Rainbows Everywhere

Rainbow flagOf late, everyone on the interwebs has something to say about rainbows. All the major tech companies that run our lives and enable us to communicate have done something and millions of us have have leapt onto the band wagon in our various digital incarnations. I decided pretty quickly that I shouldn’t say anything. “My thoughts are half-formed,” I reasoned, “my mind is too easily swayed,” and what’s more, “how Christianity functions in a post-Christian pluralistic society is too complex to reduce into a blog post, let alone 140 characters.”

But I’ve realised that that’s the wrong response so this is my whole-hearted attempt to speak to an issue that demands the whole of our hearts.

The reality of the rainbow

friendsThe reality is that homosexuality is not something that we can address like global warming or terrorism. It is not impersonal and it is not distant or detached from our day to day lives. Unforutnately it’s also not something that is helped by most of our responses; jokes, trite sayings and fear or anger.

As we each consider the sins that most plague us, there is no doubt that shame and remorse are evoked. When that sin is attached to our identity, “adulterer,” “liar,” “gossip” these feelings are even more pronounced. I cannot imagine a way to read the Bible and argue that homosexual practice is okay with God but let’s be fair; the Bible doesn’t justify any of the sins resident in my heart. I am the biggest sinner I know and I’m ashamed to say it.

The truth of the rainbow

I have nowhere to hide my sin and homosexuality is no different. Before God, the US Supreme Court can send a delegation of their finest lawyers and every tongue will hang in silence. So politics will not protect us from the judgement of God. That’s something a lot of Christians seem to think we should remember at this point but let’s not forget that legalism, theological acumen and erudition and, yes, even “being loving” won’t protect us from God either.

noahs ark people drowningThere is a story about a rainbow and a promise in the Bible that is preceded by the most violently destructive event the world has ever known. The flood was God’s response to a sinful world. It was his response to people who lived in rebellion against him. The truth behind the rainbow at the end of that story is that God judges sin whether he’s given you the ten commandments or your conscience or two thousand years of Christian witness. We answer to him and he doesn’t take sin lightly.

The promise of the rainbow

In spite of human sin, after the flood God points to the rainbow and promises never again to flood the world. In other words, from this point on there will be no interim judgement: we await only God’s final judgement.

To my homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ I say, let’s fight the good fight together: I’ll encourage you to fight your desires that are in rebellion against the rule of God and I pray that you will do the same for me.

To those who practice homosexuality, I say what I say to the Athenians in ancient Greece, to the South Africans in 21st century Pietermaritzburg and to everyone in between:

God now commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

I don’t know what I would do if I ran the world. However, I do know that homosexual practice is sinful and I do know that, along with all those who take advantage of laws allowing gay marriage, I will stand before a holy God in shame. The rainbows I keep seeing remind me that God is patient but certainly not that he will tolerate our rebellion.

Why the Rainbow Nation is Good for the Gospel

The Rainbow Nation BridgeThere are plenty of things that can be said in favour of our Rainbow Nation here in South Africa and I don’t think what you are about to read is even most poignant. What I would like to focus on does, however, cut to the heart of the sacred/secular divide that Western culture seems bent on inflicting on our societies.

Why The Rainbow?

Let’s consider, for a moment, the intent behind calling ourselves a “Rainbow Nation”. Desmond Tutu is credited with the term which “intended to encapsulate the unity of multi-culturalism and the coming-together of people of many different nations, in a country once identified with the strict division of white and black” (thanks wikipedia).

The significance is partly in what it does not mean: we are not a group of people that come together and lose our diversity and multi-culturalism. When I had the misfortune of attempting to mix paints, irrespective of my objective, I somehow always managed to produce an unusable colour I affectionately remember as “vomit brown”. This kind of mix into a homogenous mass is not what it means to be a rainbow nation. We retain our colours, cultures and creeds and we find a way to live with all those in harmony.

Vomit Brown PaintIn America, diversity becomes vomit brown – everyone wants in on the American dream and so the diversity that once existed is slowly eroded as everyone succumbs to the demands of the dream or is crushed under its weight. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that America wants a secular public sphere – what better way to harmonise our differences than deny them and pretend none of us have any convictions at all?

In an article I read recently Richard Neuhaus is remembered as “almost single-handedly” challenging that idea – the idea to reduce “religious belief to private worship”. In essence he argued,

Separation of church and state could never mean the separation of religion from public life. The most deeply held beliefs and values of American citizens could not and should not be quarantined from the life of the contemporary polis.

That sounds great but in America it has been far from successful. The lack of success is because diversity in America means anyone can come but you have to conform. In South Africa, however, when secularism raises its vomit-brown head, we can cry “rainbow nation” – a term that means my Christianity is an essential part of my identity and not something I will cover up when in public like some embarassing tattoo.

Colourful FaceThe “Rainbow Nation” means we have to learn to live with each other – a potentially perilous task – but it also means that my convictions don’t have to be swallowed up into the amorphous mass of cultural uncertainty; they are colour in the rainbow. More importantly, rather than being a mere band of colour passively reflecting the light thrown onto us, Christians wearing their Christianity in public are themselves light in a dark world. This Rainbow Nation opens the door to light, hopefully as Christians we will not forego the opportunity to shine.

Stop What You’re Doing and Read

Mark HaddonI recently picked up a short collection of essays titled Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! The title caught me – not to mention the bright cover – because I am passionate about literature and convinced that we should carve out time in our busy lives to read. Not only am I troubled by the lack of reading today but have elsewhere observed an obverse trend: the consumerist approach to books that fails to engage with their ideas and prefers volume to deep reading. After reading Stop my zeal to see the prioritising of literature was heightened. So I hope this post will both serve as an appetiser for the collection and create a hunger for reading good books.

The best place to start, in my opinion, is with Blake Morrison’s essay, which for the most part remarks on how books provide readers with hope beyond where they find themselves, however dire; he argues that literature allows us to breathe when our surroundings are suffocating. Any lover of reading knows this. But the point I want to pick out from his piece touches the canonical works of literature. In a culture obsessed with entertainment, resistant to sustained and thoughtful engagement, we find that older (and, most often, larger) books involve too much effort and are sorely lacking in event. But, referring to the canon, Morrison writes, “Some books are simply better than others. Or last the course longer. Or grow richer the more they are reread.” With the postmodern insistence on subjectivity and self we are determinedly independent and suspicious of established narratives. However, Morrison’s necessary point for today is this: “If we see the canon not as social-conditioning…imposed from above, but as a collective of writers’ and readers’ enthusiasm, then there’s no reason to resist.” Recognised and recommended literature, especially those works belonging to the canon, should be added to our reading lists. As another contributor, Tim Parks, writes, “Life is simply too short for the wrong books, or even the right books at the wrong time.”

Earnest HemingwayThe next point I want to pick up on is the unique ability of literature, not possessed by any other art medium, to help us feel the human condition. We are so over gorged on series and films, the effortless and explosive entertainment flying off our screens, that we overlook what is undoubtedly a healthier medium: paper. One of the contributors, Carmen Calill, probably overstates this point, arguing that without the connection of words, thoughts and stories we will die. Though I do agree that without literature our internal lives will suffer, as we glut ourselves on stories made to sell through gripping viewers and grabbing awards. Mark Haddon believes that when you, “Lay the novel alongside film…its specialness becomes obvious…[Film] can’t do smell or taste or texture. It can’t tell us what it is like to inhabit a human body. Its eyes are always open. It fails to understand the importance of things we don’t notice.” Haddon is convinced that the novel will endure because it comes closest to revealing the “texture of life” and “the mystery of what it means to be human.” Anyone who has invested time into engaging with exceptional literary works, will admit to the screen’s relative poverty and readings’ probing power, which is sometimes unnerving yet always enriching.

Following on from the previous paragraph, Jane Davis makes an incisive point about our fear of deep reading. While her issue is with the preference for light reading I would extend it to our obsession with film, “The plea for lightness may be a natural and entirely understandable fear of getting serious: lots of us spend a great deal of time not thinking, for fear of being brought down.” A little later she adds, “It is easy to see why, when dealing with literature or life stuff, people think it better if we stick to the surface of things and splash around up there, lightly pretending there are no depths.” We might think this is harmless, and because life is so demanding we are justified in sticking to the shallows and superficial engagement with the human condition. But Davis thinks the opposite, suggesting that, “Consistently ignoring the inner life has put depression and anxiety high amongst the world’s most serious epidemics.” I admit that this conclusion seems far reaching, but listen to what Davis adds, “Despite our desire to amass, consume, and be mindless, the ‘unspeakable desire’ to know ‘our buried life’ is ancient and implacable. If we ignore it, or have no means of knowing it, that desire will come back and hurt us.” Our fondness of film, more often than not, indulged at the expense of deep interaction with literature is a cost that we fail to consider; it damages our inner lives and numbs us to the depths of human nature.

Lastly, hopefully tying some of the above points together, I want to develop another fascinating point made by Jane Davis. She suggests that religions’ fall from grace, over the last century, as an interlocutor in the discourse of common life has not only impoverished our language for contemplating the human condition but has also in many ways been the demise of community. She posits that members of faith groups are more likely to flourish as religions provide people with a “network of fellow supportive creatures, a sense of purpose”. Religion, according to Jane Davis, offers us “inner stuff, scaffolding to help us get around our inner space” and meaningful community; maps to explore the complexities of our humanity and safe groups where such ventures are encouraged. The reason I find this point so interesting is that while I agree with Davis that a “reading revolution” will help us to reinvestigate the human condition and even result in new communities formed around good literature, I also believe the Christian story that plumbs the depths of our humanity including the parts that we avoid, drawing people into a community governed by grace, connected by their faith in Christ. In my experience this community has greatly enriched my understanding of human life and afforded me a platform to discuss it further. But even here, I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the shallow, distracted interaction with our world, thought and significant literature.

 

The Ethics of Reading

Most people read to relax. It’s much easier for me Owl Readingjust to soak up the words as the pages turn than to consider the stance into which I am being drawn. I want to suggest, however, that this tendency is lazy and potentially dangerous.

As I am drawn into the narrative and become an observer of unfolding events, I make judgements based on the voice of the narrator or the character who relays the tale. Too often, this voice is heedlessly imbibed by its hearers and absorbed into their thinking patterns. The reader has to allow a text to speak in its own categories and understand it in light of its own judgement calls (unless we decide that our response is more important than the text to which we are responding, but that’s for another post).

In James Sire’s “Habits of the Mind” (p.148,150) he writes about reading directing our thinking explaining,

James Sire's Habits of the Mind“One begins to read, giving over one’s mind to the text and the primary meanings that begin to form. When the text of a great work fully engages the mind, when the reader is so completely occupied with what is being read, the world of the text becomes the world of the reader. … The mind of the reader becomes one with the mind of the author,”

“When reading directs thinking, one’s mind is absorbed in the mind of another. Many have certainly thought that dangerous.”

This, Sire (p.151) continues, gives rise to censorship of “dangerous literature”.

“The foundational insight leading to censorship is, however, correct. Books are dangerous, because the best of them are powerful conveyors of ideas, points of view, moral persuasion and the like.”

Sire realises that the words we read arrest our mind. The critical point with which he concludes this section is the fact that Scripture is the one text that should direct our thinking. The correct stance of a reader approaching Scripture is one whose categories and patterns of thought are foundationally malleable so that death can become assailable, entropy reversible, Eden restorable and the concepts of freedom and goodness fundamentally reordered.

Coming to Scripture without assumptions – willing, even, to disbelieve it – is, therefore, an inferior approach. The assumptions that the text produces in us of the death and resurrection of Christ and the purposes of God are critical to out interpretation and don’t make for a “blinkered, check-your-brain-in-at-the-door reading” but rather, a reading that enables our minds to be “renewed in knowledge after the image of their Creator”.

Urinal Art & T-Shirt Preaching

Duchamp's FountainIf there’s any piece of art that typifies postmodernity and repeles modernists everywhere it must be Duchamp’s “Fountain”: a urinal. Not only disgusting, how does a mass-produced chunk of porcelain made for human waste ever qualify as art? Duchamp’s point was that everything is art.

We like things to fit neatly into their own little boxes; urinals are for men’s bathrooms, portraits are for art museums, t-shirts are for weekdays, suits are for the Bible. So when someone stands up to read the Bible, preach or play the piano in church, s/he had better be dressed for the occasion. My suggestion (in actual fact, my affirmation) is that this is the same as rejecting the Fountain and my point is that in your life, everything is Christian (not just on Sundays, while reading the Bible, or managing to wear a feigned smile).

Duchamp’s piece is crude but it’s crude to convey a truth: Art doesn’t fit into a box – it doesn’t fit into a box because someone made the box and so it too is someone’s art. Everything you see can be looked at and appreciated and so is, in that sense art.

tshirtThe point is that the Bible doesn’t belong in a box somewhere with suits and formality. Often we think it does, and so we demand that reader wear a tie. In actual fact the Bible should be the first thing we realise transcends every box – long before we realise anything about art.

So next time I preach during the traditional prayer book service in a t-shirt instead of the surplus or read the Bible wearing shorts and no tie, perhaps it will be to remind you that normal people are supposed to read the Bible as part of their day to day lives – not only ministers on Sunday.

The Workings out of Women’s Work

WomenAtWorkGiven my genetic makeup and consequently the fact that I wear makeup, I am in the position once again where I am required to address my thoughts and beliefs regarding women in ministry. Just the other day I was in the regular weekly meeting with our senior pastor discussing ministry, difficulties and general feedback when, at the end of the hour, I was asked the question. For the ignorant among us, the question when speaking to a woman who is in, or wants to go into, ministry is, “what do you think the woman’s role is in the church?”

Over the years I have been encouraged on more than one occasion with regards to my teaching ability, and I have also cherished and thoroughly enjoyed the moments I have spent teaching and explaining ideas – particularly the Scriptures. New acquaintances generally assume I want to work with little children, but when during my college years I declared that I am not in the Children’s stream but the Pastoral stream of Theological training I was met with the raised eyebrow, concerned stares and the occasional, “…Oh!” I assume many think I want to pastor a church, impose feminist views on the congregation and achieve world domination. Sorry to disappoint, but that’s not at all what I’m looking for. I simply love teaching, I love explaining, and I love to see others cherish and understand the Word of God.

However, my pastor was right; as a woman I need to be able to give an answer to the question. Men might have all sorts of ideas and views, and at times they have the liberty simply to say, “It’s difficult and I’m still working out what I think exactly and where to draw the lines”. This would not be a satisfactory answer from a woman though, because it directly affects the way she lives and ministers now. Before the woman can do anything she must ask the question.

There are many passages of Scripture I could turn to however, I think 1 Timothy 2 speaks most clearly on the issue; and when I say clearly I mean most directly addressing men and women in the church without focusing mainly on the roles of husbands and wives. “But…but…Paul is a male chauvinist and is just asserting his culturally impaired views”. No, Paul is an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope (1 Tim 1:1); the reason Paul is writing at all is to preserve the doctrine and witness of the church and, Paul grounds his reasoning in universal and timeless truth since creation (1 Tim 2:13-14). Stott suggests that we use ‘cultural transposition’ at this point, and in many ways that is a helpful way of looking at the text, however it still places the reader in the judgment seat deciding what to file and what to put through the shredder.

Now obviously women are allowed to speak, since we have vocal chords and do the whole talking-thing way better than most men do. But the setting, situation, context in which women speak is the issue at hand. Women are encouraged to teach other women (Titus 2:3-4) and there are instances in which women are permitted to exercise their gifts in the appropriate way (1 Cor 11:5; Joel 2:28-29); but it is at the corporate church gathering that the shepherding, rebuking, correcting and teaching is to be done by a man.

For many women the problem comes down to desiring the position and headship of the man, but this was even considered at the very beginning where part of the curse was that Eve would desire her husbands’ authority, and man would often abuse it (Gen 3:16). This is a hard verse for me to hear because yes, my own heart’s desire does often drag me to the steps of treason, but as women we often become too caught up in the roles we can’t play that we ignore and neglect those key areas that only we can fill.

women and cakeFor women: Women’s ministry in many churches has been reduced to tea parties and gossip sessions. It’s our job to teach, instruct and model godliness to other women. Being women teaching women means we can connect and teach on a level that no man could attain. We can teach women gospel truth, deep theological gems, and fulfill our God given role, and even eat cake at the same time. If we neglect this role, there is no other man who is going to step in the gap. This is our baby and we need to take responsibility. It is my own conviction that when women do minister in a more corporate setting that it never questions the leadership of the elders or assumes authority over the pastor; it must always be done in a spirit of humility and submission.

For men: Encourage women to get involved in women’s ministry. Just because women cannot hold the role of pastor and shepherd does not mean that every other door must be closed. Women have great potential if only they were taken seriously. I think in many cases the topic of women in ministry has become an issue simply because women are restricted from exercising their gifts at all. How many pastors do most churches employ before they see the need for a women’s worker?

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