After years of miserably washing the dishes by hand like seventeenth century peasants, we’re now fortunate enough to have a dishwasher.
This chamber of magic water has significantly curtailed our kitchen arguments, or at least it did – until, unexpectedly, it went on strike and would only make edgy whirring noises.
‘It’s probably the filter, it needs unblocking,’ said Wifey, reclining on her chaise-longue while being fed grapes and fanned with palm leaves.
I rolled up my sleeves and went fishing around in the murky water like Crocodile Dundee. Alas, despite disassembling anything that seemed to come off (which was quite a lot, actually – including a number of things that initially didn’t want to come off and probably shouldn’t have), I could do nothing to encourage the water to leave.
So, we called up the lettings agency and, promptly, an engineer arrived six weeks later and unblocked the filter.
“Aw, look,” he said with the ubiquitous Australian verbal shrug. “You’ve gotta rinse the plates before putting them in, right?”
This was unhelpful for several reasons. Not least that it justified Wifey’s ongoing view that plates should be rinsed before they go in the dishwasher, but worse, that it justifies her father’s fixation with the same. This bothers me. If you have to wash the plate before it goes in the dishwasher, then what on earth is the point of the dishwasher? It’s like getting an Uber and the driver suggesting that he sits on your lap while you work the pedals.
Not that I am in the habit of comparing kitchen appliances to the Bible, but something else that seems to work just fine most of the time is Jeremiah 29:11:
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. [NRSV]
It’s a beautiful verse, filled with optimism and gushing with peace and security. Until, of course, the chaotic events of a cold world batter the sense that God has a plan out of us. Then it stops working.
Christians (especially evangelicals) are forever banging on about God’s plan. It’s the stock response to pretty much anything that happens; the place we go for hope, comfort, or (worse) to give others hope and comfort. There are few things less comforting than, in the midst of sorrow or grief, being told that it’s all ‘part of God’s plan’.
Don’t worry – I’m not going to delve into exegesis or start talking about what this verse means in its original context. Nor am I going to embark on a miserable philosophical discussion about predestination that makes you wish I was still writing about dishwashers. What is important though is to think about what we mean by the phrase ‘God’s plan’. A plan is a very human thing. It is a schedule of activity designed to make something happen within the constraints of time, resources and creativity.
But here’s the point: God operates under none of those constraints.
So how useful is the phrase ‘God’s plan’?
That concept might actually be quite limiting; another example of our tendency to put our unimaginably vast and powerful God in a box.
A better idea might be to reflect on what these verses tell us about God – no matter what happens around us.
For example, some of the things they might tell us are that we can trust Him, that there is good reason to hope, that even though we don’t understand everything – He loves us, is with us, and our story does have a happy ending.
After all, who are we really being invited to trust – God, or a ‘plan’?
I’ve been pretty shocked to see that so many Christians voted for Trump, that Christian leaders have endorsed or failed to challenge him, and that many Christians appear to be deploying a ‘coping mechanism’ by hoping that he is, indeed, ‘God’s’ candidate. Equally, I am sure that there are plenty of evangelical Christians who might be surprised at my Christian stance on matters like marriage equality and abortion.
We live in a world where Martin Luther King can suggest that Jesus was a socialist (though I think it might be fairer to suggest that socialism is quite Jesusist), and Bill Johnson can argue that socialism is the antithesis of Christianity. How can this be? How can people read the same Bible, profess the same faith, and have such radically different perspectives on such critical issues?
The answer is, quite easily. Humans are not necessarily rational or linear decision-makers. How we define, prioritise and live out the values we draw from the Bible are influenced by our personalities (check out frameworks like Myers-Briggs), experiences, cognitive biases, errors and heuristics, and even economic, social and cultural backgrounds. Underpin that with differences in our critical reasoning skills and education, and you’ve got more diversity of viewpoints than Hillsong has podcasts.
‘The Bible, though!’ I hear you shriek. ‘The Bible is clear!’
Well – is it? The Bible presents a huge weight of material. People from every opposing opinion in history have found stuff in it to support them, from the most loving of humanitarians to the cruellest of oppressors. The truth is that every time we read something in it, we are looking at it from a different time, language, culture and country – we are immediately interpreting it just by relating it to our own context and making decisions about what it means and how to respond.
So, with a global church at odds with itself, what do we do now? Here’s some ideas.
Be wary of calling people ‘false prophets’.
The Christian faith has a small set of core beliefs, and many secondary beliefs. To be a Christian, you need to adhere to those core beliefs (e.g. check out the Nicene Creed), but how we work those out can lead to differences in secondary beliefs. Calling each other ‘false prophets’ is often an unhelpful slur unless the individual is directly challenging those core beliefs, and elevating secondary beliefs to the importance of core ones is very dangerous.
Understand your cognitive biases, errors and heuristics.
Sorry reader, neither you nor the people you disagree with are truly rational. Read up on how your decisions are impacted by hidden factors, with authors like David Mcraney, Dan Ariely, Daniel Kahneman and Steve Peters. Once you understand how your critical reasoning might be affected, you can allow for those effects.
Furthermore, one of the reasons that the pollsters got Brexit and Trump wrong may be that some people were ashamed of their voting intentions. In fact, what we say, what we think we think, and what we really think, can be very different things (and we may not even be aware of the third). Try to identify what factors motivate the way you engage with the Bible, and as you meditate on it consider whether they are helpful or unhelpful. Be honest – what is really at the heart of why you think the way you do?
Get contextual with your Bible.
Many Christians really need to spend some time learning. Our faith is 2,000 years old, and what we think the New Testament (and indeed, Old Testament) means should be informed by years of academic disciplines like palaeography, textual criticism, archaeology and historical criticism. How the Bible came to be, how it gets to us, and how to relate to its constituent parts is key to building your understanding of it. Consider:
Reading books and listening to podcasts that open up the disciplines of theology to you. Consider getting access to resources like the brilliant series of Bible background dictionaries from IVP, the NT Pod, Godpod, and Tom Wright. Look into possible study with providers like Westminster Theological Centre;
Reading the book, not the passage. Zoom out. What are the overarching themes of a Gospel, a letter, or the New Testament itself? How should this inform your politics, ethics and views? How should it inform how we engage with the minutiae in the Bible?
That we’re in discipleship, not dictatorship. Engage with teaching, don’t swallow it whole without consideration. Just as we test prophetic words, use the Sunday morning sermon as a jumping-off point. Take those passages and your pastor’s viewpoint, and spend the rest of the week building up your knowledge of the passage’s context. Come to your own prayful conclusions, and share them.
Focus on the person, not their position.
Don’t enter debates – online or in person – just to win. How many Facebook posts read ‘oh yeah, yeah you are right, I’ll shush now. Thanks for correcting me, Yoda’? I can’t think of many times that a Christian has been argued into believing in one thing or another.
Enter discussion, in part, to understand the person with whom you debate. This is not the same as seeking to understand their position, which may be abhorrent.
The sense of ‘other’ and ‘difference’ is dangerous to us as humans. Instead, recognise that we are all products of our experiences and try to understand what experiences have shaped the way the other side is engaging. Once you understand that, you can start to share your perspective in a way with which the other side might more readily connect. Consider taking the matter offline, if it is safe to do so.
Disagreement is not the same thing as division.
The church needs to be comfortable, now, with people disagreeing. Pleas for unity when a candidate with an oppressive election platform has won are pleas for obedience. Some of us will fight Trump’s policies, Brexit, the political and cultural shifts arguably behind both, and other things because we find it hard to reconcile these things with our faith. Other Christians do not agree with some of the ‘traditional’ views on social issues, and they’re not going away. If churches wants unity, then they need to maintain a framework in which we can remain in communion together (which is, of course, entirely possible) and role-model the values of our faith, while disagreeing about secondary beliefs and how our faith is worked out in the public space.
Especially online, where inhibition is reduced. Drop the catty asides, LOLs, teary-laughing emojis, the need to have the last word, the debate tactics (straw-man and ad hominem in particular), the labelling, and the questioning of each other’s Christianity. Only one judge gets to decide whether we knew Him or not, and He doesn’t need your help.
There’s another, gentler way to phrase any point – the satisfaction we feel as we hit ‘send’ should not be because we’ve smashed our opponent with a zinger, but because we’ve found a kind way to query their point and suggest an alternative view.
This is not to say don’t challenge – now, more than ever, we need to be challenging things we think are wrong – but that how we do it matters too.
There are two great, opposed forces in the world. The first is my phone’s predictive text, which is like having a three year old second-guessing every word you speak and unilaterally changing the ones it doesn’t like to things that don’t make sense. The other is Google’s ‘don’t you mean…?’ function, the most passive-aggressive spellcheck of all time. Like an electronic Yin and Yang, one attempts to scramble all my communications while the other attempts to unravel them. Never mind Neo taking three movies to defeat the Matrix, all he needed to do was plug these two into each other and the Matrix would have blown itself up.
Followers of this blog will be familiar with my long-running bafflement with modern technology. Last year, we acquired a coffee machine and, having successfully used it without setting fire to anything or losing a hand, this gave me unmerited confidence to get one of those Bose wi-fi stereo thingies for Christmas. We have friends who have them, you see, and make it all seem so effortless. You know the sort – nice people, trendy people, who aren’t still using the same trousers they bought in 2006, know what the stuff in the window of the enchanted forest that is Currys does, and probably don’t get into arguments with each other about whether the tea towel can also be used to wipe the floor (it can’t, apparently).
‘Effortless’ was not my experience. Trying to get the infernal thing and my phone to connect with each other was like trying to facilitate a 19th-century aristocratic arranged marriage. The moment you think you’ve got one participant into setup mode and ready to go, you find the other has got cold feet and is trying to hook up with the toaster or something.
Wifey – she of the uni-purpose tea towels – is at one with the pixies that live inside these devices. She had the Bose and phone thing figured from the start, and her gentle whisper in either’s ear was all that was needed to send them off on their musical honeymoon (for me, though, my iPhone might as well be a slice of magic cut from the rump of a goblin, for all I understand what goes on inside it). Wifey will really come into her own after the robot uprising, when she can intercede on our behalf.
Fortunately, not everybody is as technologically illiterate as me, but almost nobody reading this will have sufficient knowledge to actually build an iPhone or understand how it makes the funny videos of cats happen. And this is fine. We don’t need to understand how it all works in order to get into arguments with strangers or watch videos of people falling over. So, here’s my question – if we are comfortable with using technology without fully understanding how it works, why is it that we don’t do the same with God?
We left the UK for sunnier climes this year, so while back in Winterfell we had a great church, we’re looking for one here. We visited one this week, and the preacher was talking about the book of Romans, which prompted me to have a proper look at it. I was interested to find this:
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”
This book is written by Paul, who’s a reliable guy. He had met people who were friends with Jesus, and his writing is the earliest Christian material we have after the events of Jesus’ life. In time terms, the distance between the events before and after Jesus’ death, and the earliest written work of Paul, is about the same as the time between now and when series 5 of Friends came out (you know, the one where Monica and Chandler are trying to keep their relationship a secret, and all that irritating Ross and Emily stuff happened). Romans is his enormous essay explaining why Jesus died, what it means, how it fits into history and what we need to do about it. There are a lot of answers.
But even here, Paul recognises that there are going to be ‘but why?’ questions. Why did Jesus need to die? Why couldn’t God have created a world where it wasn’t necessary? Why, why, why?
Paul’s answer contains a wisdom that we’re not good at grasping these days. There are limitations to our knowledge and intellect. God, by definition, sees more and understands more than us. It’s odd to imagine that, in order to believe in Him, we must understand His entire plan – and bizarre to imagine that we could. This is often mistaken for a matter of faith, but it isn’t, it’s trust. Faith is deciding to believe that Jesus is the answer for your life. Trust is believing that Jesus knows all the other answers.
The thing is, if we get too hung up on philosophical questions, we miss what’s on offer in Christianity. Romans sets out an amazing vision, one that was astounding back then but, with our modern over-familiarity, has jaded a little. Do yourself a favour and look into it. It doesn’t mean what you might think it means. It’s more amazing than that. In a world full of hate and anger and injustice, Jesus offers a most astonishing, almost-too-good-to-be-true hope for the future.
My faith is based not on philosophy, but on the experience of God in my life. (As it happens, I find the historical evidence for the events of the Gospels quite compelling, but nobody’s ever been argued into believing in God and neither have I.) I find the story of my life easier to understand with God as the main character.
I recognise the limitations of my human understanding – but I understand enough to believe, and to live. That, and being able to work my iPhone, is good enough for me.
I can sleep anywhere and in almost any position (a great superpower for aeroplanes, car journeys and on at least one occasion, a doctor’s surgery), but when I’m at home in bed I have the odd habit of suddenly waking up in the middle of the night in confusion.
Bizarre noctural adventures that my wife has had to tolerate included me leaping out of bed and searching the ceiling for ‘the sunroof, because I have to get out,’ scraping at the walls ‘because of the tiny things, there’s tiny things!” and believing in my half-awake haze that having slept on my arm, I’d permanently lost the use of it. ‘My arm! I can’t move my arm! Oh, oh no, I… oh no wait, it’s fine.’
None of these rude awakenings, however, have been as much of a jolt as discovering just how far we still have to go on gender equality. I am of course acutely aware of the global gender crisis, but closer to home I’d been shielded by my tightly-curated social media, in which progressive Christians like Rachel Held Evans and John Pavlovitz, and broader-based writers like Caitlin Moran, get the first and last words.
International Women’s Day this year, by the way, saw Sarah Vine at the Daily (F)ail celebrating it by undermining other women (go figure), astounding remarks by an Irish broadcaster about Maria Sharapova and, of course, Vladimir Putin exhibiting the traditional patriarchal confusion between the ‘encouraging’ and ‘patronising’ setting on his mouthy-speaky-hole. It’s very confusing, chaps, isn’t it? The settings are right next to each other.
(By the way, the term ‘sexist’ is so over-used now that a different word might help us to see why these attitudes are so destructive – let’s call them ‘abusive’.)
Historically, something I’ve found saddening is the way that some (or many) in the church have helped to perpetuate the global inequality between men and women. I’m pretty sure Jesus would be aggrieved by this too.
Complementarianism is an approach that derives from an unnecessary interpretation of the Bible. And with nearly 800,000 words in it, people can infer anything they like into that book (remember when Michael Drosnan claimed the Bible predicted future events in a secret code?). Proof-texting is easy. It is a much more difficult task to carefully relate its messages to both our context and its own, piercing the significant boundaries of language, place, culture, time and textual juxtaposition that stand between us and the meaning intended by its writers. When one does so, however, several conservative stances like complementarianism begin to crumble.
The other challenge though is more insidious, hiding in the shadows. This is an unspoken reluctance to appoint women to key positions of leadership for the fear of offending people, of controversy, of disunity. But fear should not be a friend of Christians. Far from it.
I wonder if time might be running out for the church to emerge as a leader in gender equality. I don’t think that God needs the church to work through. If the church refuses to do His work, He’ll use other means. The risk for the church now is that it gets left behind as gender equality slowly marches forward, part of the work of God in the world.
It would be a real tragedy for the church not to be at the forefront of something its own God is doing. We can either get ourselves in gear and witness the awesome and refreshing justice of equality in Christianity, the living-out of what Galatians 3:28 meant, or we can continue to sit in the same camp as Vladimir Putin, surrounded by cats in colourful wigs. It’s our call.
Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war. The Israelites pitched camp and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines.
A giant named Goliath came out of the Philistine camp and mocked unto the Israelites. On hearing the Philistine’s words, King Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.
But David sayeth, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
This was reported unto King Saul, who sendeth for David. David sayeth unto him: “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”
“I am delighted by your enthusiasm,” sayeth Saul. “Our graduate internship scheme starts next summer, so you still have plenty of time to put in for it.”
“Next summer? But Goliath threatens us now, oh King!” replieth David.
“Be that as it may, you cannot participate, as our insurance doesn’t cover you. You’re not actually in the army, you see. And we would need to carry out a Risk Assessment. Have you brought in a resume?”
“I have been a shepherd,” sayeth David. “I have fought bears and wild lions. I will slay Goliath just as I did them.”
“That does sound impressive,” admitteth Saul. “But those examples don’t quite hit the competencies we’re looking for. The role of Israelite soldier requires problem-solving and communication skills. Perhaps thou hast organised a event whilst at college? Or was there a project that you found particularly demanding? These may be more helpful examples.”
“College? Projects? Oh King, we will be over-run!”
“Thou art David, yes?”
“Yes, oh King.”
“David. Incline thine ear. I’m trying to run a very complex operation here. I’ve got to think about the impact on the community of appointing you on the spot, haven’t I? It’s hardly fair to all the other possible giant-slayers if I just give you the role, is it?”
“Other giant-slayers? Where? I hardly had to weave my way through a crowd of applicants!”
“I put the advert on Facebook. And a lot of people ‘liked’ it.”
And David was greatly disappointed. But, undeterred, he returned home and began building work experience and was ultimately overjoyed to enter a fruitful career in retail management.
God again set a certain day, calling it ‘Today’. This he did when a long time later he spoke through David…”Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Hebrews 4:7
So it’s Christmas again, with the ruthless predictability for which the calendar is notorious.
I got down the decorations from the attic this afternoon, in the usual shower of dust, lagging and swearing. Well, most of the decorations, anyway. We got lazy with the nativity crib and it’s been left out in the living room for two years. We tell surprised visitors that it’s a ‘pan-seasonal Bethlehem diorama’.
The usual parade of shameless cash-ins are all reporting for duty. A James Bond 007 cologne is advertised in this week’s Guardian, described by GQ as “the most dangerously sophisticated fragrance in the world.” This seems a bit of a stretch for a product based on what is, effectively, a comic-book superhero. And in any event, I’ve seen the movies. I imagine that James Bond smells of sweat and cordite most of the time. And I never see him brush his teeth.
If you fancy giving a loved one a religiously-themed present, a number of companies have been excelling themselves in the ill-conceived ideas department. Products designed by people born tragically without taste this year include a ‘Let My People Go’ Moses toilet seat cover, a dog nativity set and a ‘Jesus Is My Gymnastics Coach‘ plastic figurine. All of which are almost as inappropriate as alleviating your boredom in church by pretending that they’re singing about you.
Now that booting up my Toshiba laptop requires three weeks’ notice and a jump-start from the car, I’m hoping for a Macbook for Christmas. I intend to arrange this by asking Wifey for something unimaginably expensive like a Patek Philippe watch, a yacht or a new spleen ‘for cosmetic reasons’. Then I can negotiate her down to a Macbook and she’ll think she’s winning. Macbook owners, I am told, generally do not need to rely on the power of prayer if they wish to access the internet.
For Christians, it’s a tempting time to complain about how the ‘reason for the season’ has submerged beneath a rising tide of boiling, frothing commercialism. However, this is something we usually do while simultaneously buying shed-loads of presents to indulge the kids we love (thus inadvertently imbuing them with the same consumerism of which we have grown tired – and the circle of life goes on).
There’s truth in the increased secularisation and over-consumerism of Christmas. Of course there is. We all recognise that. Some people were trying to spread the cost of Christmas this year by starting their shopping four months early, in September. But what might be more interesting than mourning the evolution of the modern Christmas into a festival of present-buying and “er, well it’s about family, yeah, and being nice to people for a bit, right?” is to ask whether it really is as ‘unchristian’ as many of us often think it is.
If we truly believe that the God we worship exists, then we don’t need to feel marginalised by people participating in our celebration without believing in the reason for it. Instead, we could have the confidence to look for the opportunities this social oddity represents. You see, if we complain too much about Christmas becoming a popular festival rather than a Christian celebration we take ourselves down a wintery mental cul-de-sac.
The startling thing is that not only does God like Christmas, but He wants to see more of it. All the positive things about it – the focus on giving to each other, spending time with each other, the sense of hope, the random goodwill to strangers (charity donations rise at Christmas) – are what God wants to see all year round. Christmas – even in its current Western format – is a fleeting glimpse of what Jesus was talking about when he described the Kingdom of Heaven.
Christmas is an opportunity to describe the Kingdom of Heaven to people who don’t know what Jesus was on about, more vividly than any ivory tower-dwelling theologian could.
Jesus described a way to live and see the world where people give freely to each other, forgive each other, think more inclusively and commit random acts of goodness against people they don’t know. It is a way to live that is underpinned by the electricity of hope. It is way to live where the same indefatigable spirit that drives a person through the misery of the High Street on Christmas Eve to buy gifts is deployed every day to fight suffering in the world.
From God’s perspective, Christmas may have lost less Christianity than many of us think it has. Instead, maybe it gives us a brief and partial insight into the world that we, as Christians, are supposed to be trying to cultivate for the other 11 months of the year.
I sat somewhere different in church this Sunday, which in the Christian world is as disturbing as looking up to find that the cat has not only been watching you in the bath, but then nods and says: “You’ve missed a bit.”
To be honest, until this madcap gambit of insanity was underway, I hadn’t realised how unsettling it was going to be. I hadn’t noticed that I had tended to stick to a particular part of the hall, like a little religious rabbit, happy in my habitat. But once I’d crossed over to The Other Side, I realised that everybody tends to stick to the same necks of the church wood. In fact, some of us have developed a herding instinct, seeking out and joining safe groups of associates. I’m not sure what it is we’re afraid of. Maybe the weekly request of the worship leaders for us to ‘put up our hands’ is being misinterpreted as an attempted large-scale mugging.
And I spotted all sorts of new things. Turns out, for example, there’s a bit down on the left-hand side which the teeny-tiny kids have claimed as a dancefloor during worship. Not being a parent myself, I hadn’t wondered where all the younglings went during worship, assuming that perhaps they just got back in their foeta-pods and powered down. (They’d need, of course, all the energy they could muster for the splendidly-timed squawky interruptions during the most meaningful pauses in the sermon.)
But then some friends arrived. I safely joined their pack, and balance was restored. They had little ones with them too, so I was definitely safe from whatever imaginary predator might appear, as I could certainly run faster than them.
This led me to reflect on what’s going on here.
It’s possible that social awkwardness plays a role (see a previous blog post on this), and presumably part of the discomfort of moving to a new part of the congregation is the horror that this could involve meeting people. But there must be more to it than that, because everybody’s at it. Take the Smiley Christians, the ones with warm handshakes and easy conversation who make people feel like they’re joining a loving family (rather than my particular brand of nervous feet-shuffling and stilted conversation that makes people feel like they’re joining a Ponzi scheme). The Smiley Christians also set their towels down on their favourite sun-loungers (not literally, of course – though that would be an amazing church).
It’s not just nuns who have habits
The reality is that we are all creatures of routine. We like to do certain things at certain times, go to certain places, and do certain things in certain ways. And this is fine – it gives us structure. The world is complicated enough without making it deliberately unsettling all the time. The 33 trapped Chilean miners set up a system of routines for their time underground. Routine is one of the things that gets people through hard times.
But experimentation is good too. Because actually, if we think about it, many of us tend to sit in the same place in church metaphorically too. We go to the same types of church activities, we play the same roles in the church machine, we associate with the same people. And if we stick too closely to our routines, we miss out on meeting new people who might just have something important for us. Or discovering new gifts or talents, or new ways to look at the Bible or our lives.
Sometimes we find ourselves praying the same prayer again and again without hearing an answer. God doesn’t seem to be listening. Maybe, sometimes, it’s because the answer already exists somewhere in our church. Maybe someone’s got it, or there’s an activity or a team to join that will show you the answer. If you don’t get out there, increasing the opportunities to find out new things, you’ll never get it.
Jesus wants us to do this – part of being a Christian is living in community. Not just the community we feel comfortable with, not just those we like sitting near – but everybody. All Christians.
Next week I might mix it up by sitting amongst the worship band.
The Walking Dead is back on TV and things have all gone a bit zombie-tastic. Zombies are trendy.
If you haven’t seen the show, it’s hard to get too involved as the principal character is played by that bloke who was in Teachers and Love Actually. This is almost as distracting as trying to get Stupid Prince George from Blackadder out of your head while watching Hugh Laurie in House.
The current zombie craze comes after several years of vampirey things (driven, chiefly, by nauseating lovestruck teenage vampires that would have made Bram Stoker, er, turn in his grave). Vampirey things, in turn, replaced space alien things.
But not to worry, because Halloween is upon us, and various mega-corporations would like to offer us the opportunity to give them all our money in exchange for costumes resembling all three. A spate of inappropriate ones this year included a zombie Jimmy Savile on Amazon – a judgement call that’s even less sound than the cinnamon-flavour ‘Sin-O-Mints’ sweeties (“for the sinner in you”) I found on sale in the Chester Cathedral gift shop recently. Or approaching police officers on Halloween night and complimenting them on their costumes.
One of the most irritating aspects of Halloween in our household is trick-or-treating, as we never remember to plan ahead. Any visiting kids, therefore, run the risk of receiving things we have randomly lying around the hallway. You should see how their little faces light up when they’re presented with a British Gas ‘We Called And You Weren’t In‘ card, half a pack of chewing gum or a Co-op receipt. This year they might be in luck – we’ve got a whole box of mushrooms in the fridge that we’re never going to get through. Although it’s also tempting to try to resolve two problems in one go, by giving them the empty milk cartons sitting by the door waiting to go out to the recycling bin.
Ordinarily we avoid the tiny hordes of costumed kids, prowling the district in packs like miniature Village People, by Being Out. Being Out has been a successful Halloween avoidance strategy for years. The policy of Being Out has become our default position – irrespective of whether we actually are out…
All there is to fear is fear itself
I’m not a fan of Halloween, being the sort of person who would rather have a nice cup of tea. But Christian criticism of Halloween has the feel of targeting the symptom rather than the cause. Halloween merely reflects our society. Increasingly vivid themes reflect our rising tolerance of disturbing imagery and ease of access to it. Criminal damage fears associated with trick-or-treating reflect the general rise in anti-social behaviour.
And there is something not-completely-helpful about Christians issuing dire warnings of the spiritual dangers of ‘celebrating’ Halloween. I’m not sure it fully stacks up that donning a ghost costume and bobbing for apples ‘celebrates evil’ any more than a pirate-themed birthday party promotes maritime insecurity. There’s a sociological and theological debate to be had there.
The more pressing issue is the irony that by making claims that Halloween is a slippery slope to the occult, or a giant battery fuelling demonic activity, we are peddling fear ourselves. If we truly believe that Jesus short-circuited evil’s chances of ultimate success 2000 years ago, then we don’t need to feel threatened by Halloween. We have the luxury of being able to sit back and think more creatively about how we handle this festival.
Halloween is one of the few calendar events which (through trick-or-treating) includes a mechanism for interacting with our neighbours. In our increasingly isolated society (in which 1 in 10 people are lonely), we could see this as an opportunity. Similarly, Halloween is a festival which draws attention to the supernatural. If we genuinely believe in the supernatural, and that God does supernatural things, Halloween gives us a platform. Thirdly, Halloween creates an environment to talk about belief. 42% of Britons believe in ghosts, but only 31% believe in God (18% with doubts). If the tension here isn’t stark enough, 52% believe that the government has covered up the existence of aliens. This is a space in which to start dialogue.
So a more exciting idea is to subvert Halloween. Dress as angels and, while others are trick-or-treating, go door-to-door giving gifts. On the morning after, collect all the unwanted (and soon to be disposed) pumpkins up from neighbours and make a shedload of nutritious pumpkin soup for those in the community who don’t have so much to eat. Consider running a church healing service on or around Halloween. Take the opportunity to start conversations about belief.
In the horror movies, the guy who stands around complaining and lecturing everybody is often one of the first to get squished. Nobody likes him. But we do like the movies where the good guys win, and the good guys win because they roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. They take opportunities. They inspire others. They chase out fear. They give hope. They take action.
Jesus calls us to be the good guys in our communities. He calls us to be the last to criticise and the first to help. So let’s not stand around uselessly – like Christian zombies.
It’s a struggle to identify which device it is that’s worth more than my university education – a quick trip to the Grohe website reveals that their toilets (or ‘WC solutions’ as they somewhat threateningly call them) do not have prices listed. Elsewhere, a set of taps alone are on sale for nearly $2000, which is more than the cost of my entire bathroom.
It isn’t surprising that the Germans are at the forefront of sanitation technology. During a visit to Frankfurt in 2011, I visited a restaurant bathroom that was so clean and futuristic I genuinely almost washed my hands in a urinal by accident.
But what is a little surprising is the extent of this technology. A company called Pressalit make a toilet that uses lasers (yes, lasers – the things invented for healthcare, science and intergalatic spaceship combat) to determine whether you’ve left the seat up, while Brondell make a toilet which cleans you with a jet of warm water (presumably lovely if you’re expecting it, terrifying if you’re not). Kohler manufacture a toilet which, on cold midnight wee-wee trips will even warm your feet. In our household, if your feet are getting warm during a noctural toilet trip it means you’ve missed.
A number of these manufacturers promise a ‘toilet spa’ experience, which is all well and good, but does rather sound like a euphemism for an aggressive public school bullying manouvere.
If your toilet vaguely resembles R2D2, you may have too much money. And it’s tempting to be critical and imply that $9000 is too much for a mundane and functional item, even if it is an impressive robot toilet that shoots laser beams experimentally at your retreating bottom. But it’s good to be mindful of the point made by Sandy Millar on HTB’s Godpod programme, when he was asked how a Christian could wear a watch worth £500 when people die daily of preventable diseases. “If their income is £5m,” he said, “and they give away £4m, and they have a £500 watch, I don’t feel honestly able to be very critical of them.”
Sandy steered commendably clear of one of our great hypocrisies in the Church – to criticise the rich, rather than recognise that on a global level that’s exactly who we are. If you earn the UK minimum wage, you’re already amongst the top 7% richest people in the world. Even my modest £50 throne from B&Q represents comparatively luxurious bottom-servicing… shockingly, most people on the planet do not have access to a flushing toilet.
How powerful is the Church?
The reason the BBC publishes articles about foxes who get their heads stuck in car wheels and interview a children’s TV puppet on Newsnight is because they know that’s what people want to see. It’s the same reason that The X-Factor is back on (for about the millionth time) and that the Government conducted, like, six U-turns on taxation within the first three years of election. They know it’s what people want. It was made clear to them.
And here’s the great opportunity that we so often miss – that the rich and powerful respond to public opinion. In our globalised, wi-fi, Cloudy world, if enough people want something then they often get it.
I don’t know about anyone else, but it seems to me that the Church seems to vaguely resemble a timid teenager at times – pretty sure that it can do something, but waiting to be given permission to do so. Other times it seems to back away from doing things on the basis that ‘the world’ is in such staunch opposition to it that there’s no point, like a weary conspiracy theorist.
Jesus did not wait for permission to attack poverty and suffering head-on. He saw opportunities, and he took them. He was practically industrial in his approach. Jesus showed people who he was through his action – there was no timidity there. That’s how he started this faith – with action. That’s how this faith grows.
Jesus has given the Church permission to get on with changing the world. He gives that permission in glorious technicolour detail throughout the Gospels.
So rather than criticise the $9000 toilet and pray endlessly for revival, let’s be careful about throwing the first stones, and instead see who else amongst your other 2.2bn Christian brothers and sisters are passionate about the cause you’re passionate about.
And do some Jesusing.
If you want to save lives through providing clean drinking water, hygiene education and toilet services, please consider donating to amazing organisations like Oxfam and WaterAid.
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:
Different language and a
Different country… to our own.
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.