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Abraham and the instruction to sacrifice Isaac.

I got asked about this story today on Facebook and after 1000 words fell out of my keyboard on the subject, I thought I would publish them here as well.

Challenging question. Clearly the idea that God today would order such a sacrifice is appalling, and so there’s a big problem here. There’s an interesting passage in Hebrews 11 that refers to this, and for me it helps makes sense of it:

17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, 18 of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ 19 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

So the point here seems to be that Abraham, having seen God do amazing things with him in the past and knowing that God was going to use Isaac as the means to give him descendants, is confident that God will pick up the pieces – that the sacrifice isn’t going to result in his being deprived of Isaac permanently. It is thus by way of the ultimate test of Abraham’s trust in God: is he prepared to obey what he believes God to be saying however hard that is.

Much of the problem with the religion that we see most of the time is that it not expecting God to turn up. The Catholic tradition has this most blatantly; yes, that wafer IS God. Yes I know you can’t see it, but it is, honest. The Reformation Protestant tradition focuses on the bible: hear it read and you are hearing from God – even when it makes no sense. Modern Pentecostalism – as seen in a wide variety of churches today – presents the ‘worship experience’ as engagement with God; the fact that the experience is remarkably similar to that going on in the average rock concert is an embarrassing detail they’d prefer to ignore.

But just sometimes God does break through all the ‘noise’; whether that’s the smells and bells, preaching or literal noise of worship songs and speaks. That’s when a real encounter with God has happened – and it can be life changing. And of course sometimes we get it wrong; we misheard – it wasn’t God but some powerful personality bullying us into thinking it was.

One of the many challenges of the New Testament is how Jesus AND the disciples in Acts are shown as performing miracles ‘on demand’. They know what is going to happen, and it happens. This story from Acts 3 is an example:

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.

This appears to be the ideal; hear God, speak it out and God does the work. Most of the stories in the bible are occasions when this works out, though there are hints that at times things do go wrong; following the story of Paul’s return to Jerusalem before he is finally arrested shows ‘prophets’ telling him he’s going to be arrested – and concluding that therefore he should go to Jerusalem. He’s convinced it’s the right thing to do – despite the warnings. Interesting!

So – back to Abraham. He’s heard God promise Isaac will the means of his having descendants – and now he’s told to sacrifice him. One of the frustrations of the story is that we don’t know HOW God told him to do the sacrifice; there’s no description of an angel turning up or anything obvious. Yet Abraham goes ahead and does it – and it works out. At the risk of offering a cop out here, that’s a good test; if someone says ‘I’ve heard X from God’, it’s great practice to see what happens in the medium term. In my own life I was convinced God wanted me to buy the flat next to the one I live in. It was up for sale at the bottom of the post credit crash slump. I really really didn’t want the hassle, but the idea didn’t go away. So I asked God for the price to offer – and offered that and ended up with the flat. It has subsequently proved to be a great investment. Can I ‘prove’ God spoke to me? Of course not. But the outcome suggests that I got it right.

So we have Abraham hearing God tell him to do something outrageous. This isn’t flat buying territory; it’s killing HIS ONLY SON. Yet God has told him that that Isaac will give him grandchildren etc. So he concludes he’s got to do it – AND IT WORKS OUT. So why did God do this? To strengthen Abraham’s faith. And perhaps to provide a story for us for the future. Which is NOT to suggest we should be sacrificing children, but that we can trust God to sort things out in the long term.

I offer that for your consideration. Perhaps it makes sense to you. Perhaps it doesn’t. I tend to be a hardliner on this; if God is the creator of the universe and so the true measure of what is right, then ultimately we have to adjust our attitudes to what He says is right, rather than claim to know better than Him. Or perhaps I’m totally deluded. All I can say is that I’ve seen enough small miracles in my life and am certain enough of the truth of the Resurrection to make the Christian hypothesis about the world the most convincing.

Homosexuality as choice – another minefield

It is a commonplace that truth is the first victim of war, and in the culture wars the confusion over the facts about homosexuality is massive. Part of this is for good reasons; there have been times when the treatment of gay people has been appalling, and in reaction to that a delegitimisation of viewpoints that lead to such behaviour is not a surprise. However part of it comes from a desire to avoid hard questions that the full truth would otherwise force gay activists to engage with.

There is a widespread, though seldom articulated belief that gay people CHOOSE to be gay, and are therefore morally culpable for their situation. This is, almost entirely, untrue, although with some support within the gay community. But for most people it is a reality that comes into focus over time.

But this is where the fighting starts. For many people there is a phase of homosexual attraction and practice in their early years, yet many go on from that to heterosexual relationships. The most obvious example of this is the traditional pattern of the boarding schools of Britain, where such behaviour appears – from the hints of contemporary writers – to have been endemic. Were such practitioners gay, or merely self indulgent? Similar observations swirl about many single sex institutions…

The most extreme – and coherent – definition of homosexual focuses on a total inability to be sexually aroused by a person of the opposite sex. Yet that is not the one endorsed, at least by their attitudes, by most gay activists today. Instead the likes of Oscar Wilde and Gene Robinson are seen as exemplars, despite their both having children with the women they married before deciding they were gay.

A fascinating example is that of Tom Robinson. In 1978 he released the track Sing if you’re glad to be gay that speaks powerfully of the experience of alienation and persecution suffered by the gay community in those days. Yet in the early 80s he fell for a woman, whom he subsequently had children with and married.

So where does this all go? Sexuality is clearly fluid. Given the total confusion in the psychiatric profession about the causes and treatment of mental distress, it is irrational to suggest that we know anything about the causes or cures of homosexuality. As a result of the pillorying of those who defend the treatment of gay people is to adopt a politically driven certainty in an area where no certainty is justified. YET THEY HAVE A POINT. There was a time when barbaric practitioners used aversion therapy in an attempt to change people’s orientation; that was wholly illegitimate, and should be strongly condemned. However the dismissal of all modern, very different, therapy on the basis of the mistakes of the past, is more driven by a desire to legitimate homosexuality as normal than rational response to the evidence. This is part of the wider alteration of the mood music, which led to the psychiatric profession deleting homosexuality as a disease – because it was politically expedient to do so – resulting in the gay community claiming that this was objective evidence that it isn’t a disease. Good game…

Conclusion

More honesty is required on all sides. Christians need to be clear that homosexuality is a particular expression of sexuality that, if not actively expressed, is no more sinful than any other. We need to tell young people who are questioning that for many it IS a phase that they will go through – and come out of. And we need to defend the legitimacy of people investigating the possibility of change with the support of a counsellor, rather than accept that in this one area the psychiatric profession is right. But let love for the struggling sinner – from us struggling sinners – should be the first message heard.

Pagan playacting

Iceland Is Officially Worshipping Norse Gods Again

refers to the establishment of a pagan temple and legal entity in Iceland after over 900 years of Christian dominance.

“Christian mission has always positioned itself as a rescue operation, that people were in desperate straits, were indeed under the influence of demons. … It is impossible to read the reflections of Marcus Aurelius … and not recognize a profound mode of religious expression. … It is impossible … not to recognize that [paganism] is the furthest thing possible from the demonic. It is indeed a form of religious expression from which we can learn much, and at the very least we need to respect.”

Indeed – but equally the stories of the gods raping and kidnapping women and boys means that the traditions need desperate reinterpretation to offer the gods as paragons of virtue, which is why the church, since the second century, has identified the deities as demons. That some pagans show a remarkable moral sense doesn’t overcome the fact that much of pagan morality was problematic, from child abandonment to the celebration of death in the gladiator contests.

As far as the Vikings are concerned, these are the gods who were worshipped by the raiders who destroyed Lindisfarne, Iona and many other monasteries in the last years of the first millennium. Resurrecting the worship of them shows a lack of sensitivity to their victims which should be problematic. One hope that  their new believers are merely ignorant, and not proposing to recreate the whole of Viking culture. Which of course demonstrates that this is merely play acting and not a serious engagement with what those gods were about.

Brexit to win 60/40

I’m a supporter of remaining in the EU – but I’m convinced we’re going to vote leave. Why? Because vast swathes of the population have HAD ENOUGH – and their political leaders have failed to reflect that frustration. In effect they are doing what this scene from ‘Network’ – a 70s film – proposed: going to the window and shouting ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more’ The polls are wrong because they are assuming that there will be the normal turnout amongst these groups, who tend not to bother with elections because they’ve long realised that it won’t change anything, and they don’t live in a marginal constituency. We got a hint of the difference when UKIP did so well in the European elections, but this time it’s going to be BIG.

I hope I’m wrong. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the margin is 55/45. But a clear anti-EU anti-establishment vote is going to happen.

Or I’m going to have a lot of humble pie to eat – but I will be happy, because we, and the world, will have dodged a bullet that would have put us all on the road to another recession, probably far worse than the one in 2008.

Politicians’ spin – an example dissected

As a remain supporter, I am deeply saddened by the revelation of the breakdown in trust between the voters and politicians that the referendum has dramatically. However when politicians persist in retailing as facts aphorisms that are misleading, if not actually untrue, it becomes understandable why this attitude has arisen.

In a Guardian article entitled ‘Ignoring immigration doesn’t work. Here are five reforms remain can sign up to’, Yvette Cooper made the comment, heard frequently elsewhere: ‘For centuries Britain has benefited from the dynamism and hard work of those who have come here from abroad’. The reality is that until 1945 immigration to the UK was negligible. A summary history of immigration to Britain gives the statistics, revealing a very small amount of migration over the years. So yes, there have been immigrants over the years who have blessed this country by what they have contributed. This does not however justify the conclusion that we must welcome mass immigration – yet that is her conclusion.

In what sense do immigrants offer dynamism and hard work? Immigrants probably are more dynamic than the locals. This is perhaps inevitable; they are people who have made the effort to move country, so are likely to be showing more initiative than the locals. This is usually regarded a plus, though in challenging the traditions of the host culture they may do damage. We may also face a diminishing returns; whilst the injection of extra dynamism may be helpful, later migrants will be less able to achieve. And we need to recognise the damage done to the sending country in seeing their most dynamic citizens taking off for pastures new.

What is less acceptable is the phrase about ‘hard work’. This does seem racist; the lazy locals are being shown up the incomers. Again it challenges the culture of the host community; if it has settled for a certain pattern of working as acceptable, the disruption by harder working newcomers IS damage to the local culture.

So perhaps the statement should read: ‘In the past, a small flow of migrants has disproportionately contributed to our economic development, at a time when their impact more broadly was very small. (in such areas as housing, infrastructure and demand for government services). On the basis of this I want to suggest that the large scale immigration of the past 20 years, that is likely to continue indefinitely. is a good thing.’

Ms Cooper’s original statement is, strictly, correct as she frames it. Once however it is explored, its flaws become clear. That such spin is routinely used to befuddle the electorate is why we hold our politicians in contempt. We are now reaping the consequences of this persistent self serving inexactitude (aka dishonesty…).

Feminist theology

There are a number of Christian beliefs which I wish I didn’t hold: I wish I could be a universalist; I wish I could give equal legitimacy to gay relationships; I wish divorce and remarriage wasn’t such a no-no. And I wish I could buy the claim that men and women are not inherently distinguished; instead I  would argue that men are tasked with leadership and authority roles which it isn’t right for women to exercise.

This is a minefield. Over the centuries the church has got it badly wrong, suppressing the gifts of women to an unhealthy extent. Actually that wasn’t restricted to women; the ability of most to develop their gifts to any significant extent wasn’t really an option. But the failure to offer women the education that was available no doubt left us deprived of their gifts. This can be over stressed; the church did better than the cultures from which it was emerged, and the New Testament hints at women having a significant role in the early church, though one that faded subsequently.

The issue is, of course, about how we interpret the bible. For the purposes of this discussion I’m taking Genesis as authoritative, which given that Jesus did so in his condemnation of divorce, seems appropriate. So what does this give us?

Genesis 2 offers us the story of the creation of woman. She is bought to Adam, and he NAMES her. This matches his relationship to the animals, whom he has named and has authority over. We name what we have authority over; even in our culture, the parents’ naming of their children reflects our authority over them. And this occurs BEFORE the fall; it’s not after it. Thus suggesting ‘Had God wanted demonstrate that woman is less fit to rule, he would not have given them the same calling to take dominion’ misses the significance of being a queen; a queen shares the king’s authority in reality, though ultimately under his authority.

It’s also important to recognise the words used in the Hebrew for rulership. The type of rule that the man is described as exercising over the woman as a result of the curse of the fall is מְשָׁל ‘mashal’ – the sort of rule exercised over a foreign land, rather than the rule of the king of Israel over Israel, which is the word מְּלֹךְ ‘malak’ which has the concept of taking counsel in it. So the fall results in a collapse of the relationship between man and wife from consultative and healthy to domination and unbalanced – as the phrase about ‘Your desire will be for your husband’ also suggests.

Turning to the New Testament, and its use of the creation story, we have 1 Tim 2:

‘8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.’

The point here is that women, after conversion, are still limited in what they should do. If we are to take this passage seriously, we have to provide an interpretation that engages with the reference to the events in the Garden. My own preference is to see this as a ban on church leadership for women; a policy that remains in place in theory in most of Christendom, though the drift towards Catholic parishes being headed by a woman religious because of the shortage of priests is a reality that is unhealthy. A particular problem relates to what is meant by ‘teaching’: it may well relate to the specific laying down of what the church believes on a topic that is distinct from week by week preaching. If so, this provides space for a woman to be the one who brings the sermon on a Sunday; however this leaves open the question of when ‘teaching’ IS occurring in the church. Not a topic I want to open up now.

A detail to bear in mind any discussion of this issue is way in which the punishment that lands on Adam and Eve persists to this day. Men still till the ground with great difficulty, and women suffer pain in child birth. Any attempt to minimise the truth and implications of the rulership of men over women should be able to point to these other effects being removed before claiming that women are to be released from the rulership. So when Christians by miraculous means are painlessly producing babies and our jobs don’t require the ‘painful toil’ and ‘the sweat of the brow’, then the rest of the package is defunct. Until then, we should resist trying to avoid what does seem clearly taught as part of the reality of living – though this is NOT an excuse for men being gratuitously dominant over women.

Finally we must recognise that the existence of what seems to be a gift from God doesn’t create the right for the possessor to use it. This is most clearly seen in presently celibate people; such individuals are gifted to be parents and sexually active, both good gifts from God. But just because they have that gift doesn’t mean they have the right to exercise it. So the fact that a woman appears well equipped to be a church leader doesn’t constitute evidence that she is fulfil that role.

Conclusion

‘Had God intended for man to rule over woman, he would have stated it more clearly when creating her. Instead he speaks it out as a consequence of her sin, and by doing so he relays the pain it is inflicting on both humanity and creation, but also, to the heart of God… It is time to set Eve free.’

I hope I’ve challenged the logic of this rhetoric. We are called to be faithful to the God who is revealed in the bible, even when He requires us to go against the fashionable views of the world that have come to dominate large parts of the institutional church.

Finally – to shoot us at men; the reason why women end up doing the jobs which the bible seems to indicate should be reserved for women is because we duck our responsibilities. We sit back and let them do the sharing, the leading and the praying. We may be sitting back in church because we have over committed ourselves at work – making our career the centre of our lives instead of finding God’s balance for it.

Recommended reading:

David Pawson Leadership is Male

John and Paula Sandford Restoring the Christian Family

Christians whinging about ‘Easter’ – who do you think you are?

This year the meme ‘we shouldn’t celebrate Easter because it’s pagan’ did the rounds on facebook. It is depressing to see mixture of ignorance, arrogance and superstition that drives this meme. Let’s take it apart.

  1. There IS reason to complain about the name ‘Easter’. Not that it comes from Mesopotamian Ishtar – as the fact that the name is only found in Germany and England reveals; elsewhere a name derived from Pascha is used for the Christian feast. It’s probable that the name of feast day comes from the Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, though even that may be invalid. However given that all the days of the week are named after pagan deities in English, to be consistent you’d have to abandon those as well. Thor’s day, Woden’s day, Saturn’s day etc. Use those and Easter, or neither…

  2. The dating of Easter was finally set by the Council of Nicaea called by Emperor Constantine in 325. He didn’t invent the feast, merely got the council to get the minority of the church in Asia that was holding it on one date to come into conformity with the practice of the vast majority of the church that was holding it on another. It is certain that the feast had been celebrated by the persecuted church that preceded the days of Constantine; why do we, who’ve never been significantly persecuted, think we have the right to criticise those who were?

The modern challenge to Easter usually comes from ‘Sola Scriptura’ believers who try to pretend that it is possible to construct a working faith merely from the things in the bible. Whilst this is an improvement on the proponents of the ‘New Testament church’ fantasy – who try to do the church like they did it in the New Testament, but still insist on using the New Testament (think about it) – it not much better. The core objection is the idea that the Holy Spirit took a sabbatical from the earth for some 1500 years after the death of John until the Reformation. Really?

But it’s also defective because it fails to engage with the material in the New Testament that indicates that Christians are to be formed by the people through whom they were converted; Paul’s references to the Corinthians as his children who are to obey him as a result makes this clear. And any such Christian who wears a wedding ring is to be giggled at… In practice we ALL have traditions that we inherit; whilst it is appropriate to test them against scripture and discard what is CONTRARY to scripture, it is not biblical to pretend to a tradition free scripture.