I reckon one of the biggest chasms between Christian thought and sex-positive thinking comes down to how we understand the word “flesh” in the New Testament. Or in the Greek, σαρξ.
The word appears 147 times and in the NIVUK translation it gets rendered 53 times as either “flesh” or “body”, 23 times as “sinful nature”, and a further 58 times with other meanings, translated either on its own or in conjunction with other words. These uses refer to something associated with humanity or earthliness, ranging from neutral terms like “human ancestry” to loaded terms like “perversion”. (And untranslated 13 times for those who want the maths.)
Of the times that sarx is rendered as flesh or body, the context is often negative, emphasising weakness or mortality.
What’s more, the NIVUK repeatedly translates sarx as ‘flesh’ in Galatians 5. That’s the passage where Paul writes this:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NIVUK)
Upshot: it’s very, very easy to come away from the New Testament thinking that flesh is bad, bodies are bad, and anything to do physical pleasure is very, very bad. This is particularly the case for Paul, whose letters account for 20 of the 23 times sarx is translated as “sinful nature”.
The book of Daniel often gets cited as the model for Christians to follow because he doesn’t acculturate, famously refusing the king’s food. The thing is, there are people other than Daniel in the Bible who did acculturate and brought God’s salvation and transformation into the world by doing so. (Esther and Joseph being the two leading examples.)
In my last post, I wrote about how the UK and US churches’ use of Daniel to promote non-conformity is problematic; in this post I want to dig deeper into assumptions that underpin our ‘Daniel-only’ models of church.
One of my bugbears about the church in the UK and US, is the strong emphasis of non-conformity.
We’re told to be like Daniel and show our distinctiveness. We have to be bold like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who would face the fiery furnace sooner than bow down to the Babylonian king. As Paul put it in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world.”
Last week, I met up with a good friend, also a blogger, whose areas of interest overlap with mine particularly in regard to consent and feminism. Though she’s not a Christian, a few months ago I had asked if she would read chapter 6 of Tim and Kathy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2013). For those less familiar, this is where Kathy Keller squarely sets out her complementarian theology and how she found joy accepting the ‘divinely assigned’ role of her gender by submitting to her husband Tim.
I asked my friend Amy to read it because I wanted a second opinion. I felt Kathy sounded eerily like a woman who’d been conditioned to believe she was a ‘submissive’ in the BDSM sense, even though she wasn’t one – much like Ana in Fifty Shades of Grey (click here for what I mean by ‘BDSM’ and ‘submissive’).
Amy had been through an abusive 24/7 dominant/submissive relationship and she blogs regularly about BDSM, so I was interested to know her thoughts. Also, as someone who isn’t in the church, and who hasn’t exited the church, she didn’t have any theological axes to grind.
I got a flavour of her reaction when she messaged me the day before we met up:
So… it’s okay that my notes on this book contain a lot of RAGE CAPS, right? 😀
When we met she read her comments to me a little hesitantly, in case she was being too scathing in her criticisms. She needn’t have worried. From my perspective it was satisfying to hear her name several of my key complaints against this chapter and complementarianism in general.
But what surprised me was her take on the Trinity.
Historically, I’ve not been one to put much store in icons of saints. Coming from a Protestant background, visual images of “holy people” seem more like an idolatrous waste of time – and why bother with the saints anyway when we have Jesus? The other week though, my breath was caught by an icon of Paul. He was holding his letters, on which was a small image of St Paul’s Cathedral, and a Huia bird sat on his shoulder. In that moment, my heart ached like I had just discovered a happy photograph of a much beloved grandparent who had passed away years ago.
My reaction was no doubt informed by the fact that I’d recently read an essay that discussed how people can relate to historical figures by seeking to embody that person’s values. Given how much Paul has been in my thinking in recent months, and how much I have grown to admire him, it meant something to me to see a face that was his face. I now had more than just letters; I had an image.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about purity pledges.
For the uninitiated, these are when Christian teenagers (both male and female, though it seems to be more common for girls) promise to be sexually abstinent until marriage. The promise is made usually around the time they hit puberty and girls sometimes buy or receive a ‘purity ring’, possibly given to them by their parents. In the more extreme forms, you have ‘purity balls’, where young girls go on ‘dates’ with their fathers during which they promise that they will not to have sex or marry against his wishes. Sometimes, they even sign a covenant to that effect.
I’ve read a number of articles and stories about the damaging effects of these pledges and the culture which endorses them (witness the links above).
What I haven’t seen is a theological, Bible-focussed discussion of the concept of pledges, or how they compare to the various kinds of commitments we see in the Bible.
I’m guessing one of the reasons for this is because, at a glance, the Bible seems to paint a confusing picture. Solemn promises are meant to be kept, yet there are many examples where keeping a promise led to death and destruction. We also have Jesus’ teaching that we shouldn’t swear anything at all – which is somewhat puzzling for couples who (like myself) have made wedding vows. So, are promises good or not? And what kind of commitment is a purity pledge?
To answer these questions, I’ll first look at the different types of commitment in the Bible (this post), then I’ll look at what characterises good and bad commitments, and lastly I’ll apply the findings of those two posts to the specific example of purity pledges.
Here we go. (Grab a cuppa, this post has 3,500 words.)
As I finally come to write reviews of this last cluster of books from 2017 I realise that I’ve probably more not read them, than read them. Sorry about that. This batch is probably of most interest to people who are questioning some of the answers they’ve been given by the church, particularly around sex, sexuality and gender. There’s also some sci-fi. Here are the books I’ll give you a little flavour of:
Only kidding! The themes for 2017’s theological reading seem to have been justification (and my discovery of a long-standing debate between John Piper and Tom Wright), hope and the kingdom of heaven, and prophecy. So here are a few short reviews of:
Why the Reformation Still Matters
New Testament for Everyone commentaries
Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
Whole Life Worship
Surprised by Hope
(Actually, they’re not short. This post is about 3,500 words. Whoops.)
So, there is this idea that women have the ability and commission to preach just as much as men. This sermon is offered alongside the work of other like-minded groups of people who are each doing their bit for bringing about the fullness of women’s ministry. A group I have some involvement with is the Ezer Rising team, and you can even order mugs and t-shirts with this slogan if you want!
You can watch the YouTube video (~25 minutes, ~480MB) or you can read the text which is (for the most part!) reproduced below.
(The video is also embedded above, but it doesn’t display in all readers.)
It is 500 years to the day (well, sort of, if we don’t worry about the shift to the Gregorian calendar) since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses onto the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, on 31 October 1517. His actions kicked off the reformation – a movement during which the protestant denominations split away from the Roman Catholic church.
Coming from a protestant background, this seems a fitting time for me to write 95 short statements on the themes of this blog. Of course, they don’t cover everything! But you’ll find in them thoughts and theologies that either have been, or will be, very much an integral part of my writing. (And when I’m cribbing someone else’s work, I’ve put their name in brackets.) I’ve split them into ten categories:
Last Christmas I realised something that made me so angry I wanted to pick up my laptop and smash it to pieces.
No, this was not an urge that I had felt before.
I was contemplating the second chapter of Hebrews which talks about Jesus being made like the people whom he helped. The book is one of my favourites in the New Testament because it has a wholesale take on Jesus as the Great High Priest. I’m a sucker for the Old Testament books of law (don’t judge me!) so I lap up the words of this letter with delight every time I read them. Assuming I understand them, of course. And there’s no guarantee of that because, good grief, this book is complex!
Anyway: I was contemplating how Jesus was both like and unlike the people that he acted on behalf of as a priest. The thought-process was in aid of a blog post I published in the new year about how “priest” was to be my word for 2017. You see, a priest identifies with someone who is both like and unlike them. That is an integral part of how a priest ministers reconciliation. It was that like-and-unlike idea I had in mind when picked the image for that post – which I’m reusing for this one. (It comes from a winter wedding, in case you hadn’t guessed.)
The thought I had as I was contemplating was this: when a group of people, called by God to be ministers of his covenant to the world, separate themselves from others on the grounds of “purity”, they subvert and frustrate God’s reconciling plan for everyone else.
When I was a plucky secondary school pupil, I had an idea for a perpetual motion machine. I was beyond excited. I was going to solve the world’s energy problems. I was prepared to accept that maybe there was a glitch in my design that I hadn’t realised, so I prayed earnestly that if I was wrong then God will tell me that very same day.
That afternoon my older brother told me it wouldn’t work.
I didn’t believe him to begin with, but gradually reality sank in as he explained. As Scotty would say, “Ya canna change the laws of physics!” Unknowingly, I had been trying to break the first rule of thermodynamics – that energy cannot be created or destroyed.
Thing is, right now, I feel like a child again. I feel like I can change the world. Or maybe it’s not that I can but that I will – by the grace of God, in the wisdom of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the fellowship of the church – change the world.
Is that me or is that not me? I don’t care! The world is going to change – and that’s what really excites me.
That tweet was in April. It’s now July. What I’m about to write is a mixture of theological thoughts I’ve been mulling on in the interim and talking over my husband – because he’s a fabulous deep-thinker who sometimes sees things I don’t.
When I’ve been talking to him about my ideas about virginity he’s said to me,
“OK but… this idea is like the fur of a cat. You can stroke it one way and it’s fine, but if you stroke it the wrong way, you get the cat’s back up. It’s still the same fur, but it doesn’t work. You’ve got to be careful with this.”
So, I could be on the wrong track, but even if I’m on the right track, you’ve got to look at my direction of travel here. Also, even if I’m on the right track and going in the right direction, this is a curiously complex issue. Again, it’s like cat’s fur: you can stroke a cat anywhere, but you can’t stroke a cat everywhere on its surface at the same time. (This is also called the ‘hairy ball theorem’.) In a similar way, what I’m about to say may not the have logical consistency the way we might expect at first.
OK, so I was having a Twitter conversation and was asked about practical examples to make churches more inclusive. I started writing. This list isn’t exhaustive, but this is what I’d say off the top of my head.
The way I see church is like a long, long banqueting table. It has many dishes. Each person will find something there that doesn’t work for them – maybe it’s gluten, lactose, refined sugar, or maybe it’s texture, consistency, taste – but everyone will find something that they can enjoy too.