When 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.
A few weeks ago I had a really crazy idea about starting a YouTube channel about playing guitar. To be quite honest I thought I was mad, and dismissed the idea. But over the past few weeks I haven’t been able to dismiss it very easily, and I wonder whether this is perhaps God’s way of prodding me to do it.
So, without further ado, this is my new (possibly short-lived) project. I’d explain it here, but I thought it’s just as easy to actually show the video where I talk about it.
I apologise in advance for annoying facial tics etc, I tried to keep it to a minimum but it’s been a long day! I just wanted to get something out there. Do let me know what you think – you can comment on the YouTube video or contact me directly.
I’ve been thinking a bit recently about “The Poor” (apologies for the quote marks, I’ll explain why in a minute). Clacton, where I’ve been for the last three years, is not a rich area – according to the Church Urban Fund, the parish of Great Clacton ranks 892 out of 12,599 parishes nationally for deprivation. This is something which I’ve been mulling over for a while. Then, the other night I watched Professor Green: Living in Poverty, which was looking at the issue of child poverty in the UK (it’s worth watching, by the way). And today, I read that Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, has criticised the Church of England for abandoning the poor.
I don’t pretend to have any special insights into “The Poor”, but I offer here a few thoughts which I hope might prove useful to some.
“The Poor” are not an alien species
A month or two ago I got round to thinking about being in a more deprived area, and wondered – of the people I know round here, who are “The Poor”? And it made me realise two things: (1) I probably know people who would come under that label (people don’t usually talk much about their finances, of course); (2) they are not different to me.
People sometimes talk about “The Poor” as if they are other, as if they are different, as if there is a class of people called “The Poor” and they are on that side and we are on this side. We all know, of course, that the reality is much more complicated with shades of grey (the government have started using a Multiple Deprivation Index, for example, which takes into account seven different factors). But I think it’s easy to talk about “The Poor” as if they aren’t us, which is silly, because the poor are ‘us’. This is why I started out putting “The Poor” in scare quotes – because this is how I think it gets talked about a lot of the time.
I don’t think it’s wrong to talk about “The Poor” – Jesus did – but it’s important to remember to always have in mind that the reality is somewhat more complicated.
Housing is really important
One of the things that struck me about the Professor Green programme was that housing is really important. If the place where you live is secure, then you can cope with a lot. (There was another programme recently called “The Week the Landlords Moved In” which showed something similar).
When I was growing up, my Dad became the pastor of a small independent church in a Suffolk town. Although I didn’t really know much about it at the time, he was receiving a very low wage – far less than the national average. In fact, my Mum told me years later that sometimes she didn’t know where the next meal was coming from – she had to count every penny and make the most of everything. However, I always had what I needed (clothes, food, etc) – we never went without the essentials as a family. And I think the biggest reason for that is my parents did actually own the house.
People talk about a housing crisis in the UK, and unfortunately it’s those in the lowest income bracket who suffer the most because of it.
Family / marriage is really important
Another thing that struck me about the Professor Green programme is that of the three families he talked to, in two of them the Dad had abandoned them and in the other (as far as I could tell) the parents were not married. It’s not really surprising – when a family breaks down and splits up, it becomes very hard to manage. How can a single Mum be expected to bring up three children and work to earn enough money to support them?
I talked a little about this in my last post, but it should be deeply troubling to all of us that marriage is becoming exclusively a preserve of the wealthy. I did a little (and very non-scientific) experiment recently: when we were visiting my Dad, we took our daughter to the local park. It’s in a fairly nice middle-class kind of area. I made a point of looking around to see how many people were wearing wedding rings – lots of them were. Most of the parents were not that young – i.e. probably waited a few years to get married and then have kids. In contrast, in Clacton, the picture is very different – lots of younger parents, not very many of them married. This is backed up by the research – according to the Marriage Foundation:
There’s a growing Marriage Gap: 87 per cent of high earners (over £43,000) marry; only 24 per cent of low earners (under £16,000) marry. The rich get married (and stay together); the poor don’t.
Family breakdown causes huge problems, particularly for those on the lowest incomes. I’d suggest that if the government (and the church) want to do something for the poor, they could do a lot worse than promoting marriage.
Mental health and isolation
Two other issues which I noticed in the Professor Green programme. Firstly, mental health: all three of the families involved had someone who suffered from some sort of mental health issue and was unable to work. Mental health is becoming a massive issue – which is why the young royals (William, Kate and Harry) came up with the Heads Together campaign.
Secondly, all of the families involved seemed to be suffering in isolation: I didn’t see many friends or family members helping out. This could, of course, simply be a matter of what they filmed / included – but it did strike me that none of them seemed to have anyone they could really call on for help. (And isolation probably doesn’t help with the mental health, either).
“Good news to the poor”
What can we say about this from a Christian perspective? According to Luke’s gospel, when Jesus began his public ministry in Nazareth, he quoted this passage from the prophet Isaiah:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Jesus applied these words to himself, as the one who was anointed by God. But in what sense does Jesus proclaim ‘good news to the poor’?
Some people say that Christians should seek to serve the poor by transforming unjust structures in society – by calling on the government to build more houses, by creating more jobs, by giving out food and money to those in need etc. I’m sure all these are good things.
But what the Bible says our root problem is, fundamentally, is not unjust structures in society or lack of money but sin. The sin which separates us from God, the sin that separates us from our neighbour.
This is what came home to me as I was watching the Professor Green programme. Sin – failing to do what God wants us to do – was at the root of pretty much everything. Think about family breakdown: God has designed family life in a particular way, and yet we think that we know better and decide to improve on it. Sure, those women whose partners walked away from them weren’t can’t be blamed for their other halves walking out – but at some point in the past they had to decide to get together with them, to have children, etc. This is not trying to blame the victim, but simply to say that our choices have consequences.
Housing is also affected by family breakdown: if a family no longer lives together, two houses are going to be required rather than one. In the programme I mentioned about landlords, one woman said that she and her ex-husband were home owners – until they split up.
What about isolation? I was struck afresh recently by how the New Testament never envisions an isolated Christian. In other words, in the Bible, Christians are always part of the church – never separated from it. Christians are called to meet and share their lives together. In an ideal church – and no church is even close to ideal, but some are closer than others – people’s needs should be looked after and everyone loved and cared for. Jesus famously said: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). In those programmes, I often wondered what it would have been like if the people featured were actually part of a church family.
And finally – mental health. What does sin have to do with mental health? I think it has a lot to do with mental health. I don’t think that God takes all our problems away (physical or mental) in this life, but I think things are often more bearable when walking with God and walking in His ways. Augustine said in a prayer in his Confessions, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless above all things until they find their rest in you.” When we are living in right relationship with our creator, when we are living in accordance with the ways He has given us to live – these things are a big deal and make a huge difference.
The best news is, of course, that Jesus died for our sins: Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for our sins so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness. Jesus sends His Spirit to us now, one who will walk with us and transform us day by day. We have hope, we have joy, we have the “life to the full” (John 10:10). Christians have been adopted as children of their loving heavenly father, and can trust that all things work together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
This is why the gospel is good news for the poor: because the poor have the same problem as anyone – only, perhaps, the problems for the less well-off are more acutely felt because they don’t have the resources to be able to escape the consequences of sin so easily.
Which brings me to my last point.
We are all “The Poor”
Back where I started out: “The Poor” are not different – in fact, in God’s eyes, we are all “The Poor”. Jesus once wrote to the church in Laodicea:
You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see.
This particular church thought they were rich because they had material wealth – but they were poor towards God. They were poor in spirit – but they didn’t realise it! When Jesus began the beatitudes “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), he meant people who realised their own spiritual poverty before God. Why are they blessed? Because those who recognise their own poverty are able to receive from God’s riches.
Recently at church we sang James Seddon’s hymn “Go Forth and Tell”, and was struck by the verse:
Go forth and tell where still the darkness lies;
in wealth or want, the sinner surely dies:
give us, O Lord, concern of heart and mind,
a love like yours which cares for all mankind.
“In wealth or want, the sinner surely dies”. This is absolutely true. Whether someone is a millionaire or doesn’t have a penny to put to their name – in God’s eyes both are equally sinful, equally poor, equally needing the gospel. The only question for both is: will you accept your spiritual poverty and come to the Lord Jesus, who proclaims good news to the poor?
Let’s fix education and the country in one blog post. Simple, right?
Oh, hold on a moment. Not simple. That’s the one. Still, it’s a subject worth thinking about. Over the past few weeks I’ve had a couple of thoughts about what might improve education (and, over time, the country). I know that education isn’t always the answer, but it does make a difference and it’s important to think about what we teach children.
I hope that my two suggestions here are worthwhile and make good sense, however I welcome any feedback / comments / suggestions.
Idea 1: Political philosophy
“Political philosophy” makes it sound a bit grander than it really is. What I’m getting at is – teach children what the differences are between different political parties. For example, what drives the Conservative party, and how does that differ from the Labour party?
I was talking to a friend the other day about this, and both of us (who’d been through the education system about ten years apart) said that we had never really had any teaching at all on different political parties / ideologies. It’s taken me to the age of 33 to begin to understand the different political parties and where they’re coming from. Surely it would have been helpful to have some info when I was at school?
This is what I don’t understand: the government expect us to vote – but we don’t get given any information to help us make that choice. In my case, I started out simply by voting for who my parents voted for, because I didn’t know any better. What would have helped a lot is some understanding of the ‘big picture’ of where the different parties were coming from – election leaflets will often focus on one or two issues, but that doesn’t really give you much of a picture of where they’re coming from.
We live in tough times, politically – there is a huge amount of division in the country. If younger people were encouraged to think for themselves about politics, rather than simply sharing memes on social media, I think this would help a lot with understanding ‘the other side’.
One of the interesting things about the last election was that younger folk mostly voted for Labour – the older the voter, the more likely to vote Conservative. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but one reason is likely the use of social media. If I based my voting decision purely on the memes I saw on Facebook, I’d probably have voted Labour too.
All parties want to attract younger voters. I think a good start would be to encourage young people to understand the difference between political philosophies and make an educated decision, rather than simply relying on messages that get sent out on social media (which are, shall we say… not very balanced). In retrospect, I would have really valued this at school – why not make it part of the curriculum? I feel this would be a good start at helping people who are on different sides of the political spectrum understand each other a bit better. Facebook tends to divide – why not use the schools system to bring together?
Idea 2: Marriage and family
At the moment schools / the government seem willing to bend over backwards to help a small minority of people (transgender / ‘genderfluid’), while at the same time being unwilling to help a huge number of young people who are affected by family breakdown.
If you don’t think that family breakdown is a huge issue, have a read through the Marriage Foundation website.
If current trends remain as they are, any child born today in the UK has only a 50/50 chance of being with both their birth parents by the age of 15.
Cohabiting parents make up 19 per cent of all couples with dependent children, but account for half of all family breakdown.
Nearly all parents (93 per cent) who stay together until their children reach 15 are married.
Parents who are married before they have a child are far more likely to stay together.
And the list goes on.
The point is, it is beyond question that marriage brings with it many benefits – to individuals, to children, to society. And yet, when I was at school at least (and I don’t know what the experience of other people is) – we weren’t really told any of this.
We were taught a little about the biology of sex, we were taught about reproduction – but we weren’t taught about marriage. It was simply assumed that we’d learn about it from elsewhere.
I appreciate that the government is in a bit of a bind here, because every time the promotion of marriage is mentioned (it gets talked about from time to time) some people get very angry. Many people don’t like the implied criticism of their life choices, which is understandable. But the statistics are clear for all to see. The facts do not change just because some people find them inconvenient.
My suggestion would be simply to teach this to young people without bias: let them look at the statistics for themselves, let them analyse what the marriage foundation (and others) have to say – let them think critically about it.
When I was a teenager, and it seems still today, ‘received wisdom’ (i.e. what everyone else is doing) is – you get together with someone, sleep with them, move in with them, have kids, and then – and only then – if you’re really committed, you get married. I think this is basically the wrong way round, demonstrably so, and perhaps if a few more children were exposed to this kind of thinking it might help them to make better – or at least more informed – choices.
So, those are my two suggestions for sorting the country out. It all boils down to letting kids analyse and think critically about issues without fear of getting the ‘wrong’ answer. Give them the information they need. Maybe, just maybe, it might help a little to bridge some of the gaps which have opened up in our society.
I am writing this on Pentecost Sunday, where the church remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early church (recorded in the Bible in Acts 2:1-13). One of the significant aspects of this story is that the apostles were enabled to speak in other languages – as verse 4 says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” The commentators on this passage often refer to Genesis 11 – the Tower of Babel incident, where the languages of the people were confused and people spread out over the earth. It is often said that Pentecost is a reversal of the curse of the Tower of Babel. At Babel the languages of the people were confused, at Pentecost people the Spirit enables people to break the language barrier. Simple.
… or is it?
I’m not sure it’s quite that simple. This interpretation would imply that languages and differences between cultures were sinful and a result of the curse – but I don’t think this is the case. Let’s take a closer look.
Putting the Tower of Babel into context
In Genesis 10, just before the Tower of Babel incident, we have the so-called ‘Table of Nations’ – an account of what happened to the descendants of Noah. The last two verses of that chapter – just before the Babel account – say this:
31 These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.
32 These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.
So, prior to the Babel incident, Genesis is already talking about clans, languages, territories, and nations. This suggests to me that the dividing up of humanity into nations is not a result of the Babel incident, but something which God intended to happen as mankind filled the earth and subdued it (Gen 1:28). The idea is that God didn’t want humanity simply to sit around in one place and stick together, but to fill the whole earth – and cultural expressions were simply a part of that plan, including language. Diversity in this way is something which brings God glory.
So what was going on at Babel?
Good question. I think a close reading of the Babel text actually agrees with this interpretation.
The passage starts: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” It’s interesting that it starts in this way, given that we’ve just had the Table of Nations which talks about different languages! But we’ll shelve that for now. The people moved eastward and then: “they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’”
This is interesting for two reasons: (1) they wanted to make a name for themselves; (2) they wanted to avoid being scattered over the whole earth. Why do you think the people wanted to avoid being scattered? I believe this is because ‘scattering’ is what God wanted them to do, as we’ve just seen. The people’s sin was wanting to stick together rather than carry out God’s plan – to spread out and diversify across the earth.
When the Lord comes down and confuses their language, the end of the incident is described: “From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” So God scatters them, despite the intentions of the people. God’s will prevails, even though the people are against it.
This is what I think, then, is going on in this passage:
God designed mankind to spread over the whole earth. Cultural differences and diversity are a right and good part of God’s plan in creation.
In the Tower of Babel, mankind decided to unite together and make a name for itself out of pride rather than scattering as God intended. The sin of Babel was mankind coming together for the wrong reasons and the wrong ends.
God therefore confuses the language (something which would have happened anyway if the people had been obeying God), and the people scatter as he intended.
So – the Babel incident is God’s way of ensuring that mankind did what He originally intended, and spread across the earth. Seen this way, the curse of Babel is not that the languages were confused – rather, God confused in the languages in order to accomplish His purposes.
I think this fits best with our experience – I love seeing Christians from other cultures worshipping God in their own ways. Of course, in every culture there will be elements that deny the gospel – all cultures bear the mark of the Fall – but in many ways each one contributes something unique to displaying the wisdom, power and glory of God.
How does this affect Pentecost?
Under this reading, Pentecost is not so much a simple reversal of the curse of Babel. We’ve seen this from Genesis, but there are a few reasons within the text of Acts 2 which lead us to this conclusion:
The passage makes clear that it is “God-fearing Jews” who heard the apostles speaking in their own languages. The curse of Babel (if that is indeed the right phrase) was something which applied to everyone.
People heard the apostles speaking in their own languages. It wasn’t the case that they could all understand one language, on the contrary, the Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak in different tongues.
If we look further afield throughout the New Testament, we shouldn’t forget the wonderful vision of Revelation 7: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Instead of these ethnic / linguistic differences being obliterated, they are apparently still there at the end. They of course do not cause any division, but God’s glory is shown not in conformity but in the diversity of all the nations worshipping him in the unique ways that they can bring.
When Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”, he doesn’t mean these differences are obliterated – rather that they don’t matter any more, because unity is not in race, language or culture but in Christ Jesus.
How should we understand Pentecost?
This is, of course, the million dollar question. Something that struck me today as we were hearing the readings again is that mankind at the Tower of Babel did two things wrong: (1) they tried to create unity by earthly means; (2) they tried to use that unity to deny God. At Pentecost, however, (1) unity is created by heavenly means – unity-in-diversity; (2) that unity is used for God’s purposes. Pentecost is God’s answer to Babel, of sorts – but not a reversal of the curse.
Although I don’t normally pay attention to such things, last weekend Pippa Middleton married her fiancé James Matthews. (I was only taking an interest because the wedding was conducted by the former vicar of our parish here in Clacton!) Apparently they had four hymns during the service, one of which was Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.
This hymn is one of my favourites, written by John Newton – he who wrote the much more famous Amazing Grace.
The hymn itself is a little hard to understand if you’re not well-versed in the Old Testament and the wider story of the Bible (it is chock full of references), and this is why I thought it might make a good hymn to consider here. I won’t attempt to go through each reference, but try to show the bigger picture.
The most important thing to deal with first is: what is the city of Zion? Zion in the Bible is another name for Jerusalem – the city of God, the place where God dwelt with His people and where they worshipped Him. The temple was the earthly place to show that He dwelt with them there. Hence the words of the hymn: “He whose word cannot be broken [ref. John 10:35] / formed thee for His own abode.” So God formed Zion as the place where He would dwell with His people.
In the New Testament, we are told that ultimately this finds its fulfilment not in an earthly city but in the new creation (Rev 21:2) – where those who believe will dwell with God forever. All Christians are on their way to this heavenly city, a picture which John Bunyan elucidates in The Pilgrim’s Progress. This is fundamental to understanding the hymn.
The book of Hebrews really develops this theme. This is what it says in Hebrews 11:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
Abraham lived “by faith” – he lived in a tent because he knew by faith that a greater dwelling was coming – as the author poetically puts it here, “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” What happened to Abraham in some way foreshadows the Christian life. Just as he lived by faith, because he was looking forward to something greater, so too the Christian lives by faith.
And this explains the third verse: “Round each habitation hovering / see the cloud and fire appear”. This is a reference to the exodus, where the people of Israel were led by cloud during the day and fire during the night. What relevance does this have to us? The Bible portrays the Christian life in some ways as a ‘new exodus’ – Christians are on a journey to the Promised Land – not on this earth, but the new creation. God protects and leads His people today just as He did in that first exodus. (The hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ also picks up on this theme).
All of this leads to the conclusion, my favourite lines of the hymn:
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasure
none but Zion’s children know.
The book of Hebrews makes clear that this world – what we can currently see and touch – is far from all there is to life. In fact, Christians are members of a far greater kingdom – a kingdom which “cannot be shaken” (Heb 12:28). All the pleasures of this life are passing away – they are simply “pomp and show”. The only ones who have “solid joys and lasting treasure” – cf. Jesus’ words in Matt 6:19-21 – are “Zion’s children” – i.e. Christians, those who believe and trust in the Lord Jesus.
When I heard that this was sung at Pippa Middleton’s wedding, I have to be honest – I did feel it was a little ironic. The wedding itself was pretty lavish and cost a lot of money – the cynical part of me wonders if it might even be described as “boasted pomp and show”. However, I don’t want to comment on their faith – who knows, perhaps they knowingly chose it for exactly that reason.
Anyway, I hope that this helps to explain a little of the theology underlying such a wonderful hymn!