Flesh: what Paul meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)

Ballet dancers in a ballroom. The man has his bare back to the camera holding the woman. She wraps her arms calmly around his body. She has blonde hair and is wearing dark red. The colour contrasts against the monochrome background of the room. Text: "Flesh: what Paul really meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)"

(Photo credit: pixel2013 on Pixabay)

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.)[1]

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”.

But what was Paul’s intention? Continue reading Flesh: what Paul meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)

Dear Christians: non-conformity is not the path to transformation

St Paul's Cathedral between two modern buildings with the text: Dear Christians: non-conformity is not the path to transformation

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.

Because I reckon the overuse of non-conformity comes down to a flawed theology of hope. Continue reading Dear Christians: non-conformity is not the path to transformation

Dear Christians: Daniel is not the distinctive role model you think he is

Picture of St Paul's Cathedral in London between two modern buildings; caption: Dear Christians: Daniel is not the distinctive role model you think he is

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.”

I have no complaint about these Bible passages, but I’m tired of this narrative. I think it’s being overused and misused. Not only that, but its counterpart is being missed altogether. Continue reading Dear Christians: Daniel is not the distinctive role model you think he is

Skandalon: Mary teaches the boy Jesus

Bible open at Luke chapter 2 with the words “Skandalon: Mary teaches the boy Jesus”

This is a short story / sketch based on the events recorded in Luke 2:41-50. It is told from Mary’s point of view. You can read it and/or listen to me reading it here; to save the mp3 file (~15MB), right click on the audio and use “Save As..”):

 


We went to Jerusalem again this year to celebrate Passover. It was the third time we’ve been able to do so since Joseph and I returned to Galilee, but still it conjured so many emotions for me.

On the one hand it was good to be amongst family and friends, walking with them and seeing the children play together. On the other hand it reminded me of all that I missed during the years we were in Egypt. I heard the young mothers asking questions of the older women, receiving good advice and homely encouragement. It stung to be reminded how I didn’t have that community and I tried so hard not to begrudge them.

The children were a handful, as ever. Continue reading Skandalon: Mary teaches the boy Jesus

Love: fire or fruit? Bishop Curry’s sermon was missing a person, IMHO

Book 'The Fruit of the Spirit is Love' published by Eagle Publishing Ltd, with caption Love: fire or fruit? Bishop Curry's sermon is missing a person, IMHO

You bet I watched the royal wedding last Saturday! And I loved it.

I’ll admit, if I’d heard the words of Michael Curry’s sermon on your average Sunday morning, from your average preacher with your average congregation, I’d have been underwhelmed.

As it is, I’m giggling a little inside. It’s the thought of “I can’t believe he just got away with that.” A black American, an LGBT+ affirming Episcopalian, came into a traditionally white, elitist, patriarchal institution and said we’ve all got to love each other – and if we do that, we’ll change the world.

Everyone in the room had to shut up and listen. (Tee hee.)

And he was broadcast to over 1 billion people.

But it’s more than just the numbers. By speaking, this man carried representation for his nation, for people of colour and for people groups he campaigns for. It meant he was not just speaking his message – he was embodying it too.

And having a rip-roaringly fun time whilst he was at it!

He has certainly had an impact. Everyone has been buzzing about him and even some celebrities who are hardly Christian and not exactly people I admire (Piers Morgan, for example) are applauding him on Twitter. Curry has succeeded in showing who God truly is, in a way that people could see and understand and delight in.

And that’s what real preaching is about.

But.

On its own, his message is not enough.  Continue reading Love: fire or fruit? Bishop Curry’s sermon was missing a person, IMHO

How do I handle non-responses on social media? Yeah, not great.

Coloured windows at Norwich Cathedral
Coloured windows at Norwich Cathedral

I saw a tweet today:

Stop letting people who do so little for you control so much of your mind, feelings and emotions.
– Will Smith

It came at a timely moment. Around lunchtime today I left a comment on a Facebook post written by a woman I highly respect. I’d invested a lot in what I said. It’s now gone 9pm and there’s no response. I also saw another Facebook post this afternoon asking a great question and I commented on that too investing my creative energy and thought process again. Again, no response. I saw some great tweets and retweeted them on Twitter. Nothing.

The non-response eats at me.

And it shouldn’t.

It really, really shouldn’t. Continue reading How do I handle non-responses on social media? Yeah, not great.

O Precious Sight (by Vicky Beeching) – a contemplative video for Good Friday

Aisle at Beverley Minster

Good Friday is a day that almost doesn’t need anyone to preach on it – the story speaks for itself. As I was flicking through passion hymns in the book my church uses, I found one I hadn’t heard before by Vicky Beeching called “O Precious Sight”. The last verse is about resurrection, but if you leave it out and just contemplate the first three verses, there is so much there.

So I recorded a cover version and made a video set to photos I’d taken on various travels. It’s not perfect – the photos aren’t all in perfect focus, my singing has room for improvement and I’ve discovered glitches iMovie that means the video flickers in a couple of places. (Sigh.) Nonetheless, I offer this short video for those contemplating Jesus’ cross and the salvation it means for us. Continue reading O Precious Sight (by Vicky Beeching) – a contemplative video for Good Friday

Books of 2017: Titles of interest to theology lovers and Bible students

I read all of these from cover to cover.

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:

  • Justification
  • 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.)

Continue reading Books of 2017: Titles of interest to theology lovers and Bible students

Always reforming: 95 statements on hope, sexuality and consent

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:

  • personhood
  • abuse
  • God
  • sex
  • consent
  • Christian witness
  • the Bible
  • hope
  • purity
  • and me.

Continue reading Always reforming: 95 statements on hope, sexuality and consent

A brain-dump about purity: this time, I think I really might change the world

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.

So, what’s this big world-changing idea?

I’ve tried to blog about it before and I’m hoping I’ll blog about it in various forms over the coming months (years?): it’s all about purity. Continue reading A brain-dump about purity: this time, I think I really might change the world

Rethinking virginity: yes, it is about purity, but it’s not like a silk scarf

OK, first up: caveats.

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.

But I think there’s something big here.
Continue reading Rethinking virginity: yes, it is about purity, but it’s not like a silk scarf

My greatest regrets are when I was trying to be someone I’m not

That moment when I hit “post”, “tweet” or “publish” – I never know what the response will be.

Some of my most laborious works have been put out there with only the most meagre amounts of attention paid to them. Other times, what seemed like a passing thought has been whipped up and shared widely. Well – much more widely than my average.

Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve felt a tension between writing what I want to write and what I think people want to consume. Of course, there has to be a balance between these two. The frustration comes when I’ve written something I think people would enjoy but then don’t read. But that feeling of frustration isn’t the problem. It comes, it goes. Something didn’t work. I shrug. I move on.

The problem is the feeling of fear: You’re doing it wrong.

You’re doing it wrong.

You’re doing it wrong. Continue reading My greatest regrets are when I was trying to be someone I’m not

An open letter to JK Rowling: nine things I can’t thank you enough for

Harry Potter and the philosopher's stone book with cinema 3D glasses

Dear Joanne,

I can barely believe it’s been 20 years since the first Harry Potter book came out. I was far from your earliest fan, and won’t presume to count myself as your biggest, but I am full of admiration both for your books and for you as a person. I have so many things to thank you for – here are some of them.

Continue reading An open letter to JK Rowling: nine things I can’t thank you enough for

Beast and Christian Grey: monsters or lovers? (Part 5: Hope and love)

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson dancing with lyrics from 'Evermore'

My greatest criticisms of both Fifty Shades and the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast come down to how they frame hope.

In Fifty Shades, Christian’s hope is vested in Ana, and the fear of losing her drives him to control her. In the 2017 Beauty and the Beast, Beast fares a bit better; he vests his hope in Belle’s intangible presence, which means he’s less controlling. But in the 1991 version we see something fundamentally different: Belle is Beast’s symbol of hope. When Beast surrenders to uncertainty he dies inwardly, only to be reborn into a new hope when Belle returns.

In these respects, I’d say Fifty Shades presents a hope that is Mormon, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast presents a hope that is Platonist, but the 1991 Beauty and the Beast presents a hope that is consistent with traditional Christianity.

Now you might say that’s over-analysing, but hey – I’m coming to the end of twenty-six blog posts that look into Beauty and the Beast in some form, so I think I’ve kind of already opened myself up to that accusation. I may as well keep going until I’ve said everything that I think is worth saying.

This is a long post, even by my standards (4,000 words), but if reading the above whets your appetite – keep going.

This is your spoiler warning. Continue reading Beast and Christian Grey: monsters or lovers? (Part 5: Hope and love)

Beast and Christian Grey: monsters or lovers? (Part 3: Guilt and shame)

Once this five part series is done, I’m planning on taking a long break from blogging about Fifty Shades and Beauty and the Beast. I’ve got to the point where I feel like I’m either stating the obvious or repeating myself. But hey, this five-part series might be more accessible for some people than the 18-part, and it does have some new thoughts, so – what the heck, I’ll see it through.

Being and doing

Who we are affects what we do. What we do affects who we are. In a sense, who we are is what we do.

But it’s so, so easy to say you are one thing and have your actions do something else. For this reason there are some stories that emphasise it’s not who you are, but what you do that matters.

Take Batman Begins for example. Billionaire Bruce Wayne is told by love interest Rachel Dawes that he can’t claim to be some nice noble guy underneath his wealth and extravagance; she says it’s what he does that really matters. Little does she know he is the caped crime-fighting vigilante, though she finds out later when he repeats her words back to her.

Batman saying: It's not who I am underneath, but what I do, that defines me.
It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do, that defines me.

But in fairness, the distinction between who we are and what we do, is a false one. Rachel Dawes draws a distinction because she wants to highlight the apparent shallowness of Bruce’s claim of being a nice guy really. Once she gets to know Bruce better, she realises that who he claims to be really is reflected in his actions.

This whole discussion about who we are and what we do is a really important one, because there are two big and weighty words out there that relate to our doing and our being: guilt and shame.

Welcome to part 3 of comparing Fifty Shades with both the animated and live action versions of Beauty and the Beast. CONTENT NOTE: I mention Christian’s sadism and his traumatic upbringing and quote one of the uglier lines from 50 Shades. Consider this your SPOILERS warning too; I will be talking about plot details of the live action Beauty and the Beast as well as some from Harry Potter. Continue reading Beast and Christian Grey: monsters or lovers? (Part 3: Guilt and shame)