Isaiah 58:1-9a (remix) – a call to Christians who campaign

Like many of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah spoke about injustice, calling the people of Israel and Judah to account for their actions and appealing to them to change their ways. And I know it’s a cliché but: many of his words, written hundreds of years ago, are deeply resonant today. Things like ending oppression and showing hospitality to the poor.

The thing is though, many Christians reading this passage would frame themselves as being in Isaiah’s shoes; they would use his words to call non-Christians and other parts of the church to account. Yet there comes a point when you can’t escape the fact that at least some Christians are wrong to claim the moral high ground. At least some Christians must be campaigning for causes which aren’t actually just.

So as I thought about this passage over the last couple of weeks, I began to move away from framing it in terms of “Don’t oppress the poor” (which is good advice any day of the week). Instead, I thought of it in terms of “Don’t engage in wasteful campaigns.”  Continue reading Isaiah 58:1-9a (remix) – a call to Christians who campaign

sometimes I wonder… if Rachel Jankovic understands scandal (a response to her criticism of Kaitlin Shetler’s viral poem)

Over the last week or so, a #poemfortheresistance by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler has been making waves on the internet. Both stark and poignant, it contemplates whether Mary’s experience of breast-feeing Jesus was anything like the author’s earthy experience. (Its text is at the bottom of this post.)

The poem has many layers but it lands the author’s view that the coarse image of a teenage girl, with cracked nipples maybe, breast-feeding Jesus, says far more about the truth and relevance of the Christmas story than the many sermons you might hear from privileged male preachers who gate-keep women from the pulpit.

At the time I write, the poem has garnered over 40,000 reactions on Facebook and 29,000 shares (not counting the ones where people copied the text into their own posts). It’s clearly resonated with a lot of people, however it’s also been deemed silly or irrelevant by some, offensive to others.

In particular, Rachel Jankovic criticises the poem for misstating the scandal of Christmas as “some kind of woman power thing” when the real scandal (in her view) is obedience to God.

I want to talk about this. Continue reading sometimes I wonder… if Rachel Jankovic understands scandal (a response to her criticism of Kaitlin Shetler’s viral poem)

8 things that got me through the worst time in my life (in 500 words)

Picture of leaves in the foreground with the sun setting over a lake in the background, with the words: 8 things that got me through the worst time in my life (in 500 words) workthegreymatter.com

I shared this with a couple of people on Twitter and they said it helped them, so I figured I’d share on my blog too.

Background: I had a period of my adult life when I saw a systemic problem and I tried to raise awareness of it. However, the main person I tried to talk to was also one of the worst offenders. The issue therefore evolved into me talking to other people about that person, again trying to solve the problem, but without success. Along the way I became ill and had unhelpful advice from family and friends (especially around forgiveness). It only resolved (if that is the word, and only in part) after a few individuals took an interest and pulled some levers. By the time the dust settled, my life situation had significantly altered. Continue reading 8 things that got me through the worst time in my life (in 500 words)

Are your thoughts and prayers with … the system? Maybe they should be.

Picture of bullet shell on the ground in a deserted place with the words: Are your thoughts and prayers with ... the system? Maybe they should be workthegreymatter.com

I’m grateful to say that gun violence is something quite remote from my experience and everyday life. The UK has tight gun controls and most of our police don’t carry firearms. I don’t think I’ve seen a gun fired, ever, let alone at anyone.

So, as I write this post, I’m going to do my best not to claim knowledge and understanding that I don’t have. However, how we pray and what we pray for is in my blogging lane, and I think it’s time I say something on this. Continue reading Are your thoughts and prayers with … the system? Maybe they should be.

Does Good Omens promote the Gospel? Not quite, but it comes close

Book of Good Omens, brown cover, hardback, by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, on black background with the text "Does Good Omens promote the gospel? Not quite, but it comes close..." workthegreymatter.com

This is the second of a pair of posts about Good Omens. I’ll start with a quick recap of where I got to in the previous one, and don’t worry, this post is half the length of its predecessor.

There was this bit:

We should appreciate then that the story is about misfits trying to change the establishment, far more than any modern concepts of witchcraft. In fact, all the heroes, by their very nature and identity, transgress the bounds of acceptability in one way or another.

And this bit:

The question for critics, if they can concede that Good Omens is a good piece of storytelling, is whether its transgressive core is against Christian belief. Because let’s face it: disobedience, mischief and rebellion aren’t exactly renowned Christian virtues.

OK, let’s get stuck in. Continue reading Does Good Omens promote the Gospel? Not quite, but it comes close

To my egalitarian friends: please don’t hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)

Ancient Hebrew manuscript showing extract from Exodus with the words superimposed: To my egalitarian friends: please don't hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)

Photo credit: Tanner Mardis via Unsplash

In fairness, no one has actually come to my blog and ranted about the Old Testament laws. So, this post probably isn’t aimed directly at you.

That said, I want to get more and more into writing about them and I could easily imagine many egalitarian Christians looking at me baffled and asking why I would bother at all. That in itself is not so much a problem; it’s great when people ask genuine questions. The difficulty I want to avoid is people saying things up front like, “Yeah, but we’re under grace now,” or “Moses was a misogynist.”

I have no problem sharing a high-five with anyone who believes women are equally as capable of leading as men are; I have no problem sitting with someone who believes that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament law. But I don’t think egalitarians need to disregard the Old Testament, or the Torah (or those deeply uncomfortable Deuteronomy laws) in order to make their case.

Instead, I think the egalitarian standpoint (that’s the idea men and women might be different but are still equally capable of leadership) is stronger when it has an integrated understanding of the Old Testament, its stories and its laws. This is why I want to write about them.

So my ask is this: if you’re one of my allies, and you agree with what I have to say about consent etc, please don’t pile on with how the Old Testament is irrelevant or perverse. Continue reading To my egalitarian friends: please don’t hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)

I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday

Picture of wooden crucifix on a table with the words "I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday"

So, last week I heard a man in paid ministry explain why Good Friday is good.

I took notes.

I knew in advance that he was an evangelical, so I guessed he’d be presenting a variant on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). In this post I’ll lay out what PSA is, what he said, what I said to him by way of challenge and other reasons why I felt the theology was problematic. In the next post, I’ll discuss the fallout, how that affected me, and what I make of the situation as a whole. Continue reading I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday

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