- Obscure Christian blogger writes a post on why girls wearing flip flops are acting immodestly and causing their Christian brothers to stumble by flagrantly displaying toe cleavage.
- One of his regular readers agrees and posts a comment, the other disagrees and says so.
- Several weeks later blogger who no-one actually knows, but is considered semi famous (in the Christian world, which means 17 people subscribe to their updates) finds anti-flip-flop tirade while searching for other bloggers to exchange guest posts with (because that’s what you do to build your platform). He quotes said obscure blogger suggesting that he’s actually got a reasonable point which is worth considering.
- Secondary blogger thinks this will be a good opportunity to generate discussion around healthy boundaries and respecting one another. And also get lots of hits. Tweets the most outrageous parts of the post he’s quoting.
- A Christian social media gatekeeper sees the post. Doesn’t realise it’s a quote, comments at length and starts tweeting (with the hashtag #flipflopfallacy) to get their followers to comment as well.
- Traffic hungry Christian organisation blog site hosts a piece entitled: ‘This girl wore flip-flops to the six o’clock service. You will not believe what happened next.’
- Secondary blogger (who has been at work all day) finds hundreds of notifications, and posts clarification piece explaining clearly that it wasn’t his comments, that he’s sorry if it caused any offense, and then goes onto say – in his own words – why flip flops are probably, on balance and for the sake of unity, best avoided.
- An American Christian tweeter with a book deal picks up on the attempt at justification and tweets their outrage. He follows this up with a post written in 10 minutes explaining all the reasons he is simply outraged. Outraged he says.
- Christian collective posts an investigative piece on whether flip flops and foot fetishes are the latest front in the flirt to convert battleground: ‘How beautiful ARE the feet of him that brings good news?’ The speed this is posted with makes one suspicious they’ve been waiting for such a scenario and may even have engineered this one.
- Original poster points out he never said people couldn’t wear flip flops, but just to be careful because they could cause people to stumble.
- Unknown tweeter, thinking he was being witty, said that flip flops always caused him to stumble (when he wore them). He was immediately pointed in the direction of an online accountability group by well-meaning but slightly dim follower.
- Prominent theologian posts extended comment (3000 words) below both blogs as well as on their own site explaining the theological significant of displaying feet and why it is likely to be important across all times and cultures for women to cover their feet. Something about the dust of a rabbi’s sandals.
- Response to the blog saying that if you can’t put it simply you’re obviously wrong. Refuses on those grounds to read theologian’s post.
- Lots of sub tweets issued. Mostly to avoid the attention of Secondary blogger, American celebrity, Christian collective or verbose theologian. But THEY STILL HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY ABOUT IT.
- Think piece written with a call for unity between those who wear flip flops and those who don’t, and why for the sake of the gospel we should learn to live and worship together.
- This does it for secondary blogger. He cannot believe the tenacity of think piece author to be willing to set aside theological principles for a weak unity where no one stands for anything.
- Various mainstays of the Christian twitter world unfollow him. Some ‘farewell’-ing him, others passive aggressively doing so silently and a few brave souls hitting the block button.
- Tweeters on the #flipflopfallacy hashtag start demanding big names say something about this, and if they haven’t wonder aloud ‘why so-and-so are strangely silent on this’ and if they perhaps are secret foes of the flip flop.
- Initial post mysteriously vanishes, suggestions abound that he came under pressure to take it down otherwise he wouldn’t be invited to live tweet next month’s conference. Contrite apology appears on his site (and never posts again).
- High profile blogger (without a book deal but after one) writes an open letter calling for everyone to accept the apology in a spirit of grace.
- Previously silent famous speaker takes to twitter for the first time in 7 months to express disappointment original blogger was forced to take post down, adding that he thought it important that where necessary Christians were able to speak boldly but in love the truth that they hold dear.
- Christian clothing brand (which includes flip flops) issue a press statement which has taken 17 people 4 and a half days to write. They say they like flip flops but think modesty is also important so people should be free to buy them if they want but for the sake of peace will be discontinuing current line.
- Boycott of clothing brand ensues (boycotters refuse to buy anything if they’re stopped from buying what they want) with placards carrying slogan ‘my feet, my flip-flops’.
- Church press cover boycott. Andrew Brown writes column for the Guardian on the politics of flip-flop gate. Christian Today sends reporter to Soul Survivor to count how many people are wearing flip flops.
- Secondary blogger declares that he’s going to take a break from social media to concentrate on his family and church. Shortly after new account appears which seems suspiciously like him.
- Weather takes a turn for the worse and everyone stops wearing flip flops and stops caring if they’re immodest. Also, Rob Bell has a new book out which they either have to staunchly defend or snarkily mock his departure from the mainstream.
- No one can ever look at their shoe rack quite the same again.
Usually a mainstay of the few days between Christmas and New Year I’m getting in early with my review of 2014. I often intend to write about the year about to come to an end but writing time around Christmas is rather sparse. This is a slightly eclectic review of the year and some of the things that have stood out.
It might be considered the year of the #icebucketchallenge, or the rise of UKIP, or some celebrity doing something they shouldn’t. I’m not really covering any of that. Let’s start with food.
Best baked good
Best newspaper column
Next year’s general election will be mired in disenchantment and discord. The public are unhappy with politicians and conflate that with a disdain toward politics. Minor parties are on the rise and the share of the vote going to the two major parties will likely be the lowest ever. Internet memes go crazy, whether it’s Ed Miliband pointing at things, airbrushed posters of David Cameron, or spoof UKIP twitter accounts. And they just add to the disconnect between politicians and the public.
At the heart of this is a paradox of what the public want, they want politicians to be special and they want them to be like them. Dan Hodges, a Marmite columnist, put this brilliantly in the summer in which he basically called for more boring politicians.
At the end of November I returned to Trent Vineyard – where I went to church while a student at Nottingham – for the national Vineyard Cause To Live For conference. One of the draws was Simon Ponsonby speaking. I’ve got his tome on Romans with me over Christmas and hope to get started on it. When he spoke at a student conference I went to in 2004 on ‘more of the Holy Spirit’ I was scribbling faster than I thought possible. This time I didn’t take any notes, I just sat and absorbed his 65 minute one point sermon on learning to love the bible. I had hoped to link to the talk but it’s not online yet – I’ll definitely be sharing it when it is.
Honourable mention: as I can’t share my top talk of the year, here’s one that deserves a mention. I’ve been away at weekends quite a lot this year so tend to listen to as many sermons as podcasts as sat in the comfortable theatre seats. One Saturday I set off to walk to a friend’s flat, fairly normal except this was seven miles away – which made it a three sermon walk. The last of these made me walk up and down the street before arriving to catch the last few minutes. Take a listen, it’s really quite brilliant and beautiful – especially as on a topic so often preached about.
For the shear ridiculous nature of it’s endeavour attempting to climb Slieve Donard on a rainy Janury afternoon could grab this award. I wrote about what not to do when walking in the Mourne Mountains after that particular failure.
The prize, however, has to go to the Yorkshire 3 Peaks which I walked in July. Up and down Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough in 10 and a half hour, leaving me aching for the next couple of days, in love with the Yorkshire Dales and with an appetite to even more insane single day walks in 2015!
I loved the latest instalment of the Hunger Games, I was unimpressed with the final Hobbit movie. I was moved by 12 Years A Slave, and I’ve watched Frozen more times than is appropriate to mention.
But a couple of weeks ago I watched The Imitation Game, which is definitely my film of the year. It’s a beautifully acted and shoot work and captured the haunted genius of Alan Turing in exquisite detail. He knew what he needed to do and couldn’t cope with the distractions and tangents others insisted on pursuing. A goal kept him focused.
Some have objected to the film for its use of the story to campaign and promote homosexuality. Yes, there is a campaigning edge to it, and I probably wouldn’t subscribe to all the associated goals of those who use it as a campaign tool. But in the midst of debates over sexuality and marriage the church often ties itself in knots. I think Christians, in an attempt to protect the view that marriage is only ever between a man and a woman, are sometimes passively coerced into supporting or opposing more than they should. The treatment of Alan Turing was shocking, and should never have happened, and Christians should not be afraid of denouncing cruel treatment wherever it occurs. What’s often lost in such debates is that the Church of England was one of the leading voices calling for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the 1950s, insisting then (as it does now) that such a position can be consistent with not endorsing them.
There’s sometimes a spill over effect with beliefs and attitudes, if I believe this then I must also believe that. It happens in the United States where policy positions on taxation, gun control and the environment become rolled into a basket of political positions that become ever more tangentially connected to their original beliefs. We have to be on guard for why we stand for or against certain things and not axiomatically assume one thing leads to another, or that because we oppose certain people on certain issues we should oppose them on other issues as well. That’s the way you end up with culture wars and Christians need to be more intelligent than that.
In March I was thrilled to go to Cambodia with Tearfund. As part of their bloggers trip I got to visit several projects close to Phnom Penh where they work with local organisations to mobilise churches and communities to deliver long lasting development. I was awed by what I saw. I saw people resilient even with the atrocities of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge still lingering – like the fragments of bone that occasionally surfaced at the Killing Fields, the destruction he caused was not far from view. The pastor who walked miles home after losing his parents. The guide to the torture and execution prison who as a teenager was a forced labourer and whose body still suffers because of it.
I saw land that was beautiful, people who were thriving, and opportunities that were being taken. As well as writing about what I saw I took a lot of photographs. For several of the pieces I wrote I offered a selection of photographs, this one was used quite a few times. If you want to support the work Tearfund do in Cambodia you can.
That disenchantment with politics I mentioned above, well this graph shows all the polls of the past four years along with a 15 poll rolling average. It’s going to be an interesting election.
Best new discovery
This was the year I discovered Alissa Wilkinson’s film reviews. She’s the chief film critic for Christianity Today, and writes about film and culture and its intersection with Christianity. As someone frequently frustrated with sycophantic Christian reviews, or kowtowing to movie studios by dancing to their tune and unquestioningly promoting films with a vague Christian link, her writing is a breath of fresh air.
This, in defence of the magazine’s one star review of Left Behind, is among her best. And this about the upcoming film Unbroken was a fascinating read as well.
Most annoying feature on a website
Having said that, the multipage articles on Christianity Today really frustrates me. Never do I just want to read the first few paragraphs of an article before changing page, or another couple before clicking again. Maybe sometimes I do only read a little but surely they should want readers to view the whole piece.
Band of the year
Not a new band, but another discovery. Over the Rhine have dominated my playlist this year – this was the track that first hooked me. They also have a new album out.
I’ve given up on…
Controversies. Whether it’s Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell, I’ve not had the energy nor the inclination to engage with them. I’m over trying to find a way to write strong enough words to make my disagreement heard, but in such a winsome way to command respect from those who I disagree with. Often I’ve thought about writing something only to be glad not to get around to it.
I’ve fallen in love with…
The church. The local, known, accountable, seen body of Christ which I am a part of. The controversies that rage on twitter, fought out in vying blogposts have nothing on the long hard work of forming a community of disciples striving to make new disciples. In a time of celebrity commentators tied to nothing but their own appearances and likelihood of success it is reassuring to be known and to know others.
I was aware while in Cambodia that development agencies come and go but the church remains.
I’ve also thought quite a lot this year about authority. A verse in John 19, where Jesus before Pilate responds that Pilate only has authority because it has been given to him by the Father, has resonated with me time and time again. This is freeing, liberating and reassuring, especially at times when I most unsure of what I’m doing. But that freedom isn’t just an individual thing, it helps us in relationships, and helps us become part of the community of believers working out our faith. Being a part of a church is where that dance of freedom and authority works itself out – all with the realisation that we’re not going to get it quite right just yet.
What I’m ready for
Peace. It’s Christmas, we talk about it as a time of harmony and joy when often it’s one of rushing and frustration. I’m ready to stop for the year and spend some time with my family. With four small children under four around it won’t be quiet, but I’m not entirely sure that’s all peace is about.
But there’s a wider peace that I’m looking for, searching for, desperate for. The hurting of the world is manifold and impossible to ignore. Whether school children murdered in their classroom in Pakistan or families grieving for loved ones killed by a truck in Glasgow while Christmas shopping. There is pain in this world, sometimes almost too much to bear.
There’s war that refuses to cease, violence that does not end, and we can seem powerless in the face of its relentless advance. The most powerful of the Christmas words for me is Emmanuel: God with us. It’s not a panacea, it doesn’t remove pain, but it reminds us God became human, became known, came to earth and suffered. He doesn’t run from pain and hurting, from what we’ve done and been done to us, he stands with us and takes the pain.
While I’m ready for peace, I’m glad for the Prince of Peace while I wait.
What I’m waiting for
On New Year’s Eve I fly to New Zealand, actually to China before jumping on another plane. I’m away for most of January, a mix of work and holiday, about which I’m incredibly excited. In some ways it has distracted from the lead up to Christmas, only confirmed a fortnight ago I’ve not had time to enjoy the anticipation and put it to one side and get on with what I’m up to right now. Instead it dominates at the moment, and as much as I’m ready for the Christmas break, looking forward to the food and my family, and some much needed rest, I’ll be looking forward to New Zealand throughout.
And I wonder if there’s a bigger lesson in that. The excitement of the greater thing distracts from everything else. It’s there in Exodus 33 when Moses turns down a blessing from God if he doesn’t get his presence. It’s then that Moses is placed in the cleft of a rock as God passes by.
What I find myself constantly waiting for and reaching after is that overarching thing that dominates what I’m doing and gives me purpose in pursuing everything else. There are plenty of things that keep me occupied and excited but one thing gives way to the next and then the next.
In 2015 I’m looking forward to a year that will no doubt be busy when I want quiet, boring when I thirst for action, crowded with people when I want time alone, and without company when I am lonely. I am sure there will be excitement and frustration, joy and disappointment. But with it I hope it is also a year of purpose. Quite what that purpose is, I’m not quite sure.
On the 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall was breached. For the previous 28 years crossings had been made, and many more attempted and failed, with those fleeing from East to West shot as they sought freedom. The line that stood between East and West crumbled that night as guards looked on bewildered as their commands to fire never came, as families cleft apart for a generation were reunited.
In the weeks and months leading up to that symbolic ending, the façade of the Cold War slipped and the decayed state of the Eastern Bloc became visible for the world to see. The Soviet Union refused to send tanks into Poland to support the communist government. The Hungarian leader told Soviet leader Gorbachev that his border with Austria would be neglected and unguarded if he didn’t get the funds to reinforce it.
Gorbachev was a communist but his actions and inaction hastened the decline of the Soviet empire and brought the Cold War to an end. It was an economic decision as much as anything, the cost of maintaining an empire was one that could not be afforded. Gorbachev reasoned that dispensing with the satellite states might give the Soviet Union scope to prosper. Instead it gave permission for collapse. Those countries that attempted to maintain a one party communist dictatorship soon fell, the crowds took impetus from the revolutions across the border, in Czechoslovakia peaceful protest led to the Velvet Revolution. In Romania Nicolae Ceausescu desperately tried to cling onto power but after his security forces fired on protestors violence erupted, he was ousted, charged with genocide and killed by a firing squad on Christmas Day, just six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I was five when the wall came down. All I have ever known is a world in the shadow of the Cold War. We did not watch the fall of Soviet states in Eastern Europe in my primary school classroom (but I do remember my year one teacher switching on the TV just two weeks later for the first televised parliamentary debate). Continue reading
A printer, a sign maker and a baker walk into a courtroom. And if this sounds like the start of a joke…
The printer stands accused of refusing to print a leaflet backing the death penalty and therefore committing political discrimination against people who want the death penalty reintroduced. And presumably also discriminating against dead people.
The sign maker is charged with racial discrimination – he wouldn’t make a sign for a shop that wanted to put up a ‘no blacks allowed’ notice, and therefore is guilty of discriminating against people who are not black.
The third is a baker who wouldn’t bake a cake with a slogan supporting the introduction of gay marriage. This, apparently is discrimination based on sexual orientation, and religious because the bakery cited the religious beliefs of the owners as behind the refusal, and political discrimination, because they’re disadvantaging people with a particular political view.
And this is one big joke. But not the kind with a witty punch line, but the sort that leaves you hanging your head in despair. These three examples all surely exist in the category of ‘you couldn’t make it up’. For the first two I have made them up, but the bakery is a real example, and they are now being pushed to court by the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland.
First of all let us be clear what this is not. This is not a case of a Christian refusing to serve someone because they are gay. Those ‘no blacks allowed’ signs were taken down for a reason, and more recent equality legislation extended protection and you cannot refuse to a good or service to someone because of their sexual orientation (with protection also for age, gender, religion, marital status as well as race). There’s been controversy over this, and concern for what happens when these protections might come into conflict, but in Great Britain at least the legal situation is clear.
In this situation the sexuality of the customer is not relevant, the customer could have been gay or straight, the issue was not who the customer was but the cake they were ordering. If the cake was for a same sex wedding ceremony it would be a clear case of discrimination, that they made wedding cakes for straight couples, but not for a gay couple.
Secondly, I should clarify I have a very limited understanding of the law in Northern Ireland on this point. It differs from Great Britain and includes provisions relating to religious and political discrimination which I imagine were designed due to the particular history of the nation and the religious and political tensions that run through it.
As far as I understand the law in Great Britain (and of course it may be different in Northern Ireland) one is free to choose not to publish political campaign material if they disagree with it. So I can choose whether or not to print a poster advocating the death penalty, or cancelling international development, or I can refuse to print a sign for a political rally. Yes, this is a form of discrimination, in the same way a shop not serving alcohol to someone under 18 is discrimination, but it is legal.
As far as I can see the choice not to bake a cake with a campaign message in favour of gay marriage is part of this latter category, it is the choice not to endorse a political message, and not the discrimination against a person on the basis of a protected characteristic.
Who, exactly is being discriminated against here? The customer for not being served, the baker for being told their religious views should not be allowed into play, or the cake for not getting Bert and Ernie gracing its icing?
The bakers were not discriminating based on the sexuality of the customer because both gay and straight people campaign for the introduction of same sex marriage. This wasn’t religious discrimination because the religion of the customer had no bearing on whether or not they were served.
The provider’s beliefs did make a difference but is this now suggesting that people are unable to make decisions over what they do or don’t do based on religious belief? The most obvious example is whether the same approach in Great Britain could be taken to force a doctor who objects to abortion on religious grounds to carry out abortions because to not do so would be religious discrimination.
I suppose the logic of the Northern Ireland Equality Commission is that in refusing to make this cake on the basis of their religious beliefs Ashers bakery were discriminating against people who did not share their religious belief. A comparison to this logic would be to take a Christian newsagent to court for not selling pornography which they object to on grounds of their faith. The newsagent down the road who took the same decision but without any religious motivation would be free not to sell pornography. Absurdly, to apply the regulations in this manner would be discriminating against the Christian newsagent for taking action on account of their religious beliefs.
Comparisons are frequently made between LGBT rights and the civil rights, some of which are fair, others are questionable. In this case, the comparison would be for someone who refused to print a ‘no blacks allowed’ sign to be guilty of discrimination. This is ludicrous, nonsensical and of course shouldn’t be allowed.
Neither should this current action against the bakers. If it is allowed to continue it is shutting down public debate, and a supposedly independent equality commission is acting as a coercive force stopping those who disagree with changing the law from the freedom to stand by that political opinion.
This is not about gay rights, it is not about homophobia. It is not even just about religious freedom (although it certainly is about that), it is about ensuring that fundamental freedoms of political disagreement and debate are not undermined and dissenting voices protected and not prosecuted.
My colleague in Northern Ireland has also posted on his blog ‘Are the Equality Commission baking mad?’
Peter Ould posted similar thoughts to mine on facebook
This is more or less what I said in my session on social media and theology at the Christian New Media Conference:
This week the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the American Southern Baptists held a large conference on the subject of marriage.
This commission isn’t some minor technical meeting but one of the most significant Christian pressure groups in the states – their endorsement can make or break the fortunes of political candidates.
And as is the norm with most conferences these days many outside the room were following along through the hashtag, and on this occasion able to watch a livestream as well.
There were two different conversations going on. What was spoken on the stage and received by the audience. And what was being discussed on twitter. The conversations were different, and often seem detached from one another.
The ERLC takes a position on marriage which angered many viewing online, who made clear their dissent and opposition. This was not a discussion nor a debate of the position, it was a broadcast of one position from the stage, and the broadcast of opposition from the internet.
This is not to comment on the validity of either position, but to point out that debating points of theology and doctrine via social media is rarely a productive exercise and more often an excuse for restating entrenched positions to those who view things differently.
Even when the lines of opposition are less clear cut social media can still aggravate rather than unify. On Sunday the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke at my church, he was funny and winsome, and at one point quoted from Edward Gibbon’s decline and fall of the Roman Empire, reflecting on the comment that all religions are equally useful he stated that “we’re not to be useful, we’re to be transformed and transforming”.
Someone tweeted that, and almost immediately got the response: “hashtag false dichotomy patrol”. To his credit, upon clarification the reply was removed.
In reducing the comment, and removing the context of the sermon the archbishop’s words were easy to misunderstand.
Too often social media stimulates dissent as if it was the oxygen that gives it breath.
Dissent is healthy, it is essential, and in social media we find opportunities to explore different views and opinions that were never previously open. Where previously ideas were not questioned, they are now relentlessly scrutinised. There has been a democratisation of ideas that enables new voices to be heard.
This has transformed the context in which we talk about theology, and that’s what I want to explore briefly.
There is a responsibility upon Christians to understand what they believe and why they believe it, and breaking down the walls of traditional authority enable an exploration of theology and the doctrine of the Church.
Social media offers a opportunities for new voices to examine beliefs, and to do so in new contexts without the traditions and orthodoxies that can sometimes silence questions.
My concern is that we run the risk of moving from a priesthood of all believers to a priesthood of the loudest voices. And we end up having conversations, debates and arguments online about theology without thinking about the framework that we’re working within, or that those we’re talking to are working from.
There’s something in Christian identity that sees opposition as a validation of belief: if people are disagreeing with me, it means I’m standing for something worth standing for. This entrenches disagreement where it doesn’t need to be entrenched and it builds walls between Christians and everyone else, and between different groups of Christians,
The problem with the democratisation of ideas on the internet is that someone somewhere will take just about every possible position. It means that if you want support for a point of view you will find it. If you want to go into bat on one side of an argument you can find reinforcements. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
As Thorin says in The Hobbit: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
Christians cannot isolate themselves from critics, or people who think differently, but we should think about the frame within which we’re having a conversation. If I’m going to debate theology online first of all the ground rules need establishing. Are we talking about the meaning of scripture, or its pastoral implications, are we trying to work out what our sources of authority are in the first place?
These questions matter, because while there is nothing intrinsically valuable in being opposed there can also be a false goal of seeking agreement where that just isn’t possible. Sometimes we will disagree.
Because there are opportunities for new voices on the internet does not mean all new voices are equal. There are gatekeepers on the internet, and they marshal their authority very differently than traditional sources of church teaching, but they are still powerful.
In the online discussion surrounding the ERLC’s conference two key gatekeepers were Rachel Held Evans and Justin Lee. They both strongly disagreed with what was being spoken and curated a lot of the opposition being voiced. But their postures were different. Justin Lee was at the conference, and while tweeting comments was also having conversations. He was trying to move beyond the broadcast opposition.
Just this week Philip Yancey wrote in an article on the Huffington Post: “Writing for the Internet, I’ve learned, is a bit like taking on the hecklers at the Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. The normal rules of civil dialogue do not apply. Especially if the topic is religion – any religion – you’ll likely provoke a reflexive verbal blast.”
Many of the conversations we have online about theology and doctrine aren’t new. That’s why although I think it’s transformed the context in which we discuss it I don’t think it transforms our doctrine. When we wade into an argument about how we read the Bible think about the arguments that have gone on throughout history on this very point. Most of the internet’s controversialists are not original.
Christian doctrine may not have been formed in the crucible of social media, but the arguments have frequently been battled through time and time again. In the novelty of fresh discussion we cannot forget the centuries of conversation the church has gone through.
When we talk about theology online what do we take our cue from? Are we looking to the Bible, are we looking to creeds and church leaders, to favourite bloggers and authors, are we weighing what they say carefully?
And are there some things we opt not to write about? Are some topics too controversial, too likely to be opposed or misunderstood? When thinking about theology and the internet we often look to the States and see the debates that take place online there. We forget that our context is different even if we read their posts and they read ours.
The internet is open and accessible it also operates in circles. I can write something popular and approved of because of who is reading what I write. Someone else can write the very same words and it is viewed as outrageous.
A couple of years ago when the General Synod didn’t vote for women bishops I asked a friend to write a piece for Threads about the vote. She takes a traditional complementarian position and views church leadership as reserved for men. Her article wasn’t inflammatory, and the comments were fairly kind even if mostly disagreeing. But it was a bruising experience. A school of thought held by many in the church had become hard to speak in support of online.
I don’t want everyone to agree with her, I don’t myself and she knows that. But when the internet is a hard place to talk about certain issues we have to question its value as a forum for debating and determining church doctrine.
That’s because we simply don’t know the perspective and background that many we discuss with come from. We don’t know the frame from which they’re arguing, and we very rarely are able to take time to establish some ground rules.
If I’m going to talk about the role of women in church leadership I not inclined to do it with someone who takes David Cameron’s view that the church simply needs to get with the programme.
I’ll do my best to articulate a biblical position for those who don’t hold to the authority of scripture but I’m not going to get too worried about trying to convince them to come over to my side, our frameworks are different.
And this is the problem with the priesthood of all. And it means we can’t just crowd source our doctrine. Or at least we can’t unless we’re able to agree the ground rules first. And that raises the question of who gets to decide what those ground rules are. There’s an infinite loop of complexity here that ends up with someone always having authority, power and influence over other people.
There’s an important caveat to all this. When we talk about doctrine I want scripture to be central, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing we should listen to. I want to use my reason, I want to see what it means in real life, and I want to hear from people’s experience.
The church has to have its eyes open to the world it is walking through, it does not exist in isolation. It is also the reality of our situation that discussion about doctrine and theology take place in the open – just look at the Catholic Church’s recent synod on the family. Even a meeting that was supposedly taking place behind closed doors had the full glare of the media exposing its twists and turns.
The daylight built into our social media infused world is healthy, it gives us a scepticism that causes us to re-evaluate and debate the things we believe. That’s a good thing. But it can also lead to a level of doubt and uncertainty that means everything is always up for grabs. And that’s not a healthy thing. We can be so bewildered by alternatives that we end up not having a clue what we believe.
I firmly believe that some things are true and other things are not. Some of those things we can know clearly, others we will struggle with, and yet more we will know but find difficult to apply.
Christian doctrine isn’t easy. It’s not the conclusion of what’s popular at any point in time. It’s determined neither by what’s trending, nor what we’ve always believed. Doctrine shouldn’t be inflexible, but social media increases the complexities of how it flexes.
Social media prioritises polarisation, and when it comes to working through doctrine we need less polarisation and more patience. And social media isn’t very good at patience.
Last night I watched Grace Unplugged. It was suggested to me, I would say recommended but that might be putting it a bit strong. The Netflix introduction warned me what I was getting: “Every Sunday Grace performs at church with her ex-rock star father, but she longs to share her talent with the rest of the world”. Despite this preview I was still surprised to hear the film start with the familiar chords of Matt Redman’s Never Let Go. It was going to be one of those films.
I wish it wasn’t. I wish a mainstream film started with a typical church worship service, but this was a Christian film. Quite what makes a film Christian is open for dispute, but this certainly was one, the content was explicitly Christian, and it was squarely targeted at the fellow brethren.
I’m going to spoil it for anyone planning on watching, so if you’d rather not read on, head over to Netflix and then come back.
The plot is predictable, and even in that predictability it is disappointing. It’s a prodigal story with a girl rebelling against her parents and heading off to the big wide world (LA I think) to seek stardom. She’s encouraged to do things that go against her faith, has a shock when she’s set up with a TV star to gain her some publicity – who’s just trying to get her into bed. She fails to write a song she needs to prove she’s not a one hit wonder (she rerecorded her father’s hit song). There’s the requisite good outside influence in the form of an intern who was at a church service she and her father played at some time before, and is surprised at her presence in the secular music industry. When things come crashing down she goes to dinner with his family, and in one of many montage scenes we see her gloom lift and she gradually becomes happier. This leads to her returning to her room, picking up the guitar, writing a great song, and returning home and to church to play before the congregation. The film ends with her and her father playing with Chris Tomlin and engaged to the good intern.
Two things appalled me about this film. Firstly, that the definition of doing the good Christian thing was returning to lead worship and not playing secular music, despite her being good enough to do so (a point well made in the Christianity Today review). This is bad theology, the only glimpse of a better perspective was a comment from the good intern that he guessed there needed to be light in this kind of place. This felt like a self-justification of the genre this film belonged to, Christian art for Christian audiences. The idea of the sacred and the secular that such films play into and feed off is nonsense.
Secondly, her descent into darkness was really not that much of a descent. One scene of her being drunk while on a date, and another empting a bottle of non-descript alcohol while trying desperately to write a song of her own. It meant that her dramatic return to her family and the church was lacking the pathos it needed. One caveat to this point, I don’t think it’s necessary to portray sin in specific defined ways to need redemption, in fact I think it would be interesting to explore what it looks like in the absences of sex, drink, and drugs. But this film doesn’t offer an interesting alternative tale of rebellion it just weakly and unconvincingly hints at the conventional narrative.
Most reviews from Christian websites I browsed raved about its wholesome content and positive Christian storyline. In fact, one complained that it showed her return to the family fold in too simplistic terms, pointedly stating that for many they never return from heathen nirvanas such as Hollywood or Nashville. This is why I really valued the review that Christianity Today produced. Recently they wrote an incredibly scathing review of the new Left Behind film, and then followed it up with a piece explaining how and why they write reviews. Their review included the memorable conclusion: “We tried to give the film zero stars, but our tech system won’t allow it.”
I value it because I trust them not to write puff pieces and say something is good simply because it has the Christian tag on it. Whether a film, or a book, or an album, an artist or musical can be ‘Christian’ is a debate for another day, but sometimes it seems as though the moniker means that we leave our critical faculties at the door and give something five stars for effort regardless of the quality of what is produced. Or rate it positively simply because it doesn’t do the things mainstream films do (drink, drugs, and debauchery).
For many offerings the quality isn’t dreadful, it’s just not great, and doesn’t reach the hyperbole of those promoting it or those reviewing it (which can sometimes seem like one and the same). One recent example was the musical Love Beyond, which I went to see earlier a few weeks ago. To its credit the actors were good, the musicians and dancers talented and it was put on with great professionalism. But I didn’t think it was very good, I thought the script lacked inspiration and it failed to deliver a memorable song, which for a musical is a difficult failing to overcome. Taking the story of the Bible and condensing it into a single evening’s performance is quite a challenge and I credit the effort put into it, it condensed the Old Testament post fall into a single scene (probably the best of the whole show), but then refused to wrap things up succinctly with scene after scene that I thought, and hoped, would be the last. It told the story of the Bible, in parts very well, in others confusingly and uninspired, but as a result it wasn’t novel to Christians, nor accessible to those who weren’t.
The bigger problem came the next day when I read a couple of reviews from others that had been there. They were relentlessly positive, and I felt they couldn’t possibly be from the same performance I had watched. I hesitated at the time and I hesitate now from publishing my verdict, I know (although not well) people involved in the show, and I don’t want my criticism to be seen as a rejection of their effort – it’s far easier to critique a film like Grace Unplugged that I don’t even have the faintest connection to.
In the same way that I don’t want to be unfair to the show I don’t want to be unfair to the two reviews linked above, they may have not found anything to fault in the show, and if they didn’t that’s their prerogative. But something I’ve noticed is that Christians tend to give soft reviews, and as a result this can create a culture where criticism is silently frowned upon.
I’m fortunate to work somewhere which gets sent review copies of Christian books on a fairly regular basis and I have the opportunity to write reviews of what I read. However, often after reading something I decline to write a review because I have insufficient positive things to say. Sometimes the books are bad, but more often they are formulaic and dull – the same book has been written with a different cover dozens of times before. Often the only basis for publication is that the author has a significant profile in the Christian world.
When I have reviewed something, and have the space for more than a very brief comment I usually have something to critique even if I have thoroughly enjoyed and valued it. Because I don’t think it does anyone a service to be unfailingly positive about something simply because it is written by a Christian. If books that are repetitious and full of jargon continue to get amazing reviews they will be bought and publishers will commission more of the same.
Of course, readers have the choice to read what they want, but I think there is also a duty for reviewers to maintain their integrity. Here’s where I make a baseless allegation, my fear is that reviewers hold off criticism because they want to get a book deal, or because they have one, or publications want to attract adverts from book publishers.
What’s ironic is that Christians aren’t known for their avoidance of disagreement. Just visit the internet. We’ll happily offer our opinion of someone else’s, we’ll argue with their point of view, debate the merits or foundation of their position. But something strange happens when it comes to what could be broadly described as Christian art, what Christians have produced we want to support and affirm. I want to do the same, I want Christians to create pieces of art, films, music, books that are remembered for centuries to come. I want us to be culture creators. And I want those pieces of culture created to be for all of society, not just for a warm fuzzy feeling for Christians.
I have certainly valued (even if a little painful to take) criticism of things I have worked on. If I ever write a book I’d love to get great reviews, but I want them to be on merit, I don’t want to get them simply because no one has the guts to say something true.
Just before his 80th birthday a couple of weeks ago Leonard Cohen released his thirteenth studio album, Popular Problems. Last year I perched near the rafters of the O2 to watch him perform a three hour set, complete with six song encore. It was phenomenal.
Cohen has never been the cheeriest of performers, but on that night, and I think in the past few years he has started to have fun again. I think he has started to enjoy being back on the road, and I think this new album is his best in a couple of decades and possibly more. There is material on here that stands shoulder to shoulder with the haunting lyrics of the late 60s and 70s when the poet first wound his graveling melodies round rhyming couplets.
He was infamously forced back onto the road by his partner who had made off with most of his life savings and needed to sing for his supper. But after paying off his debts and putting a little aside he kept on travelling. Two years ago he release Old Ideas which I skeptically purchased having thought very little of his only previous offerings during my music conscious lifetime – Ten New Songs and Dear Heather are better forgotten. But in Old Ideas was the emotion and lyrical artistry that helped him in those early years overcome a limited musical ability, but also a freshness that was reflected when I saw him perform live.
Popular Problems is a short album but stuffed full of brilliance. Several songs have stuck with me as I’ve listen through over the last couple of days, but one stands out: You Got Me Singing. The lyrics are below as is a video. This song would make it into my top ten Cohen songs of all time: it’s not got the strength of lyrics of The Stranger’s Song, the self deprecation of Chelsea Hotel No. 2; I doubt it will be covered ad nauseum like the Hallelujah hymn it references and nor does it shock the listener as Sing Another Song, Boys does in it’s closing stages. But it is beautiful. A
As with so much from Cohen’s pen one has to wonder at the possible theological meanings of every line. These meditations are not clear in You Got Me Singing, but unambiguous in others, in Samson in New Orleans and Born in Chains, it is impossible to avoid.
The test for the greatness of an album is not whether I enjoy it today but if I’ll still be selecting it in years to come. Nearly 50 years after Songs of Leonard Cohen was released I have high hopes for this 13th chapter of the canon.
You got me singing even though the news is bad
You got me singing the only song I’ve ever had
You got me singing ever since the river died
You got me thinking of all the places we could hide
You got me singing even though the world is gone
You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on
You got me singing even though it all looks grim
You got me singing the hallelujah hymn
Singing that hallelujah hymn
You got me singing like a prisoner in a jail
You got me singing like my pardon’s in the mail
You got me wishing our little love would last
You got me thinking like those people of the past
You got me singing even though the world is gone
You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on
You got me singing even though it all went wrong
You got me singing the hallelujah song
Singing that hallelujah song
If I owned a kilt today is the day I would wear it.
Today is a day for unity and solidarity. After a campaign designed to see the United Kingdom pulled asunder, in the wake of its failure is a never greater need for reconciliation.
Voting is sometimes easy and done with little thought, but this vote was not. Deciding the future of a nation is not a small step. I woke up in the early hours to follow the results as it soon became apparent that the surge in support for Yes, and for an independent Scotland, had shrunk slightly in the closing days.
The votes have been counted and the politicians leading the no campaign are reaching for their prepared lines or hastily redrafting speeches to express just the sufficient amount of pleasure without taking on a patronising tone. Or for those pushing for a yes, acknowledging the people of Scotland have spoken but trying to salvage scraps of victory to take away from the counting table.
In the days and weeks to come the pledges the party leaders cobbled together to give more powers to the Scottish Parliament will be tested. The yes campaign will want to squeeze all they can out of this defeat, well others will feel the promises lacked any mandate and will seek to back pedal on further constitutional change.
But I am sure change will come. It may not look exactly like what Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband promised, but it will come. It will also not just be about Scotland, as more powers go to Holyrood great the pressure becomes to revisit the powers of those MPs representing Scottish constituencies who have a vote over issues that do not affect their areas. This is not simple, you could exclude Scottish MPs from voting on these matters, but that would also need to apply to Welsh and Northern Irish MPs for the more limited areas of devolution there. You could also create an English Parliament meeting at Westminster to decide English only MPs, but once again, what about those votes affecting England, Wales and Northern Ireland? This would also be problematic, because what if the government has a majority for UK wide votes but not for English matters, or vice-versa?
More ambitious ideas, and you could sense the twinkle in the Liberal Democrats’ eyes, include a fuller federalisation of the United Kingdom. Voices have also risen up calling for regional devolution, whether for the North of England, or the Greater Manchester region.
My prediction is that the Government will attempt to give the Scottish Parliament more powers early next year, but this will be delayed and pushed beyond the election due to objections within the Conservative Party. In the Prime Minister’s statement this morning he announced that the changes would be agreed by November and draft legislation published in January, whether it gets further than that is dependent on the good will of his backbenchers. The broader constitutional questions will then become a key part of the electoral battleground at next May’s general election.
I don’t have a kilt to wear today – a checked shirt is as close as I can get. If I were to have a kilt, it would be the Buchanan kilt, as that’s the clan I can trace some roots to. Their motto seems particularly apt today: “Henceforth forward the honour shall grow ever brighter”.
It is my hope that Scotland and the United Kingdom will benefit from staying together. But if, for whatever reason times become hard, I am glad we get to find a way forward together.
Today is a day for celebrating unity, but also for acknowledging that unity does not simply happen, it is a task we have to give ourselves to, commit to, and persevere with. There are many months of hard work ahead, for the politicians as they seek to honour their promises. And for the Scottish people as they continue to live side by side with those whom they have disagreed so passionately and campaign against these past months and years. And it is here that the Church can play a role. It can bring people together, it work for the common good, it can help build a society rooted in values that are not restricted to vote winning manifestos or coalition compromises.
Watching Braveheart won’t be the same, it won’t have the same sense of irrational patriotism – cheering the Scots to rebuff the English won’t feel quite the same. It’s illogical, it is borderline nonsense, but seeing the resistance against the invading armies and the defence of their nationhood seems more stirring knowing that three centuries later it was a Scottish king who took on the united crown of both countries.
When the Union came it was not an invasion, it was not the conquest of a marauding army, but the coming together of two countries.
I have a little Scottish blood in me, I occasionally consider getting a Buchanan tartan to mark that part of my heritage. I have never lived there, visited only a few times, but it is a connection I do not want to lose.
And this week I’m scared about what might happen. And I am saddened too. The idea of a United Kingdom without Scotland seems wrong, it’s like a wedding where the groom doesn’t show. This is no more than an emotional defence of why I want Scotland to stay as part of the United Kingdom. I have heard the arguments – I have seen them shift like the sand beneath tidal turns. I have watched the politicians make the case for independence, and the counter arguments against them. I have listened and tried to comprehend the financial, constitutional and political dimensions of the debate and in each there are reasons why Scotland might want independence, but they fall short against the logic, the romance and the attachment of the Union.
Scotland might be better off if they kept all the revenues from their oil, but they would have to deal with a national debt on their own. They may want to retain the pound, but no one is quite sure how that would work without leaving one union only to re-enter another straight away.
The devolution of powers to Scotland caused all sorts of constitutional niggles – not least the West Lothian Question whereby Scottish MPs have a vote in Westminster on matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and therefore have not impact on their constituencies. But what happens if they vote yes, do MPs stand in 2015 and hold their seats for a year, what if those seats are what ensures a governing majority?
There are certainly political issues at stake, the Conservatives have not fared well north of the border in recent years, their standing in Westminster would be much stronger without Scotland, the dynamics of politics in a Scotland-less-union would be very different. And yet they put aside short term political opportunism to stand for a Union that is more important than who governs it at any particular point.
And this is because this decision goes beyond the logistics and the politics, and the practicalities of how it would work. Maybe Scotland might suffer financially, maybe the rest of the UK might be changed politically, but while those are the battlefields the independence debate has be fought on, they are not the field upon which it will be decided.
Despite all this I’ve not really engaged with the campaigns, and perhaps that is because I don’t have a vote. Or maybe it is because I have no doubt how I would vote. This is not a decision that rests on the tactics or strategies or the policy promises. It is not about the preening of the politicians or the caricatures of each other’s character. It is about the gut. I care more about the result of Thursday’s vote than I have about any election I’ve observed.
I have leafleted for local council candidates, I have canvassed for prospective parliamentary candidates and I have the wonderful record of never campaigning for the winning candidate. The disappointment of standing at the count and seeing the candidate for a council seat you have work with for weeks lose by a handful of votes fades into insignificance against the prospect of Scotland ceding from the Union.
Needing a passport to get into Scotland isn’t a big deal, if you fly you need it anyway. Even changing currency is a frustration that would be swiftly accommodated. The pain of this divorce would not be in the short term logistics, or the financial turmoil it may lead to. The pain is in the decades and centuries to come when the Union that stood through centuries, that brought peace and stability to these isles, that worked together, accommodated differences and thrived on unity, is only a relic in the history books.
And that is the thought that saddens me, that what made us strong, what helped us through strife, what stood against foes internal and abroad, has slipped away. That’s why I am hoping beyond all hope that Scotland votes no.
This is a bit of a working draft, I’m still processing my thinking but this is where I’ve got to. I don’t want to misrepresent anyone’s views so open to comments and corrections to ensure it’s accurate and clear.
Yesterday the internet went into one of its sporadic meltdowns, a bit like Iain in the bake off kitchen which ended up with his baked Alaska in the bin and him heading home. This time – as with many others – the debate that exploded was over the role of women.
It was a curious affair, Andrew Wilson picked up on comments Alistair Roberts made below an article Hannah Malcom wrote for Threads and reposted an excerpt on the Think Theology blog. The original comments were made a month ago and were part of a long discussion which I had previously missed, as clearly had many others who became inflamed when they were given prominence. Part of the problem is that Alistair Roberts writes very long comments, his longest in response to Hannah ran to just shy of 3000 words, and below Andrew Wilson’s post he wrote another of similar length replying to Steve Holmes which he has reposted on his blog with a couple of additional remarks.
To get my head round what he was saying took quite a lot of time! Last night, before reading anything bar the Think Theology post I had a hunch that Alistair was saying something interesting, but also sure that I disagreed with him, and that despite both of those I didn’t really understand what he was saying. Having read in some detail the various journal article length comments on various posts I’ve come to the conclusion that I do disagree with him, but at the same time he makes a useful point which is danger of getting lost in the wave of criticism he’s received. But also that the level of my disagreement is significant and the strength of his logic lost because of the direction he chooses at the outset. He says many things I am not going to engage with, for example others have picked up on his articulation of feminism. This is what I have summarised his position as, I may have this wrong, and I am undoubtedly overriding some of the nuance he covers in his discussion.
- men are stronger than women,
- things are better when strong people are present,
- strong people inevitably rise to the top of power structures,
- exercising power is a key function of leadership
- strength is therefore a key feature in the affective exercise of leadership.
Alistair writes in his comment responding to Steve Holmes which I think is the crux of his position:
Just as men have a natural relationship to power that women don’t have, Genesis and the rest of Scripture presents women as possessing a natural relationship to life, communion, and the future that men don’t possess. If the tasks of taming, naming, and exercising dominion over the world (tasks corresponding to the first three days of creation) primarily fall on men’s shoulders, men are to empower women to perform the tasks of filling the world with life and fellowship, a task for which they possess a unique aptitude
As an understanding of why men dominate power structures this is a fair historical and sociological assessment. Coupled with this is a critique of advocates for equality as wanting to undermine the power structures for its own sake without considering whether the outcomes of that shift to equality would benefit those who most need it. Alistair argues that equality, if meant by that raising up and protecting those who are marginalised and disenfranchised, is better served by strong leadership and that is best achieved by not bowing to an overarching concern for equality. He also goes further and suggests that equality is so disputed it is an empty concept. Specifically this means that where women are marginalised they are better off with men in more positions of leadership because those men are better able to protect and to serve. As an extreme but useful example he says an equality which demanded parity of gender representation in the army would leave the country less able to secure its defence. Continue reading