Exploring the interplay between ortho-doxy (right belief) and ortho-praxy (right action)...

...and encouraging a life where these intertwined thoughts and deeds simply happen... by default.

22 November 2007

sexual identity remixed

I'm well aware of this topics' controversial nature. In fact, that's part of the reason I've been wanting to write about this for a while. What I do not want to do is quote verses or provide what I think 'the Bible says' about this issue. Of course, I do have a view on that, but that specific pathway into this topic has been almost ruined for all kinds of reasons, not least simplistic applications of various texts.

As with any other discussion, the use of words is key. At one extreme, the sheer number of terms being created ('pangender', 'omnisexuality' and 'heteronormativity' to name but a few) does not seem to help fruitful discussion, but at the other extreme, many can fail to appreciate the complexity of the issues being discussed. Because of this complexity, it would be easy to spend huge amounts of time trying to address everything that has ever been said about human sexuality. But, of course, that's the job of a lengthy dissertation or something. My hope is to fruitfully contribute to the conversation. Quite simply, I want to raise two concerns I have relating to human sexuality.

Just one thing before I get going. Much harm has been done in this area. For all variety of reasons, people have said things in ways that are careless, abusive, condescending and just plain hurtful. To say that only religious people have done this would of course be inaccurate. The issue is far more complex than that. It's not simply a matter of Christians 'versus' homosexuals, or whatever. It's fathers against daughters, communities splitting, families and relationships crumbling and various cultures defining and redefining themselves. Many people of all persuasions simply need to apologise for what they've said and done. That is a bigger concern than any that follow...

But, alas, the issue is important and simple answers to complex questions will not do. Now, finally, here are two concerns to consider...

Concern #1 - Sexuality needs guidance like all other human activity.
I still remember hearing her say it. The younger (20-ish) of two women was sharing her inner pondering as to her own 'sexuality', and the older (50-ish) woman assured her, '...whatever decision you come to will be the right one.' One would struggle to imagine a more relativistic statement.

Also, I read a brochure from an organisation seeking to support youth dealing with these issues. It shared the same assurance: "...whatever you are, it's a perfectly natural part of being you." I talked with a representative from this organisation, and politely asked if there were any sexual activities that they did not approve of. What advice, I asked, would they give to youth feeling that they most identified with things such as incest, pedophilia and beastiality (sex with animals)? The reply was that these were not supported, and that youth wishing to identify with these things would be 'referred to a counselor.' This, of course, means that this organisation is not as all-approving as their brochure would suggest.

Guidance, leadership and direction happens in all areas of life, but when it comes to sexuality (especially in rich, western affluent areas), for some reason the only tolerated thing to do is to throw up your hands and say, 'whatever you think...' Why is this?

Now, I've not mentioned any specific sexual behaviour(s) so far - I'm just raising the concern that this is an area which I think needs guidance. For example, while I've never heard anyone suggest that heterosexuality in and of itself is 'wrong', there are indeed examples of heterosexual actions which most would say was indeed wrong; incest, pornography, pedophilia, etc. While the basis against such things may vary (which is a key question), most would agree, I suspect, that we need some kind of 'guidance' here.

Three examples may be helpful here.
1. Infidelity
Men who are in a marriage (or committed partnership) with a woman will admit that women other than their wife or partner are still sexually attractive. But most (especially the wives or partners of these men!) would say this is one attraction which would be 'wrong' to follow through on!
2. Rape
If one objects that the first example is a result of 'the socially constructed idea of commitment', then consider this example. A man attracted to a woman who doesn't desire sex with him must also answer his desires with a firm 'No'.
3. Pedophilia
If one should still object on grounds that all sex between consenting parties is valid, then consider the next example. A man attracted to a consenting 13 year old girl must also control himself.

All three above examples, by the way, are between men and women, who have what I like to call 'genital compatibility', yet they show a need for personal restraint and self control - even in view of such 'compatibility'. Indeed, the bodily organs would function quite aptly; but the answer to these desires is still a firm 'No.'

Further, very few people would deny that at least some desired sexual actions could be - at least in principle - harmful, dangerous or wrong. Nobody would suggest that desire alone ensures that a given action is a good one. If we made the rest of our life decisions that way... well... we'd buy, eat, use and do whatever we wanted. We understand the need for restraint and self-control in other areas of life - why do we so often neglect this need with sexuality?

Concern #2 - Personal identity based on sexual desire/attraction is problematic.
When people identify themselves as a "_____"-sexual person, they are identifying with a sexual attraction, and that attraction obviously implies a desire to follow-through on that attraction. That's the thing about desire; it's not desire just to have a desire - it's desire to actually do something. When we don't follow through on our desires - we don't like it; we're not getting what we're desiring. It's quite simple, really.

The reason, I suggest, why basing personal identity on such desires or attractions is problematic is this: because we don't always get what we want. For example, imagine someone who's personal identity was based on a specific sexual desire (whatever that might be). Now, if that person is not able to have the specific sexual experience they desire, then they are not able to fully express themselves according to what their personal identity has been based on. A person who identifies their whole self based upon their sexual desires, who is not sexually active, is not actualised in their person-hood. They are only a "_____"-sexual person in theory, and not in reality (like a firefighter who never fights fires, or a seamstress who never sews). Again, I've said nothing about any specific kind of sexual activity being 'wrong'. My second concern is specifically about basing one's personal identity on desire or attraction.

A helpful chapter called 'Angels and Animals' in Rob Bell's book 'Sex God' highlights two extremes for understanding ones' sexual self or identity. For one extreme ('animals'), he cites the example of two movie stars who 'hooked up' (in spite of a marriage), who later said, 'We just couldn't help ourselves.' This is a case of seeing yourself as an animal with sexual 'animal instincts' which cannot be harnessed. The other extreme ('angels') is to reject one's sexuality altogether, perhaps even viewing it as bad or evil. The healthy middle between the two is when sex is protected, valued and respected.

Western culture inundates us with messages via advertising (billboards, magazines, commercials), movies and television programmes which all too often present sexuality as a 'no holds barred' arena. The more active you are, the better. Go out and have a good time, enjoy yourself; oh, and by the way, don't get caught - whether that means the sexual partner's spouse catching the two of you, the sexual partner getting pregnant or either of you getting 'caught' by a sexually transmitted infection/disease.

We need help. The human race, obviously, is kept going because of sex. It's a good thing. But used poorly, it can make families, communities (even nations?) unstable - and harm individuals along the way. There are big questions here, and simple answers just won't do any longer.


21 November 2007

Amos 5:18-7:17 (targum)

'Targum' (plural is 'targumim') is a literary genre in which parts of the Hebrew Bible are 'modernised' and/or re-interpreted for the current time (specifically, it means an Aramaic translation.). This genre has been around for at least 2000 years, because some of the writings from the 'Dead Sea Scrolls' consist of 'targumim' fragments. Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, in their book 'Colossians Remixed: Subverting The Empire' use this genre quite well - I think - to suggest how the message of certain parts of Paul's letter to the Colossians might be heard in modern, western culture.

Anyway, our church is almost finished teaching through the book of Amos, (I've just recently finished a course called 'Prophets in Context' by Tim Bulkeley at Carey Baptist College and his Amos commentary is - in my humble opinion! - the best fully-online commentary on this book.) and I recently preached on the text of 5:18 - 7:17. Here, for your enjoyment, discomfort (or both!?) is my 'targum' of this passage...


(Judgment against hollow worship - 5:18-27)

"You want Jesus to come back? Yeah right! You know when He comes, He's going to judge the wicked, don't you!!?? It's not going to be fun for you! God says, 'Nothing makes me sicker than your conferences. I want to vomit during your church services. Even though you offer your so-called 'worship' I couldn't care less! I don't listen to junk like that! Will you please just shut up already?? I don't want to be your boyfriend! I want you to be passionate about justice! I want you to live lives that are righteous! Hello? Did you organise music festivals, worship conferences and other such 'Christian' things? I'll make your 'Hill' songs into 'Valley' songs – for the 'god' that you are worshipping is the music god you've made for yourself!!! I'm going to make you completely and totally irrelevant and non influential in your own culture. No one will care AT ALL what you have to babble on about!

(Judment against excessive consumption - 6:1-14)
"You are so comfortable, so 'spiritual' and so 'successful'. You're RICH as well! Your
ridiculous obsession with video games, new clothing and entertainment and eating – YUCK!
Don't you care? Would you turn off your 'worship CD's' long enough to consider your out-right hypocrisy? This is why no one listens to what you say! Don't you get it!!?? It's not just the fundamentalist weirdo Christians who make a bad name for us, it's YOU – yes YOU – you hypocrite! The bach and your holiday home? I'll smash them to pieces! You've absolutely wrecked my project for justice and righteousness! Again, this is why Christians aren't listened to in Western Culture. The things you spend time and money on have more to do with the world's stupid notions of 'success' than MY values of simplicity and self-less-ness!

(The three 'visions' - 7:1-9)
God gave me three word-pictures. Check them out…

First, He showed me a timer counting down rapidly toward zero, and it was like the number of professing believers in New Zealand. I prayed to God, 'Please forgive us! There won't be any of us left!' He had mercy because of this and said, 'OK. This won't happen.'
Second, God showed me a Smith & Caughey's Christmas display –with Carols echoing 'God and sinners reconciled' -but next to it was a sexual advert objectifying men and women made in God's image! God said this was exactly like the mixed message that comfortable, affluent Christians are sending to the world, and therefore our influence will perish. I prayed, 'No! Please! We're weak!' He again had mercy…
Lastly, God showed me a funeral service. He asked me, 'What do you see?' I said, 'People weeping and mourning.' Then He said, 'See, I'm causing my people to weep and howl and mourn, because I am incensed at their hypocrisy! I will not stay silent. I will show them that their lack
of works means their faith is DEAD!!!'

(The brief encounter narrative - 7:10-17)
Now, the most 'spiritual' and 'successful' Christian in Auckland complained to his pastor, saying "This guy is preaching against us and we can't stand his muttering. He says we're missing the point of the Gospel." So he went to me and said, "Your so divisive! Spare us your theological musings! Save it for your dead spirit-less church! Don't quench what the Spirit is doing with us!" And I said, "Hey, I'm not saying anything that you need a Masters in Divinity to understand! I saw hypocrisy, and God compelled me to call it what it is. I cannot BUT speak! You say, 'Don't touch the Lord's anointed', therefore God says, 'You will be seen to be hypocrites by the entire world. Your self-serving hollow worship and your romanticised moment-spirituality will leave you dry, naked and poor! Your sons and daughters will reject the faith you've taught them because they will see how shallow it really is!' "


Do compare it with the original, and if you can/want to, do comment with thoughts (positive or negative) that come to mind!




12 November 2007

three paths

Being followers of Jesus means, of course, that we follow Him on His way, His path...

So what does the 'way' or 'path' of Jesus look like?

I want to describe three 'paths' that Jesus faced, which I also think life presents us with. Of course, I'm not suggesting that we will always have exactly 3 choices for every decision, but I think all of the choices we encounter in life can be boiled down into three 'directions', three 'ways', three 'paths'...

The setting...
Jesus was a 1st century Jew. Most or all Jews for about a century on either side of Jesus all were hoping and waiting for God to break into history and bring in the 'Age to Come', which would see God's true people vindicated, and God's enemies punished. A very important matter, then, was to ensure that you really were a true Jew! As many of you will know, there were different 'sects' of Judaism - different versions, if you will, of what it looked like to be a true Jew. Two of these sects, the Essenes and the Zealots, will be discussed here.

The first path - Attack
The first path Jesus could have taken was the path of Revolt. The Romans, with their burdensome taxation and meddling in Temple observance (and much more!), weren't simply disliked - they were despised; to the point of armed rebellion. Several revolts had happened before Jesus' day (not least the famous Maccabean revolts), and two happened afterward (70 & 135 AD). There were plenty of people so full of zeal that they were ready to use military might to help God overthrow the Romans. Though the 'Zealots' weren't an 'officially recognised' sect at Jesus' time, this path was most certainly alive and well! Jesus would have had little trouble attracting and leading an army like all the others before and after Him, and of course, many people were expecting the coming Messiah to be just the military figure they needed and wanted to lead this army. But this was not the path Jesus walked...

The second path - Escape
The next path Jesus could have taken was the path of Escape. Revolt wasn't the only reaction to the oppressive Roman occupation and rule - some wanted out. Particularly, the Essene sect (some think that the Essenes were the group responsible for the writings we know of as the Dead Sea Scrolls) took this path. They saw the sacred and pure system of worship, sacrifice and purification as having been corrupted by the Roman involvement, and therefore saw the entire thing as invalid and worthless. As far as they were concerned, being a true Jew meant maintaining purity above all costs. So, seeing Jerusalem as a corrupt, sinking ship, they jumped overboard, and headed out into the desert. Again - not the path Jesus walked...

The third path - Endure
The path Jesus took was the path that led Him to the cross. The cross stood as an ugly reminder of what anyone would get if they would dare try and revolt against Rome. Tom Wright has aptly pointed out that the Roman cross had been a symbol of the 'love of power', and Jesus turned it into a symbol of the 'power of love'. The cross was the strongest answer the Empire had for any who opposed it, and Jesus demonstrated the supremacy of love's power. This path - the path of endurance, the path of the cross - stands in stark contrast to the other two paths. To attack or revolt is to become like the oppressive enemy. It's trying to overcome evil with evil. To escape is to leave evil un-met, not confronted, not called to account. Both paths end in defeat. Only the path of love - enduring, sacrificial love - is victorious.

I suggest that this pattern is applicable in all of life. One of the most obvious examples is that of a marriage. When conflict arises (and it will!), you can (a) try to 'win' by attacking; (b) decide not to deal with it by escaping; or (c) walk the hard, difficult, patient path of working it out. This applies for the tiniest and the hugest of problems.

Like other things, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so have a think about it, and see if this pattern isn't relevant to your life. And of course, I never said that love was easy or convenient or 'fun', but the path of enduring love is the path that brings life, reconciliation and healing.