Getting to Know You – Part I: The Real You?

In the small province of the blogosphere which I inhabit, there’s been quite a lot of chat recently about how Christians use social media to interact with one another and with the wider world. A lot of this focuses on the interactions we can have in 140 characters or longer, and on the dangers of creating an online persona which doesn’t match our meatspace reality (see Tim Chester, Cat Caird, Bryony Young and others).

What I find even more fascinating, however, is the image we unintentionally allow all this public soul-searching, liking and linking to convey about ourselves. I want to suggest that, put together, this information is more likely to tell us the truth about ourselves than to mislead people that we are more exciting than we really are.

I was talking to a friend recently who made the observation that their ‘year in status’ word-cloud talked more about alcohol than about Jesus. This illustrates the point that however we try and present ourselves, the truth is hard to hide when so much is public.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about this in the context of my new role in the Church of England, which is as a part of the team in the Exeter Diocese who help people through the process of selection to ordained ministry. I’m also currently in the process of appointing new staff at church, which is a shorter process, but with the same aim of finding out if a candidate is a good fit for the role.

Now I’m not alone in this, but you need to know that whenever you contact me about selection, or about a job, the first thing I’ll do is type your name or e-mail address into Google, Facebook and Twitter to see what you look like and what you’re prepared to tell the world about yourself. If you’re a friend of a friend (as more and more people are) then it’s likely that I’ll be able to see your children, your holiday photos and stag night pictures as well, which might not always be the image you want me to have during an interview.

But the flip-side is true as well. What if I can’t dig up anything on you? Is that better or worse?

Well, If these three searches don’t throw anything up then I’ll assume one of three things:

  1. You’re really paranoid about internet security;
  2. You’re not really cut out for communicating in the modern world; or
  3. You have a secret online life under another alias or username.

Needless to say, two out of these three reasons are not going to help you as you go forward for selection to a public teaching ministry or church job.

But enough about my snooping (I’m just giving your fair warning that when I ask you questions I might already know the answers) how can you put this confession to good use?

I want to suggest that as well as being a goldmine to an employer or selector, social media is a great tool for auditing your own life.

Here are some initial questions you could ask yourself:

  • What are the most important things in my life? (what/who do I photograph, tag, name-check, stalk?)
  • Do people think they are better friends with me than they are?
  • Am I using social networks when I should be asleep, listening, in church, etc?
  • If you are a follower of Jesus, would anyone know from your Facebook profile or twitter feed?
  • Do you have an outlet for negative emotions that isn’t quite so public?
  • Am I a leader or a follower? (do you retweet/share/like more than you create new content?)
  • Do my posts or status updates show ‘quality of mind’? (This one particularly relevant to those seeking to meet ordination selection criteria.)

I could go on, but I’ll get a better list if others wade in, what questions would you add to the list of self-assessment questions for users of social media?

P.S. I know there are other networks out there, but I’m a late adopter, so I’m pretending they don’t exist until I really can’t avoid them. (That’s why I’ve ignored your Linkedin Request – sorry.)

Is it OK to disagree with the Artist?

Looking out of the window at the chilly rain this Monday morning, the weekend’s sunshine seems to belong to another season rather than being just a day ago. On those days when the sun does shine, I’m increasingly spending time down at Plymouth’s Royal William Yard enjoying the coffee, freshly made pastries, local cheeses from the deli, the passage to the beach and the art.

On most of our visits we pop in to see what’s new in the gallery of local abstract artist Martin Bush. That might be because my son insists on going in and peeking tentatively around the labyrinth of paintings until he finds an impressive three metre high sculpture of the minataur. But on the wall facing the minataur is what I’m going in to see, a 1.5 metre wide abstract painting called “In the Element”.

In the Element - Martin Bush 2011

In the Element – Martin Bush 2011

This picture is part of a series of works inspired by the America’s Cup sailing competition, which came to Plymouth last summer. Almost effortlessly, Martin manages to capture the movement and the energy of that competition, the constant action and attention needed to harness the elements and keep ahead of the competition. Discussing the picture, Martin wants the viewer to imagine themselves looking back from the bow of a racing yacht, the folds of the sails forming an expectant concertina of canvas on the deck as they are hauled down out of the wind.

When I first saw this picture, there was something disturbing about it, which didn’t sit easily with the adrenaline rush of having the sun on your back, the wind in your hair (and sails) and the spray of salt water in your face. For me the picture seemed more foreboding, and the title conveyed a sense of menace. For me this was not a picture of elements being harnessed for sport, but a darker vision of elements being fought back as they threaten to engulf the onlooker and dislodge them from their precarious perch above the waves.

Eventually I realised why I saw such a hostile scene. It was because there was another image lurking in the back of my mind, which Martin’s work evokes in its composition and in the positioning of the flashes and swirls. The scene which I now see when I look at “In the Element” is this one, Théodore Géricault’s 1819 paining of the Raft of the Medusa.

The Raft of the Medusa - Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

The Raft of the Medusa – Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

At over seven metres wide, the Raft of the Medusa towers over the viewer from its permanent home on the walls of the Louvre. In contrast to the Mona Lisa, which always appears smaller than expected, this massive work of art overpowers rather than charms those who stand before it. It tells the horrific story of the survivors of the Shipwreck of the Medusa, who clung to this hastily constructed vessel as they awaited rescue. A rescue which eventually came to just fifteen of the 147 passengers in the form of the French ship the Argus. This ship can just be seen as a hopeful speck on the horizon in the top right of the picture.

Once you’ve seen the similarity, the composition of “In the Element” makes it impossible to disassociate it (for me at least) from the Raft of the Medusa. In the top left corner the dark patch of the towering waves and the brooding clouds sit beside the flash of light of a hopeful dawn. The only bright colour in Géricault’s vision are the red flashes of garments, one of which is being waved in hope of being sighted. These are mirrored by the bursts of red in the abstract work which infuse the canvas with hope. The diagonal ropes holding the mast are evident in both works and, most powerfully, where the Argus sits on the horizon as a beacon of hope to the stricken souls on the raft, in the corresponding spot there is a blue cross – a symbol of salvation above the tumultuous waves.

In my dark vision of In the Element, instead of folds of canvas, lifeless as they wait to be hoisted into the wind, the swirls become the wasted and inert forms of those for whom the deliverance of the Argus would not come in time.

But which of us is right?

As I look at In the Element, I can see both the sporting scene Martin describes, and also the despair and hope of the dying passengers of the Medusa. But should it be possible to see both? Should the artist be able to dictate what we see, or is it OK to disagree with the artist?

As I reflect on this question, it seems that the answer to this question is bound up with the level of abstraction in the work itself. If this was a photo-realistic image of the bow of a modern racing yacht then we wouldn’t be discussing the similarities with the two hundred year old representation of a maritime tragedy. But because the work is abstract, because it leaves room for interpretation by the viewer, we are free to see more in here than what the artist intended. And once we’ve seen a bigger picture, the abstract often becomes clearer.

Now I’m no expert when it comes to art, so let’s move this discussion into a field with which I’m more familiar – making sense of the Bible.

I often hear people accuse the Bible of being incomprehensible and unconnected, but the Bible too has different levels of abstraction. Some parts of the Bible are meant to be photo-realistic: Histories, Letters, Gospels and all those parts which have the voice of a narrator showing us clearly what God wants us to think. We can’t read these bits and argue with the author about what they meant.  But there are some parts of the Bible which are more abstracted: Poems, dialogues, visions and proverbs all leave room for us to see layers of meaning, and are often the bits that leave us confused. But there is a bigger picture, an overarching story which once we’ve seen it will shape our understanding of even the most abstract sections.

Like the Raft of the Medusa, the big picture of the Bible has at its centre a scene of despair and hope where at first glance we cannot see whether the darkness of the clouds or the light of the dawn will triumph.  But like the Argus, like the cross on the horizon, the Cross of Jesus is the beacon of hope which makes sense of the whole picture. And once we’ve seen that the Bible is about one man, we can’t help but see Him across the whole canvas of scripture.

So what do you see?

If you want to make up your own mind about In the Element, then its on show at Martin’s Gallery in the Brewhouse in Plymouth’s Royal William Yard. Martin’s current show includes his current projects and older works. You can also book the gallery for private events and functions.  

VIsit Martin Bush's Website

Chill Out, It’s just Porn

There is one youth group teaching session that no-one wants to be at. Neither the leaders nor the young people want to be talking about pornography, but that isn’t because it’s not relevant.

As part of a recent series looking at relationships with our 14-18s group at church, we spent an evening exposing some of the lies which pornography tells us. At the start of the session I conducted a little bit of casual research as asked why sort of things they were being taught at school about pornography. Initially, the answer took me by surprise: “Nothing”. Those at the top end of the group had sat through nearly a decade of biology, PSHE, citizenship and religious studies lessons teaching them about sex, but no-one had every had the courage to talk about pornography, even though this is probably the area of sexual behaviour which effects a larger number of teenagers than any other.

Maybe it has taken a while for curriculums to catch up with technology, or maybe teachers underestimate the scale of the issue. As one youth leader once explained it: “When I was a teenager, the only way I could get hold of pornography was to go to our village newsagent and ask buy magazines from someone who not only knew my mum, but was also my Sunday School teacher. Now teenagers don’t even have to search for porn, every other e-mail in their inbox and every nearly every pop-up advert is herding them towards it”.

What is more likely, though, is that more of us have bought into the biggest lie that porn tells us, which is that this is normal. Back in 2002 the band Trucks hit the nail on the head when they sang:

“It’s just porn, mom, you’re running away
You wouldn’t believe what the kids see today
It’s just porn, mom, and it won’t go away
Wherever you turn you find porn everyday”

Trucks, 2002

So should we be bothered, or should we take the advice to Trucks’ mothers and Chill Out, because “It’s just porn”?

As I was preparing for the teaching session, I turned to one of the most significant websites for those seeking to stay pure online, Covenant Eyes. The flagship service Covenant Eyes offer is internet accountability software, but the site also has a host of research, information and advice on the subject. One of their online publications is called ‘Your Brain on Porn’ written by Luke Gilkerson, it’s where most of the statistics and research in the following post came from. You’ll have to give your e-mail, but you can download it here.

What follows is uncomfortable and at times disturbing, and this is the sanitised version for general publication! But my guess is that you’ll think twice about using pornography once you realise how it lies to you. Here are four way you are being deceived:

#1 Porn lies about other people.

From the very start of the Bible we are meant to see our fellow human beings as having intrinsic value. Chapter one of the book of Genesis (‘the Book of Beginnings’) describes us as being made “In God’s Image” and that as His image-bearers we reflect his character and glory. But Pornography help us to forget that other people, especially women, have value as we learn to compare them to ‘Porn girls’.

This comparison was powerfully described by Naomi Wolf, writing for New York Magazine: “Today real naked women are just bad porn.”

But this comparison is not simply anecdotal. One of the most interesting studies into the effects of watching pornography was conducted in the early 1980s among North American college-age participants. This research, by Zillmann and Bryant, draws a number of conclusions, including establishing that consumers of pornography eventually compare their partner or spouse with images of porn models. More recent research (2002) backs this up, reporting that when men and women were exposed to centrefold images from Playboy and Penthouse magazine, their assessment of the ‘attractiveness’ or normal people was significantly lowered.

Now we might expect this sort of comparison, after all, when we listen to a great symphony or study a renaissance masterpiece, we can’t help but judge whatever we subsequently listen to or see against it. But pornography doesn’t just open our eyes to what is available, it reprogram our eyes to want fantasy over reality and it also seems to warp our minds and our judgement about people in other spheres.

Zillmann and Bryant divided the participants up into three groups. One control group did not view any pornography. One group watched a ‘moderate’ amount and the final group viewed a ‘massive’ amount of pornographic material over a six week period. As we would expect from 25 year old research, some aspects are now outdated, but it is not the analysis that is no loner true. What has changed since the 1980’s is that what was then considered to be ‘massive’ exposure to pornography could now be described, using Dr. Mary Anne Layden’s phrase, as the ‘Friday Afternoon Group.’

Gilkerson reveals the scale of the issue on page 10 of ‘Your Brain on Porn”:

“A recent survey of 29,000 people at North American universities shows 51% of men and 16% of women spend up to five hours per week online for sexual purposes, and another 11% of men spend anywhere from five to 20 hours per week. What used to be “massive” exposure is now common practice”

To see how pornography alters our perceptions in the non-sexual sphere, Zillmann and Bryant asked the male participants in the three groups to answer the question “do you support women’s rights?” 71% of those in the control group answered ‘Yes’ compared to 48% in the intermediate group and just 25% in the ‘massive exposure group’. It seems that the simple act of watching pornographic films significantly reduced the likelihood of a man giving value to women. Gilkerson concludes:

“Often pornography, and even mainstream media, portrays women as people who are glad to be used and objectified. It isn’t surprising to find women increasingly devalued in our porn-saturated culture.”

#2 Porn lies about relationships.

But these days we are more sophisticated in our judgment about what we allow to influence our thoughts, aren’t we? After all, countless TV sit-coms proclaim how porn is no longer a ‘dirty little secret’, but something to be enjoyed together with your partner and even given as a gift or used as a vaccination against adultery.

But if we think that pornography is a positive factor in relationships we are kidding ourselves, because pornography blinds us to the most important thing that intimate relationships are designed for – giving ourselves to the other person and seeing our satisfaction and happiness as secondary to theirs.

C.S. Lewis, writing in the 1960’s talked about the consequences of sexual intimacy where the focus is on ones own satisfaction. In ‘The Four Loves’ he says:

“We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, at he “wants a woman.” Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes).”

With pornography, the ‘necessary piece of apparatus’ is no longer even another person, which further distances us from the purpose of intimate relationships. Dr. Gary Brooks, author of The Centerfold Syndrome, explains it like this:

“The glossy magazine pictures or pixels on the screen have no sexual or relational expectations of their own. This essentially trains men to desire the cheap thrill of fantasy over a committed relationship. Pornography trains men to be digital voyeurs, to prefer looking at women more than seeking out genuine intimacy”

Zillmann and Bryant’s study also confirmed that pornography damaged relationships and even made sex less satisfying for those who used pornography. “Participants from the Massive Exposure Group reported less satisfaction with their intimate partners: they were less likely to be pleased with their partner’s physical appearance, affection, and sexual performance.” (Gilkerson, p3)

So pornography is not a marital aid, but a barrier to genuine intimacy and a killer of pleasure. Increasingly too, once a relationship has ended, it becomes a weapon. This week I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who rejoiced to hear that the website was closed down by its owner Hunter Moore and the domain sold to anti-bullying site The site was live for more than a year, and it encouraged users to submit pornographic images and videos of the ex-partners, which were linked to social networking profiles. This genre of website is known as ‘revenge porn’ and it was very popular. IsAnyoneUp was receiving 300,000 hit per day and Hunter Moore had plans to develop the site with a mobile app and a TV spin-off, increasing the $20,000 per month which he was earning from advertising revenues.

Only the most naive of partners, then, would think that pornography is going to strengthen their relationship. But part of the deception is that porn not only lies about other people, it also lies about us, and causes us to devalue ourselves and doubt that we have any right to refuse to join in.

#3 Porn lies about us.

With all this pressure put on ‘normal people’ to try and live up to the fantasy promoted by pornography, is it any wonder that self-image is the biggest casualty? But again, the most worrying aspect of how pornography warps our judgement is not to do with image, but with what we think is acceptable.

To gauge how pornography might effect self-worth, Zillmann and Bryant asked their participants to consider a case study where a female hitchhiker had been raped and the rapist brought to trial. Participants were asked to rate how long they thought an appropriate prison sentence would be. In keeping with what we have seen before, male participants in the ‘massive exposure’ group recommended shorted sentences. The shock, however, came in the responses of female participants. Those in the ‘massive exposure’ group recommended sentences half the length of those in the control group. (77 months and 144 months respectively). The lesson is clear, women who are exposed to pornography consider sexual violence against women to be less serious then those who are not. They have also bought into Porn’s lie that we are less valuable than we are.

Now this is the really ugly side of the pornography industry and it is the secret that should turn casual users right off. Pornography promotes violence against women and seeks to silence those who speak against it. It does this by lying about what is normal and acceptable.

#4 Porn lies about what is normal.

Every so often a story hits the headlines about a young man who has been caught out by a comment he made on a social media site of some sort. a recent example (February 2012) was the comments written in an article on the UniLad website which suggested that with unreported rape statistics at 85%, it seems like “pretty good odds” they men might get away with forcing a girl to have sex with them. Following a brief media storm (and the threat of disciplinary action from Plymouth University against Jamie Street, the site’s CEO) the article has subsequently been withdrawn and the site re-launched, but when I visited today the lead article was a helpful guide to finding girls with such low-esteem or lack of judgement that they can’t refuse to take part in degrading sexual acts. So at least the sex is consensual now, but only just.

Social commentators have been quick to try and tease out the difference between harmless banter and incitement to sexual assault, but I’m not sure that the distinction is really there. Both seem to rely on the assumption that attractive women are simply there for the satisfaction of men, and that anyone or anything that might hinder that process is the legitimate target for abuse.

One such target for abuse were members of the Bristol Feminist Network, who has the audacity to be pleased that the Bristol branch of ‘Hooters’ had closed down. The group had been vocal in their opposition to the opening of the restaurant in the first place, and saw its closure due to as an indicator that the people of Bristol had voted with their feet and not become customers. On the afternoon of the closure, a member of BFN was asked to comment by the BBC, and they subsequently issued a press release, but the nature of the comments (on Facebook and personally directed against BFN) by ‘supporters’ of the restaurant was nothing short of open bullying and intimidation, promising to “kick [her] in the vagina” and that she was “a **** who needed to pay”. You can read the full saga, without my redactions here.

So why is it that seemingly rational men think that it is appropriate to talk like this, even among themselves, let alone on public forums? Part of the problem is that we have bought into the narrative which porn feed us about what is normal and acceptable.

Middlesex University recently published research that explored attitudes to this sort of sexualised banter by comparing statements which were published in these magazines with comments taken from interviews with convicted sex offenders. The magazine comments typically accompanied ‘soft-porn’ images in Lad’s Mags such as FHM, Nuts, Zoo & Loaded.

If you’ve got a strong stomach then you can try the experiment for yourself. Simply look through this list of statements and see which you think are the rapists, and which are the lad’s mags. The results were quite disturbing, with participants largely failing to distinguish between the sources. They were also more likely to identify with the quote if they were told it was from a magazine, even if the true source was a rapist.

And this is the narrative that not only accompanies pornographic images, it is built into the very fabric of the medium. To illustrate the problem we can look at the research of Robert Wosnitzer, Ana Bridges, and Michelle Chang, who analysed aggression in the adult DVDs

In their 2007 study of the 50 top selling adult DVDs, Wosnitzer, Bridges, and Chang recorded an act of aggression on average every minute and a half. Three quarters of the aggressors were men and nearly all of the recipients were women, but in 95% of the scenes the person receive the aggression acted neutrally or positively to it. The message is clear, violence against women is part and parcel of normal sexual behaviour. Is it any wonder that young men consider sexualised banter about rape and abuse to be normal, and that turning their boasting into action is a cause for celebration, rather than facing any negative consequences.

So is anyone still chilled out about porn? By this point in the youth group even the most nervously giggling member was sitting in stunned silence. But this is a subject we cannot afford to be speechless about. Porn is widespread, but it is not ‘normal’, and by refusing to discuss it we buy into the lie that it isn’t really an issue.

Pornography distort our view of ourselves and other people, which causes us to have impossible exceptions of real relationships. It also normalises violence against women and the right to take sexual satisfaction whenever we want. So let’s make sure that an alternative narrative is seen as the norm:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

(Philippians 4:8 – The Bible – NIV11)


How much does it cost to buy-off God?

Today Christians across the country can breath a sigh of relief as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced his plans to allow a small North Devon town council to continue its 400 year old tradition of saying prayers at the start of council meetings.

Following last week’s announcement that the National Secular Society (NSS) had won a ruling that local councils could not lawfully include prayers as part of their formal business, Eric Pickles is quoted to have said:

“While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country, with an established church governed by the Queen.

“Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Public authorities – be it parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.”

Source: Guardian Online

The announcement that Mr Pickles will rush section 1 of the new ‘Localism Act’ into force ‘within a week’ will no doubt mute the celebrations of the National Secular Society, as the new act will restore the rights of local councils to say prayers as part of their proceedings if they choose to.

So why is it that Mr Pickles’ assertion that we are a ‘Christian Country’ sticking in my throat?

It isn’t that I don’t applaud the decision to give councils the right to decide for themselves if they include prayers. Neither is it that I don’t enjoy the schadenfreud of seeing the NSS defeated in their latest attempt to remove the trappings of faith from public life. No, what I find so distasteful is the comparison between the Government’s reaction to the NSS case and their relentless pursuit of the Welfare Reform Bill.

In the former case, the Government are keen to cite our Christian heritage as a reason to keep religious rituals in public life. In the latter case they seem hell-bent on taking away financial aid from those in out society who are most in need of it. Could it be that the price of a clear conscience is allowing a little bit of public religion?

As I think of those who think that God is somehow pleased when we remember to name-check him, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words to the religious rulers of his time as he tells them that God cannot be bought-off with their religion:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices— mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law— justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.”

Jesus Christ – Matthew 23:23

The big problem with public religion, especially the sort which we are forced to take part in, is that it tends to inoculate us against the real thing. And Jesus calls those who would come after him (and call themselves Christian) to pursue justice, mercy and faithfulness, not just to say a few prayers before we get down to business. Being a ‘Christian country’ must surely mean that we pursue matters of justice as well as maintaining those traditions which remind us of our Christian heritage.

I’m currently reading Timothy Keller’s book ‘Generous Justice‘, in which he presents the compelling case that through His Word, God is calling Christians to pursue social justice in their churches, local communities, nations and worldwide. Keller explains that God’s command in the Mosaic law that ‘there shall be no poor among you’ (Deuteronomy 15:4) is much more than an empty aspiration:

“God’s concern for the poor is so strong that he gave Israel a host of laws that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass”

Timothy Keller – Generous Justice, p27

I get the feeling that this assertion that ‘there shall be no poor among you’ is going to be increasing important to my church community over the next few year. This isn’t just because people around us are getting poorer (although many in our fellowship and parish will be hit hard by the ongoing financial crisis and associated austerity measures), but because I sense we are being called to live out this reality in our church family and our local community.

What this is going to look like I don’t know, but I do know that if we get anywhere near it we won’t be able to be accused of preaching an empty and irrelevant religion. Real faith in real action is what the Kingdom of God is all about.

Where are the stand-out preachers?

There’s been a lot of excitement this afternoon about the forthcoming interview with Mark Driscoll in Christianity Magazine in which he makes the following comment:

“Let’s just say this: right now, name for me the one young, good Bible teacher that is known across Great Britain. You don’t have one – that’s the problem. There are a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling the truth.”

Now, usually when this sort of quote is released ahead of the interview, the content is much less interesting than the hype. Without waiting for the full interview though, I thought it was worth saying that not having a “young, good Bible teacher that [sic] is known across Great Britain” is something to be celebrated.

When John Stott began to emerge as a nationally recognised evangelical Bible teacher, it was because he was one of a kind. In the generation that followed names such as Sandy Miller, Michael Green, Dick Lucas, David Jackman and many notable others were part of a growing cohort of preachers who followed in Stott’s footsteps. They were followed by countless others (now in their 50s and leading churches, theological colleges, missions and other ministries). So by the time I began to lead a church in 2010, (in my mid thirties, and in my mind still ‘young’) the cohort of well trained, gifted, passionate and ‘good’ young Bible Teachers was so large that few stand out from the crowd.

In addition to this, these preachers are not well known, because they are doing what they have been called and trained to do – leading church congregations up and down the country, not just pastoring mega-churches.

Far from being ‘cowards who aren’t telling the truth’, Bible teachers in the UK are often young men and women who are committed to telling the truth in places where the Gospel hasn’t been heard, and growing congregations that will outlast the transient culture of celebrity.

So I’m glad not to stand out as a preacher, but I’m still striving to be outstanding whenever I open up the Bible and bring God’s word to my congregation.

Is Post-modernism Passé?

On Monday I’m going to be talking to PGP Students about how we teach the Bible to people with a post-modern worldview. The seminar is called “The Written word in a Visual Culture.” This is a seminar which I’ve led for the last few years, having inherited the subject (and borrowed most of the material) from Dr Sarah Dunlop, who was much more qualified to speak on the subject than I am.

This year I’m armed with the same script and Keynote presentation, but there are two questions buzzing around in my head. Neither of these will radically change what I’m going to teach, but they both challenge the received wisdom which we usually pass on in this sort of seminar.

The first question is one I’m going to leave for another post, and it concerns how Christians respond to post-modernism, especially when it comes to our Bible teaching.

The second question is whether we are just playing catch-up, as society moves away from having post-modernism as it’s predominate worldview.

I began pondering the second of these questions last week at a Diocesan training event. The topic was preaching, and one of the sessions was looking at how preaching needs to adapt to the culture of those we are speaking to. As an introduction to this session, the speaker said “This afternoon I was going to talk about post-modernism, but I’ve just had a conversation with someone who told me that his daughter was convinced that post-mordernism is being replaced by a sort-of neo-conservatism”

Now maybe this isn’t quite the right way to describe the culture that is emerging, but as a discussion starter I think it has some merit. Are we moving away from a culture which genuinely values diversity and whose catchphrase has been “this is my truth, tell me yours” to a culture which is much more insistent on conformity with what is right and wrong and whose refrain might be “you can’t say that!”?

To illustrate what this shift in thinking looks like is practise, I’m going to look at three examples and try and draw some preliminary conclusions. As I write, we are sitting midway between Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, and like many of my colleagues up and down the country, tomorrow we will be holding a two minute silence at 11am as part of our Sunday morning church service. This act of remembrance, along with wearing a red poppy, is a tradition which has been going for the best part of a century, but in recent years, those who have opted not to join in have found themselves increasing unpopular. Take, for example the furore caused in 2006 when John Snow refused to wear a poppy on the Channel 4 news or when (a day earlier) Jonathan Bartley from the think-tank Ekklesia suggested that people should adopt white poppies as a symbol of peace instead of the traditional red ones. More recently, we have both government and the royal family lobbying FIFA to allow the England team to wear poppies on their shirts and Ken Clarke attracting attention for his lack of a poppy at Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Sociologists seeking to describe post-modern trends point to the fragmentation and re-tribalisation of traditional society. Put simply, this means that people no longer look to family and neighbours (or the church) for community, instead they see themselves as individuals who connect (predominantly online) only with those who hold similar beliefs and values. The hashtag could be said to be the apotheosis of the tribal culture, catagorising every statement and viewpoint in a searchable library of soundbites with each tribe competing to top the ‘now trending’ list.

Yesterday the top trends, however, were mostly variations on the theme of remembrance (#lestweforget, #armistaceday, etc.) and it seems that on days like these we are seeking solace in our national identity, rather than the tribes of post-modernism. As part of this, conformation to the rituals and symbols of the tribe may be optional, but those who choose not to join in become objects of ridicule and controversy.

A less emotive example of this might principle also be the recent row about the security checks at British airports over the summer. Anyone who has returned home from holiday to be greeted by the queues at border control checkpoints will have some sympathy with the decision to relax biometric checks during busy periods, but the political capital which has been sought on the back of this row all appeals to the public desire to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – those whom we trust, and those we do not.

So, from the first example, re-tribalisation seems to be aligning itself with national identity rather than the global or value-based tribes of post-modernism. Also, this tribe seems to speak with a common voice – the voice of self-preservation. In order to protect ourselves, we are happy to accept limitations on our freedom and to impose limitation on others.

My second example of the change in thinking concerns the recent media attention given to Christians who have faced discrimination or legal action for acting in line with their religious beliefs (for example Peter and Hazelmary Bull & Adrian Smith). A genuinely liberal, post-modern, society holds tolerance as its highest value, and those who genuinely uphold this view allow for the tension caused when the rights of different people conflict. But this is not what we are seeing in the way these cases are reported or dealt with in the courts. Increasingly the right to act in line with your beliefs seems to be being replaced with the demand to conform to the consensus view, or (more worryingly) with the view of the loudest or most well-funded voices. As with the poppies, the dissenting voices are also vilified or silenced.

From this second example it would seem that the post-modern holding together of conflicting views (and the defence of the other person’s right to disagree with you) are being replaced by a new orthodoxy where some rights trump others. The important question is who is driving this process, and how do those who have conscientious objections to the conclusions exercise their right to protest?

My final example attempts to bring this question home to the church. We may well be playing catch-up in our attempts to be relevant to the culture, but this is one area where culture seems to have well and truly embedded itself in the church. I refer to the way in which theological principles are being debated, and to the way dissenting voices are treated, especially in the current debates about women in leadership.

I’ve already mentioned Twitter, and in my seminar I use Twitter an an example of our post-modern fascination with the personal story and experiences of others, and the expectation that others will find our story equally gripping. Maybe its just the sort of people I follow, but since getting more serious (obsessive?) about checking my Twitter feed, I’m seeing that these 140 character comments are less about sharing the story of your life, and more about peddling ‘ideas, opinions and recommendations’ (not my words, but quoted from a recent tweet from @Tanya_marlow). Also, 140 characters do not allow for much in the way of nuance, so debate is reduced to soundbites, which betray certainty rather than mystery.

Generally speaking, the debate in the Church of England has seemed to include plenty of opportunity to listen to others view and exchanging ideas with those with whom we disagree. But the end result (as it currently stands) does not reflect this process. The listening process has revealed that there are widely divergent theological and pragmatic stands on the introduction of women bishops. The voting from diocesan synods around the country, however, seems to favour legislation which some claim leaves no room for them to hold their position. If they are right, then post-moderen tolerance is no longer a feature of debate in the Church of England.

I might comment in more detail on the theology of the women in leadership debate in a later post, but for now I’m just using this an example of how post-modern ways of understanding seem to be being replaced by something else. It isn’t a return to modernism (where reason and logic are the final authority), so what is it?

I quite like the description of this new worldview as ‘neo-conservatism’ but I’m sure there is a more precise way of defining it. What do others think?