Despatches from the front line of the Church
I found myself on a Virgin Atlantic flight to Miami recently, folded up into my economy-class seat like Ikea flat-pack furniture. As we took off from Heathrow (an airport that offers visitors to our country an authentic British experience – overcrowding, overpricing and people in uniform viewing you with suspicion), I discovered that my entertainment console thingie didn’t work.
Console thingies which – by the way – tend to promise vast quantities of free entertainment. Singapore Airlines for example boast ’80 movies’. Which sounds great, except that half of them won’t be in your language or be for kids (or both). Of what remains, most will be depressing romps with Jennifer Lawrence growing increasingly miserable for two hours, or a mindless series of explosions connected by brief, intermittent images of Gerard Butler pulling his best mean face. This leaves approximately two movies per flight that are watchable.
Quite a few of the console thingies didn’t work on the flight (provoking furious reactions from chubby, slightly-inebriated British tourists). But don’t forget, it’s only about ten years since all we got was one movie, on some postage stamp-sized screen two miles away at the front of the plane, which in order to see you had to perch yourself half on a seat-rest and half on the shoulder of another passenger.
So I read a book.
And all was well, until this happened.
This, the ‘menu’ (a document differing from other menus I’ve seen in that it appeared broadly devoid of choice) informed me, proudly, was ‘Afternoon Tea’.
I like Afternoon Tea. Afternoon Tea is important. Containing cream, sugar, meat and tea, it has all four major food groups. Afternoon Tea is about rainy days out at National Trust properties, trying to look interested in some 17th century collection of toilet roll holders before fighting to get served in an overcrowded cafe. Afternoon Tea is about greedily slathering cream and jam over giant fluffy scones, before the pleasure evaporates after the first few mouthfuls as the overload of sugar and fat dissolves your kidneys and sends your body into toxic shock. Afternoon Tea is about eating cucumber sandwiches (the only time you’ll eat cucumber sandwiches) and pretending that you’re late 19th century gentry.
Afternoon Tea is not about a cheese sandwich and a cake the size of a golf ball. I don’t care if it’s served 30,000ft in the air with breathtaking vistas of a cloud-strewn landscape, it’s not Afternoon Tea. I don’t care if it’s the closest to clotted cream and delicate pink macaroons I’m going to get when I’m 350 miles off the coast of Florida, it’s not Afternoon Tea.
It should have been called Not Quite Dinnertime Snack Thing Box.
So Virgin Atlantic’s definition of ‘Afternoon Tea’ was sharply different to my own. This is not the only time I’ve been caught out by this sort of thing. I visited the US about fifteen years ago and found myself talking to a senior politician in the Midwest. We had a great chat, until it turned into a mortifying experience when I referred to a pet using a word which is quite normal for ‘domestic cat’ in the UK – but has a very different meaning in the US.
Afternoon Tea and God
There’s an interesting difference between what someone calls a thing, what that thing actually is, and what you recognise by the name that the person has called the thing. All three can be subtly – or hugely – different. For example, I used to own a car that I described as a ‘gentleman’s sports coupe in midnight blue’. The manufacturer called it a ‘Ford Puma’. My friends, rather unkindly, called it a ‘purple hairdressers’ car’.
In few other places is understanding this more important, than in reading the Bible. The Bible is a collection of texts written between about 2500 and 1900 years ago. They were written in different languages to English. They were written in very different cultures, and (for most Christians) a completely different part of the world to that in which we live. In short, there are four big barriers between us and understanding what the text actually means. The Bible comes from a:
To properly understand it, we have to look at it through those four lenses. We need to use ‘4D glasses’.
What do Starbucks and the church have in common?
Here’s an example from Matthew 10, in which Jesus sends the disciples out on their first mission to surrounding towns and villages:
Get you no gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, no wallet for your journey, neither two coats, nor shoes, nor staff: for the labourer is worthy of his food.
In our culture, a ‘staff’ is normally a walking stick. So we would tend to see the staff as just another piece of equipment that Jesus is ruling out as part his general encouragement for the disciples to be reliant on God.
But if you look into the background of this text, a couple of things are notable. Firstly, that the disciples are probably teenagers. The disciples of a rabbi are usually teenage boys, and substantially younger than their rabbi (Jesus is, apparently, about 30). So why would they need a walking stick? They’re young and fit. It doesn’t make sense. Secondly, we know that walking between towns and villages in this period (Israel, approximately AD30) is dangerous. There are animals and criminals to contend with, and no CCTV or PCSOs. So the staff is not a walking stick – it’s a weapon.
That’s right – Jesus is urging the disciples to go out and spread the message unarmed. He’s urging them to be physically defenceless. This has real implications for us as Christians, but it’s something which we lose if we don’t look through the 4D glasses.
Wrong and wrongerer
When we fail to properly allow for the context of a Bible text, we don’t just lose some meanings, we also create meanings that weren’t there in the first place. This can be extremely destructive, irresponsible and dangerous.
One of the riskiest practices here is ‘proof-texting’ – extracting a particular verse from the Bible in support of a particular point. It’s usually intended as proof-positive that the person quoting it is ‘right’ about their opinion. We see this a lot at the moment in the church’s discussion about the future of marriage, and we saw it a lot twenty years ago in the Anglican church’s navel-gazing about whether women should be allowed to, you know, do stuff.
Sometimes it’s fine, but a lot of the time it totally misunderstands what much of the Bible is. It’s not necessarily intended as a law book, however much the numbered chapters and verses make it look like one. Most texts within it are carefully-crafted, intricate, and situational. Without fully using the 4D glasses and understanding the nuances and context, you risk disrupting the lives of other people – Christian or not – and causing pain.
Two ears, two eyes, one mouth
The definition of ‘worship’ for early Christians was quite broad. It was not limited solely to ‘singing’, which is for many of us what we think of now by that word. Worship is about communing with God – and studying the Bible, and trying to understand what it’s really saying, is very much part of that.
Rick Warren (FOR IT IS HE), offers a fantastic and clear approach in his Application Bridge. Have a look.
So before we take the dramatic step of carrying out the directions of a particular verse from the Bible, or quoting it to each other, let’s try to make sure it means exactly what we think it does. Let’s research it, deeply and extensively. Look at it in context, try to understand where it comes to us from, geographically and culturally.
Because that’s worship too.