Thursday, 27 December 2012

Pharisees!

Towards the end of a longish evening together with three friends last Sunday, the topic of conversation arose: how did the Pharisees depicted in the gospels go wrong?  The answers a-d were offered by the four of us.

  1. Hypocrisy
    The Pharisees held other people to standards that they did not themselves even attempt to live by; often, these standards were of their own invention.
  2. Self-righteousness
    The Pharisees thought that they could earn right standing with God by keeping his commandments, to the extent that by keeping the Law, they were putting God in their debt.
  3. Legalism
    The Pharisees overloaded people with requirements and restrictions that could not be justified from what God had said, and they promoted these even to greater importance than what God actually had said.
  4. Religiosity
    The Pharisees relied on religious form, such as ritual observance, rather than the presence of God; they overemphasised superficial conformity rather than genuine faith.

I think I’ve discovered a theological Rorschach test, because those present were:

  1. A Roman Catholic
    and three Evangelicals:
  2. A Baptist,
  3. A Free Church charismatic and
  4. An Anglican not-quite-so-charismatic.

See if you can match the theory of Pharisaism a-d with the theological position 1-4.

Evidently, there is some overlap between all four of these theories, which is the direction that the conversation took subsequently.  But their divergence nevertheless should make us wary of projecting our own theological bugbears and preoccupations onto the world of the New Testament.

How do you think that the Pharisees went wrong?

Saturday, 22 December 2012

More culture war reflections

In my last post I reflected on the question of whether or not the UK is now entering as culture war (as Fraser Nelson thinks), precipitated by the issue of same-sex ‘marriage’.  I noted that

Very many people who carry political weight no longer even pretend that they would rather persuade their opponents than simply write them off as basically evil.

This is in tune with how Nelson defines a culture war:

The practice of […] dividing a nation into warring tribes and then exploiting that division

As a window on this hardening of attitudes and rhetoric, the following snippets of Times editorials are instructive.  Just under six years ago I reported an editorial in which the newspaper wondered aloud about

the best way to change the attitudes of those few who remain convinced that the practice of homosexuality is a sin

Fast forward to this year, and the tone of voice has changed markedly.  ‘Those few who remain’ are now regarded as being engaged in

a demeaning, unconscionable and ultimately futile defence of injustice

I confess that my gut reaction to this kind of remark, the likes of which I read or hear nearly every day in the media or in person, is to want to blast back twice as hard.  That would be the sinful nature talking, though.

And when his [Jesus’] disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:54-55)

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (Romans 12:14)

Somehow, politically, we orthodox Christians in this country have to find a way to audibly dissent from (what appears to be) the prevailing cultural mindset on this kind of issue without repaying aggression for aggression.  While in some ways it seems like it would be comforting to have a culture war in this country of the kind that Nelson describes as existing in the USA – because at least then it would feel like I was part of a side in a battle rather than a member of a beleaguered group being stepped on – there are many reasons to want to avoid it.  Here are a few, based on what I perceive happening across the Atlantic.  American readers are are invited to contest, discuss and/or confirm my impressions.  After certain points I make a caveat in <chevrons>.

  • It seems that often, Christians are led to unreflectively take a particular stance on political issues simply because that’s what ‘our side’ does, and the ‘other side’ is opposed to it.  Should Christians automatically be in favour of a maximally free market?  The death penalty?  Legal firearms?  Krish Kandiah makes this point repeatedly in his review of Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible (and Grudem is a theologian whom I admire a great deal).
    <Of course, this works both ways, and to an extent exists in this country too. Mehdi Hassan, much to his own chagrin, has had to take great pains to explain how it’s possible to be both a socialist and pro-life (as if those two things are incompatible).>
  • Relatedly, just because someone’s on the right side in the culture war doesn’t mean that they’re a genuine Christian.  No wise pastor would make that mistake, of course, but I still feel the need to highlight the issue because it seems that the culture war phenomenon has a tendency to cause political and theological views to become conflated.
    <In this country, this was probably more of an issue fifty years ago than it is now.  You can’t read C.S. Lewis without the impression that very often his target audience is the upstanding Church of England person who is nominally Christian but in reality utterly unsaved.  According to the latest census figures, nominal Christianity in this country is plummeting (which may well be a good thing).>
  • Without wanting to take sides here on the extremely thorny issue(s) of predestination, it’s wrong to regard anyone as beyond the reach of God’s saving power.  Behind my instinct to blast back at the secular ideologues is an impulse to write them off as hopeless cases.  But there are no living hopeless cases, at least as far as we can know.  We certainly have political opponents; however, our enemies are not flesh and blood but principalities and powers.

This last issue reaches inside the church, too.  You only have to read Vaughan Roberts’ recent moving interview with Evangelicals Now to realise that the pastoral implications of the way we talk about political issues are potentially huge.

The problem is largely caused by the fact that most of our comments on homosexuality are prompted, not primarily by a pastoral concern for struggling Christians, but by political debates in the world and the church. We do need to engage in these debates, but it’s vital that we’re alert to the messages that some of our brothers and sisters may be hearing.

As a concluding thought, I want to repeat a point that I’ve made before.  The present cultural and intellectual climate in this country is not forever.  In the light of eternity it’s puny, of course, but even in the light of recorded history it’s really not that impressive.  Yes, secular liberalism seems like an overwhelming force now, and may well remain dominant in Europe for the rest of my lifetime.  But that’s not really that long of a time, all things considered.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Culture war UK?

While discussing politics with some fellow Christians last week I suggested, in the light of a likely unprecedented Conservative revolt over the issue of gender-neutral ‘marriage’, that Britain is now entering a culture war.  It was put to me that ‘we lost the culture war 30 years ago’.

The very next day this article by Fraser Nelson appeared in the Telegraph.

Nick Clegg released the text of a speech in which he regretted the fact that economic turmoil “gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we 'postpone’ the equalities agenda”. He later withdrew the b-word, but his point was made: that Britain is now divided into two camps. You have the Liberal Democrats, friends of equality. And on the other side, the “bigots” – a group that presumably includes followers of every mainstream religion. A former adviser to Clegg resurfaced to say that his boss ought to have stuck to his word, because such people are indeed bigots.

A Washington strategist would have given Clegg full marks for this textbook example of culture war. The British gay marriage debate has now become (as the American sociologist James Hunter puts it) a matter of “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding”. The trick is to draw a dividing line, insult those on the other side – and try to attract supporters by forcing people to choose.

This is one way in which the situation that we currently have is different to what has gone before, pace my discussion partner.  Very many people who carry political weight no longer even pretend that they would rather persuade their opponents than simply write them off as basically evil.

What I had in mind, though, was something different.  The strength of the parliamentary disquiet over this issue reveals, I think, that people are finally waking up to the fact that the political advance of a secular ‘liberal’ agenda is not simply a natural progression but, in some aspects, a revolution.  They should have realised this five years ago when a law change meant that (successful) church-run adoption agencies were forced to close for refusing to place children with same-sex couples.

I’m not sure what to hope or pray for in this environment.  I don’t think that the emergence of a ‘religious right’ as a political force in this country would necessarily be a good thing for the advance of the gospel.  Already I wince at many of the causes that some Christian organisations choose to fight, because they often give the impression that all that Christians care about is looking out for ourselves.  But anything that forces people to revisit their easy assumptions about the social importance of the natural family would be a welcome wake-up.  And if anyone were to stop to reflect on what basis they have for any moral judgements at all, so much the better.