Monday, 5 September 2016

The Parable of the Christmas Dinner

Have you ever had a moment where things go horribly wrong? Where words produce strong emotions and cause a fight, which then spirals out of control?

Kate Smith had one of those moments in 1996, when she rang her sister Jess about Christmas dinner.

A number of years before, Kate and her husband Geoff moved into the old family home to care for her mother, who suffered a protracted battle with cancer. Kate inherited the family home after her mother died. For several years she maintained the tradition of having Christmas lunch with the extended family in the old family home. Kate and her two sisters cooked and cleaned and gossiped; the brothers in law played backyard cricket with all the youngsters after lunch. A fairly standard Australian Christmas.

But in 1996, Kate Smith had a bad year. Very bad. She had been bullied at work, leading to severe anxiety. Geoff suggested this year the family should have Christmas lunch as a picnic at a park, as the thought of getting everything ready for Christmas was contributing to Kate feeling overwhelmed.

Kate rang her sister Jess to discuss the idea of a Christmas picnic. Jess exploded. Seeing his wife’s tears and trembling, Geoff grabbed the phone and exchanged a few choice words with Jess.

Jess was shattered. For her, family Christmas involved a profound connection with her childhood memories, with her beloved father who died in his 40’s from a heart attack, and with her mother, who had died in her early 50’s from breast cancer. The thought of not going to the family home for Christmas was like a knife in her soul.

She promptly rang her other sister Beck. By now Jess’s fury had turned to sobs. She poured out how much family Christmas meant to her, and how horrible Geoff had been. Beck was outraged! She was close to Jess, and truth be told, she had always been hot-headed.

Beck immediately rang Kate and went berserk. What would their mother think of this? Their father? After inheriting the family home, how dare she dishonour them? How could she be so selfish? Didn’t she respect family traditions? Geoff once more grabbed the phone off his wife, and a predictable shouting match followed between him and Beck.

Beck and Jess organised Christmas for their two families that year. Kate’s family weren’t invited. Nor for the Christmas after that, nor for the one after that. In fact, the whole Smith family were completely shut off from the other two families. They still aren’t speaking to one another. The cousins grew up without seeing one another. The Cold War rolls on today.

The story of the Smith family is entirely fictitious. And it is preposterous. What family in their right mind would think something as trivial as whether to eat in place X or place Y was more important than their family relationships? Who would stop talking to their sister for 20 years after one argument?

Or is it so preposterous? Perhaps people aren’t always in their right mind; they are sometimes driven by deep feelings. Perhaps relationships are torn apart not by whether families should eat in place X or in place Y, but on what such decisions mean to them.

If this story is a parable, how do we interpret it?

I think about this parable in relation to church life. What is going on when people over-react, putting an issue ahead of good relationships?

It is an urban legend (perhaps a joke?) to hear of church wars over moving the communion table from one part of a chapel to another. Why would anyone behave completely irrationally over whether a table is in Position A or Position B? How can a table position mean more than the meal it is supposed to enable, a meal that expresses unity with Christ and his Body?

Is it not about interpretation? That someone believes that table position B is less reverent than position A? Perhaps they have assigned a meaning to table position A which is connected to a whole raft of their memories, emotions, values and beliefs.

So they over-react, like Jess and Beck in the parable. They might need time to process those feelings. They might also need a clear reminder of the things that REALLY matter. That being family, and living in love, might be more important than the position of the communion table. Or whatever issue happens to be… music, doctrine, a social issue, a management decision, where to hold a funeral, and so on.

How do we help others understand their own feelings, put them in perspective, and get in touch with their higher values? How do we do this ourselves? How do we keep our highest values front and centre as communities... values of love, acceptance, unity, and grace? How do we live out of our highest values when we don't get our own way?

I'm wondering if this parable makes sense, or if it evokes further thoughts for you? If so, can you share:

1) a story of irrational conflict… in the church, the family, or elsewhere? (the more absurd, the better!)

2) an issue that has been (or is likely to be) a flash point for conflict.

3) a time when two people interpreted the same thing/event/idea completely differently. What did you learn from this?

4) your insights on getting in touch with higher values when strong feelings and differences of opinion are present. (For individuals or communities)

I'd love to hear your insights!

Saturday, 23 July 2016

More on Creation Science

Earlier this month, a 100 million dollar Noah’s ark replica opened in Kentucky sponsored by the Creation Science group “Answers in Genesis”. That’s a lot of money in anyone’s language. And it reflects a lot of interest in Young Earth Creation Science.

For many years I attempted to hold a relaxed attitude around Creation Science. Though I had long believed a six thousand year old earth is both poor theology and poor science, I had decided it was impolite to pick a fight about it.

However, 2011 research coming out from the Barna Institute about why young people leave the church caused me to rethink my “live and let live” approach . This reported that: “Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that ‘Christianity is anti-science’ (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have ‘been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.’ Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs”#

Those kinds of figures should concern those of us who care about the future of the Christian faith. In order to help young people hold on to faith, (and to engage in constructive dialogue with those outside the Christian faith), I think it is time to attempt constructive dialogue around so-called “Creation Science”.

Why Creation Science is Not Science:

Please read and reflect on these 37 scientific reasons to reject a “young earth”… and get back to me if you'd like to discuss these further. It's not simply light from distant galaxies and radioactive dating of rocks that point to an ancient universe: there are multiple lines of evidence.

Here are a few more reasons why young earth Creation Science claims are nonsense, care of yours truly:

* If there was a true global flood with enough water to cover the top of Mt Everest, where did all that water go when the flood went down?

* If virtually all sedimentary rocks were formed in Noah's flood, why don't these layers contain a whole jumble of fossils: contemporary animal bones mixed up with ancient ones? They don't. Anywhere.

* If all land animals ended up on Mt Ararat in Turkey at the end of the flood, how did all marsupials make it to Australia? And pretty much, to nowhere else?

* There wasn't nearly enough room on Noah's ark for all land animals, and the solution "Answers in Genesis" offers (extremely rapid evolution at the end of the flood) seems nonsensical.

* Answers in Genesis claim all animals were vegetarian before the fall, and that the ONLY reason animals eat other animals is because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. But if we look at the adaptations of innumerable animals this seems preposterous. Baleen whales like humpbacks do not have teeth, but plates that sieve through water. This allows them to capture huge quantities of shrimp-like animals called krill (a bit like a colander catching pasta and letting water flow through). Anteaters are likewise toothless, with elongated snouts and sticky tongues perfectly adapted for licking ants out of their nests. Most sharks have many sharp teeth adapted to trap fish. Indeed, as we consider the adaptations of almost any predatory animal, we see they would be unable to survive eating plants alone.

Why Creation Science is theologically naïve

When we are interpreting any book or part of the bible, Christians ask questions about who was writing this, to whom, why, what the words meant in the culture in which it was written, and what is the genre of a passage. This is why we read bible commentaries, and expect church pastors to study theology. Some people do this happily for the gospels or Paul’s letters, but when it comes to the first chapters of Genesis they talk as if the bible fell “plop” out of the sky.

We need to do better than this if we are to serve young people well: indeed, to serve anyone with serious questions about science and the Christian faith.

Back in the murky depths of the last millenium (pre-internet!) when I first studied at (a conservative evangelical) bible college, I went on a library hunt for Old Testament scholars who support a 6000 year old earth. I couldn't find any.

Why does the creation order in Genesis 1 (plants, animals, humans male and female) contradict the creation order in Genesis 2 (a man v 7, then plants v 5, then animals v 19, then a woman v 22) if they were BOTH meant to be taken literally? There is a long heritage of Christian theologians rejecting a literal approach to the Genesis accounts.

For a really accessible look at how biblical scholars reflect on Genesis see here:

If anyone wants to really dig deep, there are a zillion books and articles here on Jesus Creed:

This article may upset some people; imagining I am trying to undermine their faith. From my perspective, I am trying to do exactly the opposite: to help them develop a faith that is informed by good hermeneutics, is robust, and can withstand scrutiny in the marketplace of ideas.

Do you think this issue is important for the future of the church? Should Creation Science be taught in Christian schools? Why, or why not?

PS Note that this article, like all articles on this blog, do not reflect the official position of Churches of Christ in Australia, which allows theological decisions to be made at the local church level. This is my opinion alone. I have also reflected on Creation Science in the past here and here

# This may be a less significant issue in Australia where Creation Science has a lower profile: this has not been researched to my knowledge.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Wrestling with Ideas, and Maybe with God

My recent online encounters with Complementarians (God bless them) have brought into sharp relief for me a number of inter-related issues:

1) On what kind of matters in a public space can we unambiguously claim: "this is what Christians believe"?

2) On "disputable matters" among Christians, how do we nuance our language in a public space?

3) What's the difference between a public space and a private space in the new online world? Can I ever give my own opinion on my (Friends only) Facebook page, despite holding a position within Churches of Christ?

4) How can we convey Christian charity and respect to those with whom we disagree, while still engaging in robust dialogue?

And perhaps the most difficult question of all...

5) How do we do theology well? What does that look like?

Perhaps for today question 5 will suffice.

Anyone who believes in God is a working theologian of sorts, trying to make sense of who God is, how God works, and how God and I and other human beings all relate to one another.

Christian theologians use the Christian scriptures as a primary reference point. They also reference their own denominational traditions and church experiences.

Those who engage in formal theological education may learn the biblical languages, the conventions of biblical hermeneutics, and the ever-evolving history of theology.

And of course, we all reference our life experiences, the scripts planted in us through early (and later) socialisation, the books we have read, our formal and informal educational experiences. We are socialised into faith (and in some cases out of it).

When I deal with Christians who inhabit a different social world, and who reach different conclusions on important ("disputable") topics, I am somewhat bemused.

But this makes me wonder anew... what are my own blind spots? Are there important issues I get completely wrong... or important issues I'm oblivious to... because of my own social world?

When I deal with Christians with different opinions, sometimes I notice what I think are poor arguments:

* Proof texting (here's the ONE verse that proves my point! Or maybe TWO!)
* Slightly better... pulling together a disconnected series of verses / passages and claiming this "proves" something. (And ignoring counter-arguments that can be made with the same approach... yes, the bible is a complex book!)
* Translation bias (This is what I KNOW this verse means, because it says so in my English bible, and I'll ignore expert analysis that sheds a different light on this).
* The church has ALWAYS taught this. (This is a weak argument for Protestants who claim "the bible alone"... and often reflects a poor grasp of church history).

Underneath all this, I often sense something else going on... that people have prior prejudices and convictions, and collect evidence to support this. (Bible verses, books and articles by teachers that they like, a mental argument).

We all do this. It's exhausting to examine issues afresh. It involves a degree of pain to suspend judgment for long enough to REALLY hear a different point of view.

I feel I have been given one lingering gift from studying science. Engaging in scientific research ALWAYS means being willing to give up your most cherished idea when the evidence points another way. Statistics are harsh: they do not care how emotionally invested you are.

Theology is a more subjective discipline, but better Christian theology looks at the big picture of the biblical story; the grand narrative of the fall and redemption and restoration, and the love of God that transforms all things. Yet working through the big picture down to the details on which we must make decisions is hard. It's complex. There are often no simple proof texts to solve complex 21st century issues.

We are the descendants of Israel through Christ... the one whose name meant to "wrestle with God". Sometimes it is in our wrestling, more so than in our certainty. that we discover we have encountered God. (Genesis 32: 24 - 30)

So to everyone who disagrees with me on something... grace to you. It's hard for me to listen also... to understand your world, your thoughts, your feelings, and how you came to your views. Let's wrestle together... but be aware we might be standing on sacred ground.

And let's remember the solid, sacred ground beneath us is the love and grace of God.

Yes, and amen.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Four Really Lame Reasons to be Complementarian

I have been in a recent online battle with Complementarians, and as such, I'm consoling myself with some blogging therapy. I hope you'll indulge me.

I've discovered some lame reasons to be Complementarian, and am reproducing these for your reading pleasure.


The majority of the "in favour" arguments for Complementarian theology involved quoting single proof texts; eg (I CORINTHIANS 14:37!). That proves it!!!

Sometimes the proof texts were quoted in CAPS LOCK! BECAUSE THAT SHOWS HOW IMPORTANT THIS ONE VERSE IS!!!

And because the art of hermeneutics, and analysing 1st Century Koine Greek, and taking in the grand sweep of Scripture... indeed, the art of Christian theological reflection... is hard work. It's so much easier solidify an existing prejudice around a single verse. END OF DISCUSSION!!!

But this not the only lame reason to be Complementarian. Oh no... there are other reasons:


Yes, there is NO need to engage with the thoughtful reflection of some of the world's greatest and most prominent theologians, who happen to be Egalitarian. Because... the church (allegedly) did not support "women's liberation" until recently. Here (used without permission) is an archetypal comment:

"Hmm, I wonder why the great majority of Christendom has agreed on its interpretation for thousands of years re leadership, but in recent times an Egalitarian spin has been (dare I say it!) 'imposed' on it? Gee...what happened? ...I feel like it should be obvious..."

Well let us ignore for a moment the monumental role female leaders have played throughout the history of the church... (although Wikipedia is worth an initial look for the curious!)

It is true that we interpret scripture through the lens of our culture. And so it has always been.

Indeed, the reform movements that that have renewed Christianity from age to age have always involved a fresh engagement with scripture and with culture.

The Reformation took off in many places because it was an idea whose time had come. Churches of Christ, while birthed in a genuine move of the Holy Spirit, was also shaped by the ideas swirling around society in the early 19th century. This is true for all the Christian movements and denominations you'd care to study.

Indeed, part of the "success" of Christianity is that it's culturally adaptable. It would have stayed a fringe Jewish cult otherwise.

Christianity formed a foundation for human rights in the West, and human rights formed a foundation for women's rights: an idea whose time had come.

And theologians do what theologians have always done: engage in a dialogue with scripture and culture. And ordinary Christians, who are all working theologians in one way or another, engage in that dialogue also.

The fact that the social change towards women's liberation occurred relatively quickly, and that this theological conversation also happened relatively quickly, does not NECESSARILY mean that theologians are twisting scripture to mean anything they like, or being sloppy in their examination of scripture.

There is in fact "brilliant and compelling" theology to support an Egalitarian position. The idea that any recently adopted ideas must be wrong or sloppy or unfaithful is ridiculous.


"Men and women are different! You egalitarians want to make men and women the same! You want to obliterate difference!"

Oh good grief!

1) It's pretty hard to find anyone who thinks men and women are the same.

2) What on earth does that have to do with theology?

3) In what universe did biological and psychological points of difference require rules to be established about what men and women can and can't do?



Obvioulsy ANYONE claiming this hasn't engaged with ANY Egalitarian theology... nor noticed that many denominations, including evangelical faith traditions such as mine, ordain women.

(Or do they imagine that such churches / theologians don't read the bible? Argh!!!!)

In short... there are some very lame reasons to be Complementarian.

Have you heard of other ones?

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

An Encounter with the Tone Police

I usually inhabit a world where men and women are equal: I never feel like I have to fight to be heard.

However, I participated in a a strange online discussion recently about "male headship". There were many online (mostly male) participants who believed men are called to be leaders in marriage, and that the role of wives is to submit. Many did not believe that women can lead churches (or in some cases, say anything in churches) because of "male headship".

I noticed something interesting. It seemed whenever a man voiced strong opinions, even in CAPS LOCK, other men would engage with his line of argument.

However when a woman expressed a strong opinion, her arguments were often ignored, but veiled comments appeared about her "tone".

It's as if the passive-aggressive crowd decided it was time to declare women "bitter", "negative", "defensive" and "hostile" if they disagreed with dominant male opinion. And would also brandish the word "feminist" not in its literal sense (a supporter of equality) but as a kind of insult (an embittered man-hater) to keep women in line.

It was also surprising to notice that some women who shared a personal experience of a violent relationship, had this ignored, or minimized ("Well, obviously your husband didn't understand servant leadership properly"... um, derr).

It was interesting to watch. I wondered whether it was one more manifestation of the way society minimizes women's voices. I also wondered whether I was imagining it. Perhaps I was.

Self righteousness is always immense fun. There is a guilty pleasure to be found in deriding the Great White Male Oppressor (or whomever one wishes to feel a little superior to at any given point of time).

But on my long, slow journey to becoming a kind and self-aware person, I'm learning to let self-righteousness go. It's not the path to a joyful life: I rather think it is the road to a small, smug one.

I began to think instead of why some men seem to shut down the expression of feelings by women. I wondered whether they had learned to shut down their own feelings, and whether strong feelings from women made them deeply uncomfortable.

My experiences in school yards suggest boys are teased, if not bullied, when they cry. They learn to mask feelings; they learn to "man up" when they're hurt or sad.

My observation of relationships is that men hate it when women cry. They feel helpless, or manipulated.

So perhaps in future when I notice the "tone police" online, I'll remember to have compassion toward them. That doesn't mean the "tone police" phenomenon shouldn't be confronted, but the unconscious participants in this game should at least be treated with kindness and respect.

Too much compassion is never enough in my book.

Headship Hoo Ha

I've gotten embroiled in discussions with Complementarians again. They are nice people. Most of them, anyway.

But I have a problem with the whole idea of of "male headship". Actually, I think it's a theological house of cards that comes tumbling down under a bit of scrutiny.

So let's look at the most-quoted passage about this in the context of marriage:

Ephesians 5:

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

The word Paul uses for "head" here is kephale. In the first century this was NOT a word used to imply authority, but more as a metaphor of "source". Check out this link. This meaning still exists in English: the "headwaters" of a river. In other words, Paul is using a metaphor of interdependence: the husband and wife are made of the same substance, so a man must love his wife as himself.

It seems to me that if Paul had used the "archon" word for "head" in Ephesians 5, you'd get out your highlighter pen and colour in "as the church submits to Christ, wives should submit to their husbands in everything". The obvious main focus would be leadership and obedience, because "archon" is used in 1st century Koine Greek as a metaphor of leadership.

But because Paul used the "kephale" word for "head", you should get out your highlighter pen and colour in "In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church." His main focus is on oneness and interdependence.

I'm not suggesting we ignore submission; the whole passage begins with a call for all to submit to one another. It does seem to me though that suggesting this passage calls men to "leadership" of their wives significantly misinterprets this passage.

Why does this matter?

I have discussed some of the consequences of teaching that in effect takes power away from women here. Some research suggests that "traditional" marriages are less likely to be happy and far more likely to be violent than "egalitarian" marriages (see here) As such, this is more important than some academic reflection about Greek nouns. Healthy relationships involve equality: teaching that encourages leadership and submission based on gender stereotyping is inherently problematic in my view.

Not that I'm opinionated or anything...

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Global Warming 101

In a past life, somewhere back in the depths of the last millennium, I studied a science degree, and later did a Dip Ed. That makes me an expert on nothing, although years of teaching did help me refine the knack of explaining the complex as simply as possible.

After my millionth encounter (or so) with someone of the opinion that global warming is a conspiracy / not real / a matter of scientific dispute, I have decided to use my special power for good. Here, for your edification, entertainment, and as reference point in future encounters with climate skeptics, is Janet's basic guide to the science of global warming:

Carbon dioxide is produced during burning.

You may have learned a simple equation in school: organic material + oxygen -> carbon dioxide + water. This happens all the time in a slow "burning" called respiration, where we break down sugars to release energy for our bodies. (That's why we breathe out carbon dioxide). It also happens whenever an organic product is burned; wood, coal, oil, natural gas, toast. This reaction releases energy, which is why humans find it very useful.

Carbon dioxide levels are rising in the earth's atmosphere

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere usually change very slowly from natural processes. However, carbon dioxide levels have changed significantly since people began large scale burning of fossil fuels (and clearing rainforests), especially in the last 50 years. See the diagrams here and here.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas

This means carbon dioxide helps to keep warmth in the atmosphere. This is a good thing: without carbon dioxide the earth would be freezing cold!

Direct radiation from the sun isn't absorbed by carbon dioxide: it passes straight through it, like light passes through glass in a greenhouse. However, radiation from the sun warms the earth, which then releases heat into the air (infrared radiation). That's why air temperatures rise when the sun comes up. Carbon dioxide helps to trap this heat in the atmosphere.

(For the technically minded, carbon dioxide strongly absorbs and re radiates infrared radiation of around 15 micrometres in wavelength.)

Increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere lead to increased temperatures.

It is worth noting that average global temperatures vary from year to year as a result of a number of factors, such as how much radiation hits the earth (the activity of the sun), and how much radiation travels back into space. (This is impacted by many factors, such as cloud cover, dust, etc.) This is why average temperatures vary. However, higher levels of carbon dioxide lead to higher global temperatures that would otherwise occur.

Because carbon dioxide traps heat, you would expect to see a correlation between increasing carbon dioxide levels and increasing temperatures. This is exactly what has been occurring on earth. See one image here

In fact, Antarctic ice cores reveal higher carbon dioxide levels have been linked to higher global temperatures over thousands of years. (What is unique about the modern period is that the rise in levels has been very rapid due to human activity).

It is NOT in dispute that carbon dioxide traps heat, that humans are releasing large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, that carbon dioxide levels are rising, and that average global temperatures are on a trended increase.

What is up for discussion, research and dispute is exact global temperatures in the future, and how global warming will impact life, sea levels, and local climates: the modelling for such things is very complex. But the basic pattern that higher carbon dioxide levels will lead to higher temperatures than would otherwise occur is not seriously disputed.

Incidentally, one of the first scientists to model the impact of carbon dioxide on global temperatures (in 1956!) was pretty much right on target with his predictions.

So... is that clear? Simple enough? Helpful?

Perhaps the next time someone suggests that global warming is "controversial" or "disputed" or "a conspiracy", and questions whether it has anything to do with human activity, you can send them here in the first instance!

And if you do read an article claiming this is a "controversial" area of science, find out in the first instance whether this is written by a climate scientist. It's easy. Google their name.

There are people writing about climate who are engineers, geologists, tv weathermen, English Lords, journalists, people paid by fossil fuel companies, and frankly... some total crackpots. If they're not involved in publishing climate research in scientific journals, please take what they say with a grain of salt.

Thank you.