My Jesus Will Shoot You

In a deep irony of timing, I write this on the day one of my Facebook friends announces they’ve taken up shooting as a hobby. Oh well.  Here it is anyway:

Cross-Gun-Heart.

Cross-Gun-Heart car bumper sticker

Cross-Gun-Heart car bumper sticker

I hate this bumper sticker. I see it around every so often, or variations on it, and to me, it always looks deeply wrong on a fundamental level.

I’m going to no doubt offend people by saying this, but such is blogging. If not offending people was my primary goal I should never have started this blog.

What this always looks like to me is the cross taking aim at the heart. My Jesus Will Shoot You.

I have problems with this.

Though I now live in the gun-toting state of Texas, I grew up in Britain, and the two parts of the world could hardly be further apart on the issue of gun rights.

In Texas, not only is there a constitutionally-guaranteed right to own a weapon (this being what the Second Amendment is understood to mean) which is considered to be a fundamental right given by God, but you can get a licence that allows you to carry it secretly on your person. This is a truly bizarre idea when you come from a country where “carrying a concealed weapon” is a crime in and of itself. There are few controls on who can get a gun, and those that exist are of dubious effectiveness. In addition, there is a national organisation which exists to promote gun ownership and almost invariably seems to lobby against there being any controls at all on who may own a gun.

In Britain, not only do we not recognise this so-called fundamental right, but it’s practically illegal to own a firearm of any sort. Even the police aren’t armed as a matter of course, though they’ve recently (last couple of decades) introduced special armed units. They’ve never been armed; we deliberately set them up that way to make it difficult for them to be used as a tool of oppression. They don’t use military-style ranks, either, for much the same reason. “See? This isn’t a military force of oppression”.

There’s also an age-old European tradition that priests don’t carry weapons. In the Mediæval division of labour, knights and the nobility carried swords as an expression of the temporal, this-worldly nature of their authority. Priests and bishops carried croziers – ornamental shepherds’ crooks – as an expression of the spiritual, not-of-this-worldly nature of their authority.

And with this as my background, here I am in Texas, where it’s the church and Christians who are some of the staunchest defenders of “Second Amendment rights”. Pastors carry guns. Good Christians have bumper stickers like the one above, and apparently see no conflict between following the Prince of Peace and carrying a gun.

I assume it’s some confluence of conservative political thought. You Christians support all these conservative causes; here, you might like to support this one too.

In my head, owning and carrying a gun is a statement of willingness to use it. If you aren’t willing to shoot someone and kill them if necessary, you have no business carrying one on the streets. Now, I need to say at this point that in my head there’s also a difference between owning a gun for hunting deer or target shooting and owning a gun for personal protection. I have no desire to either hunt or do target shooting, but I understand that there are a lot of people who do. God bless you; I will never understand the attraction.

It’s the whole “guns for self-defence” thing that gets me. Especially its weirder expressions in terms of “to defend the country from foreign invaders” (showing an amazing degree of confidence in the US Armed Forces) and “to defend my stuff from the government” (showing an interesting level of commitment to the submission to earthly authorities mandated by Romans 13).

Anyway, as I was saying, if you aren’t willing to actually use the thing if necessary, you have no business carrying. None at all.

The fact that any random stranger on the street might be carrying the ability to blow my head off secretly on their person is one that I find actively scary if I dwell on for too long, so I try not to think about it. Yet I refuse to arm myself as some gun enthusiasts have suggested. There are reasons for this, and they’re connected with what I just said.

If my country goes to war and initiates conscription, I’ll do my duty. But there’s a big difference between carrying a gun as a member of the armed forces and carrying a gun as a private citizen, and it’s to do with the authority represented by the uniform.

As a soldier, I’m not my own person. I’m responsible to my commanding officer, to my armed forces, and ultimately to the Crown. If I have to shoot someone in the course of my duties, it’s not exactly me doing the shooting. That bullet comes with all the weight of my Queen and my nation behind it. I’m an agent of my country; it’s Britain doing the shooting.

If I as a private citizen shoot someone, it’s personal. There’s no covering fig-leaf of authority of a state or a government; it’s me, in my own person. Big difference.

This is part of why executioners wore masks. The mask was a depersonalising badge of authority; whe wearing the mask of his office, the executioner was no longer acting in his own person but as an agent of the State.

Then, too, as a Christian I’m not my own person either. I belong to Christ and am responsible to Him as my King. I am, according to the Bible, an ambassador of Him and a member of His Body. Shall I take the members of Christ and without authority use them to shoot someone for whom He died? May it never be!

Jesus never carried a weapon. There was no law that I’m aware of that forbade Him to, but it wasn’t what He was about. When He was about to be arrested for having committed no crime other than to make the authorities look bad, He tells the disciples who have brought swords to put them away. The people were lookng for a sword-wielding revolutionary Messiah to drive out the pagan Roman oppressors. Jesus comes riding a donkey and healing the sick, commending tax collectors and Roman centurions (oppressors, in other words) for their faith and calling out the “righteous” religious elite for hypocrisy and blindness. He told His followers not to resist an evil person by force but to love their enemies and do good to those that persecute them. To turn the other cheek when struck, and go two miles when forced to go one.

I just can’t reconcile this with carrying a gun.

I suspect, too, that if I were to carry a gun that my faith would be at least partially in the fact that I have a gun to protect me and not in my Lord where it belongs. Rather, I’ll go unarmed, a sheep in a world of wolves, but trusting in a Shepherd with a long arm.

Intellectual Marthahood

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and concerned with many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41)

In my previous post, I touched briefly on this Bible passage contrasting Martha and Mary. Typically, it’s used to say “don’t be so busy-busy; sit at the feet of Jesus and learn”. An important lesson, certainly.

However, it occurred to me that as I had (and I believe correctly) applied it in a way running almost diametrically opposite the usual teaching application, it might be worth focusing in on it some more.

Welcome, then, to the world of intellectual Marthahood.

Typically, when this passage is preached on, I can find myself getting smug. I look more like a typical “Mary”. I don’t like busy. I’m not so fond of exerting myself in service. I like sitting down at the feet of Jesus; it’s relaxing. I like learning; it stretches my mind. And I get to look spiritual by doing so? Bonus…

I’m missing the point, aren’t I?

My own distractions and concerns, you see, aren’t the busyness of life and the tasks I have to do. I don’t typically drive myself to a place of overwork. I’ll put in the effort required, but I’d much rather work smart than work hard. As I sometimes characterise it, it’s applied laziness. Taking the time and effort to do it right the first time so that I won’t have to come back and do it again.

My “many things”, my distractions and concerns that tear me away from what is truly important, are ideas. Concepts. Learning. I’m good at digging out new truths. I’m far less adept at applying the ones I already know. I tend to overcomplicate. I can get esoteric and at times even downright arcane.

As I said, I like sitting at the feet of Jesus. But I’m far less ready to join Him in doing. Washing the feet of the Disciples. Feeding the hungry. Serving the least. Being a doer of the Word, not just a hearer.

Jesus makes an important point in commending Mary for sitting at His feet and learning. Culturally, men sat and learned; women busied themselves in serving. By commending Mary, Jesus opens the door to women for full participation in spiritual life on equal terms with the men.

But the point is not that we should all seek to learn rather than serve. The point is that we not let our many concerns distract us from what Jesus wants.

Jesus said that He only did what He saw the Father doing. There are times when that means sitting down and learning, feeding our minds and souls. But equally, there are times when it means getting up and serving, feeding someone else either physically or spiritually.

Because the Gospel is not just about us. There’s a world out there that needs to be restored. Jesus didn’t rescue us from the dominion of darkness so we could sit on our backsides looking spiritual. Those we typically call “Marthas” usually understand that far better than I.

Marthahood isn’t about task-orientation. It’s not about busyness. It’s about letting peripheral things (the task and the busyness, in her case) distract from what’s truly important. In my case, in the ivory-tower world of intellectual Marthahood, it’s about letting all my fancy ideas and deep insights dstract me from doing the works of Christ.

When True Simplicity Is Gained

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
 
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed;
And to turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

I recently heard the words of this early American hymn for the first time. The tune was made famous by being included in Aaron Copeland’s Classical work Appalachian Spring; not knowing what it actually came from, the music always sounded like Lord of the Dance to me.

Hearing the words for the first time fairly recently, and having a background in another country and another century, it took a little while to really understand and appreciate the message of the hymn. It doesn’t help that “simple” has come to mean “lacking understanding”, “ignorant” or “witless”. It’s a gift to be lacking understanding… It’s a gift to be ignorant… What?

To paraphrase Winnie the Pooh: This is the Wrong Sort of Simple.

Winnie the Pooh is a pretty good metaphor for what I mean, actually.  I always want to make things so complicated. Like Owl, I admire learning and intellect, particularly, being painfully honest, my own.  I use huge words where small ones would do. I say “The flood waters have reached an unprecedented height” when I mean “there’s a lot of water about”.  I’m more than a little bit pompous.  I have, to use A. A. Milne’s term, Brain.

There is, of course, in the world of Pooh Bear, a drawback to having Brain. “Rabbit’s clever,” Pooh says to Piglet at one point.  Piglet agrees. “Yes, Rabbit’s clever”.  “And he has Brain.”  Again, Piglet agrees.  Rabbit indeed has Brain.  “I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

Education and cleverness are wonderful things (rather like Tiggers), but there can come a point when all of our cleverness and learning just makes things more complicated than they need to be.

I recognise this trait in myself. I’ve been pedantic about knowledge since I first started to get any, and I can, like Owl, easily slip into a rather superior sort of mould.

Part of me wants complication, particularly in ideas. “There’s more going on here than meets the eye” is becoming a common statement from me about various Scripture passages. Sometimes it’s true. Sometimes we could all do with digging a little deeper. But I recognise a tendency in myself to over-complicate. To get so caught up in sifting through the complexities that I miss the simple truth that’s staring me in the face. Like Martha, I’m worried and concerned about many things. Though in my case, they are less the tasks and chores of the everyday than the spiritual knowledge and in-depth insight of my own particular brand of complication.

Sometimes, it truly is a gift to be simple. To be free of all the mental clutter that scatters our thoughts into a million different places, when all we really need is to focus in on the One thing that is needed. In my case, the Marys that have chosen what is better are those on the ground, who are right there with the Lord in the place of service.

As an educated man and self-confessed intellectual, it’s humbling to admit. I’ve spent my entire life filling my mind. I’m proud of my intellectual powers. I’ll accept almost any insult short of “you are stupid”. I like the “Wow, I never thought of that” comments I sometimes get.  I like being able to see and grasp things others sometimes can’t.

Ah, pride. First of the seven sins called “deadly” by the Catholics because they beget other sins. The arrogance of standing before God and thinking we have something of our own and in ourselves. Of taking a superior position with respect to our brothers. Of thinking that We Deserve Something.

To come down from our high intellectual tower to where we ought to be, in the press of the world, serving as our Lord before us… Truly, a gift.

Because it’s there that we find Jesus. “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to Me.” He’s in those we minister to, and He’s right there already ministering to them. He does what He sees the Father doing, and invites us to come and do it with Him.

And when we find Jesus, and join Him in His work, serving the least of these, we find ourselves.

Ourselves without the complicated knots we tie ourselves in, the arrogance and hiding and shame. Ourselves as we were meant to be. And we find joy, because what the Lord has for us truly is “the place just right”. The valley of love, where we find ourselves loving Him with all our heart and our neighbour as ourself. Where we turn and turn with Him in a whirl of delight. Not that it isn’t hard, nor that it won’t be painful. But it’s far more real and more satisfying to the soul than the cold, barren complexities we hide ourselves away in.

It’s paradoxical. We find true wisdom in simplicity, in laying aside our pride in our own cleverness. We find honour in being numbered along with our Lord, in the heat and dust of the place of service. We grasp a higher truth by abandoning the quest for More Knowledge and using what we have for others.

And as the song says, when we find this true simplicity, not the simplicity of the fool but the simplicity of the truly wise, then “to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed”. Because being the top dog, or the intellectual genius, or whatever, won’t matter any more. We will be able to bow and bend to one another in grace, not concerned for position or status or our pride in our own cleverness, no shame, no reason to hide,no reason to refuse to bend. Able to say those fateful words: I don’t know. Or “You were right; I was wrong.”

Delighted to turn from our self-absorbtion toward those we should be serving. From our fear of being exposed as frauds to the freedom of humility. To the delight of service. With nary so much as a “look at me; I’m so humble”. Made like our Lord, who for the joy set before Him endured the Cross, scorning its shame. Able to take positions that look shameful or scornful, because our joy is found there in the Person of Christ.

‘Til by turning, turning, we come round right.

“Endless Genealogies”: The Lineages of Cain and Seth

Despite I Timothy chapter 1, I have to confess to an abiding fascination with the genealogical tables in the Bible. I realise, of course, that most Westerners aren’t with me on this; many people seem to come at them with an idea of “Hmm, long list of names. Little to no detail given about them. I’m not even sure how to pronounce most of them. Why is this even here in the Bible? Moving swiftly on…

While I can sort of understand this, I can’t really relate; I think dismissing them entirely is a mistake. Having said that, however, when people do say something about them it often provokes a “Huh?” response in me and leaves me wanting to quibble over their interpretation or its implications. Maybe this is why St. Paul advised us to avoid “myths and endless genealogies”. Little good can come from arguing over peripheral details.

It occurred to me, though, that it might be worthwhile to unpack one or two of these Biblical genealogies a little, hopefully without delving into the “myths” we are told to avoid. So let’s look at what are arguably the mother and father of all genealogical lists: the lines of Cain and Seth.

The line of Cain is a lot more bare bones than that of Seth. There are no ages given, and it extends only for seven generations from Adam. We’re told at the start that Cain built a city (this from the one God said would be “a restless wanderer on the earth” – more on this later) and named it after his son Enoch. Then the line picks up with Enoch’s son.

From Adam, then, we have:

  1. Adam

  2. Cain

  3. Enoch

  4. Irad

  5. Mehujael

  6. Methushael

  7. Lamech

Then we get some of the few details we are given in the passage. Lamech marries two women (the implication being that this is a new thing) and becomes the father of four named offspring: Jabal, of whom we are told that he was the father of “all who live in tents and keep flocks”, his brother Jubal, father of “all who play the harp and flute”, their half-brother Tubalcain, maker of “all kinds of tools of bronze and iron” and his sister Naamah.

We’re also told of Lamech’s pronouncement of vengeance “seventy-seven times”. Again, more on this later.

The lineage of Seth, by comparison, is more detailed. We are given ages for the patriarchs, and the line itself goes longer: ten generations from Adam to Noah. There’s an introduction to the line at the end of the previous section, dealing with the first couple of generations. In this we learn that Seth was the one Eve said was “granted” by God to replace Abel, whom Cain killed. The implication here is that the two lineages are to be viewed in contrast or opposition to one another; Seth’s line is representative of righteous Abel.

The line of Seth, then, is as follows (beginning from Adam):

  1. Adam

  2. Seth

  3. Enosh

  4. Kenan

  5. Mahalalel

  6. Jared

  7. Enoch

  8. Methuselah

  9. Lamech

  10. Noah

Then the line divides between Noah’s three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth.

At once we are struck by the similarity of many of the names: Enoch and Enosh (and Sethite Enoch himself turning up later), Irad and Jared, Methushael and Methuselah, Cainite Lamech and Sethite Lamech. Cainite Lamech’s three sons versus Noah’s three sons. Given that we are basically invited to view the two lineages as a contrast, this is very interesting.

A line of righteousness and a line of sin. Almost the same names, but with some few differences, and with the sinful Cainite line missing some.

I don’t know about you, but this put me in mind of the way Satan will counterfeit the work of God. He’s not very creative. Creativity comes from God, and Satan is opposed to God and all His works. All he can do is make bad copies. If you read the line of Seth first, the line of Cain looks like a poor-quality copy of the real one, missing all the details that make it live.

And yet he can’t suppress the Divine image completely. It’s out of the line of Cain that the innovations of pastoral nomadism, musicianship and metallurgy come down to us.

It’s easy to go so far in our contrasting of the lines of Cain and Seth as to paint the Cainites as entirely evil and unredeemable from start to finish. After all, the line of Cain begins with the first murderer and ends with the first polygamist and a man who takes the idea of vengeance so thoroughly into his own hands that he is prepared to kill in response to being struck. Yet it’s from him that we get the first musician, the first shepherd and the first metallurgist. And it’s from Cain that we get the first city. Are we to damn all of these things because of their origins in the line of Cain?

Obviously not. King David was a harpist. Abraham was a nomadic shepherd. God describes Himself as a metallurgist testing the heart like gold or silver. And Heaven is a city: the New Jerusalem.

To me, it points to the fact that the line of Cain, too, are made in the image of God. Which makes the eventual judgement of God that “every inclination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil all the time” that much more tragic. Cain’s descendents weren’t fated to produce evil. They chose, every step of the way, to head down the path into wickedness. As did most of the descendents of Seth, it seems. It wasn’t just the line of Cain that was wiped out in the Flood.

Cain’s building of a city is an interesting physical statement from one whom God had consigned to be “a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). Cities don’t exactly wander here and there. The whole incident between Cain and Abel arose from Cain’s do-it-yourself approach to God. Back when Adam and Eve first sinned, God made coverings for them out of skins, showing that something had to die for their sin to be covered. Cain’s ignoring this and trying to bring whatever old thing he felt like as an offering to the Lord showed what was in his heart.

We can’t have a relationship with God on our terms because our sin gets in the way. It’s rather like saying to someone, “I’ll marry you, but I’m going to keep sleeping around with anyone else I feel like. You need to accept this or no deal.” It’s missing the point, and it’s not going to work. No-one righteous or truly loving is going to agree to that.

Cain’s offendedness when God gently exposed what was in his heart prompted the first murder, which was also the first example of religious violence. Even after God’s mercy in not putting him to death and in preserving him from vengeance, he still seems to want to approach God on his own terms. He builds a city, perhaps in an attempt to circumvent the punishment of God on him: Enoch (which in the Sumerian or Akkadian version of Semitic language would probably be the somehow more satisfyingly primeval-sounding Unuk), the primordial city. Nothing’s said about his son Enoch, for whom the city is named. We don’t know what his personal character was like. But we do know that Adam’s choice for sin over God set in place a downward spiral of more and more choice for sin rather than God. Sin begets sin. Or as the great theologian Yoda put it, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny”.

The downward spiral is complete enough by the generation of Lamech that no-one of any moral sense wants to follow their line any more. The detailing of Cain’s story stops here. Lamech threatens vengeance ” not seven times over but seventy-seven times”; it may be this which Jesus contrasts when asked about how many times we should forgive. Lamech promised to take revenge seventy-seven times over. Jesus said, “No. Forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22). Don’t take revenge. Lay down your offendedness, your woundedness. Forgive and be healed. It reveals how far off-base people were getting.

By contrast, the line of Seth is traced from the one who is “granted” as a replacement for Abel, as I mentioned above. The seventh from Adam, Enoch, we are told “walked with God”: perhaps a reference to the previous time in Genesis where we are told about God walking: when He’s looking for Adam. But in contrast to his forefather, Enoch isn’t fleeing and hiding from the Lord, but walking with Him. The picture is one of relationship. The relationship was so close that it seems God couldn’t wait for him to die; he’s the only one in the list whose entry doesn’t finish with the leaden litany “and he died”, emphasising like a hammer blow the consequence of sin that human beings were never meant to bear. Enoch, by contrast, “walked with God and then he was not, because God took him”.

It’s intriguing to speculate on the circumstances of this antediluvian Elijah. The New Testament book of Jude states that he was a prophet, quoting the Jewish apocryphal Book of Enoch as pointing to God’s coming judgement. However, anything we say about him beyond what we are actually told in Scripture is speculation, and runs the risk of stepping across into the “myths” we are cautioned against by St. Paul.

Enoch’s son is Methuselah, famous as the longest-lived man in the Bible, with an astonishing 969 years of life. While I do not want to get into a discussion of the extraordinary lifespans of the antediluvian age, Methuselah’s is worth mentioning because of his name. One possible interpretation of the meaning of his name is the intriguing statement “When He Dies, Judgement”. It’s especially interesting because if you count up his age, he dies in the year of the Flood.

Remember, Methuselah was named by the prophetic Enoch. Was Enoch forewarned by God not only of the impending judgement, but on when it would come?

It’s possible. But what I want to draw out of this is the connection between the meaning of his name and the length of his lifespan. The one whose name might mean “When He Dies, Judgement” just happens to be the longest-lived man in the Bible. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, God is slow to anger. It takes time and effort to bring Him to the point of judgement.

Sadly, it seems the pre-Flood human race spent both on deliberately choosing sin over God. The Lord’s statement of grief over humanity reveals a profoundly terrifying condition: “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). Think about what that means. No redeeming features – evil all the time. Injustice, oppression, greed, lust, arrogance, lying, cheating, violence and murder. Every vice and perversion you can imagine, and a few you can’t, given free reign among people living for eight or nine hundred years at a time. We say people of eighty or ninety sometimes “get a bit set in their ways”, usually meaning “stubborn, difficult and a little mean-spirited”. Now multiply that by a factor of ten and make the people concerned hell-bent on evil. This is Hitler able to talk tactics with Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. Al Capone and Ivan the Terrible sitting down to plot together. Every author of genocide and cruelty in the past 8-900 years able to watch and learn from one another, and egg one another on to further depths of depravity.

With the evident downward spiral we see in what’s recorded of the line of Cain, it’s evidence that yes, they really did deserve it when the Flood came.

Contrast Noah. His name is practically the same as the Hebrew word for “comfort”, and his father said of him that “he will comfort us in the labour and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed”. While I’m not sure that a global flood was what Lamech had in mind for “comfort”, the salvation of Noah and his family did put an end to the rampant sin whose origin had been the cause of the curse on the ground. Picturing the earth itself breathing a sigh of relief doesn’t seem too out of place.

Noah is described as “walking with God” (which shows relationship with the Lord), and as being “righteous” (which we understand from the New Testament to be a matter of faith) and “blameless” (by which we understand holiness of lifestyle). What John Wesley called “Christian perfection”: the state of grace in which you walk so closely with God that you don’t sin as a matter of course, but love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself. The contrast with his wicked and depraved generation could not be more profound.

As an aside, it intrigues me that the names of neither Noah’s wife nor of the wives of his sons are mentioned in Scripture. Lamech’s two wives get names. Even his daughter gets a name. Why not the righteous women?

I have a theory about that, though. Throughout the ancient world, there has been a tendency to want to deify primeval mother figures. Mothers are both strong and feminine, and bring forth life. This last especially is a divine attribute. My personal theory is that God did not want anyone making an idol of any of the mothers of the new human race. Indeed, considering that Moses is credited with assembling Genesis along with the other four books of the Torah, it’s possible that some of the pagan cultures around had already done so by his time, and that they were being worshipped by name as the mother goddesses of the ancient world.

Speculation, but interesting speculation. Take it with a whole spoonful of salt, not just a grain.

Anyway, returning to Noah. A man in relationship with his Lord. A man of faith. A man walking in holiness. What we’re told of him is that in contrast to his wicked and violent generation, he “found grace in the eyes of the Lord”.

He found grace. Unmerited favour. Not because he was sinless. Because God was pleased to show grace to him. And through him, to rescue the human race and bring forward His eternal rescue plan to deliver us from sin once for all.

On Feminism and Being A Man

By any reasonable definition, I suppose I’m a sort of feminist.

You can tell just from the way I say it how reluctant I am to accept the label. You probably mean something positive by it, but it’s always had weird and mostly uncomfortable associations for me.

For a start, I’m a man. I’m pretty secure in my masculinity and don’t often feel the need to engage in all that juvenile machismo nonsense, but even for me, accepting the label of “feminist” has always felt like a non-starter. The very word seems exclusionary, with me and the rest of my gender outside by design. I’m not saying it shouldn’t necessarily be that way; goodness knows there’s been enough exclusion of women in history to justify it, and frankly, what else are you going to call a movement encouraging women to be the strong, capable people they ought to be?

But as a man, the perception is that it isn’t about me or for me. That makes me reluctant to accept the label.

Secondly, the associations I have for the word aren’t helpful. The word brings to mind floods of emasculating scorn from angry women who actively seek out opportunities to take offence. As much a stereotype as that whole “submissive little woman” crap, I know, but it’s what’s in my head. I didn’t put it there on purpose.

Even as I write this, my expectation is that this is going to get taken as an attack on women. I don’t mean for it to be one; if anything it’s me trying to come to terms with a label that technically fits but that I don’t like.

I believe women can and should be strong and capable, and judged for what’s inside rather than whether the packaging is attractive, just like I believe men ought to be. I believe in equal treatment regardless of which kind of reproductive organs you’ve got. That’s the core of feminism as I understand it, but most of me wants to reject the label. In my head, my attitude towards women is just part of me being a real man the way I understand the Scriptures to teach, not something special that needs a special label. Especially not a label I find uncomfortable. Being a man and saying you’re a feminist feels like being a chicken and working at KFC.

There need not and should not be any conflict between the ideas of strong womanhood and strong manhood. I don’t find the idea of strong women somehow threatening to my manhood – why should I? Look at who I married. The fact that I could gain and keep the affections of such a wonderful and powerful woman reflects well on me as a man.

In contrast, it seems like my experience of “feminism” is just the same old dominance games but with women on top. Rejection of things I hold sacred (like marriage), offendedness at polite gestures, double standards, belittling of masculinity, female sexuality as a means to power. I’ve seen all of these first-hand. I want no part of it, thanks.

I reject the idea that male-female relationships are intrinsically connected to the idea of dominance. In the beginning it was not so.

After Adam was made, God brought all the animals to him and Adam named them. But, as the Bible says, there was found “no suitable helper” for him. The idea here is not of a diminutive “Santa’s Little Helper”, but the powerful Ezer Kenegdo. One more powerful who stands alongside to help. It’s also used to describe God’s role with His people. No “little woman” here. God’s original design for the female of the species is that she is at least as powerful as the male.

When God unveils His masterpiece before Adam, there is immediate recognition (and the first poetry in the world): “This is my equal and partner!” Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.

The whole domination idiocy doesn’t come in until the Fall. “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you”. One of the primary ways sin makes its presence felt is in the realm of human relationships. Without God centring and focusing everything, the need for relationships often grows into a crushing burden even as the relationships themselves turn sour. Alienation and dominance. It’s directed at Eve, but it’s not like men don’t also feel the effects of it, any more than women are insulated from the other curse, directed at the ground and producing failure and frustration.

As far as I can see, patriarchalism is a result of the Fall, not a design feature of the original creation of humanity.

Yes, we’re on this side of the Fall. But we’re also on this side of Calvary. In Christ, we are no more bound to replicate the same fallen patriarchal pattern than we are bound to keep on sinning. The fact that it often seems to be followers of Christ who are on the leading edge of the patriarchal rebellion against God’s original design for human male-female relationships is bizarre and tragic to me.

So yeah, I’m probably a feminist by most people’s definition.  But for me, the practical outworking of what’s called feminism just looks like being a man the way God intended.

Argo Navis: Lessons from Astronomy on Being the Church

The constellation Argo Navis as drawn by Hevelius (Image from Wikipedia)

The constellation Argo Navis as drawn by Hevelius (Image from Wikipedia)

I love the stars. Not only is the canvas of the starry heavens beautiful and awe-inspiring, I find the whole subject fascinating, too. The moon, the planets, the stars themselves, the nebulae and comets and galaxies… Wonderful. In the original sense of “provoking wonder”.
Combine this with a love of Greek mythology from my pre-teenage years and an interest in symbology and meaning, and you get this sort of post. An examination of the symbolic meanings of a constellation as a metaphor for Biblical truth.
Before I get going, I should probably say that this is not an attempt to baptise or Christianise the practice of astrology. As far as I’m concerned, horoscopes are a load of tosh unfit for consumption by followers of Jesus.
But the fact that some people try to seek direction and meaning for their lives in the positions of the stars and planets does not stop us as believers from learning something from the pictures we have drawn in the sky.
So I’m going to look at the constellation Argo Navis as a metaphor for being the Church. In mediæval times the Church was often metaphorically referred to as a ship. This constellation seems an apt metaphor, if a bit of an unusual one.
Don’t bother to look up Argo Navis in a modern star atlas, because you won’t find it under that name. In the 1700s this huge, somewhat unwieldy constellation was broken up into parts, and now exists as Carina, the Keel, Puppis, the Stern, Vela, the Sails and Pyxis, the rather anachronistic Ship’s Compass. Argo Navis is the original name of the constellation. It has been recognised as a constellation since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, and depicts the Ship Argo that Jason and his Argonauts sailed in.
Ok, now you’re just being weird. Jason and the Argonauts as a metaphor for church life? Bear with me.
The Argonauts were the Greek mythological equivalent of the Avengers superhero team. Including among their number Hercules, Theseus, Atalanta and Orpheus, the Argonauts were Earth’s Mightiest Heroes for the mythological age: each one a powerful hero in their own right, but under Jason’s leadership pooling their abilities for the sake of their combined mission to win the Golden Fleece and in doing so, win Jason a kingdom. Hercules was the strongman. Theseus was the brains of the group. Atalanta, the celebrated female warrior, was famed for her running speed. Orpheus had his lyre. Jason doesn’t seem to have had much in the way of special abilities or giftedness, but he was the leader, the one they’d all follow. Given the general contentiousness of the Greek mythological world, this in itself is a remarkable ability.
It may not be the usual picture of church, but I can see truth here. A band of people on a mission concerning a kingdom, each with their own special gift, combined in a way that makes a greater whole.
Their ship, the Argo, which is depicted in the constellation, was fashioned from the wood of a special tree in which a god had manifested themselves. And after the ship was fashioned, it would occasionally speak to the crew to direct and counsel them. Without reading too much into it, if we look at it in the right way we can see echoes of another Tree in which the God manifested Himself in the Person of His Son. The wood of the tree is fashioned into a ship, and the band of heroes travel together in it. Again, you don’t want to read too much into it, but this to me is suggestive of all of the “in Christ” teachings of St. Paul’s letters, concerning our spiritual position. A pilgrim people, on a journey, travelling together and made one in Christ, whose title Immanuel is a sign of God Made Manifest, living as one of us. A God who still speaks to us today to direct and counsel us through the grace given to us at the Tree.
In addition, each of us has some spiritual gift, some deposit of the grace of God. Not all of us are Hercules. Not all of us are Theseus. God has combined us in His Church with gifts differing, so that all may benefit. As it is written: “Now to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1Cor12:7)
Jason’s name, interestingly enough, means “Healer”; one of the attributes of Jesus. I’m not claiming the pagan hero Jason as a type of Christ, but within the metaphor we are constructing it is apt. The One we all follow is a Healer.
Those who would become the Argonauts came to Jason because of his mission. It was noised abroad that there was a great quest requiring the bravest, the strongest, the swiftest, the most cunning, to go into dangers known and unknown, risking their very lives. And they flocked to him. Like Jason’s, Jesus’ invitation is to a mission, a great quest, braving dangers known and unknown, possibly risking our very lives. A far cry from the “come to Jesus and get your needs met” we sometimes want to make it. Yes, Jesus will meet all of your needs. But His calling is to a mission. It will require your life. Far better that you get that straight at the outset.
The constellation that represents the Ship Argo is huge. From the latitudes of Greece and the Mediterranean, it “sails” across the sky just above the southern horizon, following the more modern constellation Columba, the Dove. If we are going to reinterpret the Ship as the Church, this is immediately suggestive of the corporate leading of the Holy Spirit, because we really aren’t in this alone. God guides us corporately as a people as well as individually as people. Also, somewhat ironically, due to the visual effects of the Earth’s orbit on the apparent positions of the constellations, the ship appears to be sailing backwards.
It’s really tempting to make some snarky comment about the appropriateness of this. After all, we’ve all known churches whose entire focus is on where they’ve been and the way they did church thirty, sixty or a hundred years ago. But I won’t. Instead, I want to use this to talk a little about faith. Because so often we go through situations blind. We can’t see the way ahead. It looks to our human reason as if we should be going an entirely different way. But the Dove is going that way, and we are following, though we do so back-to-front and sight unseen. It certainly sounds like what I know of faith.
The constellational ship is moved by sails (riding some kind of cosmic wind, one presumes). Again, a fitting metaphor for the life of faith, empowered and driven along by the wind of the Spirit. It’s tempting to try to find some analogy for the other three modern constellations as well, but I think this would be stretching the metaphor too far.
The original constellation of Argo Navis was broken up because it was so big it was unwieldy for astronomers. It covered such a big area of sky that finding anything in it was too great a challenge. But it forms a single picture. In astronomy, the bright stars of a constellation are given Greek letter designations in order of brightness; the brightest star in the constellation Taurus is Alpha Tauri, more commonly known by its name Aldebaran. The bright stars of the modern constellations Vela, Carina, Pyxis and Puppis are designated not according to their order of brightness in these three constellations, but in their order of brightness in the original constellation Argo Navis. The star Canopus, named after Menelaus’s pilot from the Trojan wars, is Alpha Carinae. Beta Carinae is named Miaplacidus, meaning “calm waters”. But the Gamma star is in Vela: Gamma Velorum, sometimes known as Regor. There is no Alpha Velorum or Alpha Puppis.
In a similar way, the Church is bigger than we sometimes think. Particularly in America, we have a tendency to act as if our individual local church or our particular denomination comprises the entirety of the Church. But it isn’t. Our denomination is just a part of a greater whole, and we don’t have all of the “bright stars” of doctrine, truth or practice. Just as with the Argonauts themselves, gifts differing but united in a single mission, we need each other to get the whole picture. Because in the end, there’s really only one Church.
Undoubtedly we should not take this analogy too far or try to make too much of it. There are many differences, not least in the object of our mission. We follow Jesus not for a physical object, not even a Golden Fleece, but for the redemption of the world He loves.  To participate with Him in bringing His people back.
Still, it’s an interesting image, don’t you think?

One Interpretation, Many Applications

It has been said that for any given Scripture passage, there is “one interpretation, many applications”. Anyone who’s been educated in proper hermeneutics (Bible interpretation) will recognise the truth stated here.

However, like a great many pithy summary statements, we must be careful that we are not getting the wrong end of the stick.

Let me illustrate with a personal story.

Several years back I was discussing the meaning of a particular Bible passage with someone. I can’t remember which one, but I can remember that I thought the other person’s take on the passage was odd. I said something like “Well, I don’t interpret that passage that way.” That’s when he came out with this wonderful chestnut.

This effectively closed out the discussion. He was basically saying “you are wrong because you disagree with me.”

It may be true that you have it right and that where I disagree with you I’m wrong. But if you’re right and I’m wrong, you ought to be able to show why, not just close the discussion with a misapplied truism.

It rankled at the time, but for the sake of our relationship I let it go, merely asking him where he got that idea.

He pointed to 2 Peter 1:20 and quoted the unfamiliarly-worded King James Bible (I grew up on the NIV), saying that “Scripture is not of any private interpretation”.

I let the matter drop. I was not on familiar ground, and what the NIV said didn’t seem to help much. In the version I was familiar with, it seemed pretty clear that this was talking about not making the Bible say any weird old thing you like. I didn’t think that’s what I had been doing, butwhen you’ve just been told you are wrong simply through disagreeing, you’re never quite sure what the other person’s perspective is going to be. I let the matter drop. It wasn’t a central tenet of the faith, anyway.

But his line of argument niggled at me for years. I always felt there was something wrong with it, but for the life of me I couldn’t identify what.

Then finally I did what I ought to have done much sooner. I did an internet search for “one interpretation, many applications”.

Imagine my surprise to discover that, far from being some weird quasi-heretical notion, it’s actually one of the foundational ideas of sound Bible interpretation.

Properly used, the idea of “one interpretation, many applications” is what prevents cults and doctrinally off-beam groups from “reinterpreting” the Bible in ways that make it say what is contrary to the plain sense of the text. There is only one correct interpretation: that which accords with the writer’s original intent in writing what he did. “One interpretation” may not be used as a bludgeon to bully people into accepting a particular view of a passage based on any one individual’s say-so. Nor may it be used to quash those you disagree with or win arguments simply by declaring yourself right.

Likewise, “many applications” prevents people justifying misbehaviour based on Scriptural omissions. Just because the commandment “Do not covet” does not list cars and houses is not justification for coveting those things. In the same way, just because the command to “love your neighbour” does not specifically mention bosses is no reason to exclude them from the list of people we’re supposed to love and do good to. It’s designed to stop people giving themselves a personal exemption clause on Scriptural commands. It may not be used to allow you to pull in any random Scripture and say it applies to any and all situations. There may be “many applications”, but those applications must be consistent with the interpretation of the text. Pretty obvious, really.

The scary thing is how much of the American church seems prey to this idea that “you are wrong because you disagree with me“. Pick an issue, any issue, and I guarantee you’ll find Christians making dogmatic statements about it and slanging anyone who disagrees with them as either wrong or evil, without taking the time to explain why.

We can no longer afford to assume that the truth is obvious. We aren’t going to move anyone in the direction of faith simply by telling them they need to stop disagreeing with us.

We need to build our case, take time to really engage people where they are, treat them like reasoning and reasonable adults rather than contrary two-year-olds. Two sentences on a Facebook picture may make you feel smug about the superiority of your position, but they don’t actually help bring anyone to your side.

People don’t just suddenly decide to believe something irrational. Apparent irrationality is never irrational to the one who believes it; it always follows logically from something else they hold true.

Actually taking the time to find out why the other person believes x, y or z rather than just saying “I disagree, therefore you are wrong” may reveal more common ground than we thought existed. And even if it doesn’t, at least now we know what the real dividing issue is, and probably have a bit more respect for those we disagree with.