Saturday, 21 November 2015

Hide and Sex

It was the footnote that made me sit up and take notice. I was reading Ezekiel 16 where God is pronouncing judgement on Israel, calling her his bride whom he had loved and cared for, but who had been unfaithful. In verse 25, he says 'at the head of every street you made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself to any passer-by'. However, 'offering yourself' had a footnote next to it which said that the actual phrase in Hebrew was 'spreading your legs' to every passer-by.

Now this was the English Standard Version of the Bible that I was reading, one that places a high value on accurate translation, and yet the translators had chosen to replace the accurate 'spreading your legs' with the more discreet 'offering yourself'-even though the actual words were entirely intended to have the shocking impact which they carry-which has to beg the question 'why?'. The only conclusion I can come to is that the translators were concerned that readers would find the phrase too shocking, which reflects a much wider problem the church has-that in a world that is on one level obsessed with sex, and yet on another level is messed up and confused about it, the church and Christians are all too often too embarrassed and confused themselves to boldly speak into society about it.

When the subject of sex comes up in church settings-and it comes up all too rarely-it is put into 'safe' boundaries. It is put into a separate seminar that people choose to attend if they wish, or put into a youth group discussion. If sex comes up at all in a Sunday morning preach, it is usually surrounded by cushions of 'I'm sorry if anyone is embarrassed by this but …' and is moved on from as quickly as possible. All this reinforces a notion that sex is somehow a shameful or embarrassing subject.

The Bible knows no such boundaries. It devotes a whole book, the Song of Songs, to a couple expressing sexual desire for one another. Large parts of Leviticus deal with the approach under old covenant law to all kinds of sexual issues-without any warning to the effect of 'we're going to talk about sex now. If you think you might be offended you can stop reading if you want to'. In Proverbs 5, warning of the dangers of adultery and exhorting men to rejoice in their wives, it says 'let her breasts at all times fill you with delight'. The only boundary the Bible sets is that sex is for a husband and wife within marriage, and indeed is a core part of the 'one flesh' that constitutes marriage, but within that boundary it sets out what a huge delight it is.

And lest anyone reading this think that the Bible in examples like the above just reflect men being obsessed with sex, one of the principles in the Bible that desperately needs to be taught clearly is that it presents sexual desire as something that is equally normal and good for both men and for women. One of the facts that is striking about the Song of Songs is that the man and the woman both equally express their desire and fantasies about one another. The apostle Paul in writing to the Corinthian church assumes that sexual pleasure is something a wife should expect from her husband every bit as much as a husband from a wife. In 1 Corinthians 7 he says: 'The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband', and then goes on to say 'do not deprive one another'.

This very issue, of sex being intended to be something of delight for both the husband and the wife, is one reason why Christians and the church need to ensure that sex is something that is discussed and taught on without embarrassment as part of normal day to day life. People come into the church with all kinds of history and perspectives on sex. Even for those who have grown up in a church background there can be all kinds of wrong teaching that has given false guilt about sex, and for some, tragically and appallingly, abuse in their past for which a godly perspective on sex is key to restoration and healing.

Couples can often struggle on, thinking that they are the only ones with difficulties on a particular sexual issue, when a church with a biblical attitude to sex can promote a culture of openness between friends and in the church community, where they can find others who've worked through the same issue and found solutions.

Sex was one of God's greatest gifts in creation. Part of the church's calling lies in restoring an understanding of just what that means.


(Thanks to my wife for her input and advice on this post.)

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Radical is a good word

The government talks a lot at the moment about preventing young people from being radicalised. Now I know what their actual issues are, in terms of understandable concerns about a particular type of Islamic ideology, but the use of 'radicalised' implies that there is something wrong with being radical.

The word 'radical' is derived from the Latin 'radix', meaning a root. Radical therefore means 'going to the root or origin; touching or acting upon what is essential and fundamental; thorough' (Oxford Dictionary). It is also 'marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional... disposed to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions or institutions' (Webster's Dictionary).

The principle of living consistently with what you believe, of going to the roots, and changing how you live and what you say, to be in line with what you believe is surely a good thing. Some might call it having integrity. Arthur Wallis explores this in terms of what it means for a Christian to live radically in his book 'The Radical Christian'-a book that was a key one for me as a young Christian in setting out what it means to follow Christ. (It is now available free online at http://www.disciple.co.za/site/attachments/071_The%20Radical%20Christian.pdf ).

However I do not think that being radical is simply a matter for Christians. It is surely a desirable aim for society in general for people to know what they believe and to live in line with it. This is the point where people often come in with three objections:
a) Wouldn't that lead to conflict where people have opposing beliefs
b) Isn't it impolite to challenge people and:
c) What about people who have beliefs that would lead them to carry out violent acts (such as we have seen this weekend)?

In response I would say the following. Firstly, having differing views and learning how to live together, and learning how to like people with differing views as people, is a sign of maturity in a society. Hiding one's beliefs and just keeping a superficial veneer where it is seen as impolite to express clear beliefs is actually a sign of immaturity in a society which hasn't learned how to debate and discuss in a passionate, but respectful, way. Moreover, hiding beliefs does not lead to violent, harmful beliefs from changing. It only leads to them being kept secret until it is too late.

Secondly I think one reason why modern western society finds it so difficult to know what to do about so-called radical Islam is that western society lacks a narrative of its own about why it believes what it does. Faced with a group of people with both a different worldview and a clear narrative about what drives their actions, western society with its general hazy 'do what you want as long as it isn't something we consider hurts other people' is stuck. Without a guiding morality or narrative that explains why they believe what they do-that gives a compelling different picture as to what drives their views of morality or society-that explains why they consider certain things to be right or wrong, western society does not know how to challenge beliefs and change hearts.

These two factors-of having no clear basis of morality, and regarding it as impolite to challenge and debate-are a deadly combination. It results in the only answer being to shut the debate down, in ways that result not just in the government seeing young people expressing radical views as being a cause for concern and investigation, but also in other effects such as Germaine Greer (of all people) being banned from speaking at a university because some of the students were offended by her views on transgender issues, rather than welcoming the opportunity to debate and challenge. It also manifests itself in society's obsession with privacy, the notion that anything one carry out in one's own time should not be commented upon in any way.

Needless to say, these attitudes are also having an effect on the ability of Christians to speak out freely and also, worryingly, in the attitude of some Christians towards speaking out, seeing it as 'unloving' to do so.

What we need is a culture that encourages debate and challenge-that does not by any means leave the offensive views of IS supporters unchallenged but instead faces these head-on by having clear arguments to the contrary that persuade and change people.

It is also even more so a reason why we desperately need Christians to not just be clear about what they believe, but why they believe it, and to confidently, passionately express that. Every generation of Christians faces values in their culture which they can embrace and ones that they need to challenge. For this current generation that we live in, the challenges are in resisting the notion that living lives radically is bad, in clearly being able to explain how following Christ gives them a totally different view of how the world works and why we are here, in demonstrating how they can live gracefully but without compromise alongside people with very different views, and most of all explaining why following Christ is the only hope and the real answer. This is the challenge for our generation that churches need to equip people to successfully fulfil.