Thursday, 9 June 2016

The Nature of Fire

In understanding the nature of hell, it is hard to get beyond the medieval paintings that are so viscerally imprinted on our cultural consciousness. To look beyond these lurid fantasies and focus on the scriptural teaching that was revealed by God involves peeling away our cultural preconceptions. It is important to realise that there is no horned red-skinned devil in the Bible, no pitchfork, no capering demons. There are no cloven feet or forked tails.

In fact there is no Hell at all.

By this I mean that the word Hell is not scriptural, it is an English noun used by the translators of the KJV Bible to translate four separate scriptural nouns. These scriptural words were Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and one instance of the word Tartarus. Each word originally conveyed separate distinct meanings but unfortunately over the years and translations these have been somewhat obscured and conflated.

Unfortunately the translators of the KJV chose to sometimes translate Sheol as 'the Grave', when it talked about God's faithful being there, and yet translated it as ‘Hell’ when it talked about the unrighteous being there. In this the bias of their pre-existing theology came into play. But in the Israelites’ theology, everyone who died went to Sheol alike, whether good or bad, to sleep and await God's judgement. The dead in Sheol are described as being unknowing, asleep and unaware of their condition: “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol” (Ecc 9:10); “in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Ps 6:5); “the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward” (Ecc 9:5).

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Free speech in Church

Paul wrote that “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be silent.” But what lessons can we draw from such an instruction today, when such a message seems so abhorrent to our modern culture. Are we supposed to follow Paul’s letter to Timothy as though it was written directly to us, ignoring the distance in time and geography that separates us from Paul? Many say yes. It doesn’t matter why Paul said what he said. Since he said it, we must obey. But to me this argument seems to rely solely on legalism, following the letter of what is written, rather than trying to discern a spiritual principle from it. Should we follow the spirit of the law, or its letter? This is a fundamental question that much of Christianity wrestles with, and is too great to go into here. But personally I do not believe Paul was attempting to set down a new law for the Church in his letters, not so soon after the joyful fulfillment of the old law. I believe he was advising the early churches based on underlying spiritual principles, and it is those that we should follow.

Firstly I believe that Christianity has to recognise the fact that the Scriptures were written in a time and culture when patriarchal dominance was both the standard and expected form of ordering society, family, and religious communities. Like the institution of slavery, it was very difficult to both imagine a different form of ordering human relationships, and to practically encourage such a counter-culture. Especially while at the same time ensuring that the fledgling religion wasn’t perceived by its neighbours as being detrimental or dangerous to the existing order.

The early Christians struggled with the tension between needing to set themselves to a different standard than the authorities of the world in which they lived, while not seeking to, or being seen to desire the revolutionary overthrowing of this established order. They were strictly a religion of peace, and they could not set themselves against the authorities they lived under otherwise not only would they be persecuted even more than they were, but they would be fundamentally going against their founding principles.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Stocks of Social Media

Public shaming used to be popular. Then it wasn’t. People realised it was too cruel. In 1787 Benjamin Rush, (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) called for the pillory to be abolished as a punishment. He wrote, “Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death”. This may have been an exaggeration, but it can’t have been an overly ridiculous one. Pillories and public whippings were abolished as forms of punishment in England in 1837 and in America in 1839, while capital punishment was only abolished in the middle of the 20th century.

It was widely considered that it wasn’t the physical pain that was so cruel, but the public humiliation. Physical punishment caused temporary pain but punitive shaming could last a lifetime in a close community. An 1867 editorial in The Times read “If [the convicted person] had previously existing in his bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. . . . The boy of 18 who is whipped at New Castle for larceny is in nine cases out of 10 ruined. With his self-respect destroyed and the taunt and sneer of public disgrace branded upon his forehead, he feels himself lost and abandoned by his fellows.”

Yet today public shaming is making a comeback. It is so easy to do, after all. Once you had to  wander down to the public square to join the mass of people gathered there to participate. Now, you need only retweet from your phone. Some people put a bit more effort in. Their ancestors may have brought rotten fruits to the public square, nowadays their weapons are private information, dragged out and made public, like names, addresses, photographs.

As Jon Ronson writes in his New York Times article highlighting victims of our modern pillory, “Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so.” (

Some of us may choose to believe that these victims had it coming. We may not know or care about the awful consequences of such a seemingly harmless action as joining the back of a growing crowd. Or whatever the consequences, perhaps the victim had it coming. They brought hate and destruction upon themselves, perhaps, ironically, as a result of publically shaming someone else.

But do we not often pride ourselves, in the west, on our civilized behaviour and our advanced legal system? How do we reconcile that with our glee at the latest public shaming?  Of Justine Sacco, Adria Richards, Christopher Jeffries, and the rest. Is our vaunted civilization only skin deep, if that?

Friday, 21 June 2013

Prove it to me

The modern world is a product of the enlightenment, the scientific revolution. In science nothing is accepted as true until it has been proved beyond a burden of doubt. Until strong evidence is found, verifiable, recorded, replicatable evidence, nothing is true.

Yet before evidence was recorded, verified, replicated, was the truth untrue. Did the act of observation give substance to something which, before science described it, was a pack of lies? Did evolution for instance exist before Darwin wrote his book? If Darwin had demanded proof before he spent considerable money, time and effort investigating his theory, he would have never left England. He, like all scientists, needed to make a leap of faith, to invest himself in a theory he had faith in, but no evidence, in order to see if it worked. He had to do this before he knew for sure one way or the other. It was only after living his life in pursuit of evolution that he discovered evidence to support his faith. The scientific revolution has led many people to demand evidence before acceptance, but this is a fallacy. If we refuse to first proceed on faith this severely hampers us and our understanding of the world.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Women in leadership 3 – Judge for yourselves

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul finishes his argument about women in leadership by asking his readers to: “judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?

We see that Paul is not creating a law for the Church here; he is very specific about this. He claims not on Holy Authority for these pronouncements, but founds his argument on the ‘nature of things’. And the nature of cultural concepts are not stable, they change between cultures. It is not always, in every society, dishonourable for a woman to have short hair. Therefore Paul asks his readers to judge for themselves. He only asks that if it is dishonourable, then do not do it in Church.

Evangelical Christians who hold to the exclusionist position found their argument on Paul’s teachings. This position, which has become known as ‘headship’, relies on his writing. But we must keep in mind that Paul is writing for a specific reason, he is writing a pastoral letter for a specific church, not a law book for the Universal Church. To fully understand Paul’s message in order to faithfully apply it to ourselves we must try to uncover his reasoning, not just his pronouncements.

Women in leadership 2 – the Bible says…

The argument that many Christian evangelicals often use to exclude women from leadership is usually an appeal to scriptural authority. This is the solid rock, the safe fortress for any Christian who chooses to exclude women from certain roles to retreat to. If the Bible says something, we have to follow. Who are we to go against scripture? Paul did not allow women in positions of leadership, and he was an apostle. So we have no authority to go beyond what Paul did. What the Bible says is what God says, the two are the same, and woe to the person who goes against God.

The counter argument is that the Bible also says lots of things we no longer do, such as to abstain from pork or shellfish. The Bible is clear that we have to stone people for wearing mixed cloth, and we have to sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem, which no longer exists. But these points are easily argued against, as examples of the Law which we are no longer bound by, while Paul’s teachings are for the good and godly organisation of the Christian Church after the Law has been fulfilled.

Yet what about Paul’s regulations for the church, which we also no longer follow? He demands that women wear hats in church, and men aren’t allowed, that women have long hair, and men have short hair. In most modern churches you will see many women with their head’s uncovered. Yet Paul clearly writes in 1 Corinthians 11: 1-16:

I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

Women in leadership 1 – different roles for different …?

Many Christian evangelicals refuse to countenance women taking positions of leadership and authority in the Church. There are many arguments for this position, and some are better than others. Some people prefer the complementarian position, which argues that men and women are equal, but with different roles.

This position argues that it’s only a coincidence that the man’s role happens to be one of leadership, and women happen not to be suited for this. Unfortunately this then begs the question, what is the woman’s complementary role, which men aren’t suited for? Without using biology, it’s very difficult to come up with one. And if the argument is predicated on biology (men can’t get pregnant for instance, since they don’t have a womb), this then begs the question, what is the biological reason why women can’t be priests or pastors?

Unfortunately the complementarian argument fails because it is based on the idea of the different inherent characteristics of men and women. And these have proven to be based not on unchangeable ‘nature’, but on changeable cultural conceptions and contexts. Rather than being one’s intrinsic nature, they are externally imposed by society.