Monthly Archives: January 2014

33 The Bible clearly states – or does it?

On this blog my readers will have noted that I have put forward some outspoken, even uncomfortable statements about the Bible.  I have talked about a selective reading of passages from Scripture, finding a point of teaching from a single quotation while ignoring other passages that say something different.  The other technique, to which I strongly object, is to suggest that the only valid truth statements are those that are factual and scientific in some way.  If the Bible says, to take a random example, that God is going to make the Nile dry up (Isaiah 19.5) then presumably this is something that will have to happen one day because it is in the Bible.  For most of us truth statements come in a variety of forms – poetry, drama, story, symbol as well as factual statements.  Does it matter that people in America and across the world claim to believe that when the bible makes an apparently factual statement then that is how we have to understand it?  Yes I believe it does because in some situations this belief system causes some individuals very real harm.

In the news, as I write, is the report of the Anglican bishops in England who write that they ‘agree to disagree’ on the issue of gay relationships following the Pilling report.  Elsewhere in the world the Anglican bishops see this as a total betrayal of Anglican standards.  The Archbishops in Nigeria and Uganda, while quoting Scripture, have loudly supported moves to outlaw gay relationships by their respective governments.  While the Ugandan authorities seem to be hesitating before signing new measures into law, no such reticence is to be found in Nigeria.  Those suspected of homosexual activities are already being rounded up and put in prison.  It would not be a total exaggeration to say that ‘the Bible put them there’, even though there are many other factors, cultural, historical and social.

When we examine the rhetoric of these fervent Anglican African leaders on this topic, we frequently find the expression ‘the Bible clearly teaches’.  No doubt this is a turn of phrase that is heard in conservative pulpits across the world.  When I started to think about this expression I began to realise that this personalisation of the Bible is a nonsense statement.  Let me explain what I mean.  The Bible is a compilation of writing across many centuries and is enormously varied in the approach it takes to almost any subject you can name.  A book cannot anyway teach anything unless it is written by one person over a fairly  short period.  For me one of the fascinating discoveries of being a Bible student was to discover that Paul changed his teaching over time.   If we do not get consistency in this single writer we can name, how can we, or should we, expect consistency within the writings of other anonymous authors over centuries?  I would like to see the liberal Anglican bishops argue forcefully against this claim that the Bible has a single view on the gay issue or any other one for that matter.

I could go on to talk about all the things that are in the Bible and we like to avoid noticing, like God commanding the slaughter of women and children but that is not the point I want to end on.  I want to come back to the issue of rhetoric and the way that conservative Christians use rhetorical devices to confuse their opponents as well as their followers.  When writing about the thinking of George Lakoff in an earlier post, (December 20th) I mentioned that he saw many of the debates between progressive and conservative in American politics being bedevilled by the manipulation and loading of language to suit the conservative point of view.  The expression ‘the Bible teaches’ or ‘the Bible clearly states’ is another rhetorical device which needs to be challenged every time it is said.  We cannot easily talk or dialogue meaningfully with such crude and unhelpful expressions which are, in the last resort, virtually meaningless statements.  We must challenge the person repeating  these slogans and suggest  that he restate his position to say, ‘in a certain period in Biblical times people believed that the following was the will of God.’  ‘The Bible clearly states’ has to be translated to say, ‘there is a passage which appears to have this understanding of God’s will.’  Having stated it thus we can then go on to have a sensible discussion about whether these ancient insights apply to us or not.  I can find numerous ideas from the Old Testament that clearly do not apply to us and each and every moral injunction from those days needs to be tested thoroughly through the prism of Christ’s revelation and the insights of modern understandings.

The Anglican bishops have been under a lot of flak for not coming on one side or the other over the gay question.  Perhaps this failure to agree is more helpful than it looks.  By agreeing not to agree they are saying loud and clearly that the church as a whole has to live with disagreements.  In other words if you want to claim the name Anglican then it is part of the course to recognise that you have to live with people who do not agree with you, without telling them that they are inspired by satanic thinking.  Anglicanism needs to exorcise intemperate intolerance.  If the conservative churches in Africa and elsewhere continue to condemn those who disagree with them, then they may need to be a parting of the ways.  There is only so long that anyone can live with another person who is unable to see any goodness or light within you.

32 The Devil -tool of abuse

As part of a varied ministry over 40+ years, I have for a period of around 15 years accepted the responsibility for the ministry of ‘spiritual deliverance’ in two Anglican dioceses.  The Press would no doubt describe the role as that of Exorcist but the reality was far more prosaic.  Perhaps the main qualification for doing the job was a readiness to take seriously strange phenomena that occur from time to time in people’s lives.  Typically and most commonly there could be a manifestation of physical energy with no obvious cause.  This might be described as poltergeist activity.  There might be a disturbance of things flying around or lights flashing on and off.  Normally I would be talking to a clergyman over the phone advising him how to approach the problem, the attitude to take and the things to say.  I have to say that when I went into such a situation myself the phenomena always stopped but I have absolutely no doubt that these frightening episodes were real.  Listening carefully, taking the fears seriously and offering prayers would normally calm the situation down.  Mostly I was also able to identify a particular individual who was the focus of the strange phenomena.   There was thus a duty on my part to ensure that the unconscious energy at work in that individual was somehow ‘earthed’ through careful listening and other forms of pastoral care.

The second typical event was encountering directly, or through advising a clergyman seeking advice, an individual who believed themselves ‘possessed’.  The question that I wanted to determine before anything else was where the person had learnt the language of possession.  In almost every case they had picked up the vocabulary from attendance at a Christian fellowship which had dealt in the currency of demonic activity and constant attack.  Although the language of demonic attack had been normally linked to Anglo-Catholic circles until around 40 years ago, the idea of possession has since around 1980 been normally linked to charismatic and evangelical groups.  There was a particular upsurge of interest, even paranoia, about satanic and demonic activity in the late 80s and early 90s.  As I described in an earlier blog post, aspects of this paranoia around this were, for once, taken seriously by the UK Government and a report published in 1995.  This particular paranoia, even affecting some in the wider society, has largely subsided.  (See blog post for December 4th)

In this post I don’t want to repeat what I said in the previous one about devils, but to revisit the horror and cruelty of telling a vulnerable person that they are in thrall to a negative spiritual power of some description.  I was always open to the possibility that this was indeed the explanation for their distress but it never, as far as I could tell, turned out to be the case in practice.  In the discussions on this blog we have touched on the experience of utter powerlessness whether through poverty, social exclusion or mental illness.  When you are at the bottom of the pile, you feel unworthy of anyone’s attention and therefore expect to be ignored and humiliated by everyone.  It seems to me that the language of demonic possession is one more weapon in the tool box through which someone can make an individual feel utterly powerless.  How can you argue with a person who tells you such a thing?

The task of someone who is entrusted with the ministry of spiritual deliverance when encountering someone who believes they are ‘possessed’ is to recognise that you are dealing with someone who may have been doubly or triply burdened.  They first of all carry the stigma of the original problem whether mental or social that has allowed them to be burdened with the possession label.  Secondly they have assumed the identity of someone who is powerless to defend themselves against spiritual/demonic incursion.  Thirdly they have allowed themselves to trust in a Christian leader who, for reasons of their own, has put them in this state of utter dependency.  The relationship with such a person is little short of toxic and one wonders how they can escape it even if they run away physically from the influence of that individual.

This second kind of care entrusted to an Officer for spiritual deliverance might be described as a kind of exorcism but in practice it was an attempt to give people back some of their power after they had been doubly betrayed by the church and one of its leaders.  Once was through a doubtful dualistic teaching and secondly by a continuing toxic dependence on a church leader who wanted total dominance over vulnerable members of his (normally his) flock.  It will be apparent that I met relatively few devils doing my ‘spiritual deliverance’ work.  More frequently I met the casualties of hopelessly inept teaching and examples of ruthless exploitation of the vulnerable.

31 Shepherding Movement – its rise and fall

Shepherding – a story.

Among the books on my shelves is a small green volume written by one Juan Ortiz, a pastor from Buenos Aires in Argentina and published in 1975.  This small book, called Disciple, was a reflection on his ministry over the previous ten or more years.  It was to help cause a small revolution in certain parts of the evangelical churches of his time.  The history of shepherding is something I discussed in my book Ungodly Fear but I did not have then access to this key foundation document by Ortiz.

I want to list some of the key Biblical ideas that Ortiz picks up in explaining the ideas that led to the so-called Shepherding Movement.  Reading them one can see how innocent ideas can be turned, as indeed happened, into something monstrous and abusive.

According to Ortiz we are slaves of Jesus Christ and he bases this teaching on Luke 17.10.  In other words Jesus owns every part of our lives.  The idea of being the slaves of Christ is one worthy of exploration but when it becomes combined with Ortiz’s other key ideas about discipleship, it becomes subtly much more oppressive.

Ortiz in chapter 14 of the book Disciple sets out two ‘laws’ of discipleship.  The first is that ‘there is no formation without submission’.  Formation is for him a key factor in the way that Jesus discipled his followers.  In accepting his call to discipleship, the disciples submitted to his authority.  In short undergoing formation for discipleship through submission is to be a key task for every member of the church.  Most members would also have others ‘below’ them who needed to be discipled.  This process of discipling is not dissimilar to the role of parents ‘forming’ or bringing up their children.  But Ortiz quickly recognises that submission has to be something that everyone has to agree to, including the pastor.  So Ortiz sets out the second law ‘there is no submission without submission’.  Everyone was thus tied into an interlocking hierarchical structure that placed everyone in a situation of submitting to someone else but also having others submitting to them.  The church then dropped the word member in favour of the word disciple to describe an individual who formed part of this pyramid structure.  Thus everyone except the very newest members was both discipling and being discipled.  As can be imagined this networking idea proved fairly successful in the context of Argentina where the ravages of poverty, high inflation and political oppression meant that individual lives were fairly fragile.  The vision of the church that Ortiz wanted to share was one which gave nourishment, both spiritual and practical to its members up and down the network of the church.  The cell structure in his church helped to bind people closer together in the context of oppression and persecution.  Also because the way that all disciples are interlocked with others above and below them, it provided for rapid communication within the whole.

Cell structures and mutual submission might sum up the insights of Juan Ortiz who inspired the Shepherding Movement in the States and across the world.  The historical details of how shepherding spread do not concern us here but suffice to say that however well it had succeeded in Argentina, the shepherding idea was a disaster when it hit the wider church beyond South America.  When you take the words ‘submission’ and ‘discipleship’ together and draw everyone in the congregation into this structure, you give those with a penchant for enjoying power a field day.  The churches where shepherding ideas were put into practice gave to naive young Christians the power to enforce their will in every area of life over others ‘below’ them.  Thus one Christian could tell another how to live their lives – how to spend their money, the relationships they were to have and who they were to invite into their homes.  Being in submission to another did not, as it turned out, prevent excesses of immature and irresponsible behaviour.  Far from it.  The situation in numerous churches became so dire that the leaders who had welcomed the ideas into America recanted on their approval by 1975.  Needless to say, and Chris will confirm this, these ideas continued to hold sway for many years after this.  Most of the House Churches which flourished in the 80s were deeply influenced by these ideas and ideals.  As with the cults, the idea of living a communal life, sharing and submitting to a community ideal seems very attractive.  No doubt some succeeded in sustaining the ideal for a period but the snake of power abuse at work in the Garden of Eden appeared very quickly and destroyed what seemed so good at the start.

Somewhere in the writing of Ortiz are some interesting and profound insights and perhaps they should be revisited at some point.  This can, however, only be done when the sad history of the Shepherding Movement has been revisited, the countless lives wrecked and destroyed are mourned and we acknowledge in repentance what happens when scriptural ideas are taken and misapplied.


30 Charismatic Superstars – Danger!


charismaticAt the end of this month an American charismatic superstar is to visit Britain and is to lead a big event in the South West in connection with the God Channel.  There are some who will be able to guess who I am talking about but I find it easier to discuss my thoughts on the man and his visit without mentioning an actual name.  That way I am able to discuss the phenomenon of charismatic superstars generally without limiting myself to a single individual.  There may also be search machines on the look-out for mentions of this particular name so that legal action can be taken against any disparaging remarks.  The world of charismatic superstars is full of such involvement with the law.

Our charismatic superstar, henceforth to be called HB, is notorious on both sides of the Atlantic.  He is known for so-called Miracle Crusades which have taken place in every part of the world.  HB emerges out of the so-called Word of Faith tradition which declares that it is God’s will for us to have material abundance.  He himself is a vivid example of this belief system, dressing extravagantly and flamboyantly at all his meetings.  His hair is always immaculate and he exudes a style and over-confidence that is culturally alien in this country.  Nevertheless the over the top style does appear to have an attraction for some people in the same way as the excesses of the God Channel.  For our particular individual the most notorious and chilling example of excess was the appeal via a mass mailing to supporters to send in money for a Gulfstream jet.  Apparently this money was raised in less than a year.

The evidence for miracles at the hands of HB has been examined by various researchers, journalists and students.  The evidence for actual miracles turns out to be extremely thin.  Not only have few miracles been verified but there have well-attested examples of fraud uncovered.  Individuals going into meetings have been questioned at the door and then their symptoms are ‘miraculously’ described by HB during the course of the meeting through ‘words of knowledge’.   Also the very obviously sick, the brain damaged and those with severe physical complaints are prevented from coming anywhere near the stage by the ushers.

I have probably said enough to indicate my own position over HB which is that it is highly regrettable that he has been given a visa to visit this country.  What is worse is that there are people in this country who feel moved to sponsor him and take care of his considerable entourage not to mention his extravagant requirements for hotel accommodation.  Such people seem blind to the appalling suffering that is caused by extravagant claims to be able to heal the sick.  This issue is not that it is impossible for such healings to take place but the crass exploitation of a very, very few instances to make a lot of money at the expense of the hopes of countless others is obscene.  We are back to the familiar theme of this blog which is that it is the most vulnerable that suffer the most at the hands of spiritual abusers.  The refusal of HB even to touch the most severely afflicted on the grounds that they will harm the PR of the organisation makes one wince.  What are the adjectives to describe such behaviour – callous, cruel, cynical, exploitative?  I am sure there are other adjectives but they all involve the denial of Christian love.  This behaviour all suggests an individual who is totally addicted to wealth and self-importance.

I will be returning to the psychological profile of people like HB because it is a subject on which I have done a fair amount of reading.  Meanwhile I just want to make one or two observations.  The apparent cynical exploitation of huge numbers of sick people to make a lot of money for HB is indicative of a complete absence of empathy and imaginative identification with other people.  This lack of empathy and excessive cultivation of image is a pointer to a full blown personality disorder, particularly that known at the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  This affliction of NPD is fed and encouraged by all the razzmatazz of big crusades which convinces the leading speaker that he or she is above ordinary people.  They believe ‘we are special, anointed by God himself’.  This grandiosity or messiah complex is precisely something that our abusive Christian cultures seem to encourage.  In short, areas of Christian life are creating monsters with severe personality disorders who are able to wreak havoc on other people’s lives, particularly the most vulnerable.

My final comment is to question the whole crusade enterprise and to ask who benefits.  It is not God who is hardly presented amid all the loud music and appeals for money.  It is not the sick who come normally to be cruelly disappointed.  The person who benefits is the speaker whose massive need of money, adulation and attention is being gratified.  In short charismatic events, not to mention charismatic organisations are all designed ultimately to benefit a single person, the one at the top.  HB is no exception and it may be that the large numbers of people supporting him will eventually come to this same depressing insight.  But the nature of Christian abuse is that it hides this insight from us as long as possible.  It is up to us in different ways to open our eyes and those of other people to see what is really going at these events.  This blog will continue to provide material to help the reader to have clearer vision.


29 Creationism and Education

Michelangelo-creationThe idea that the earth is 6000 years old and that humans lived alongside dinosaurs in times past is not something that I ever heard about in my younger days.  Indeed the vast majority of Christians in this country, even the most conservative, would not subscribe to such notions.  But it does appear from recent press stories that the so called ‘young creation’ theory is alive and well in certain churches and some Christian schools which operate outside the State system.

For most people in our society and indeed among Christians, the calculations of Archbishop Ussher in the 17th century that date the moment of Creation to October 4004 BC are fanciful nonsense.   And yet such nonsense never entirely goes away.  The existence of Creationist schools in Britain has been once again brought to our attention by Professor Alice Roberts, the television presenter and president of the Association for Science Education.  She would claim that the teaching of a theory that the science of creation is set out the first chapters of Genesis is ‘indoctrination’ and has absolutely nothing to do with scientific education.

Chris reminds me that there are many individuals in the churches who have been exposed to such theories.  For them the idea that God created the world in six days is all part of the package they have bought into when they became Christians.  They are either people of relatively poor education or else they have succeeded in sealing off their Christian beliefs from everything else they have learnt at school and elsewhere.  In a recent conversation Chris also mentioned how difficult it is to debate with individuals who have bought into this body of ideas.  They follow such speakers as the Australian Ken Hamm, an individual linked to Creationist groups in the States.  Because these ideas are so counter-cultural, the defences that are erected to defend them are massive and hard to dislodge.

As part of my scrutiny of some Internet material on this topic last night, I found mention of an encounter between the eminent sceptic Richard Dawkins and a group of Australian Creationists in his Oxford home.  They filmed an interview which was then edited to suggest that the Creationists had outwitted Dawkins in a particular question about evolution.  This, what can only be called manipulation of the debate, is perhaps a clue to the way we should respond to the Creationists.  The detail of whether Professor Dawkins did or did not answer the technical  question put to him can be laid aside for the moment.  The important thing is that we name and challenge illegitimate forms of argument in the so-called debate between Creationists and those who oppose their ideas from whatever perspective.

The essence of any productive discussion is that two people agree to share their different views on a given topic. There also has to be an implicit agreement about the rules of discussion and these are going to vary according to the subject.  To discuss politics we must be agreed that we are talking about the same thing, whether it is theoretical politics or the political arrangements that apply to a particular country.  We would not think an argument of much value if for example one side was talking about politics in China and the other side was disagreeing with them by giving examples of  politics in the NHS for example.  Over the years certain conventions have grown to determine how political and historical debates take place, what counts as evidence and how rumour or propaganda, for example, are not valid tools of argument.  Both sides will know these rules and any deviation from them will be quickly challenged.  Within science as well there is a long tradition of agreement as to how we establish what is true and what is false.  Truth obviously is not only to be sought in science but science can rightly claim to make truth statements within its areas of competence.  The competence of science is found in the area of detailed measurement and in experiments that can be repeated over and over again.  Occasionally science discovers that it needs new theories to account for new phenomena.  The old mechanical physics outlined by Newton was inadequate to describe new phenomena thrown up by quantum physics.  The old theories were not shown to be wrong, merely incomplete.

The trick used by Creationists to claim a certain plausibility for their arguments is very clever but it remains a deceitful ruse.  When the creationists invaded the home of Richard Dawkins to ask him certain questions, they were able to give the impression in their video that two rival scientific theories of truth were being articulated and expressed alongside one another. Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether there is anything of value in the Creationist arguments, it has to be said that the two sides are starting from such different places that there is no possibility of real contact or communication.  Creationism is not a scientific theory, whatever else it might be.  It fails to follow contemporary scientific convention on any score.  It is not based on evidence, experiment or rigorous observation.  To say that it is based on faith also does not make it a scientific claim.  It is as though we are describing a debate between a child who believes in Father Christmas and an astronaut.  The points of contact simply do exist.  No one would argue that the child’s understanding of reality should be placed alongside the training of the astronaut as though somehow they have equal status in the debate.  Nor do we want to crush the child’s beliefs as of no value.  They do have value within certain limited parameters.  The so-called debate between Dawkins and the Creationists was in fact a non debate because it simply did not fulfil any of the unwritten rules governing proper debate or discussion.

To summarise, the issue over Creationism is to recognise that it is not grounded in a theory of knowledge or fact that is part of conventional modern understanding.  It thus logically has to be placed in a category of unproveable statements because it does not touch any other area of knowledge or discourse.   Few would even describe it as theology.   Thus it cannot form part of a modern education which has as its aims the disciplined understanding and interpretation of various recognised bodies of knowledge, including art, science and history.  If a group of individuals choose to believe in the ideas of Creationism, we may want to allow them to do so but a modern society should resist allowing these ideas to be part of a normal education.  Normal education is to expose a child to the canon of agreed knowledge.  Alice Roberts is right.  The teaching of Creationism in any school is ‘indoctrination’.  It may also seriously harm the child in his or her intellectual formation and their ability to absorb the values and understandings needed to make normal citizens who participate in their society.  Absorbing totally extraordinary ideas may also drive individuals into despair when they discover how little currency these ideas actually possess beyond the small group  that holds on to them.  The Creationist is thus destined for ever to be cut off from various aspects of ordinary public discourse and culture, unable to understand or fully participate in wider society.  Is this really what we expect from Christians?  Does this resonate with the kind of life that Jesus wanted for his followers?



28 Hierarchy – the link with Stress

???????????????????????????????????????????????????The blog post about hierarchy and the responses to it have made me realise that this is an important topic to which we need to return.  As always I am drawn to thinking about the groups for whom Chris is an advocate, the poorly paid, the mentally ill and those working in low status and demeaning jobs.  In any hierarchy, in any society there are always going to be people who for various reasons are at the bottom of the pile.  However we describe such people who do not succeed, we need to be aware of them, the large number of people who occupy a place of disempowerment.  These disadvantaged may suffer in various ways, poor education, indifferent health and an upbringing that may have been inadequate in some way.

It is the issue of poor health and low life expectancy that I want to focus on today.  In some reading I did in the past year or two, I came across some fascinating research by one Sir Michael Marmot, an epidemiologist (one who researches issues of public health).  He had a commission from the Government to study ill-health and life expectancy among civil servants.  A Google search will provide further details of this research so I will limit my comments to the broad outlines.  Marmot had the health histories of some eighty thousand civil servants to study, what illnesses they contracted and the age at which they died.  None of the subjects for study was poor in a material sense and their medical histories were carefully screened to take out of the calculation any genetic factors leading to ill-health.  His conclusions were startling and alarming.  The lower down the civil service hierarchy an individual worked, the more they were susceptible to ill health and relatively early death.  The ones who lived the longest and who enjoyed the highest standards of health were those who had reached the top levels of the Civil Service.  The ones below the top did not achieve the same levels of health and this pattern was repeated right down the pay grades to the least paid and those with the lowest status.   Marmot and his fellow researchers tried to test this observation again and again but it seemed every time that high rank in the Civil Service predicted good health.  It was far more important than diet, exercise and other healthy life-styles.  Only smoking seemed to be a greater hazard than low rank.

The reader is invited to look at the research for themselves to check that I have represented the findings accurately.  But it is the speculation about the reasons for this imbalance in health between those of high and low status that is the intriguing part of the research.  Marmot surmised that the one factor that could account for the mismatch of health between the different levels within the Civil Service was stress.  It would appear that he identified a particular type of stress associated with looking over your shoulder at your boss.  In short having your work priorities determined by someone else and also having to work following other people’s orders is deemed to be stressful in a way that is different from simply working hard.  It is only when you are the boss that you escape this particular threat to your health.

Giving and receiving orders is no doubt  a normal working out of the dynamics of a hierarchical organisation.     Marmot’s research in a nutshell suggested that the stress caused by a constant need to obey orders and to please those set over you is not only unpleasant but is also a physical threat to your health.  We can surmise that when the ordinary giving of orders has added to it actual abusing of power, we have a very stressful and toxic mix.

The word ‘stress’ is a slippery word but we all have experience of it.  It is one of the privileges of retirement that for the first time in my life I can control the external stressors on my life as I have the power to use the word ‘no’ if something comes up and I do not want to do it.  Speaking personally I also find that opportunities for taking extra exercise also help to counter any residual stress in my life.

But to return to Marmot’s research.  It confirms how serious is a situation when power manipulation and even the simple giving of orders can be experienced by the vulnerable, those at or near the bottom of the hierarchy, whether in a church, the workplace or as a member of a despised social group.  The conclusion of the research indicates that those at the bottom do not just suffer indignity, they also suffer severe threats to their long-term physical health.  That observation should compound our concern for any group that lies at the bottom of a social hierarchy.

One of the ‘good news’ stories of 2013 was Pope Francis’ decision to speak up for the poor.  By the poor, no doubt, he meant not only those who have little money, but also all those who come at the bottom of the hierarchies in societies across the world.  His example may help in identifying those who suffer, emotionally and physically, from the experience of disempowerment and bring them properly to the attention of the ‘powerful’.  Those of us who follow this blog, although we are only a tiny number of people, can play our part in firstly becoming aware of the powerless people around us but also by helping in small ways to help lift them up.  The words of the Magnificat come to mind.  ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek’.  Would that the church became a place where exalting the humble and meek was a reality.

27 Moving Forward

Advice about moving on after suffering power abuse.

A guest Blog by Peter G Nelson (Retired lecturer at the University of Hull)

I am sorry about the difficulties Chris and others are having with Evangelicalism.

The problem is that Evangelicalism today is not what it used to be. It has branched off in various directions, each departing from the teaching of Scripture in one way or another. There is a need to bring the different branches together by combining their strengths and removing their weaknesses.

In the meantime, the best advice I can give to those who have had a bad experience is to forget what they have been taught and read for themselves the life and teaching of Jesus. A good place to start is Matthew or Luke, followed by John. Let Jesus speak to you. Anchor your faith in him. Then look for a local church that is seeking to follow Jesus in the same way. If you can find one, join it. If not, seek to follow him on your own, as faithfully as you can.

Remember what he said to a wayward church, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and commune with him and he with me’ (Revelation 3:20).

Peter is a long time friend of Chris Pitts and has written books about the relationship of contemporary science to an Evangelical perspective on the writings of the Bible.

26 Hierarchy behaving badly

‘aloof complacency’

In today’s Times there is an intriguing story about the efforts of Mr Xi, the Chinese President, to curb extravagance on the part of those who work for the State and occupy important posts within it.  A decree has gone out that this elite is no longer going to be allowed to drive foreign imported cars, particularly those from Germany, such as Audis and Mercedes.  They will be required to drive Chinese made models instead.  The problem for the Chinese officials is that Chinese cars are not known for their reliability.  But there is also a problem for their perceived status in the eyes of their fellow citizens.  ‘How,’ remarked one tweeter, ‘can a senior PLA officer possibly maintain his usual expression of aloof complacency at the wheel of a Geely? (local car)’  It is these two words ‘aloof complacency’ that seems to capture aspects of hierarchical behaviour the world over.  My younger daughter, who spent a year in China, tells me that for a country who is wedded to Communism, the Chinese have developed a remarkable variety of marks of status, including the size and shape of their spectacles!

What do these two words, ‘aloof complacency’ imply?  They imply that people who occupy a high position within a hierarchical structure often develop a body language and pose that proclaims their position at all times.  Aloof is a word that describes a self-important pose, an expression around the mouth accompanied by a straight back.  It says two things.  Look at me and be impressed and simultaneously keep out of my way because I am too important to be bothered with the likes of you.  It is not difficult to convey that message from the driving seat of a large imported foreign car.

The other word, complacency, picks the part of the attitude that wants nothing to do with lower forms of life.  In any hierarchy one way of asserting your position and keeping your status is by disregarding or dominating those below you.  They are simply not worth your attention.  People below you in the hierarchy do not just get ignored, they do not engage your compassion or what Christians would call love.  Complacency thus involves detachment and such detachment seems part of the pose adopted by many who occupy high places within hierarchies the world over.

Another story parallel to the Chinese report leapt at me from the pages of this week’s Tablet, the Catholic weekly.  This is the news that Catholic clergy, with a few exceptions, may no longer expect to achieve the honorary title of monsignor.  This title was given to clergy by the bishops for such things as long service or loyalty to the bishop.  Pope Francis has spotted no doubt a kind of careerism and ambition for titles among the clergy which involved a certain preening themselves as somehow more important than their fellows who were doing identical jobs.  The Church of England has a similar system which rewards clergy who have stayed loyal to the system for a long time in one place, by awarding them the honorary title of Canon.  The title has virtually no duties or extra responsibilities but allows some of these clergy concerned to make minor alterations to their robes as well as inviting his parishioners to alter their term of address to him from ‘Vicar’ to ‘Canon’.

These examples from China and from the Catholic and Anglican churches can probably be paralleled by the reader through countless other examples from a variety of walks of life.  In my school days I can remember the way that promotion to becoming a prefect meant that one instantly stopped speaking to boys who were not prefects.  In short, hierarchy, whether political or religious, has a horrible capacity to corrupt people and make them less human, compassionate and loving.  There are some telling words in the gospels when Jesus comes in on a conversation among his disciples about who was the most important.  He said and I paraphrase, ‘Kings and Lords exercise authority and lord it over others, but it shall not be so among you.  Whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all’.  There is a long sermon that could be preached on these few words.   We may comment that the undergirding message of this passage seems to have been completely lost over the centuries.  Few people criticise constructively the malign effect of hierarchy on some individuals.  They do not see that although it is necessary to have different levels of responsibility in government and church as well as in every other form of human organisation, it does not necessitate the ‘aloof complacency’ that quite often accompanies it.  Christians follow a master who saw right through power games in society and so should we.  Jesus spoke some memorable words in Matthew 23. 5 when talking about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees.  ‘Everything they do is done for men to see.  They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets …..’  How little things have changed!

To return to the theme of this blog overall and the relevance of these news stories, we can finish by simply noting that ‘aloof complacency’ is a temptation always inherent in hierarchical organisations and this will increase the likelihood that power over others will be abused.  An increase of responsibility within a hierarchical structure is not sufficient reward for some.  They have to gild the lily by behaving in self-important ways that ultimately seem to be pointless and self-defeating.  It is particularly disappointing to find church organisations sometimes drawn into the same vanity power games as others.  The abuse of power wherever it is found is also often going to be rooted in this kind of vanity and superior attitude.  That is a good reason for us to be alert to notice it and resist it.  Although ‘aloof complacency’ is not easy to withstand when we are pushed down by it, we can at least recognise its ultimate futility and even see in this futility aspects of humour.    Perhaps ultimately pomposity and vanity are best defeated by humour and ridicule.  No doubt the Chinese tweeter raised a few wry smiles when describing the behaviour of the Government officials in his country!

25 The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (Northern Ireland)

Reflections on power abuse

instituional abuse
Today marks the beginning of an inquiry in Northern Ireland of abuse against children over a seventy three year period between 1922 – 1995 in public and religious institutions.  The type of abuse being investigated covers not only sexual abuse but also gratuitous physical and mental cruelty.  The BBC news today reported children being scalded in their bath as well as other kinds of physical torments.  Worst of all was the statement that no affection of any kind was ever offered to some of the young children sent to these institutions.

The sexual abuse of children, which has been in the news for a number of years, has no doubt been studied at depth and involves a pathology that experts would understand and be able to some extent to explain.  Gratuitous violence towards children and the withholding of any kind of affection takes us, in some ways, into a still darker place.  The normal healthy instinctive response to a child, whether one’s own or that of a stranger, is a desire to protect and cherish as appropriate.  The human race has been hard-wired to see children as the vulnerable part of the species and also the custodians of the future of the race.  If they are not cared for, then the genes, whether our own or those of the group, do not flourish.  Without children doing well in our families and in our society, our own well-being is compromised.  We all know this at a gut level and to act against it in any way is deeply perverse.

The question why nuns or children’s homes workers should act cruelly against their charges is a deeply troubling one.  The same question could be asked of those who abuse the elderly or those sent to special hospitals for the mentally and physically handicapped.  The easiest answer to come up with is to point to a desire, even need, on the part of some to exercise total control over other human beings.  Looking at it from another direction, the abusing individual is unable to deal with others as a subject only as an object.  We may speculate that this kind of relating was the only one that the abuser had ever known.  All relationships had been ones where he or she had been used.  Any idea of mutuality in relationships is unknown to them.  Finally the chance is given them to exercise power over others weaker than themselves and treat them as objects for power gratification.  They have no other internal model for relating except as someone abused or as an abuser.

It is hard to imagine the family and church dynamics that caused ordinary Irish women to become nuns and then child abusers.  Clearly there was something profoundly unhealthy at work in both home and church that created individuals who could only treat others as objects for perverse gratification.  Speculations can be made but I would offer only one thought.    A domestic or religious culture where obedience is put very high on the agenda will work against the flourishing of mind and spirit.  Obedience to parents must always be balanced alongside the need of every child to find their own personality and creativity.  Conforming to the will of another at every point does little to allow the flowering of spirit or the nurturing of altruistic love and compassion.

What is the relevance of this discussion of the Northern Ireland Inquiry to our blog?  The relevance is that the Inquiry touches on something deeper than sex or even cruelty towards children, however horrific these may be.  At the heart of the Inquiry is an investigation of an epidemic of abuse of power, manifesting itself a variety of terrible ways.  The manifestation of the abuse of power is particularly horrible when directed against children, but we would claim that abuse of power is rampant in society at large.  To reflect on the Northern Irish situation helps us become a little more sensitised to abuses of power in our own situation.  We will not normally encounter such dramatic examples as child sexual abuse, but if we look carefully at the power abuse around us we will find the same fundamental ingredients at work.  Person A pulls rank over Person B and treats them badly.  The reason that Person A behaves in this way is because he or she has herself been treated badly by person G.  This may be a dramatic over-simplification of the causes of power-abuse in our society but it has enough truth about it to be useful to state.

When we come back to the church we find that it too is invaded by these same power dynamics.  People routinely work out their past humiliations by seeking to dominate others in petty power games.  If their position in a church is one of authority the temptation to abuse their power is greater and potentially more damaging.  The leader may subconsciously have sought this position of power precisely because their past traumas needed to be afforded some sort of palliative relief, that afforded by a gratuitous exercise of power.  I will be speaking further about this pattern of behaviour as it is covered in some reading I have recently done into what is known as ‘traumatic narcissism’.    Meanwhile I am asking my readers to reflect on power games, not only insofar as they are the victims of them, but also as they may contribute to them so that other people are affected.  While these are less severe by far than those revealed at work in Northern Ireland, let us at least recognise a functioning of similar human weaknesses and foibles.   All of us fit somewhere into the webs of power dynamics that go on around us.  Sometimes our participation is benign, sometimes less helpful.  Our conscience and capacity for self-reflection should guide us in the way we deal with these.  An imaginative identification with the victims in Northern Ireland may help to understand, albeit in an extreme form, the dynamics of power abuse.   In a lesser way these are manifested in the people and situations around us day by day.   Understanding and identifying them is the key to dealing with them successfully.

24 What the Bible really says – Noah’s Ark


Recently there has been a news story about a Bible theme park in Kentucky which is to have as its center a large reproduction of Noah’s Ark built to accord with the Biblical measurements.  The Bible talks about God’s detailed instructions to Noah in the sixth chapter of Genesis.  The measurements are given in cubits but my NIV has helpfully translated these measurements into feet and inches.  The story that is breaking, as I write, is whether the Kentucky project will ever be finished.  Clearly they are in need of  more ‘bond holders’, people who believe in the literal truth of the story to dig deep into their pockets so that the project can continue.

The great problem about all those who want to make a case for the literal truth of this story is that they never appear to have faced up to some of the problems inherent in the Genesis text.  Those who preach on the Ark story presumably have read the text and they will have noticed that the story changes direction when we go from chapter 6 into chapter 7.  In chapter 6 the account declares that God tells Noah to ‘bring into the ark two of all living creatures’.  The chapter rounds off with the statement that ‘Noah did everything just as God had commanded him’.    The account changes direction in chapter 7.  Suddenly the word for God changes to the word  ‘the Lord’ and the number of each of the animals to be taken into the ark also changes.  Instead of pairs of animals to be allowed access to the ark, suddenly the Lord commands Noah to take ‘seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate’.  What is going on here?  The student of Genesis who is not committed to the literal truth of the story will have no problem explaining this enormous discrepancy with the resources of critical scholarship.  I will reveal all in a moment.  But the literalist is going to have enormous problems reconciling this change of gear within the story.  The shift in style is more apparent when the original Hebrew is consulted.  The word Elohim translated as God is found in chapter 6 while in chapter 7 the more familiar word Yahweh (translated as the Lord) starts to be used.

I do not possess any conservative commentaries on this passage so I do not know how the discrepancies are explained for a fundamentalist audience.  Perhaps there were eight pairs of certain animals in the ark but I have never heard this offered as an explanation!  But I think I would be right to guess that most conservative preachers would not own up to there being any problem.  It is easier simply to leave out the ‘difficult’ section in chapter 7 and carry on with the story after the offending passage.

For those unfamiliar with the critical interpretation of the book of Genesis let me explain what main-stream scholarship has had to say about the discrepancies in the Genesis story of the Ark for the past 150 years.  My summary, while new to some, will be a massive over-simplification to others.  The discrepancies in the story can be accounted for by recognising that there is more than one source for the story.  Two different versions are given, one after the other. The first version in chapter 6 is from a early source known a E on account of the word used for God, Elohim.  The second version comes from a source known as P on account of the sensitivity over the presence of unclean animals being given equal status with the clean ones in the earlier version.  The account is called P because there is evidence that the interests of the writer reflect the concerns of priests and those devoted to the maintenance of purity laws.  The P account was probably written many centuries after the E version.  The name Yahweh for God had become normative by the 4th – 3rd century BC when the P account was written.

Liberal scholarship allows itself the privilege of reading the Old Testament as ancient literature as well as a revelation of a story of God’s self revelation to a nation.  As ancient literature, contradictions in the text can be faced and to a considerable extent explained and understood.  Without these scholarly insights we are often left with impossible conundrums and contradictions.  The conservative preacher on the other hand may have had to deceive his people and pretend that problems are solved when in reality all that has happened is that they have been censored out of sight.

If I am right that problems inherent in this Biblical text are ignored by many fundamentalist preachers, then that implies a readiness by some Christian leaders to short-change their members.  At worst it can be described as dishonesty.  Either way it arises out of the fundamentalist fantasy that sees the Bible, in spite of any contradictory evidence, as infallible and able be taken as authoritative on matters of history and fact.   This examination of the story of the Ark is given as an example of just one passage where people in the pew are not being given the full picture of what the Bible actually says.

The Kentucky theme park is no doubt the vision of people who believe they are taking the story of Noah literally and thus they have given energy, money and time to its completion.  The question has to be asked.  Did the sponsors of this massive project ever sit down and actually read the account of the story of Noah as it is set out in the Bible?  Was their understanding based on that reading or had they simply picked up a tidied-up version such as that put in a children’s version of the Bible?  It would be an interesting question to ask but I rather suspect that for the sponsors and their supporters the Bible has been read not in its original form but in a version pre-packaged  for easy consumption.   It is only in that form that a doctrine of ‘infallibility’ can be sustained and promoted with any possibility of success.