Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Gnats, Camels, Gospel

When the Church acts out its institutional anxiety, hypocrisy and self pity, embarrassed people switch off. Turn it onto Jesus, immerse ourselves in his spoken and lived teaching, and ears prick up. It also leads people to expect we will be genuinely aligned. I increasingly think I need to be a “Red Letter” Christian. My college tutors were horrified by red letter bibles’ apparent certainty about who was speaking when, but the principle increasingly makes sense to me. 

If the Church prioritizes being a delivery vehicle for the Kingdom it cannot take itself too seriously, and will stay clear of fruitless culture wars about semi-irrelevancies. 
The only credible strategy has to be II Corinthians 4:
We preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.
If it's any comfort II Timothy 2:23 shows that the early Church faced exactly the same challenges. We need to stay watchful and focussed on the things that Jesus cared about. And, as professional gardians of the sacred, we need to remember that his harshest words were reserved for people in our job. We have the greatest need to stay watchful, because it's easy to deceive ourselves that our business is automatically God's business, which it isn't always quite.  Thus, Richard Rohr's daily email today strikes a resonant note for me:

In recent elections one would have thought that homosexuality and abortion were the new litmus tests of Christianity. Where did this come from? They never were the criteria of proper membership for the first 2000 years, but reflect very recent culture wars instead—and largely from people who think of themselves as “traditionalists”! The fundamentals were already resolved in the early Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed. Note that none of the core beliefs are about morality at all. The Creeds are more mystical, cosmological, and about aligning our lives inside of a huge sacred story. When you lose the mystical level, you always become moralistic as a cheap substitute.Jesus is clearly much more concerned about issues of pride, injustice, hypocrisy, blindness, and what I have often called “The Three Ps” of power, prestige, and possessions, which are probably 95% of Jesus’ written teaching. We conveniently ignore this 95% to concentrate on a morality that usually has to do with human embodiment. That’s where people get righteous, judgmental, and upset, for some reason. The body seems to be where we carry our sense of shame and inferiority, and early-stage religion has never gotten much beyond these “pelvic” issues. As Jesus put it, “You ignore the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, and good faith . . . and instead you strain out gnats and swallow camels” (Matthew 23:23-24). We worry about what people are doing in bed much more than making sure everybody has a bed to begin with. There certainly is a need for a life-giving sexual morality, but one could question whether Christian nations have found it yet.
Christianity will regain its moral authority when it starts emphasizing social sin in equal measure with individual (read “body-based”) sin and weaves them both into a seamless garment of love and truth.


Erika Baker said...

The problem I have with Red Letter Christians is that they tend to be more literally minded.
Which is precisely what Richard Rohr is arguing against when he says "When you lose the mystical level, you always become moralistic as a cheap substitute".

So my first question would be whether you can be a Red Letter Christian as well as mystical?

I also believe that one of our main difficulties is not that we have firm ideas about morals but that we apply them to other people, not just to ourselves.

People who fling bible quotes at us usually put themselves in the place of Jesus who alone is allowed to judge us because he alone understands precisely where we need to change and where and how each one of us can change.

I keep coming back to the story of the woman taken in adultery. If we see ourselves as Jesus we will continue to shout "sin no more!" at the others. But what daring to take his place!

Our rightful place is among those who understand that we are just as much spoken to as the woman is and that we ought to slink away.

Ann said...

Do you have a link to Rohr?

Claire Alcock said...

thanks for this.
how do you get that funky specialised picture on the top of your blog?!

Bravo said...

thanks for these thoughts.

I think everyone would be surprised just how radical the Christian TRADITION really is.

Erika Baker said...

you can subscribe to Richard Rohr's daily meditations here:


I'll send you the one Alan posted about via Facebook.

Anne said...

So glad you read Richard Rohr. His is the first e-mail I go to each day. I too, had flagged up Tuesday's offering.

I think one of the problems of a Red Letter Bible or Christian is which verses or parts of verses are in red. If, as you suggest, we concentrate on 2 Cor 4, that says it all.

One of the tragedies facing the Church of England at the moment is that various factions have dug themselves holes which they cannot get out of without losing face. Unfortunately Jesus had quite a lot to say about the Pharisees who had done much the same thing. The issue, surely, is humility. Such an underused word. The humility to say I am sorry, I was wrong, please forgive me.

When we discussed the qualities we would like in a new Bishop of Reading I said we needed somebody who was able to apologise when he had made a mistake (after I had said I would like the new Bishop to be a woman.....). My comment went down like a lead balloon, but I stand by it.

"When you lose the mystical level, you always become moralistic as a cheap substitute". I have this now on a post-it note by my computer.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Erika, I'm not sure contemporary literalism was possible before the late seventeenth century. It's certainly more imperialistic and prescriptive than Thomas Aquinas' "Literal sense" of a text. I have enough of my training in me to be unhappy about the "who said what" aspects of Red Letter Bibles. However I think what I mean by Red Letter, prioritising your understanding of the epistles and apocalypse around your reading of the Gospels rather than the other way round, is actually very open to mysticism grounded in life. This isn't just about the content, but the method too — "consider life as you live it..." is only its starting point. I'm also sure the teaching about specks and motes is very high up the list of red letter teachings. It should make us very suspicious of moral teaching that binds burdens on others backs too heavy for us, or them, to bear.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

PS (technically speaking)

Many thanks, Erika for the reference — exactly what the doctor ordered. I got RR from his email not the web.

Claire, the picture was my own, and I put it into the old template I was using in 2007, and transferred across when I changed it this year to cut out clutter and assist faster loading. Just to make it more complicated, Blogger have entirely changed their interface for templates!

However I'm sure you can get anything you want into that space. I viewed the template in HTML and determined of the size of the picture / colour block that was at the top of it.

I then resized my photo in Graphic Converter to correspond to the slot provided in the template. This included making sure I wasn't wasting space and slowing loading by reducing the resolution to 72lpi. People can't see anything higher on a screen anyway. Most graphics applications have a "save for the web" option to cover this point.

Taking my 72 lpi image, I then pasted it (at the right size) into the template top slot in place of what was there.

I hope that makes some sense!

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Anne, I wonder if something similar hasn't happened with different denominations that deny the validity of others' ministries down the years — I put it this way because right up to a few years ago Anglicans were as exclusive, uncomprehending and imperialistic about this question to Free Church Christians as the RC Church now is towards the Anglicans. These exclusive claims are made, and then have to be defended — all the more problematic in a male dominated culture where the biggest insult is to accuse someone of a U-Turn, and sorry seems to be the hardest word — viewed as a loss of face, rather than a sign of learning. There is significant evidence (in the HBR last year) that mixed gender teams make measurably less stupid decisions than single gender ones. So here's another practical benefit to be hoped for from the ordination of women bishops

the Jog said...

Great post. Red letters also point out that those who are concerned to save their life will lose it. I take that to refer to all human life: personal, social and ecclesial. Yes, it seems good to lighten up.

Anonymous said...

I find your post very helpful. Christianity has a terrible record on matters of human sexuality in the last 100 years or so and I think it is almost perverse at the moment. I agree with Desmond Tutu that current official teaching - which seems to be based more on fear and exclusion that on enthusiasm or conviction at the House of Bishops level - is so far from my understanding of God as to suggest that, if the teaching is right, God does not exist, because the teaching does not ring true, and God must be true. Happily for me, I draw the opposite conclusion, which is that God is true and teaching is not, and I am much encouraged in this by precisely the reading of the Bible which you refer to.


Claire said...

Thank you for an incredibly useful blog post. I'm going to link to it in a Facebook discussion group for Atheists. The conversations there do tend to swirl round issues of morality. I think your post presents another side to the story.

Unknown said...

An intriguing read. I'm always glad to encounter Rohr. I wonder though, that he doesn't press the creeds a little harder. The Nicene Creed omits not only those pelvic issues, but the whole earthly ministry of Jesus. Anabaptists have always stubbled our toes on the partnership of Christ and Constantine and worried at the Creedal process, which conflated the mystical and cosmological with top down suppression.

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