That Interview: Day time television – who needs facts when you can have emotion instead?

The discussion of issues relating to transgenderism on a recent edition of This Morning, apart from marginalising the views of Christians and many other people of faith, trivialised a very complex and painful issue. The presenters gave the impression that ideas of sexual identity associated with transgenderism were by and large accepted by society. That is not the case. They also failed to acknowledge the medical risks of taking the transgender route.


Previous generations had a Gettysburg address or a “peace in our time” declaration. In our day, it seems that the ideological battle raging over gender identity risks being summed up by a few condescending moments on daytime television. Of course, I am exaggerating the importance and significance of Philip Schofield’s recent outburst on This Morning.

Given that it was awarded the Best Programme award by Transgender Awards it was hardly likely that any presenter on This Morning was likely to allow any kind of balanced presentation of transgenderism or any issues connected with it. Unsurprising then that Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby should react in the way that they did, even to the extent of Schofield describing his guests’ views as “abhorrent” and “mediaeval”.

Betraying a lack of professionalism and ignoring any attempt to retain journalistic objectivity appear to do no harm to a presenter’s reputation on daytime television. Having said all of that, given Schofield’s co-presenter’s reaction to a guest maintaining that it was healthy for children to consume what they picked from their noses, it’s hard to know where real disgust and outrage begins and ends on This Morning.

For some of us, the spectacle of two Christians being treated in such an aggressive manner on television, isn’t pretty viewing. We can feel angry that our voice is not heard. That our views are treated in such a hostile and dismissive manner. And we can feel frightened – though most of us would not admit to it – that “they” are coming for us too. Or frightened at the thought of being ridiculed in a similar way in public.

This is probably the moment to remind ourselves that public ridicule is a very real risk for any follower of Jesus. Jesus warned His disciples that persecution and opposition awaited them, wherever they went. It is also an appropriate moment to remind ourselves that the opposition and sometimes discrimination that some Christians are currently facing in the UK, is nothing like the persecution that believers are facing in other parts of the world. We do need to keep a sense of perspective.

Nevertheless, apart from what might be seen as an attempt to bully Christians on air, there were some very disturbing factors in the This Morning broadcast referred to above.

Controversy

For a start, there was no acknowledgement that there is no consensus whatsoever in academic or medical circles or in society in general about transgenderism. Far from it. Just do a quick YouTube search for another ITV staple, Good Morning Britain. You don’t have to look too hard to find clips of Piers Morgan rubbishing the whole notion. I suppose Schofield would find Morgan’s views “abhorrent” and “mediaeval”. I can’t imagine that for one moment Morgan gives two hoots about what Schofield and Willoughby think of him or his views. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Morgan’s book.

If you really want to check out the level of disagreement, this edition of the Moral Maze will prove informative. This overview of the programme by John Stevens of the FIEC summarises the tone and content of the discussions very well. (Much of what I have written in this article has been informed by the Moral Maze podcast, but Stevens’s summary is still worth reading).

An aspect of the controversy that might surprise some, is the antagonism that exists between “trans” people and feminists. One of the contributors to the discussion, Heather Brunskell-Evans, was described as a T.E.R.F. – Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. Shortly after participating in the programme, aired on 15th November 2017, she found herself accused of “promot[ing] prejudice against the transgender community”, and attempted to refute the charge in a blog post.

I can’t imagine that my blog has any following at all in the radical feminist world, but I wholeheartedly agree with the Dr. Brunskell-Evans when she says:

“I have called for transparent public debate, without fear of reprisal, of the social, psychological and physical consequences of the narrative that children can be born in ‘the wrong body’.”

It is simply wrong to couch this issue in terms of “society has accepted transgenderism and Christians need to ditch their mediaeval views and catch up with the rest of the world”.

It’s not just Christians who question the validity of ideas associated with transgenderism. It’s not even just religious people in general. People right across society, some who have little time for any kind of religious belief, do not accept these ideas.

One of the most serious aspects of the This Morning show in question, was not that the presenters used intemperate language. No, what was inexcusable was that they totally misrepresented the whole debate by promoting the idea that there is no debate on this issue. On the contrary, society has not moved on. This issue is controversial, extremely controversial.

Concerns

A second troubling aspect of the show was the unwillingness to accept that the concerns about transgenderism are real and sincere.

I’ll try and categorise those concerns under five headings: medical; science; children; women; mental health. Of course, for Christians there is the whole issue of scripture. I am not going to deal with that, as my purpose is to try a provide some sort of snap shot as to what is going on in the culture. Glyn Harrison has authored an excellent paper on identity and this is a brief but helpful statement of biblical teaching from Kevin De Young.

Medical

Despite the seriousness of taking the transgender route, both the government and opposition in the UK argue that people should be allowed to self-identify. That means you can determine your own gender without any medical evidence. It is hard to believe that a decision with such serious medical implications can be made without any medical evidence.

More seriously, the use of puberty blockers – drugs to delay puberty – has raised some serious questions. This Wikipedia article will direct you to various references on the subject. A quick Google search on the long term effects of puberty blockers will reveal the concern raised about these drugs.

Professor Robert Winston in a Radio 4 interview reported in the Telegraph, expressed serious concerns about the impact drugs and surgery were having on those seeking a change of gender. In his opinion, the results of gender reassignment surgery were “horrendous in such a big proportion of cases”. Needless to say, he came in for severe censure shortly afterwards, posting the following statement on Twitter in his defence: I have nothing against transgender. But I object when I have cited independent peer reviewed papers with full evidence for what I said”

Science

The scientific basis for transgenderism is at best questionable. Certainly, some scientific publications and studies claim that there is scientific evidence to indicate that the so-called “transgender brain” is different. However even this article in Scientific American, largely sympathetic  to the idea of a “transgender brain”, concludes:

“…it will be a long time, if ever, before a doctor can do a brain scan on a child and say, “Yes, this child is trans.”

Other scientific research finds no evidence whatsoever for a “transgender brain”. Ideas of gender are shaped by social background and cultural context more than by genetics. This research published in the New Atlantis argued that there was no evidence to support the idea of a specifically “transgender brain”. Some of the headlines from the report are covered in this newspaper article.

Children

For many people the notion that we should be discussing gender dysphoria or gender identity with children, even in some cases pre-school children, is troubling to the point of being sinister. Cases of “trans children” appear to be growing all the time. This kind of story is not considered unusual these days.

One has to ask, however, why much of what could be considered part of growing up and a not unusual part of childhood, should be framed in the language and understanding of transgender ideology?

Is it really necessary to read into, what in the past would have been considered lack of understanding, some kind of condition that needs prescription drugs and possibly leads to gender reassignment surgery?

None of this received air time on This Morning. Nor, significantly, was it even mentioned that, quote “the majority of children with suspected gender dysphoria don’t have the condition once they reach puberty.” (Source: NHS Website)

Transgender Trend in the UK, was formed specifically to draw attention to the implications of transgenderism for children and provides links to articles presenting academic analysis of transgenderism.

Women

It is understandable why feminists are concerned about transgenderism. Women’s lives are put at risk when, for example, a murderer is allowed to change his identity to a woman and be sent to a women’s prison.  An article in The Sunday Times claimed that up to half of transgender inmates may be sex offenders (Up to half of trans inmates may be sex offenders : The Sunday Times 19-11-17)

Women have suffered so much at the hands of twentieth / twenty-first century western culture. Whether it’s eating disorders, some kind of plastic surgery to “enhance” their beauty or the destruction of the parts of their body that biologically define a woman as woman, it seems that western society is not short on inventive ways of attacking womanhood.

Mental health

Great offence is taken when so called gender dysphoria is associated with mental health issues. The Sunday Times reported that one therapist in Scotland, who was afraid to reveal her identity for fear of being struck off, helped teenage girls to question whether they were transgender.

She frequently found that young people sent to her supposedly suffering from gender dysphoria had previously undiagnosed mental health issues such as autism or anxiety (“Wrong gender feelings” could be teen anxiety: The Sunday Times, 19-11-17).

Some in the medical profession question the whole phenomenon of gender dysphoria. John Whitehall, Professor of Paediatrics at Western Sydney University, raised such concerns:

“ Yet hardly any paediatricians recall any cases of gender dysphoria in almost 300 cumulative years of practice. Certainly, I have not seen one in fifty years of medicine. I accept cases must exist and consider them tragedies deserving as much compassion and medical care as the three cases of physical intersex I have encountered in my career.

What astonishes me is the lack of evidence to support massive medical intervention in the face of evidence that it is not necessary. I cannot help wonder how the intervention was approved by the various ethics committees in hospitals, health regions and universities when it took some students and me over a year to get approval for a study that merely asked mothers when they introduced solid foods to their children. Ultimately, I had to give my personal phone number to all respondents of the questionnaire lest someone suffer anxiety in the middle of the night.”

Suicide rates amongst people who have had sex reassignment surgery are also a major cause for concern:

“The only long-term follow-up study of people who have under-gone sex reassignment surgery suggests that it is not the simple solution we are led to believe. This study found substantially higher rates of overall mortality, suicide, suicide attempts, and psychiatric hospitalisations in sex-reassigned transsexual individuals compared to a healthy control population.”

The academic study referred to in the above quote can be found here.

There is a ton of information out there, some of it very technical, pertaining to this debate.

Contributing to an increasingly polarised climate

Finally, the kind of contribution This Morning made to the ongoing discussion about gender identity, in my opinion, only further polarises an already polarised debate.

More worryingly, it is another instance of the curtailing of free speech. Demonise the opposition and then walk away and write a tweet ending with #bekind.

Or in the case of Bath Spa University, deny a psychotherapist the opportunity to research the rise in the number of people seeking to reverse their gender re-assignment, for fear of negative coverage on social media.

Or like the teaching assistant at a Canadian university, face the wrath of the university authorities for showing a video about the politics of grammar.

We are in an increasingly toxic climate. My issue with the This Morning episode that prompted this post, is not that Christians were publicly ridiculed, distasteful as that might be. It’s not that our opinions aren’t heard sympathetically. I’ve come to expect as much.

The major criticism that can be made against said programme, is that experienced broadcasters presented a very complex and painful issue in a wholly irresponsible and facile manner. And a few hours later engineered an exchange on social media and then shut it down. The show itself and the aftermath indicated that the presenters had little if any concern to help the public understand any facet of what is a very complicated social issue.

The only winner to emerge from this was Piers Morgan. In comparison to his counterparts on This Morning he’s emerging as a voice of sanity and common sense. I can hardly believe what I have written in the last sentence. But then again, the world does seem to be going crazy.

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5 things we can learn from our 90th anniversary

In Search of Excellence and Good to Great, two of the most influential business books of the last thirty years, attempted to find why some companies were successful and what set them apart from others. I am sure some have attempted to do the same for the church.

Our ninety years as a church is a good time for some quiet reflection on how we have got to where we are today. It is also worth asking ourselves what we can learn from our ninety year pilgrimage. What have been the factors in Glasgow Elim’s survival and successes over those ninety years?

Obviously, we could sum it all up in two words: God’s grace. However, God’s grace comes wrapped in packages that we might not immediately recognise as grace. So here are a few thoughts on how “grace” showed up in the Glasgow Elim journey.

Firstly, people, ordinary people (not sure anyone really is ordinary as we are all unique), are the unsung heroes of Glasgow Elim. They prayed, gave, brought their friends, kept the faith and many have now received their reward. Glasgow City Council have adopted the strapline People make Glasgow. That is certainly true of Glasgow Elim. And has been true of Glasgow Elim for ninety years.

Secondly, pastors and leaders. Over its ninety year history, Glasgow Elim has been led by some very capable pastors and deacons. Great churches do not become great through incompetent or poor leadership. It’s not only the capability of the pastor that counts, but the quality of the leadership team. Strong local leadership teams are so crucial in the growth and development of any church.

Thirdly, managing pain. This might seem an unusual factor to highlight. Glasgow Elim has known some incredible high points. And some very low points. The pain of a church split that saw the church reduced to a fifth its original size. The pain of lack of resources and having to “penny pinch”. The personal pain that many of its people experienced.

Pain is often the reason people give up. The people of Glasgow Elim have never given up. They pressed through the pain barrier into new seasons of blessing and increase.

Fourthly, welcoming His presence. Glasgow Elim has a reputation for welcoming the presence of God. That kind of terminology is often associated with its more recent history. But this hunger for God’s presence goes back to its very roots. God’s presence and power were sought and welcomed as much in the 1920s as today. Our future hinges to some extent on our continued seeking after God.

Finally, future prospects. We can’t afford to settle! Where we are ten years from now is largely determined by how we respond to God today. Previous generations responded to God’s call in their day. They prayed and sacrificed. They took steps of faith. They built the facilities that are such a blessing to us today. May we look to the future with the kind of faith and commitment that they did. And may we too see in our day the things they saw – and greater.

You can find the 90th anniversary videos here.

Navigating the faith challenges in a world of tragedy

When we are faced with a tragedy on the scale of what happened in Manchester, there is very little to say. For those who can, simply being with those who are suffering is not only an adequate, but an appropriate response. There is simply no reasonable explanation that can bring comfort. And, more pertinently, no explanation or kind action can bring back those who have been cruelly ripped away from their loved ones.

It’s not that this is the only tragedy that has happened in the past week. Unspeakable cruelty is all too common in some parts of the world. But this one is felt so keenly because it is so close to home.

No doubt in days to come empathy and fellow feeling will give way to the desire for explanation. Some of that desire will translate into questions asked of the authorities. And inevitably some of that desire will be driven by a frustration with religion or even with God.

I offer this post, not as an attempt to explain anything. The events of the last week, however, must cause thoughtful people to ponder how all of this relates to their faith or more importantly how their faith relates to the kind of tragedy that is all too common in our world. After all, the problem of evil is often stated as a major stumbling block to faith. And let’s face it most of the nation is trying to get its mind around the motives and the consequences of unrestrained evil.

So this post is simply a few thoughts on faith in a time of tragedy.

Tragedy often draws the best of humanity to the surface

One of the most notable features of any tragic situation, is how tragedy draws the best from people. The events at Manchester are no exception. At the very moment when you might be tempted to lose faith in humanity – `or people’s capacity for humanity – people respond with a kindness that perhaps they themselves never realised was possible. The worst of situations sometimes bring the very best out of people.

For some, this is simply the triumph of the human spirit. For any believer, and not necessarily any Christian believer, this kind of response points toward a humanity created in God’s image. How difficult it is to write of such deeply felt emotion and altruistic action as merely some sort of chemical response “designed” by evolution to enable us to cope with threat. Such an explanation seems cold and unfeeling in a world where there is so much hardship and sorrow and frequently such tragedy.

The very human response to Manchester and many another tragedy is a reminder that we really are human. We are not just animals or machines. We’re more than a random concoction of chemicals cobbled together by some sort of impersonal process. We are much more than gene machines   .

Resisting the temptation to distance ourselves because of fear

The impact of tragedy, particularly the kinds of terrorist incidents we have experienced in Europe in the last few years, is often one of fear. That is understandable.

In Luke’s gospel (Luke 13.1-5) Jesus mentions two tragedies, one a natural disaster, the other mass murder. The reaction of the public at that time was along the lines of “they got what they deserved because they must have been above average sinners”. Jesus’ response was that they should take stock of their own lives, rather than pronounce judgment on those who had perished.

Thankfully, the vast majority of people are not prone to such judgments these days. However, I believe we do try to distance ourselves if we allow such things to pass without reflecting on the state of our own souls. Tragedy reminds us that our lives hang by a thread, a thread that is easily cut. It is no bad thing to reflect on the brevity of life or the fragility of our humanity.

Resisting the temptation to dehumanise the perpetrator

The flip side of the incredible kindness for which we have the capacity, is an outrage that anyone could commit such a crime. Tabloid newspapers seem to have a vocabulary of opprobrium especially reserved for such people. You know the kind of language. Most of it screams “This person cannot really be a human being.”

Unpalatable as it might seem, he was. Just like us. Jeremy Vine posted a very touching piece on his Facebook page lamenting the loss of one of the victims, attempting to convey the scale of that loss by contrasting it with what might have been.

The bomber also had his life ahead of him and chose not only to take his own life but the lives of other’s along with him. He was a human being. He was a human being who made a monstrously evil decision.

Controversy has always surrounded Hannah Arendt’s work Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil, the story of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. For Arendt, the striking thing was that this mass murderer came across as a buffoon. Whether her assessment was accurate or not, the point is that someone guilty of monstrosities did not come over as a monster.

Human beings have an amazing capacity for creativity and good. And they have a staggering capacity for evil and destruction.

And for Christians, the challenge is not simply to recognise that a terrorist is a human being, but that he or she is loved by God. Bishop Angaelos, the General Bishop of the Coptic Church in Britain, in a reflection on the events in Manchester and the murder of Christians in Egypt later in the week, made this comment: “You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved.”

Resisting the temptation to deny a religious dimension

There is a religious dimension to what happened in Manchester. We simply cannot deny that.

In our collective desire to explain what happened, we will search for all sorts of causes. British foreign policy. Western influence in the Middle East. Multi-culturalism. Whilst there might be connections with the above, they do not explain the cause.

What happened that Monday evening has its roots in a strain of Islamic theology that predates any recent military activity in the Middle East.

Sometimes the impression is given that it is only the more “hawkish” commentators or politicians who take this line. But that impression is not correct.

And some sections of the press and the political establishment go to great pains to maintain that this is not a religious issue. Oddly, some of those same media outlets were not slow in attributing religion as a major factor in the conflict in Northern Ireland. They had no qualms about referring to the IRA or the UVF, amongst other terrorist organisations without attaching the prefix “so-called” when in fact neither of those groups or their like represented the people of Ireland or Ulster.

Even the BBC’s Quick Guide: Northern Ireland Conflict cites religion as a main factor.

The religious dimension in the current terrorist “troubles” looms large and if not recognised little progress will be made in tackling the problem.

Nick Cohen argues cogently for a recognition of the religious dimension not only to this incident but to the ongoing conflict between the Western nations and Islamic terrorism. Cohen mainatains that to say Islamic State isn’t Islamic is like “saying Opus Dei isn’t Catholic”.

And former Islamist, Shiraz Maher, is in no doubt that theology gives the bombers the impetus to plan and execute their attacks. See reviews of his book Salafi-Jihadism in The New Statesman and The Guardian.

In a more recent article, Maher presents this view once again, relating an interview that he conducted with a member of IS.

“We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue” was the answer to a question about how IS would react if the West met all its demands

We are not doing ourselves or anyone else any favours if we pretend that religion is not at the very heart of this issue. Of course, that might complicate things for us as Christians, but facing the facts is better than pretending that there is not a theological root to this problem.

Recognising the desire for justice and meaning

If nothing else, Manchester reminds us once again, that deep in our hearts there is a sense of what is right and what is wrong. A sense of justice and fairness. And that innate sense of justice and fairness is not something made up. It is the inheritance of every human being. God’s image in us might be broken, but we are still created in His image nonetheless.  C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity speaks of his own experience of this:

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”

Our outrage is not a denial that God is there, more a cry for Him to intervene with His justice.

Alongside the desire for justice, there is the desire to make sense of all of this.

The familiar Darwinian line of life being without purpose or meaning, cuts little ice. It offers no hope. It’s just the way it is. But every human instinct rebels against such pessimism. And Christians say that we instinctively know that there is something wrong with the world and that life can’t be meaningless. Those kinds of thoughts

Recognising the role of the demonic

Finally, any truly Christian response to suffering in the world recognises the role of demonic power that lies behind the kind of evil that people inflict on one another. We live in a fallen world. A world that is in the state it is in because of one man’s sin (Romans 5.12). Of course, Adam’s sin did not just result in a breakdown in humanity’s relationship with God. It also resulted in yielding control of the world to Satan.

Jesus described Satan as the prince of this world (John 12.31, 14.30, 16.11). Paul referred to him as the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4.4). Elsewhere he is the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2.2).

There is a battle going on between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. It is a real battle. And the prince of the kingdom of darkness has given himself a mission of stealing, killing and  destroying (John 10.10). But the fight back has begun. In fact, the decisive battle was fought and won when Jesus died at Calvary and rose again on Easter Sunday (Colossians 2.15).

And one day evil will finally be brought to an end and the eternal kingdom of Christ will be established forever (Revelation 11.15-17; 21.1-4).

That is the hope that we have. That is a hope that has endured through much persecution and opposition over the last two thousand years. And it will endure until Christ finally returns to earth in glory.

Conclusion

The above isn’t intended is an explanation for what happened in Manchester or Egypt or anywhere else for that matter. It is offered more as a reflection on how we might respond to some of the questions that will inevitably arise in days to come. Hopefully, some of what I have written above will prove helpful to some.

I want to end however with the words of the Coptic bishop, Angaelos, whose church has suffered much at the hands of IS:

“Our world is certainly suffering from the brokenness of our humanity, but it is our responsibility, personally and collectively, to encourage and inspire ourselves, and all those whom we meet along our path, to a life of virtue and holiness, and the love and forgiveness of all.

This of course, is far from the reaction that many may have expected, but the Christian message is just that, to look at our world as through the eyes of God, Who loves all and Who desires that all be liberated through Him.”

Amen.

George Michael, death and the hymns we used to sing: 4 possible reasons so many are struggling with celebrity deaths

If you have been anywhere near social media in the last few days, you can’t fail to have noticed the outpouring of emotion in the wake of the deaths of, amongst others, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. It’s not that surprising that people who do not claim to have any particular religious affiliation or faith should react in this way. If you do not believe that there is a God, death really is the end.

What is perhaps more surprising is that Christians should react in a similar way. I’m not suggesting that we should not feel sorrowful that families of celebrities suffer loss or that a celebrity dies relatively young. That would be entirely unfeeling and lacking in humanity.

That kind of response is, however, very different to what feels like a disproportionate reaction that sometimes borders on the hysterical, flooding social media.

How do we explain this reaction?

In all honesty, I do not have an explanation. It is more than a little bewildering.

However, I will make four suggestions as to why people of Christian faith might be tempted to be swept along by the culture in responding to the events of the past week or so.

Firstly, the death of anyone, but the death of a high profile figure in particular, is a reminder of our own frailty.

In other cultures in other times, people spoke about death. Death was ever present. Not so in our culture. Many have limited contact with death or dying until it touches their own family. Death has become a taboo subject. Compared to most people, in most places throughout most of history, most of us lead sheltered lives.

Secondly, we live in a culture that believes it can fix anything that needs fixing.

If we don’t like something we can – we think – just change it. Don’t like your Christmas present? Sell it on ebay? Don’t like your gender? Change it. Disappointed with your holiday? Complain. Uncomfortable with how God is presented in the Bible? Alter it.

It’s a great shock when we find that the semblance of control we have over life is just that – a semblance. We have limited control over our lives.

Death does not fall within the category of things we can control. It is no slave to fashion or the pressure of public opinion. There is no celestial customer service desk to which we can complain about death’s behaviour.

“It is appointed unto man once to die,” declares Hebrews 9.27. It is an appointment that cannot be continually postponed.

Thirdly, we often desire to attribute faith where there is no evidence it was present.

Part of our discomfort with death might also be found in our understanding on the afterlife.

The second part of Hebrews 9.27 says “…and after death to face judgment. ”

Someone on social media suggested that George Michael had not “found the light”. It clearly upset some people and was reflected in their posts.

Whether George Michael, Carrie Fisher or anyone else had a death bed conversion, I don’t know. The dying thief was promised paradise when he made His request to Christ. But it is worth remembering that that the other dying thief rejected Christ even in death.

I understand the desire to attribute a last moment conversion to people we love or respect. But when the evidence is absent, we have no right to. Some people choose not to follow Christ. God has given them the ability to reject his love. We do people a disservice if we try to finish their story in a way they never wanted it told.

When Christopher Hitchens died, his friend and opponent, Reformed theologian Douglas Wilson commented in Christianity Today:

“The subject [deathbed conversion] came up repeatedly, and was plainly a concern to him. Christopher Hitchens was baptized in his infancy, and his name means “Christ-bearer.” This created an enormous burden that he tried to shake off his entire life. No creature can ever succeed in doing this. But sometimes, in the kindness of God, such failures can have a gracious twist at the end. We therefore commend Christopher to the Judge of the whole earth, who will certainly do right. Christopher Eric Hitchens (1949-2011). R.I.P.”

Wilson’s comments are a generous blend of humanity and faithfulness to scripture. We would do well to preserve something of his balance if we feel we have to pronounce on the possibility of a deathbed conversion, especially if there is no existing evidence.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our reactions over the last few days might reveal our fear of death.

I have had two conversations recently with different families living over six thousand miles apart. In the last year, both faced terminal illness within the family. In both cases palliative care professionals had related that Christians were less likely to want to talk about death than non-Christians.

If that is an indication that we believe God is able to heal today, then I can understand the reluctance to talk about death.

If it reveals that we have become fearful of an enemy that Jesus has already defeated, then the situation is more serious. Could it be true that we have lost our grip on hope? On the life to come?

Consider some of the songs we used to sing:

“On that bright and cloudless morning / When the dead in Christ shall rise / And the glory of His resurrection share / When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies / And the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there.

Or:

There’s a land that is fairer than day / And by faith we can see it afar / For the Father waits over the way / To prepare us a dwelling place there

Those hymns might not have been lyrically the greatest ever written. And they might not have been as accurate theologically as some would like. But they did capture the imagination and impressed upon us that our best life was still to come.

If the Christians are afraid of death and no longer sing about heaven, what hope for those who don’t know the Conqueror of death?

Following Jesus means that we follow One who has taken on and beaten the greatest enemy of all:

 Who got the last word, oh, Death? Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now? (1 Corinthians 15.55 MSG)

Tony Campolo and same-sex marriage

Tony Campolo is a legend. No doubt about that. An outstanding communicator with an outstanding heart. Why would I want to disagree with him, even within the limited circle of people who read my blog?

And why would I want to engage with the issue of same-sex marriage? Especially since I don’t believe that anyone who dares challenge LGBTI values will ever get a fair hearing?

The short answer is that Tony Campolo has embraced an LGBTI stance on gay marriage.  And whilst I have sympathy with some of his arguments, I believe that in some very fundamental areas his reasoning is wrong. In addition, given the context in which he presented the issue – an interview with Premier Radio – it is easy to be left with the impression that those who hold to traditional marriage are marked by a very narrow political and ethical outlook. I believe that is misleading.

Let me begin with the last point first.

The interview begins with how Campolo no longer describes himself as an evangelical. Evangelicals, in his view are climate change denying Trump supporters. It for those kind of reasons that he wants to disassociate himself from Evangelicalism. In fairness, he says that he still holds to evangelical beliefs such as a high view of scripture.

Why is this disclosure unhelpful in the context of what he has to say about gay marriage? Simply because one is left with the distinct impression that those who hold to traditional marriage are all extreme right wing bigots. No doubt there are many who think that anyone who does not accept gay marriage is just that!

That is such a caricature. Such a caricature that it demands correcting. A commitment to traditional marriage can be found across the political and ecclesiastical spectrum. For those opposed to a traditional definition of marriage, it is very comforting to believe that those who don’t share their views are off the scale right wing conservatives. It’s seldom mentioned that people like, for example, Shirley Williams and Angela Merkel did not support the redefinition of marriage.

It also ignores the fact that the major Christian communions – Orthodox and Catholic have stuck to the traditional definition of marriage. Officially the Anglican communion supports a traditional view of marriage, though the situation within Anglicanism is more complicated.

Evangelicals who argue for traditional marriage are not an Elijah-like rump, doggedly promoting an outdated concept. There are, to use a biblical image, seven thousand all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and they are found throughout the Christian church. Add to that the adherents of other religions who do not promote the practise of same-sex marriage and a very different picture emerges to the one that is painted in the Tony Campolo interview.

And of course there are those who have battled same-sex desire and chosen celibacy out of their commitment to Christ. In a sex obsessed age they really are true heroes.

I said I believed that Tony Campolo is wrong on some points. Let me give you three areas where I think his arguments are weak.

Firstly, he claims that homosexuality is genetic and that science has established that belief as a fact.

I do not know what research that assertion is based upon. I do know that, even if some researchers believe this to be true, it is a truth not universally acknowledged among the scientific community.

A major piece of research undertaken and recently published by two distinguished researchers at Johns Hopkins University, challenges the notion that homosexuality is genetic. You probably never heard of the research, because as soon as its findings were revealed, the university under pressure from the LGBTI community, distanced itself from the work.

And you might not be aware that prominent gay rights activist Peter Tatchell does not believe that homosexuality is genetic.

This also affects our whole understanding of identity. We are left with “identity based on desire” and who knows where that will take us?

Secondly, there is the argument that goes something like “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality or same-sex marriage, therefore it must be ok.”

That is true. Jesus never mentioned the issue specifically. But there again, Jesus didn’t mention a lot of things. He never addressed the issue of domestic violence. Or paedophilia. Or drugs. And He doesn’t specifically address sex before marriage. Or abortion. Or assisted suicide.

Because Jesus didn’t address an issue doesn’t mean it is not important!

What he did do was define marriage. Very clearly:

“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Mark 10.6-9.

Finally, the general approach to scripture on this issue and the reinterpretation of key verses in Romans 1 reveals the extent to which scripture has become the servant of ideology in the hands of some evangelicals or former evangelicals. The work of exceptional scholars such as Richard Hays or James Dunn – hardly the kind of fundamentalists referred to in the early part of the interview – highlight how unlikely if not impossible it is to extract the kind of meaning from Romans 1 that Tony Campolo seeks.

Here’s what Hays has to say: “In Paul’s time, the categorization of homosexual practices as para physin [contrary to nature] as a commonplace feature of polemical attacks against such behaviour, particularly in the world of Hellenistic Judaism. When this idea turns up in Romans 1…we must recognize that Paul is hardly making an original contribution to theological thought on the subject; he speaks out of a Hellenistic- Jewish cultural context in which homosexuality is regarded as an abomination…” Richard B.Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p.395

And James Dunn: “The description which follows is a characteristic expression of Jewish antipathy to the practice of homosexuality, so prevalent in the Greco-Roman world.” (James Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, p.74)

And of course N.T. Wright continues to hold a traditional interpretation of those scriptures that concern sexuality and marriage, commending the work of Richard Hays mentioned above.

I hope that in writing the above I have been fair to Tony Campolo and have not misrepresented him; I don’t dislike Tony Campolo because I disagree with him.

Although I neither wanted to criticise him or engage in this debate, there are crucial issues at stake. People are affected when a powerful voice promotes what has become a popular view. And it doesn’t help when it is done in such a way that, intentionally or unintentionally, it marginalises those who hold a different view.

One thing we didn’t learn from the Tony Campolo interview concerns the ethical issues that those evangelicals who have bought into LGBTI ideology seem to be unwilling to confront. Questions about reproduction within same-sex marriage and the ethics of surrogacy and sperm donors. Questions about the rights of children – whose rights are seldom if ever taken into account in the arena of sexual politics. Questions about whether sexual expression should be restricted to marriage.

I trust that this short piece at least indicates that relinquishing the traditional definition of marriage has implications and perhaps consequences that are not immediately evident: same-sex marriage is not a stand alone issue.

And hopefully, if Tony Campolo ever reads this article, he will find it in his heart to forgive me if I have been too harsh or unfair in my criticism.

 

 

3 Reasons to bother with small groups

If you have never had the experience, spare a thought for those who have had the experience.

First up is the possibility of complete non-attendance – except for the leader(s). Or worse still, the group of two. The two least connected people in the group – that usually has eight other members – trying to “go through the programme”. Then there’s the singing. Out of tune singing to an out of tune guitar.

And the person who talks too much. And the person who doesn’t want to talk. And the person who somehow manages to bring the antichrist or the abomination of desolation into every answer to every question.  And the silences in the prayer time. And I could go on. And you could go on. Did I tell you about the time I asked someone if he would like to close in prayer and he just said “No”? I suppose he was at least being honest.

Small groups. House groups, home groups, cell groups, connect groups, interest groups – whatever you want to call them, they have the potential to be the most awkward, cringe worthy experience you can sign up for!

So why bother?

Let me give you three good reasons to bother.

Small groups give us the opportunity to give and receive encouragement. Notice I said give and receive encouragement.

We all need encouragement. 1 Thessalonians 5.11 says: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”

We need encouragement because it builds us up. But encouragement is a two way street. Verses like the one just quoted create an expectation that church is not just where we receive encouragement but also where we give encouragement. You are supposed to be an encourager as well as one who is encouraged. Connect groups enable us to operate in giving mode as well as receiving mode.

Without small groups, a church will face an encouragement deficit

Secondly, small groups provide an opportunity for us to exercise spiritual gifts in a safe environment.

In 1 Corinthians 14.26 Paul paints a picture of what church can be like:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

But how does that work, even in a smaller church of, say, twenty people? Everyone has something to share is what Paul is suggesting. Small groups are ideal for the level of participation that Paul sets out in this verse.

Finally, small groups enable us to ensure that we stay true to our calling and mission in the end times.

Hebrews 10.24-25 says:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

It is in the context of giving encouragement to and receiving encouragement from one another that we find the impetus to stick with the mission, even when there is difficulty and opposition.

Small groups are important. Not because they are another meeting to attend. They are important because they create the climate in which our faith and love can grow. I’m not sure we can’t really be church without them.

A time of crisis can become a time of encounter

Depending on your politics, the events of the last few days might lead you to believe that we are about to cross a divinely parted Red Sea in our national exodus from Egyptian (or European bondage). On the other hand, you might believe that an ill-informed electorate has, in its anger, propelled us to somewhere between the eighth and ninth circle (representing fraud and treachery, respectively) of Dante’s depiction of hell.

However you interpret the upheaval, it still remains upheaval. Change, almost always, is accompanied chaos. Even when the change is good and necessary, departure from the unfamiliar inevitably brings uncertainty. Whether the change is restructuring a multi-national business or deciding to become a vegetarian, it has an impact on you and the people around you.

The prophet Isaiah faced an unwanted change at one point in his ministry. King Uzziah, who had reigned for fifty-two years died. Overall, he was a pretty good king. And however his reign would ultimately be assessed, he represented stability in a turbulent world. But Isaiah six verse one records his death: “In the year that King Uzziah died…” I can never read those words without feeling that the prophet is giving us something more than a time frame for his encounter with God. The words somehow carry something of grief, something of the end of an era.

It’s out of this that Isaiah has a fresh encounter with God. What did that look like for him? What could it look like for us?

Firstly, he sees the Lord high and exalted, seated on His throne. He has an insight into the eternal reality of God’s universal government (Isaiah 6 vv.1-4). And he connects this to the current situation in his nation – “my eyes have seen the king” (v.5). The king might have died, but Isaiah had now seen the king!

Even a glimpse of God in his exalted glory brings a totally different perspective on the world around us.

Secondly, the encounter brought a moment of self-awareness (vv.5-6). Isaiah became conscious of his sin. Of his need for God. In short, he was humbled by the vision.

Self-awareness should follow any genuine encounter with God. How could you have an encounter with God and not become aware of your own weakness and frailty? How could it not give you a desire for God to do something new and fresh in your life?

As new covenant believers, however, the self-awareness takes us into a new appreciation of the person and work of Christ and who we are in Him.

Finally, Isaiah hears the call of God (vv.8-13). The encounter was only complete when Isaiah had heard and responded to God’s voice.

In a time of change, Isaiah was to represent God’s kingdom and proclaim His purpose. There was no room for the kind of nostalgia that made the past seem better than it was. Neither was there a place for the kind of over optimism which can so easily accompany the beginning of a new era.

Seeing who God is gives us perspective. Hearing and responding to what is on His heart gives us direction and purpose.

May God grant us a fresh encounter with Himself in these days of change and upheaval.