Bible – so long as those relationships exhibited the three values of permanence, stability and faithfulness.

The thing is, where do those values come from? As we have just seen, the Bible doesn’t say “marriages must be permanent, stable, and faithful”. Let’s take permanence, for example: the Bible doesn’t say “marriages should be permanent”, but it does say, “a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”. So permanence is only defined in the context of a male-female relationship.

Similarly with faithfulness. The Bible says, “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb 13:4). But what is meant by faithfulness? Faithfulness, again, is defined in the sense of not becoming “one flesh” with another man or woman (1 Cor 6:16 – it’s interesting that when lawyers were drafting same-sex marriage legislation, consummation could not be defined and so was left out). Faithfulness is, to put it bluntly, not having sex with someone of the opposite sex who is not your spouse.

Some people define faithfulness as ‘not sleeping with someone else without telling your partner’. In other words, ‘open relationships’ can embody faithfulness – depending on how you define it. I can well imagine someone who had such a view reading Heb 13:4 and it fitting in with their preconceived ideas – because they had an idea of what faithfulness was rather than letting the Bible define it.

This brings me to my final point. When you abstract your understanding of marriage from what the Bible actually says, marriage can become virtually anything. Almost every argument for same-sex marriage would also work for, say, polyamorous marriage. Or incest. Or ‘open’ relationships. Or time-limited marriages. And so on: the point is that it’s up to you and how you want to define it. Not the Bible.

That’s the root issue here: either we let the Bible be God’s Word and define what marriage is, or we crowbar the Bible into supporting same-sex marriage and opening the door for virtually anything. Don’t be fooled by fancy words, follow the logic and see where it leads you.

King Saul and King Jesus: Thoughts on 1 Samuel 10

samuel-saul
Samuel anointing Saul

In the past few weeks at church we’ve been working our way through the Bible, trying to get the ‘big picture’ of the whole Bible story. This week we reached 1 Samuel 10, where God chooses Saul to be the next King of Israel and Saul is anointed by the prophet Samuel.

It’s a fascinating passage in many ways. There are details in the story which make you scratch your head, some of them are a bit puzzling. In the Old Testament, the key to understanding it is to realise that it is actually all about Jesus – and I think that is exactly the case here. I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts about how this passage is actually about Jesus, in the way that he contrasts with Saul. (The actual passage we had this morning was 1 Samuel 10:9-26. The other passage was the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem from Luke 19 – the reasons for mentioning that will become clear…)

The passage in 1 Samuel 10 follows on from a rather comical story about Saul being sent to look for some lost donkeys. His father sends him out to find them, but doesn’t find them anywhere. They nearly give up, but Saul’s servant suggests asking the “man of God” – Samuel – who could help them. Saul is presented as a bit of a helpless case really: he doesn’t find the donkeys, he doesn’t really have any initiative – his servant is portrayed in a better light than he is!

Contrast #1: Jesus, the man of God, sends his disciples out in Luke 19 to bring back a donkey. He doesn’t need to search for it: he knows exactly where it will be found. Jesus is greater than Saul.

Samuel said to Saul  that “The Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person” (1 Sam 10:6). This is exactly what happens at the beginning of our passage, as Samuel had said.

Contrast #2: The Spirit of God came upon Jesus at his baptism – but he didn’t need to be changed into a different person. His heart didn’t need to be changed. Jesus is greater than Saul.

Twice in this passage Saul tries to duck his responsibility. Firstly he didn’t tell his uncle what Samuel said about being made king, and then he hides himself among the supplies to try and stop the people making him king! Hardly what you would call king material. In fact, his main qualification to be king (apart from, of course, the fact that God chose him) was that he stood a head taller than anyone else. In other words, he looked the part – but he wasn’t on the inside.

Contrast #3: When God sends Samuel a bit later on to anoint David as King, the Lord says, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Saul had the appearance of a good king physically, but his heart was not right. Jesus, on the other hand, as Isaiah 53 puts it: “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” He didn’t look like a king – and yet, his heart was completely right and true. Jesus is greater than Saul.

The passage finishes with these words: “But some scoundrels said, ‘How can this fellow save us?’ They despised him and brought him no gifts. But Saul kept silent.” Scoundrels throw insults at Saul and question whether he can “save” them. But Saul keeps silent – which is perhaps an implied criticism of Saul, maybe he should have spoken up and said something. Another example of how Saul was not king material – at least, not in the eyes of the world.

Contrast #4: When Jesus was hanging on the cross, people threw insults at him and said “He saved others, but he can’t save himself” (Mark 15:31). And Jesus, before Pilate, was silent (Mark 15:5). In the words of Isaiah 53 once more, “as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Jesus was the one who could truly save others. Jesus is greater than Saul.


I think these contrasts are all here to point to the fact that Jesus is the great King, the King of Kings, the one whom God has chosen and anointed to rule eternally. The Israelites wanted to be like the other nations, they wanted to have a king just like everyone else – but God has very different ideas about kings.

It turns out that what they – and we – really need is not one who is physically impressive, a brilliant strategist who is able to lead an army into battle. No – what we really need is a king who has a right heart, a king who can truly save others – not from physical danger but from their sins. Saul could never be that king: the only one who could is Jesus.

Brexit and the decline of Christian understanding

The last few days I have felt particularly ashamed to be British. Not because the country voted to leave the EU, but because of the backlash following it. I appreciate that many people felt deeply unhappy with the result – it’s natural and understandable. Many people believed that leaving the EU was the wrong decision. No problem. People thought the opposite and felt equally strongly about it.

No, what got to me instead was some of the mocking characterisation of ‘Brexiteers’ – xenophobic, racist and ignorant “Little Englanders”.

A few years ago, in one of the comedian Chris Addison’s shows, he made the point that ‘Eurosceptic’ was wrong – because ‘sceptic’ implied that people had actually bothered to think about it. I think this is a good example of the kind of tone used on Facebook and the like recently: not always offensive, but generally implying that those who voted leave were lesser people, somehow.

It really makes me think of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

This seems to me to get to the heart of a lot of what is going on with moaning about Brexiteers. ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people – racists, xenophobes, ignoramuses – and especially not like this Brexiteer. I voted for Remain and I don’t want to sacrifice the futures of all our children for no good reason.”

The other night I had something of an epiphany: it seems to me that people who moaned about Brexiteers actually believed they were morally superior. It’s easy to treat someone else badly when you believe they are morally in the wrong (and you are in the right) – after all, they deserved it, right?

I think this attitude is linked with the decline of Christian understanding and morality in our culture. I believe that people growing up in decades past would have grown up with the language of the Book of Common Prayer – believing that mankind are “miserable offenders” and “there is no health in us”. Even people who didn’t regularly go to church would have had something of this attitude ingrained.

This has a big effect on how we see other people: if we believe that all people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – then if someone else gets something wrong, something of a moral nature, then they are still fundamentally no different to us: all are human beings, all are flawed, and the only hope is the grace of God which cannot be earned – only accepted.

On the other hand, if there is no Christian understanding of humanity, then I think you end up with what we’ve just seen: people who think differently are actually perceived as morally deficient in some way. Worse than that, they are wilfully morally deficient. They should try harder and stop being morally deficient, and in the meantime we’ll treat them with disdain and contempt until they realise how morally deficient they are and change.

I wrote about this in November last year when I talked about Bigotry and legalism in our culture. That was in the context of same-sex marriage, but I think the same could be said of Brexit.

If we want to learn to disagree well, I think we have to recover a truly Christian ethic: those on different sides of a divide like this are both human, both made in the image of God, and yet both flawed. Neither is infallible. Both are in equal need of God’s mercy. If by the grace of God we are able to see others in that way, perhaps we’ll be able to make positive progress. But until then I fear for the direction of political discourse in this country.