The Victorian State government this weekend announced that special religious instruction in state schools will no longer be taught during class time, effectively killing off scripture classes in Victoria. I assume it is only a matter of time until this is the case across the nation.
Special religious instruction is one of the last vestiges of the era of Christendom. Although many religions now provide SRI, the model as I understand it is still one where students are enrolled in the study of a single religion taught by proponents of that religion, and in the case of Christianity a large part of the motivation for Scripture teachers is that children will come to faith in Christ. I certainly want to see children, youth, and adults come the faith in Christ, but I agree with those who argue that SRI does not belong in secular schools.
But this does not mean we should banish the teaching of religion from our schools. Religion is an important part of how people both past and present construct meaning and form values, and as a result it should be part of the school curriculum. The caveat I would place on this is that religion is not simply a set of beliefs, but something that is a lived experience. It therefore makes sense for the curriculum to include guests who share what their faith means in their life and how it functions. In this way children will learn about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and will be better equipped to understand those who hold to faith traditions other than their own.
I suspect this is probably what we should be arguing for now. Attempts to defend special religious instruction may see the practice of prolonged for a few years, but will almost certainly lose the argument in the long run. The danger then will be that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater, religion won’t be taught at all, and our society will be the worse for it.
When I was at theological college I was at a gathering of young adults from my church when the discussion focused on the consumption of alcohol. This was a big taboo for Christians in my church tradition. One of the young adults had recently started attending a different church and confidently declared that when the Bible says Jesus turned water into wine it was non-alcoholic. “It’s all in the Greek”, he said. “We learned about that in church tonight”.
There it was. “The Greek says”. It’s the ultimate tool in the preachers toolkit, the piece of knowledge that puts the preacher’s opinion beyond dispute. Who can argue with “the Greek”? Well, someone who can read biblical Greek. The young adult who insisted that the Greek word for wine in John chapter 2 means “non-alcoholic wine” was somewhat stumped when I pointed out that the very same Greek word is used in Ephesians 5 to tell us “not to get drunk on wine”.
Preaching is a pretty hard gig. Each week a pastor stands up and is expected to deliver something that reflects sound research and rigourous cross disciplinary thinking, to appreciate a text in its original historical context and then consider how to bridge the gap between the original setting and ours with meaningful life application. And all this is to be delivered in a rhetorical style that is simple without being simplistic as it engages the heart and the mind and the will. That’s no easy task. So I’m loathe to be critical of any preacher.
But if I hear another preacher say “the meaning of the Greek is…” I’ll be tempted to scream “no it’s not”.
The Old Testament was written predominantly in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. Because no two languages are structured identically and because words have a fluidity of meaning, translators often have to choose between two, three or more possible ways of rendering a text in English. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus famously says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” In English “righteousness” is often understood in a fairly narrow way as indicating personal integrity, but in biblical tradition the concept can be far broader and include the notion of social justice, that is, doing what is right in our relationships with each other. It can also refer to God’s righteousness, which in their biblical tradition often speaks of God being faithful to his promise to save, bring peace and justice, and so on. So when we come to this saying of Jesus we need to ask ourselves what type of righteousness does he have in mind? Is he speaking of personal integrity, a strict private moral code, social justice, God’s righteousness, or some combination of these? Knowing the Greek term translated as “righteousness” will not help us answer this question. What we need to do is to weigh up the context, both the broader biblical concepts of righteousness, the way Jesus uses the concepts, and our understanding of Jesus’s broader mission and see what we think this suggests about Jesus’s meaning in the sermon on the Mount.
What a preacher can say is “this verse could be translated as ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice’ or ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God’s salvation’ or ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst to live right’”. That’s as far as the Greek will take you. Then it’s a matter of dialogue as we grapple with the story of Jesus and what righteousness means in light of that story. The moment the preacher says “the Greek word means…” and equates that with one of the possible options we’ve explored s/he is not explaining the Greek, s/he is opting for one of the possible interpretations.
My beef with this is that it takes the Bible out of the hands of the congregation and makes the preacher the authorised interpreter.
The ability to read the Bible in its original languages is a wonderful gift. It helps you get inside the thought forms of the biblical world and to see things that you might otherwise miss. Used well it can help you to see the possible range of meanings that might not be as obvious within the English translation. But that’s as far as it will get you. Greek words no more have a singular meaning that English words do. So let’s dispense with sentences that begin with “the Greek means…” in favour of “there is more than one way we could translate this verse. Here are the possibilities… Now what do you think?”
Belonging to church has always been and continues to be a really important part of my life. Yet according to the 2008-09 International Social Science Survey, seven out of every 10 Australians who attended church monthly or more when aged 11 drop out of church life once they become adults. Why is it that we retain so small a proportion of childhood attenders?
The question is quite pointed for those of us in Australia for our dropout rates are much higher than the UK or the United States (71% of childhood attenders in Australia versus 57% in the UK and 47% in the USA) and young people who drop out in Australia are much more likely to say they no longer see themselves as Christians (46% young people in Australia versus 29% in the UK 25% in the USA).
The problem is long-standing. Across each ten year age cohort from 20 to 69 the dropout rate was between 69% and 83%. So it’s not a case of churches suddenly starting to lose all their young people when they retained them in the past. Rather it seems that for the last 70 years at least we’ve been losing people at pretty much the same rate. And nearly all of them are dropping out in the transition from childhood to adulthood.
There is then something about the way we are doing faith together that is failing to convince 7 out of every 10 people that it’s worthwhile sticking around. The challenge seems to be twofold. On the one hand half of those who drop out still consider themselves to be people of faith. For this group belonging to church simply doesn’t provide sufficient utility to make it worthwhile to continue belonging. The other half of those who drop out no longer consider themselves Christian. Despite belonging to our faith communities as children as they move into adulthood they are not convinced that Jesus is worth following.
This suggests we need to do some hard rethinking about how we help children transition to adulthood as people of faith and who find the church worth belonging to. If you’re one of the three in 10 of us who has stayed, I’d be interested to know why it is you stay. If you’re one of the seven in 10 who have left, I’d be keen to hear why you have done so.
Sociologist turned historian Rodney Stark has written a number of volumes devoted to the rise of Christianity. He points out that Christianity took off not because we got people into churches and preached Jesus to them, but because we got out of our churches into the community and showed Jesus to them. In fact Stark notes that most churches were closed to non-believers in the first three centuries of the Christian era. Yet Christianity grew to the point where it dominated the Roman Empire. Stark suggests the reason for this:
Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.
The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History
It makes me wonder what it is we offer our society? What are the deep needs that Jesus shaped living answers to today?
Young people who are same-sex attracted (SSA) experience victimisation, harassment and abuse because of their sexual identity. Those who are open about their sexuality frequently experience abuse and rejection by family and friends. Consequently they do not feel safe about ‘coming-out’ and instead prefer to keep their feelings hidden. This silence can lead to self-harming behaviours including substance abuse, indiscriminate and unsafe sexual practices, running away and even suicide. Community ignorance, prejudice and discrimination are key contributing factors to the ongoing invisibility and isolation of SSAY. Families also struggle with prejudice and discrimination and are not always equipped to support a young person questioning their sexuality
Australian e-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health (AeJAMH), Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2002
Although written twelve years ago a recent literature review found suicide rates remain high among same sex attracted people suggesting that victimisation, harassment and abuse continue (Skerrett, DM, Kõlves, K & De Leo, D, 2012. Suicidal behaviours in LGB populations: A literature review of research trends. Brisbane, Australia: Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention.)
In recent years I have been privileged to hear the stories of a number of gay Christians. Some have not made their sexual orientation widely known; some have and are seeking to lead a celibate life; some have entered same-sex partnerships. What they almost all share in common are periods of their lives where they felt they were, at the core of their being, unacceptable to God, the church, the world. This shame often ran so deep they many lived with deep depression, fear, and thoughts of suicide.
In this, we in the church have failed our LGBT brothers and sisters. We are supposed to be a community of grace, a collective of sinners humbled by God’s gracious welcome who extend that welcome to one another. If there is any place a person should feel really safe to be honest about their sexuality it should be the church. Yet time and time again I hear LGBT people describing church as an unsafe place for them to be open and honest about their sexuality.
This is all the more surprising when we recognise that the dominant view even among conservative biblical scholars is that the bible speaks to the issue of sexual behaviour but not sexual orientation. The behaviour that is called for is usually understood as sexual intimacy between a husband and wife and celibacy for all those who are not in such a relationship. When it comes to sexual orientation, the emerging consensus among evangelical biblical scholars is that the Scriptures simply don’t speak to this.
This means sexual orientation is not a problem to be solved. It is simply part of the make up of our humanity. Jesus’s words about eunuchs, that some are born that way, some are made that way, and some choose that way, are instructive ( Matthew 19:12). A eunuch was a man whose sexual organs were absent or deformed. In the case of those born eunuchs neither their sexual identity nor their sexual orientation will have been what we now call heterosexual. More likely we would describe them as asexual. Jesus does not see this is problematic. He does not insist that heterosexual orientation is normative for all people. Rather both the eunuch and those who were not eunuchs were to lead lives of faithfulness to God.
When we make sexual orientation an issue, when our comments and attitudes leave people feeling that they are somehow deficient as human beings if their sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual, we do not reflect the teaching of Scripture. We reflect an ungodly and destructive bigotry.
If the orientation/behaviour distinction is accepted, a person can live as a disciple of Jesus whether gay, lesbian, bi, hetero, transgendered, or any other variation. For each of us the key question is how to live the values of Jesus whatever our orientation.
As already noted, within the evangelical world these values are usually understood as requiring celibacy for those not in a husband-wife relationship, though there is a small but growing number who contest this interpretation. Whatever we believe the ethic to be, our message to all should be that:
1. There is nothing wrong with your sexual orientation. We will welcome and celebrate you, whether that be the gay-you, the bi-you, the hetero-you, or any other-you. You should feel free to wear your orientation openly;
2. All of us are called to behave in a sexually godly way. We will stand with you and offer all the wisdom we can as you explore what God requires of you;
3. All of us will struggle to one degree or another to live in accord with God’s call. We will not cast stones when you fall, but will welcome you, love you, and encourage you to keep following Jesus.
1. A mature debate on same-sex marriage
Within the Christian world there are a variety of principled perspectives on same-sex marriage, including diverse views within the conservative wing of the church. Yet it seems that this discussion is surrounded with hysteria. The moment anyone urges anything other than opposition to same-sex marriage they are pilloried. It is my wish for the church that we could conduct a mature debate in which we listen to one another, carefully consider what each has to say, and recognise that neither the faith nor the well-being of humankind is threatened by our different points of view.
2. A bold prophetic voice
Since being elected the Abbot government has unwound the aid budget, brutalised refugees, all but destroyed collective action on climate change, and responded to Australia’s structural deficit problems with measures that are harsh towards the disadvantaged. Unfortunately critique of the government in those areas is all too often portrayed as partisan politics. Surely it is the role of the church to offer prophetic critique to whoever is in power? It is my wish for the church that we will exercise a strong, bold, powerful critique, calling our government to repentance and justice.
3. Finally come to grips with the end of Christendom
Part of the challenge for the Church in exercising a bold prophetic voice is coming to grips with the end of Christendom. In the era of Christendom the Church looked to the state to legislate Christian virtues, to enact legislation that made society “Christian”. We no longer live in Christendom but in a pluralist society, where the role of the state is not to tell people what virtues they should live by but to preserve justice. It is my wish for the church that we would finally let go of efforts to get the state to impose Christian virtue and instead call upon the state to enact justice.
4. Recovery of confidence in the gospel
In the past two or three decades the experience of pluralism and the rise of interdisciplinary studies have caused many followers of Jesus to abandon both the doctrines and the approach of their fundamentalist youth. We are more comfortable with shades of grey, ambiguity, and openness to the insights and wisdom of other faith traditions. This however has sometimes meant an erosion of confidence in the good news of Jesus as God’s means for repairing that which is broken in our lives and world. It is my wish for the Church that we would retain our openness while at the same time discovering fresh ways to proudly and confidently articulate our understanding and experience of Jesus.
5. A rich personal experience of Christ
Underpinning all our prophetic witness, all our confidence in the gospel, all our ability to conduct mature debates on controversial issues, will be the personal experience of Christ in the lives of believers. So it is my wish for believers that our experience of Christ would be deeply personal, deeply enriching, and transformative of every dimension of our existence.