Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Culture (Page 2 of 4)

Embracing the unclean, aka radical inclusion

Hug a leperAncient Israel was a society and a culture ruled by strict laws governing what was clean and what was unclean. These distinctions were fundamental to what it meant to be an Israelite; you could say they lay at the very heart of Israel’s identity as a nation.

A couple of examples. If you had leprosy, you were unclean. What’s more, you had to announce this fact to everyone around you by shouting “Unclean, unclean!”. (One can only imagine how devastating that must have been to a person’s self-esteem.) And you had to live “outside the camp”: you were effectively excommunicated from society.

Now, since leprosy was a life-threatening disease, you might think the Israelites were somewhat justified in strictly separating themselves from lepers. But what about this: equally strict rules applied to women when they had their period, or when they had a discharge outside of their period. They were unclean, and anything they touched became unclean. They could only be made clean again by observing strict rules and offering sacrifices at the temple through the mediation of a priest. (No doubt it wasn’t easy being a woman in that culture. But just so the men don’t feel left out, similar rules applied to any man who had a nocturnal emission.)

There were also, of course, unclean foods and unclean animals. And perhaps the ultimate in uncleanness was a dead body, which no one, not even a priest, was allowed to touch.

Furthermore, uncleanness was catching. The prophet Haggai tells us that if anyone became unclean by touching a dead body and then went on to touch any kind of food, the food he touched would become unclean as a result. Interestingly, he also tells us that the reverse was not true: bringing unconsecrated food into contact with consecrated food did not make the unconsecrated food clean. One might say that uncleanness was more powerful than cleanness.

So many rules determining who was clean and who was unclean, who was in and who was out, who was acceptable and who was unacceptable. To be unclean was to be unholy, to be effectively excluded from God’s people. Uncleanness was like a disease that could be caught and spread.

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On World Vision and a Christian response to sin

Hateful ChristiansFor the past few days, the Christian internet (if there can be said to be such a thing) has been abuzz.

It’s a story that has all the ingredients: sex, faith, money and politics. On Monday, World Vision, a US Christian charity that raises money to sponsor needy children around the world, announced a policy change whereby it would henceforth allow couples in committed same-sex marriages to serve on its staff (while maintaining its existing rule requiring sexual abstinence outside of marriage.)

There has been much debate over the reasons behind this decision. I don’t really want to get into those here; if you want to know the reasons given by the organisation itself, read the article linked above.

The announcement sparked two fairly predictable reactions. On the one hand, it was warmly welcomed by Christians sympathetic to the LGBT community. On the other hand, it was roundly condemned by conservative evangelicals, with one well-known voice from that camp tweeting “Farewell, World Vision”, suggesting that this previously widely respected charity had wandered off the map of acceptable Christian practice and openly embraced heresy.

Over the ensuing two days, much ink was spilt on both sides of the debate. The main source of controversy was not just the decision itself but its knock-on effects: many existing sponsors (some reports say as many as two thousand) decided to withdraw their sponsorship, inviting the accusation that they were more concerned about sexual ethics than about caring for the poor and needy.

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A few thoughts on excellence

ExcellentLife can be demanding and challenging. I know it’s easy to make excuses for ourselves in our sophisticated, technology-driven post-modern world, but I do think we tend to be assailed by a greater multiplicity of choices and influences than ever before.

As a result, we often expend much time, energy and mental focus on issues that will, at the end of the day, turn out to be of little or no lasting importance.

Jobs and careers will pass away. School and university qualifications will pass away. Whatever wealth we manage to amass and whatever things we manage to buy with it will pass away.

Part of the problem for Christians, I suggest, is that we tend to think we should achieve our very best in every area of life. On the surface, this might be a laudable aim. But it can create great pressure when our decisions in every area – where we live, what school our kids go to, what job we do, how much we earn, what activities we engage in, what clothes we wear, and so on – are driven by a desire, or dare I say even a need, to excel.

Excellence is a bit of a dangerous concept. On the one hand, we can rightly argue that God deserves our best. In practice, however, the line between doing our best out of a humble desire to please God and being driven to excel because of a subconscious need to impress God, others or ourselves is often rather blurred.

One might even venture to say that a desire to be excellent in all areas is a desire to be God, and thus a form of idolatry.

At his wonderful Experimental Theology blog, Richard Beck has a post from last year that explores this issue further. Here’s a snippet to whet your appetite:

I’d like to argue in this post that you shouldn’t try to be the best you can be. I’d like to argue that you should settle for being average and good enough rather than for excellence.

In fact, I’d like to argue that you embrace being a failure.

Don’t assume that Beck is arguing for the abandonment of any attempt to do anything worthwhile, because he isn’t. You’ll have to go and read the whole thing to see what case he’s making.

Anyway, having spoken of many things that will pass away, and having spoken of excellence, I find myself left with this challenge: am I as concerned about pursuing excellence in love as I am about pursuing excellence in other areas of life? I’ll leave that question with you…

[ Image: Dominik Gwarek via stock.xchng ]

Of ducks and boxers: reality TV exposes the new reality

I’m no fan of so-called reality TV (I say “so-called” because the format is actually about as unreal as TV can get). But two recent stories emanating from reality TV shows on either side of the Atlantic merit our attention and comment.

My American readers will be all too familiar with US show Duck Dynasty. The show follows the Robertson family of fundamentalist Christians and self-avowed rednecks as they go about managing their multimillion dollar business that sells duck calls (yes, that is a thing). Family elder Phil Robertson recently sparked a major controversy by making some rather blunt comments in an interview with GQ Magazine to the effect that homosexuality is sinful and unnatural. The network that broadcasts the show, A&E, announced that it was suspending Robertson until further notice for his offensive remarks. Predictable battle lines were drawn on both sides of the cultural divide, with conservatives crying foul on A&E for censuring Robertson’s right of free expression and liberals denouncing Robertson for hate speech. (For an overview of the controversy, go here.)

While UK readers may have a passing awareness of Duck Dynasty after the controversy lit up social media last month, they may be tempted, as I was, to view it as a distinctly American phenomenon. Think again.

During an episode of UK reality TV show Big Brother broadcast on 5 January, American former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield expressed his belief that homosexuality is unnatural and can be corrected. Cue outrage all round, with Holyfield widely vilified as a raving homophobe and the show’s producers facing calls for an inquiry.

But surely this is just another media storm in teacup? It’s the kind of thing that happens on TV. Ignore it and will go away.

You might think that. But you would be wrong.

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Whose empire?

MonopolyEpicWhen I was growing up, Monopoly was a favourite family game. It was played, in particular, on occasions when the extended family got together, such as at Christmas. Games would go on late into the night, and my sister and I were allowed to stay up much later than would normally have been the case. I still have fond memories of those times.

It used to be that there was only one version of Monopoly (at least, only one in the UK) – the one with London street names on it. Now, of course, there is a whole host of different versions; even so, to me it still feels odd and not quite right to play any version other than the traditional London one. I guess I’m something of a traditionalist at heart.

Anyway, my son happened to mention yesterday that he and some friends had been playing the “Empire” version of Monopoly, pictured above. I didn’t know of this version, and the image that spring to mind when my son mentioned “empire” was of ancient warring empires like Rome, the empire of Alexander the Great and the Byzantine empire. But I was wrong: the empires on which the game is based are corporate empires like Coca-Cola, Microsoft and McDonald’s. I was immediately struck by just how apt this is.

In ancient times, an empire was an extensive geographical area within which everyone was under the authority of an emperor. Empires were mostly dictatorships, which meant that the emperor passed laws by decree, so you were more or less forced to go along with them whether you liked it or not. Stepping out of line usually entailed consequences of the most severe kind.

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Social media and gullible Christians

When perusing my Facebook feed earlier today, I came across one comment thread in which a commenter shared his knowledge of supposed behind-the-scenes information linked to recent global events and well-known personalities, and a status update providing spurious information about ATM fraud.

This is hardly the first time I’ve come across such information on Facebook – in fact, it’s more or less a daily occurrence. And today, as usual, the common thread linking these two posts is that they had both been made by Christians.

Which leads me to two questions:

1. Why do so many Christians love a good conspiracy theory?
2. Why do many Christians appear to be so gullible?

Let’s briefly look at each of these in turn.

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Some musings on Nelson Mandela

MandelaYesterday evening (as if anyone could not already know this), the world learned of the death of South African political-activist-turned-president Nelson Mandela, who passed away aged 95 after a long struggle with a lung infection.

Predictably – and, I might add, justifiably given his stature – the internet and social media have been alive with news and comment about Mandela’s life and legacy today. There’s probably little of substance that I can add to what’s already been said, but I thought it would be appropriate to offer a few thoughts of my own.

I first heard Mandela’s name on the radio when I was a teenager in the 1980s; for a long time, I had little idea who he was, what he stood for or why he was such an important figure. It was only really after the fall of the apartheid regime and the establishment of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that I began to understand his significance. However, while few would deny the crucial role he played in engineering a peaceful transition to an inclusive democracy, there always remained questions over his past affiliations, and in particular his involvement in a militant group known as MK, which led a sabotage campaign against the apartheid government that resulted in significant numbers of civilian casualties. It was, of course, this association that landed him in prison in 1962; he would not emerge until 27 years later.

Broadly speaking, the reactions I’ve seen on social media to Mandela’s death range from one extreme to the other. While many have been content to commend his achievements, some seem to have accorded him almost godlike status, while others have harked back to his militant days and expressed their frustration at such accolades being heaped upon a “terrorist” and a “murderer”.

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