CODEC’s MediaLit Conference 2017

Can Artificially Intelligent Machines go to heaven? Can you take Eucharist on the internet? Is Facebook a good thing for our churches? These questions and many other issues and themes which arise from the increasingly digital world which overlaps onto and into our lives have been explored at the CODEC MediaLit conference this June 12-16 2017.

It has been an interesting experience and I’ve entered into the experience by blogging and tweeting throughout. I’ve posted blogs on each session on Medium and I’ve gathered them all together in this post here. The Chronicles of the CODEC Conference.

View story at Medium.com

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Measurement Problems in Ancient Greece – IAS Fellows Public Lecture

Yesterday there was an IAS Fellows Public Lecture hosted at St John’s college, Durham. The Speaker was Dr Barbara Sattler of the University of St Andrews. Her theme was to peel back some of the concepts we now take for granted to show some of the elements which had to be constructed from scratch, as it were, to enable the development of the concepts of time and speed.

It was a relatively short lecture with time for a Q&A session at the end.

She started by pointing out that at the time of Aristotle there were conversations happening about scale but that before we get to these complex comparative concepts the ancient Greeks needed to develop the basic components.

To illustrate this idea of measurements pre-scale she pointed out that we would all instinctively understand her if she said she drove to Durham from Newcastle at 60mph. We can see this from our speedometers – which are much more impressive than we often recognise!

60 mph is speed.

This is made up of the components of distance and time placed in relationship to each other. Mile per hour. Here we divide, but there are other concepts where we multiply. The important thing is the relationship.

Dr Sattler then turned to  time and distance.

In Aristotle’s ‘Physics’ Time is a measure of motion and being moved. It wasn’t bound to the idea of distance.

She then described how they had no real way to compare ships with one another. To do this they needed to figure out how to put two magnitudes together in relation with each other. So Dr Sattler gave three scenarios which built on one another to build the complexity of speed.

As we are in Durham rather than Athens, and given the strength of the female amateur rowing team here in Durham, these scenarios were  a variety of boat races on the river Wear between various bridges in Durham.

The first ‘race’ was between two boats starting at the same time from one bridge and racing to the next bridge. The winner is clear, we can see who gets to the next bridge first (obviously that would be St John’s!).

The second ‘race’ covered the same stretch but this time with a staggered start. So the St. John’s boat starts and then 20 seconds later the St. Chad’s boat starts. Is it now as easy to say that when the St John’s boat reaches the end first, that they do so faster than St Chad’s? We can’t tell just from observation.

The third ‘race’ involves each boat covering a different part of the river, with different distances to travel. How can we tell who is faster?

We need both time and distance.

Boat A does 300m in 75 seconds.
Boat B does 100m in 40 seconds.

Which is faster?

Without knowing the measurements all we can say is:

Boat B takes less time.
Boat A covers more distance.

When we know the separate magnitudes we can put them in relation to discover the speed.
Boat A  goes at 4m per second.
Boat B goes at  2.5m per second.

So, Boat A is faster

These scenario’s show us that speed is complex.

Dr Sattler suggests that Aristotle has everything he needs to develop this but doesn’t do it.

She then steps back to look at time.

In Ancient Greece there was:

1. No unified calendar
2. No unified temporal framework

If we were to say that yesterday there was this lecture, and there was a film on in the cinema and that it was someone’s birthday we wouldn’t have a problem because we assume a shared calendar. Each of these things happened on February 16th 2017.  Even if there’s no causal relation they have a temporal relation by being able to be put in the same calendar.

The Greeks, though, had different calendars in different places and even when in one place there would often be more than one calendar. Athens, for example, is known to have had three calendars.

There was one for festivals based on the lunar cycle with 12 months.
There was a political one based on the solar cycle of ten months.
Then there was the agricultural, seasonal calendar based on the movements of the stars.

One of the results of this is that it is often quite hard to distinguish which year an event happened in. Events were not identified numerically but in relation to who ever was in power.

This works great for identifying events which have happened but makes the future intangible. You can’t identify the future when you don’t know who will be in charge.

To further complicate things, the calendars were not rigid systems but were used to serve the purposes of the people. This means that they would adjust them to serve their purposes. Occasionally they would repeat a month to help hold the calendars closer together in sync.

This lack of a unified calendar leads us to consider their lack of a unified temporal framework.

Relationship between past present and future are not Connected in the linear way that we understand them now. However the future and the past were related in a way in that they are both not the present.

Dr Sattler identified five different senses of ‘time language’

Duration
Sequence
Measurable time
Agency
Tense

Duration:
Chronos, a Greek word for time, was used to indicate a particular time.

Sequential:
The use of  words such as before and after. Interestingly these words often qualified objects and people rather than time per se.

Measurable time:
Concepts such as Day, Month, and Year. These concepts were only connected with the word chronos in the 5th Century BCE which gives chronos it’s more linear conception that we might be more familiar with.  There’s still a difference between the way that they conceived of these concepts. They were not just used as quantitative words but also with a qualitative dimension as well.

Agency:
There was the Greek word kairos which was used to signify the right or critical time for an event or action. Apparently this was especially important in the medical language used in the Hippocratic Corpus with regards to treatments and so on.

Tense:
The last aspect of time that Dr Sattler looked at was the concept of tenses. She described these as acting much more with the ‘arrow’ or directional nature of time. One of the interesting aspects which comes with the present tense is the idea of what I would refer to as ‘objective’ truths, or that which has been and will remain true – it is.

These different elements of the concept of time show that for the Ancient Greeks time was something which was experienced. More so than for us, their experience was anchored in the present moment and from that moment they would look back at the past and then look forward to the future. It sounds similar to our linear perspective of time where we tend to assume a sense of progression and trajectory from the past into the future but actually the idea of having a perspective rooted in the moment and looking from there, both forwards and backwards, is not a linear conception of time.

Dr Sattler concluded by observing that ‘the future’ was a relatively late concept to be developed in Ancient Greek thought.

There were then some interesting questions which followed.

She was asked about the Simultaneous in Greek thought.

She responded that Homer seems to have struggled with indicating concurrent events but to mistake this for an idea of bilocation would be to shift from the complex ideas involved thinking about time to the equally complex ideas surrounding the philosophical development of the concept of place.

There was a question about the relationship between the idea of telos or purpose and time.

She responded that Plato seems to be aware of it but laments that it wasn’t a part of the metaphysical frameworks which were passed down by the philosophers.

There was another question which picked up on the objective truths element and wondered if there were any examples she would offer.

In fairness to her the idea of universal truths tends to be a more moral question and so she left it at the acknowledgement that it’s hard to find a general consensus on what those truths might be.

Overall this was an interesting lecture. It would be easy to say that we didn’t learn anything “new” about time, however that would be to miss the point. The point is that we operate instinctively with complex and sophisticated concepts of time and speed, rarely acknowledging the significance of the conceptual work that was required to bring us to the point where we can nonchalantly book in a date for a wedding next summer in our calendars on our phones or adjust our speed to match the limits on different roads.

That’s a fun idea to think about next time you see your speedometer or check your calendar.

#FreeSpeech Under Attack?

A friend and I went took the opportunity to attend the Durham Castle Lecture about Free Speech on Wednesday. The speaker was political historian and free-speech advocate Professor Timothy Garton Ash from Oxford. It was an interesting presentation of two main halves; systems of speech in our interconnected world, and principles for speaking freely with ‘robust civility’.

He opened with two quick questions for the audience.

  1. Is there anyone who does not think free-speech is a good and important thing? (One person put their hand up).
  2. Does anyone not have a smartphone (magic box)? (One person didn’t).

This set the stage for him to explore just how interconnected the world is becoming. His image was that we are becoming a world of neighbours in a great city. These changes are both physical, with mass migration, and virtual, with the rise of the internet in developing countries as well as in the west.

This greats a ‘fantastic chance’ for speech and communication, but also risks ‘enormous danger’. This is a world where a fatwa from Tehran can result in attempted attacks in London and Paris, a world where a known prankster in South California releases a video called ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ which results in over 50 deaths in the resulting riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And so the question for Timothy Garton Ash is:

How do we maximise the chances of free speech and minimise the risks?

To answer this requires understanding the significance of the paradigm shift which has happened.

The Old Way of looking at free speech was to follow the rules of the nation states and their court systems. If you travelled you would be subject to different regulations on what you could and could not say – When in Rome, as it were.

But with the Internet, the New Way of looking at it is to realise that Rome is everywhere and what is said there doesn’t stay there; it spreads virtually and geographically.

Rather than just being controlled by the power of the state, he identifies four interpenetrating layers of a kind of matrix in which free speech occurs and is shaped by.

  1. There are the international treaties and organisations.
  2. The ‘Big Dogs’.
  3. The ‘Big Cats’.
  4. The ‘Mice’.

The international treaties would include things such as the Bill of Human Rights from the EU or ICANN, which manages and deals with a lot of the stuff that makes the internet ‘work’ such as the Domain Name System (DNS).

The Big Dogs are the nation states rules and regulations. The First Amendment in the USA is a good example; a government regulation which maintains free speech in a particular geographical location.

The Big Cats would be companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and so on. Their influence is huge. With an impossibly large to imagine number of regular monthly users (1.9 Billion) Facebook has become a dominant force in the world of social media. Below, the Blue is Facebook.

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Free Speech Debate Website

This means that for these 1.9 Billion users, much of their online speech is dictated by the Terms of Service provided by Facebook – which is enforced primarily by algorithms.

Internet Terms of Service for social media companies are often:

  • ‘non-transparent,
  • non-accountable, and
  • non-appealable’.

Timothy Garton Ash illustrated this point by referring to the story of the editor of Norwegian paper ‘Aftenposten’ who uploaded the iconic Vietnamese war photo of the naked girl fleeing only to have it removed as a violation of the Terms of Service. After a media outcry it was eventually restored. The question is, what about those users who don’t have the platform to appeal to preserve their free speech?

Lastly, there’s the Mice. And the Mice are us.

What can we do in the face of the megalithic entities and power structures?

“We can do a hell of a lot!”

Timothy Garton Ash pointed to the various successful anti-piracy campaigns such as Stop SOPA (led by individuals such as Aaron Swartz, who more than most has shown the impact that the individal can make when we communicate and organise effectively) to demonstrate his point. I would suggest that the success of the contemporary so-called ‘populist’ movements which have led to the success of the Brexit and Trump campaigns also demonstrate the ability of the Mice to make their voices heard.

Given these four layers which influence free-speech, then to focus simply on the Law isn’t enough. There needs to be a more comprehensive approach.

This is where Timothy Garton Ash’s involvement in the Free Speech Debate project comes in.

Their intention is to have transcultural (not simply inter-cultural) discussions on the nature of speech in an attempt to find some basic norms which can help create the chance of free-speech while minimising the dangers. This involves speaking around the world. Last week it was India, next week it’ll be Turkey.

He says that there are two important questions:

  1. How free should speech be?
  2. How should free speech be?

The first is a question of ‘limits’ and ‘boundaries’ of content.
The second is a question of ‘attitude’ and ‘conduct’ of presentation.

These questions are concerned with what he calls ‘the gamble of freedom’, and the answer is ‘Robust Civility’. 

Robustness without manners can lead to violence, and manners without robustness can lead to not saying anything at all. The combination promotes a healthy respect for the other whilst enabling a genuine commitment to personal beliefs.

The Free Speech Debate presents 10 Principles to which, balanced out, they believe should help to facilitate free speech in accordance with a slightly modified version of Article 19 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.

Here ‘and able’ is the important distinction from Article 19, recognising the agency of the individual.

Timothy Garton Ash didn’t go through each of the ten principles so they’re listed below and I’d encourage you to go and have a look at them on the Free Speech Debate website.

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Having outlined the structures which influence free speech and presented some key principles for how that free speech should be defined and conducted, Timothy Garton Ash then turned to how free speech is under attack.

It is here that things got interesting.

To start with he compared his experience of speaking abroad in different places five years ago and said that it has become less free to speak almost everywhere other than Burma, which is perhaps having the opposite problem of too much free speech.

Then he turned his attention to the West, and described a recent rise in Anti-liberalism which, in his view, was to a greater or lesser extent a reaction against the financial crash of 2008. It was this reaction which has developed into the fragmentation of the media, the rise of ‘echo chambers’ and ‘fake news’. In essence, free speech is under attack from those who supported Trump, from those who supported Brexit and those who are currently supporting Le Pen (never minding that each of those three situations are distinct and that while there may be those who support all three, they are most definitely not synonymous movements). He stressed the need for a good and honest media as required for democracy. I’ll return to these points shortly.

These attacks can be described as three vetos.

  1. The Assassin’s Veto
  2. The Heckler’s Veto
  3. The “I’m offended” Veto

The first is essentially the threat of violence if someone says or does something. The natural example was that of the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

The second is the simple disruption and drowning out of the other’s voice to prevent or disuade them from speaking.

The last is the idea that certain forms of speech shouldn’t be allowed because someone will be offended. This was encapsulated in the PREVENT agenda which was initially supposed to tackle radicalisation of students but has been used to ban or no-platform non-violent ‘extremists’. One such example was when Germaine Greer was banned from speaking at a university on feminism because of her views (which were not planned to be discussed) on transgender issues. Another would be that of not allowing Tommy Robinson to speak of his experiences in Luton.

Timothy Garton Ash affirmed the idea that safespaces and trigger warnings are helpful in limited contexts on a university campus, but stressed that you shouldn’t consider the entire campus to be a safespace. More than that he argued that people like Tommy Robinson should be allowed to speak to students because they would destroy him and take him apart in the Q&As.

He concluded by returning to classical liberal values as outlined at the start and then the floor was open for questions.

Whilst I had been sitting there listening to the presentation I found that there was lots of really helpful elements which he had presented. The four layers and the ten principles with the three vetos were all interesting concepts which seemed on the whole to work well – I still need to reflect further on the rest of the ten principles and see how far I would agree with them or not. However, what had struck me through out was that Timothy Garton Ash wasn’t shy about his own political views and opinions, particularly on topics such as Brexit and Trump. The way that he talked about “Fake news” and the Media made it clear that he would consider himself to be ‘on their side’ – something which he made clearer whilst responding to one of the earlier questions. As such I found myself sitting there wondering to what extent his free speech principles were wedded to his own political beliefs, or whether these two things were separate constructs which met naturally in him as he was the one speaking.

I did not for a moment begrudge him using his lecture to discuss his opinions in a public context, but the way that he presented his case about freedom of speech being under attack resulted in him characterising it as being under attack from ‘the right’. So I asked him this question:

I applaud your commitment to trans-cultural dialogue on these topics. I wonder, however, if there’s need for a trans-political dialogue as well? You’ve talked about echo chambers on the right, I wonder if you could talk about echo chambers on the left? For example I know many people were aghast when Brexit occurred because they hadn’t seen or known anyone who would have been in favour of it on Facebook etc.

He responded partially, as he was responding to a couple of questions in a row. His response was along the lines that of course there are echo chambers on the left and that the New York Times and the Guardian had found themselves to be out of touch with the white working classes and that this was something that needs to change.

It was nice to hear an acknowledgement that there are echo chambers at the various stages of the political/ideological spectrum however there was no comment on embarking in dialogue with those of other political perspectives to discuss principles for free speech.

I’ve written about echo chambers on twitter before and I consciously strive to be exposed to arguments and perspectives on all sides of different issues.

One conclusion which I have come to is that Timothy Garton Ash is right when he says that democracy requires a good media. However I suspect that he would view “fake news” as stories presented by ‘alternative’ media sites which are then ‘debunked’ by ‘Main Stream Media’. I would suggest that the reality is far more complex and that there have been multiple and repeated occasions where the ‘Mainstream Media’ makes assertions which are then demonstrated to be false. Journalistic Integrity should be a non-partisan value! That’s not a counter-claim saying, “No, the left are the ones who are attacking free speech”. I would suggest that free speech is not the property of either the left or the right. In the recent past it was the religious right which wanted to ban music and video games which were offensive and today it’s largely speaking those on the left who want to police what can and cannot be said. Give it a decade or so and I imagine the pendulum will swing once again. I also wonder where “the media” would fit in the layers. I doubt they would be Big Dogs or Cats, but they’re certainly not mice. 

My friend and I walked away from the Great Hall of Durham Castle, replete with its high ceilings and larger than life portraits on the walls, having been listening to an Oxford university professor speak to a room of largely white, well educated, generally politically liberal people and wondered whether, as good as it was, this was the living embodiment of academia in its ivory towers.

 

Initial Observations on the ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations’ Report

Today there was a press conference where the Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, presented a paper from the House of Bishops on Marriage and Same Sex Relations after the Shared Conversations, which will be discussed at the General Synod in February.

This is the latest chapter in the on going discussions within the Church of England surrounding a variety of questions of the place and value of lesbians and gays in the Church of England, and the degree to which same sex relationships are compatible (or not) with the teaching of the Church of England. Having written briefly on the Primates meeting this time last year I thought I’d identify a couple of interesting features while not intending to preempt the discussions which will happen at General Synod.

There’s two strands of context which I found helpful: the historical and the legal.

The Marriage and Same Sex Relations (M&SSR) report, locates itself as the intermediary conclusion of the ongoing process of the Church of England considering issues arising from same sex relationships since ‘well before’ Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 (13). In 1999 there was Marriage: A Teaching Document, which worked on the basis that marriage was between one man and one woman. In 2013 there was The Pilling Report which recognised a range of views and proposed two years of, what became, ‘Shared Conversations’. These were facilitated conversations intended to ‘assist the careful listening that would support clear and open exchange of views and embody the principle of disagreeing Christianly, in a manner marked by Christian care for each other'(13). These concluded in July 2016, at which point the House of Bishops took responsibility for exploring ‘what should happen next'(14).

The Archbishops nominated ten bishops to form a Bishop’s Reflection Group on Sexuality (BRGS) to propose a process to put before the synod (15). There were meetings in September, November and December which all led to the formation of this course and these meetings involved prayer and mediation, both personally and corporately.

The other strand of context is the legal advice as to what the potential options of moving forward would be with regards to the changes which would have to be made to Canon Law. There were two issues which were dealt with (provided in Annex 1 of the report as a background resource): Services and Clergy Conduct.

As it stands, Clergy are only allowed to use services which have been approved (Authorised or Commended) and where there are no available services they may form their own so long as it does not depart from the doctrine of the Church of England. The effect of this is that in the light of the doctrine of Holy Matrimony ‘it would not be lawful for a minister to use a form of service which either explicitly or implicitly treated or recognised the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex as equivalent to holy matrimony’.

As such there are four possible responses:

  1. Remove the requirement to be faithful to the doctrine of the Church of England.
  2. Change the doctrine of Holy Matrimony so it no longer ‘affirms, according to Our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union… of one man with one woman’.
  3. Make no changes but explain it would be okay for clergy to use forms of services which did not equate same sex relationships with holy matrimony.
  4. Make no changes and stick with the pastoral guidelines of 2014.

With regards to clergy conduct, presently there is the expectation that clergy will ‘be diligent to frame and fashion their life and that of their family according to the doctrine of Christ’. It’s understood that this would mean maintaining the doctrine of Holy Matrimony in their personal lives as well, which would mean one man and one woman. More than this, it’s pointed out in paragraph 46 that all clergy explicitly assent to the principle of this in their ordination vows. As such to enter a marriage with a person of the same sex is fashioning ones’ life into a way which is inconsistent with the doctrine of Christ.

From a legal perspective there are five possible responses:

  1. Change the rule so that being married to a person of the same sex doesn’t break the rule.
  2. Change the doctrine of Holy Matrimony so it no longer ‘affirms, according to Our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union… of one man with one woman’.
  3. Change the doctrine of Holy Matrimony to state that civil marriage to a person of the same sex is a different institution from Holy Matrimony and so entering into that institution does not amount to an act contrary to the doctrine of holy matrimony.
  4. Make no change but issue a teaching document which explains that the Church of England does not equate same sex civil marriages with holy matrimony, and that by entering one clergy would not be considered to be acting in a way contrary to the doctrine.
  5. Make no changes and stick with the pastoral guidelines of 2014.

I think that acknowledging any response (in any direction) to the Shared Conversations is bound to deal with these legal realities in order to make sure that the conversations weren’t merely ‘a smoke screen for dismissing those we disagree with’ (10) but actually have a real ecclesial response.

The general consensus, though not unanimous, of the bishops in writing the report was twofold (18):

  1. There was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage;
  2. There was a strong sense that existing resources, guidance and tone needed to be revisited.

As such the intention is to:

  • interpret the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church (22).

Paragraph 23 goes on to summarise the four practical proposals that much of the rest of the report goes on to expand, namely:

  1. Establishing a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people, and their families, and continuing to work towards mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church.
  2. There should be a substantial new Teaching Document, replacing or expanding upon the 1999 Marriage Teaching Document. This should be comprehensive but accessible enough to be widely read and understood throughout the Church of England.
  3. There should be clear guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples.
  4. There should be new guidance from the House of Bishops about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle.

That last one is particularly interesting to me as an ordinand myself. I am aware of those who are under regular scrutiny of their moral integrity with living by the standards they have assented to in Issues in Human Sexuality (as all ordinands must in order to proceed with training) on the basis of their sexuality while others, who may well be morally deficient in other ways, escape that scrutiny on the basis of their presumed heterosexual orientation. As such the suggestions in paragraph 55 and 54 that questioning about sexual morality should form part of a wider examination of ordinands by the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and bishop, and that this questioning should apply equally to homosexual and heterosexual people and take the same form, seems to me to be a sensible development of the discernment and accountability processes of the Church.

There was one phrase which leapt out at me while I was working my way through the report. Paragraph 31 says:

  • The national Shared Conversations have demonstrated the need for and value of careful, deep exploration of questions of human sexuality in dialogue with the reading of scripture.

I found the addition of the word ‘reading’ an interesting one, in that it implicitly acknowledges that the location of the discussions aren’t necessarily located within the text of scripture but within the different ‘ways’ that different Anglican traditions approach scripture. I can’t help but wonder whether it’s not going to be questions of morality which will prolong and hinder the Church in finding a unified position on sexuality, but rather the less asked and underlying questions of biblical methodology, hermeneutic practice and even epistemology.

This process is one which has placed a strain on the Church of England, and this comes through in paragraphs 59 and 65. Paragraph 65 stresses that ‘to maintain an unambiguous position on doctrine in this matter [holy matrimony is one man and one woman] while enabling a generous freedom for pastoral practice that does not directly and publicly undermine it is entirely consistent with our traditions and is a perfectly coherent approach to take’. As such, returning to paragraph 59, ‘We do not accept that those disagreements make some kind of major fracture in our Church inevitable at this point, nor that it is time to start planning for division.’

The report is well worth a read, and I imagine that many will be pleased and disappointed by various different elements of what the bishops have to say. However I think that, particularly bearing in mind the legal realities and options which are available to take as the next steps in this continuing process, in reality the bishops would have been hard-pressed to say anything substantially different than they have done. There’s a certain logic to the movements which have long since been set in motion and what will be far more interesting, from my perspective, will be the response and feedback of the General Synod as the Church of England continues to ‘walk together’ through this process, hopefully, wherever the Spirit leads them.

Thinking about Sin: Cernovich and Biblical Metaphors to Improve Your Life

CS Lewis famously once said:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

I personally know many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, who fall all too easily into one or other of these errors not about devils, but about sin.

How many churches have we attended, visited or heard about which seem to have strict moral codes of conduct where following the rules is essential to membership?

And how many churches do we know where the message is all about ‘love and peace’, where what matters is simply feeling better about our lives?

Two Errors

This is not to tarnish all churches with the same brush by any means! Simply an acknowledgement that there are churches which seem to focus on avoiding committing sins and there are churches which seem to pretend that sin isn’t an issue. 

To paraphrase Lewis, There are two equal and opposite errors into which our churches can fall when it comes to talking about sin. One is disbelieve it’s a problem. The other is to believe it is, and to feel an excessive pressure to focus on sins.

I’ve written before about the relationship between the Gospel Grace of Christ and the Judaic Law. It is how different churches understand this relationship which ultimately shapes the way they teach and preach (or not) about sin.

I’ve found it thought provoking to listen to a non-Christian talking about sin and I’m curious as to how their way of approaching it can help us reflect on how we approach sin.

A Non-Christian take on the value of Sin

The author, Mike Cernovich, is an interesting man who runs Danger&Play. The site is primarily aimed at men and discusses and demonstrates the importance of mindset for living a successful life. Regardless as to whether or not one agrees with his political or ideological views, Cernovich has successfully built up a dedicated following – in particular with his podcasts.

A couple of years ago he did a podcast called ‘3 Self-Improvement Lessons from the Bible‘.

In this podcast he dismisses the idea that the Bible has no value for non-Christians.

Taking a philosophical approach, he divides the Bible into Metaphysics and Ethics. Despite rejecting the biblical narrative of Jesus as God or the Christian conception of creation, he finds it a valuable source of information and wisdom when it comes to Ethics.

Whilst making it clear that he doesn’t subscribe to Judeo-Christian morality, and he presents ‘three powerful metaphors that will improve your life’.

Three Biblical Metaphors

  • “The Wages of Sin are Death”

Put simply, sin means ‘behaviour which leads to an unwanted outcome’.

Cernovich advocates examining one’s behaviours with the question: What is going to start happening to me if I keep doing this in ten years?

He gives a couple of examples of what he thinks are sinful, such as constantly seeking out material to read on the internet which will make you angry, and that being generally angry leads to self-medicating with food or alcohol or other things. He includes not thinking like an entrepreneur, or to not exercising discipline; failing to be vigilant.  At one point he asks, ‘are you being a sinner?’

Many many things you might not think of being sinful, are sinful.

Is watching pornography a sin? Maybe.

Some of you guys medicate yourselves with the pornography. You watch the pornography, jerk off and get dopamines and opiates in your body and then you play your video games. Where is that going to get you? Where are you going to be in ten years? A Porn Addict? Fat? Health problems, no vitality? That’s sinful behaviour.

– 6:50-7:20

  • Keep your Lamp Trimmed and Burning

Remembering the parable of the Ten Virgins from Matthew 25, he suggests that the moral of the story is to always be prepared. It’s important to always have your light on, you are your own marketing so represent yourself at all times. Be ready for opportunity every time you go out. Be vigilant, be prepared and focus on your mindset and approach to life every time you leave your house. Each of these are ‘straight out of the bible and directly applicable to your life’.

People want to go out and do bad things. Saturday night people want to go out and get wasted. Okay – the wages of sin are death. Go out and get wasted tonight and you’re going to wake up with a hangover. Are you going to be working on your business tomorrow morning? Highly doubt it.

And this  divorced completely from any Judeo-Christian conception of sin. I would just say look at what you’re behaviour is and look at what outcomes you’re getting; then ask your self if you’re living a sinful life; ask yourself if you’re keeping your lamps trimmed and burning.

– 10:40-50, 12:35-43

  • Parable of the Talents

The last of the three metaphors is the parable of the talents, also from Matthew 25. Cernovich describes this as his absolute favourite parable, even out of all Aesop’s fables. He tells the story and asks what talents we have, what are we doing with our talents? The rhetorical inference throughout this section is that if you want to achieve something then you have to start. You can’t just sit around in fear that you won’t be good enough or capable – that would be burying your talent in the ground and nothing would happen.

Cernovich then goes on to talk about the value of loyalty and integrity. Put yourself in the place of the Master. Lend money to people that ask but don’t ask for it back and you’ll see who’s a positive person and who’s a negative person to have in your life.

My take on this

Naturally enough as a Christian with a love of theology I cannot respond to this and say that I entirely agree with Mike Cernovich’s understanding of sin. However, he is explicitly setting out to separate the metaphysical from the ethical and as such it’s inevitable that he would arrive at a non-gospel grounded conception of sin.

That said, what he’s said is not wrong. In fact, it’s a darn sight better understanding of sin than I have heard in some places. From my perspective, it’s not a case of rejecting what Cernovich has presented in this short podcast, but rather seeking to place the beneficial elements he has removed from their metaphysical context back into a more rounded conception of sin. We would want to have a more holistic understanding of sin, and we would also want to assert the supremacy of Christ over sin and to present the Gospel as something which is not just a nice story, but something which is true and intrinsically valuable to our lives, renewing and transforming us day by day.

What I find most interesting about Cernovich’s approach to talking about sin is just how practical it is. His approach makes sin quantifiable and definable, and once it can be measured it can be engaged with, strived against and overcome.

Responses to Cernovich’s Podcast

This practical nature has enabled Cernovich to use these biblical metaphors to be able to talk to a group of men about how to evaluate their lives and to identify what they need to work on if they want to improve themselves and achieve their goals. For proof, just look at some of the comments on his podcast:

“Solid podcast Mike, thoroughly enjoyed it.”

“Thank You”.

“Talk about coincidental.
I was thinking about all the things that I’m NOT doing in order to be prepared to… just prior to this podcast.

My lamp is NOT trimmed and burning.

[Examples].

I realized all of these things, then just so happened to listen to this podcast.
How ——- fitting, Mike.
I’ve seen guys on here say before that your article is exactly what they needed to hear at the time. Just happened to me.

THANKS, MIKE.”

“I enjoyed this podcast a lot, I knew I had to make time for it to devote my full attention to the message.”

“Another valuable podcast Mike. I might read more of the bible now but with a different filter. Particularly liked the notion of always being prepared and maintaining high standards. ‘How I do anything is how I do everything'”

These men listening to this podcast have spent 18 minutes, the same kind of length as a sermon in many churches, listening to Cernovich present three biblical metaphors and they valued it. As any priest or minister will tell you, that’s an achievement!

Encouragement

Returning to the ‘two errors’, to the temptations to either focus obsessively on moral conduct or to ignore the reality of sin, it seems that we need to be encouraged that it can be possible to talk about sin  in a constructive way. What we need to do as Christians it to be confident that we can actually communicate an understanding of sin in ways which are both informative of our belief in the Gospel, and adds practical value to the lives of those we encounter.

I’ll end with three thoughts:

  1. We should talk about and reflect on Sin – it’s important.
  2. Talking about sin never comes without talking about the Gospel; both what Jesus has done for us, and what he has set us free to do for ourselves.
  3. Being disciplined about sin and living righteously is good, but obsessing over it is not.

Remember, Jesus says ‘My yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.’

John 17, the Larnaca Statement and hopes of Christian Unity

It has been a fascinating start to 2016. The American primaries are well and truly underway; the EU referendum for Britain has been announced for 23rd June 2016, the crisis happening in the Middle East is increasingly complex and raising political tensions on a global scale. Throw into the mix things like #BlackLivesMatter, the illusive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the increasingly regular practise of no-platforming speakers for alleged ‘microaggressions’, including Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell, Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Dawkins, and you could be forgiven for thinking that divisiveness and controversy is the order of the day.

However, 2016 has also seen significant statements from the Christian world. There’s been the Communique from the Primates of the Anglican Communion, there’s been the joint statement arising from the historic meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all of Russia, and there’s been the Larnaca Statement for Reconciliation. All three of these in different ways are significant, yet I wager that while you may be aware of the first two the Larnaca Statement may have passed you by.

What is the Larnaca Statement?

“Thirty Palestinian Christians and Messianic Jews met in Larnaca, Cyprus, January 25-28, 2016 for four days of prayer, fellowship and study. They issued a statement affirming their unity as believers in Jesus and calling on their communities to join them in reconciliation initiatives.

The Lausanne Initiative for Reconciliation in Israel/Palestine (LIRIP) hosted the conference. Its vision is “to promote reconciliation within the body of Christ and our wider communities in Israel and Palestine by creating a network that encourages, under the auspices of the Lausanne Movement, models of gospel-based, Christ-centered reconciliation that will have prophetic impact in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

– Lisa Loden, Kehlia News Israel

The situation with Israel and Palestine is complex and regardless of individual perspectives on the ins and outs of the situation, it can generally be agreed that it often feels like this is a situation of political gridlock with no easy solution to provide an enduring peace. However, these 30 people from different communities either side of the divide have stepped out in faith to try and begin a process which can start the difficult journey to reconciliation.

I highly recommend that you read the statement for yourself and, if you are so inclined, pray for these individuals, their communities and the overall situation. That said, here’s a couple of my highlights and reflections.

Section 1: We affirm our unity in the body of the Messiah

This section is fascinating because it holds in tension two equally strongly held and shared views. The first is that they are united by God through the Holy Spirit. The second, this ‘unity embraces [their] diversity as Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians within the one body’ (1.3). This tension is very real, and it is one which is maintained throughout.

It’s also important that this statement hasn’t just come out of the blue, but seeks to build on work which has happened before. 1.6 states:

“In the light of these and other Scriptures, we affirm the following paragraphs of the Cape Town Commitment.

Love for one another in the family of God is not merely a desirable option but an inescapable command. Such love is the first evidence of obedience to the gospel, the necessary expression of our submission to Christ’s Lord ship, and a potent engine of world mission.

We lament the dividedness and divisiveness of our churches and organisations. We deeply and urgently long for all followers of Jesus to cultivate a spirit of grace and to be obedient to Paul’s command to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Section 2: We commit ourselves to live out that unity in the midst of conflict and division, and we call on our communities to join us in this commitment.

There’s lots of interesting things in this section, but my highlight is 2.4. This subsection details some commitments to certain responsibilities, such as to affirm and respect each other, and to treat one another with love, gentleness and patience. More than this,

“We will refuse to denounce, dehumanize, or demonise one another or our respective communities. We will not “bear false witness against our neighbours”, “spread false reports” or “follow the crowd in doing wrong” (Exodus 20:16; 23:1-2). We will refrain from spreading gossip, rumours, slander, unfounded allegations and lies – whether by word of mouth, in print, or by social media, blogs, etc.”

This is a big deal. The social media campaigns of each side against the other are tantamount to state and civic sponsored propaganda machines, firing out a peculiar mix of misinformation, statistics, stories and arguments at one another. It’s not uncommon for those who are connected on social media with people on both sides to see the same statistics or images posted by both sides but with different captions framing their import to their respective narrative.

The blogging community on both sides is incredibly active and there’s a degree of skill required to keep one’s finger on the pulse and to stay on top of who has said what and who responded to whom, directly or indirectly. As such, this commitment by these Thirty, and which they are inviting others to join with them in, to refrain from the spin and ‘churnalism’ of the online culture is significant. Hopefully by reducing the gossip, rumours, unfounded and unverified allegations the online community can continue the ongoing dialogue in an increasingly positive and constructive way.

What this statement doesn’t say is, ‘we will not disagree with one another’.

That’s equally important because they are not denying the fundamental differences of opinion on the situation. They are not claiming that the way forwards is for one side to capitulate to the other but rather seeking to ‘maintain fellowship with each other’ (2.4.5), to essentially act in good faith so that discussions, challenges and engagements can be done in a legitimate manner in order to try to start moving forwards.

Section 3: We recognise the following areas of challenge and disagreement.

This section goes further in acknowledging ‘deeply held theological convictions’ which ‘disagree at some fundamental points’ (3.3.1). However, in section 3.3.3. they say:

“Even though we are convinced of our own positions and wish to continue to dialogue with and challenge one another, we will not require others to change their position and accept ours as a pre-condition of our fellowship.”
(Emphasis mine)

Peace and reconciliation will not be achieved through ideological and theo-political hegemony. Any hope of reconciliation has to be grounded in something greater; namely, the Gospel of our common Lord Jesus. This, then, is an invitation to fellowship in spite and because of intense disagreement.

Following this is a commitment to ‘clarify our positions in situations where they might be interpreted in a way that harms or excludes others’. They then clarify, briefly, some of these positions from each perspective. If you don’t know much about the opposing views then this is a helpful introduction to some of the similarities and differences between their respective narratives.FullSizeRender [424658]I’m given to understand that this section, along with the following on cultural narratives, dealing as it does with the positions of most disagreement was the most difficult aspect of the statement to finalise and unanimously agree on. The other section where each side presents their respective cultural narratives is as follows :FullSizeRender [424657]As is easily apparent, the theological and cultural narratives are mutually interconnected and naturally re-enforce one another, over and against that of each other’s cultural narrative and theological stance. It’s worth observing that there’s no answers provided here. Just how the ‘inclusive, bridging narrative’ might look is unclear. However, the desire ‘to listen to one another… respectfully challenging the narrative of the other’ is a positive start.

In the light of this, section 4 looks to identify practical ways of starting to move forwards.

Section 4: As believers in Jesus, we renew our biblically grounded hope for the future, we affirm our belief that the gospel can change people and situations, and we accept that we have a role to play in this process.  

There are ten different subpoints, and most of them are solid principles for general Christian conduct which even those of us who are not directly involved in this situation would do well to learn from and ‘imitate as they imitate Christ’.

The one which stands out to me, though, is:

4.3 [We commit ourselves to…] make our best efforts to meet in friendship.

A potentially difficult friendship, for many reasons. However, the Lord Most High of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures,

‘…showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.’
(Romans 5.8-11 NLT)

From this intention of friendship, the statement, endorsed unanimously by the Thirty who were present, conclude with this:

“We invite both of our communities in the land and outside it, along with the worldwide family of God, to join us in prayer, both that we may be faithful to the affirmations and commitments expressed here, and that the ongoing work of this initiative may bear fruit for the kingdom of God and His glory.”

They are not speaking for their communities per se, but rather they are inviting them – and us!- to join in with this Larnaca Statement and to prayerfully seek peace, reconciliation and unity.

This heart for unity seems to be the aching spiritual desire for Christians the world over. Larnaca has drawn on John 17 and the prayer of Christ for all believers in Section 1.1., Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill refer to the same in Section 5 of their statement, and the Anglican Primates are implicitly motivated by it in the fourth paragraph of the Communiqué: “the unanimous decision of the Primates was to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ.”

In a world of personal hurt, of political squabbling and campaigning, of violence, disorder, controversy and division; may the Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus bring the saviour’s hope to fruition:

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

“I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began!

“O righteous Father, the world doesn’t know you, but I do; and these disciples know you sent me. I have revealed you to them, and I will continue to do so. Then your love for me will be in them, and I will be in them.”

– John 17.20-26

Laci Green: ATTACK ON ABORTION – a comment.

I’m not an American and I don’t know much about the American discussions, statistics, myths and facts around the topic of abortion. However, I watched Laci Green’s latest video called “ABORTION UNDER ATTACK” out of curiosity as to what she would have to say. For those of you who don’t know who she is, Laci Green is a YouTuber who does a series called ‘Sex+’ which is essentially a Sex Education focused channel which also deals with relationships, body image, sexuality, gender and feminism.

I’ve searched her YouTube channel for other videos on abortion and she did a couple of videos back in 2011 which outlined the options between Abortion, Adoption and Motherhood; each with benefits and negatives. This, however, was prior to her affiliation with Planned Parenthood, announced April 2012 and which resulted in the YouTube channel anakednotion. Since the start of this partnership, it seems that the main video directly on Abortion is this one, which is not an argument for but simply information about the different kinds of abortion for those who want to know more about it and what to expect when they have one.

‘ABORTION UNDER ATTACK’ is also the first video on abortion since Laci Green ‘came out’ as a feminist back in April 2014. As such this seems to be the first time Laci Green has spoken on this topic on YouTube from an ideological perspective or with a ‘moral stance’, and she does so as someone affiliated with Planned Parenthood. (This will be relevant later.)

Now, I’m not interested in disputing the American statistics, and I’m happy to accept them as accurate for the purpose of this post. What I’m interested in occurs just prior to the three minute mark, between 2:46 and 3:00. This 15 second window is the entire moral justification/reasoning in favour of abortion within the 7:13 long video. In it, she says:

“What makes this extreme mentality terrifying, is that if a person is ignorant enough to think that a grown human being and a blastocyst have the same sentience, and thusly the same rights; that person just might not see a moral problem with killing the grown human being.”

This arises during section III of the video: The “Pro-Life” Movement. Consequently it comes within the context of being polemical against the perspectives of those who are not ‘Pro-Choice’, or, as Laci calls them later, those who are ‘Anti-Choice’. So that explains the prefacing insult (and the later statement that ‘This movement doesn’t give a s*** about life, about babies and definitely not about women.’). However, the notion itself is what originally caught my attention.

Her argument goes:

– Pro-Lifers think a grown human being and a blastocyst are equally sentient.

– Therefore, they have the same rights.

This seems to presuppose that human rights are bestowed only when sentience is present. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sentience is not a prerequisite to receive human rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Furthermore, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Sentience doesn’t come into it. (Being born, however, might.)

Nonetheless, if one were to have a unifying belief which equated grown humans and blastocysts, such as the Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei or an understanding of person-hood from conception (as I have written about previously), then Laci’s intermediate conclusion stands:

– Both the blastocyst and the grown human have the same rights according to pro-lifers.

This is followed by:

– Therefore, the Pro-Lifer ‘might not see a moral problem with killing the grown human being’.

… I’m afraid I don’t follow this logic.

If the Pro-Life view is that grown humans and blastocysts are have equal rights, and the Pro-Life view, by definition, is that the blastocyst should have the opportunity to grow and develop until the point where a baby is born; then the Pro-Life view that a blastocyst should not be terminated should remain the case for the grown human being. Put simply:

– Blastocysts and grown humans have same rights

– Blastocysts should not be terminated

-Therefore, grown human lives should not be terminated

Realistically, this conclusion would probably be drawn in reverse; i.e. grown humans have the right to life, and therefore if we have a unifying concept between a grown human and a blastocyst, the blastocyst also has a right to life.

Nevertheless, the point is if Pro-Lifer thinks that both the blastocyst and a grown human have the same right to life, it would be inconsistent for them to ‘not see a moral problem with killing the grown human being’.

If anything, that conclusion in this context would only be justified if either: you have a unity between the rights afforded to a blastocyst and a grown human and that those rights in both cases were of termination, ie. If you would terminate a blastocyst, you would also terminate a grown human; or, if you operate without a unifying concept between the two, in which case each would be treated differently.  The former is clearly not the Pro-Life position, while the second seems to be Laci Green’s position. She emphasises her view that the equivalence of a sentient human being and a blastocyst is ‘ignorant’ by using this graphic on screen at the same time:

not equal

It is clear that for Laci Green:

– Grown human =/= a blastocyst.

– Therefore, a grown human has a ‘right to life’ which the blastocyst does not.

The only way that I can see to make her statement that Pro-Life people ‘might not see a moral problem with killing the grown human being’ make sense would be if she’s arguing:

– If someone can be as ignorant as to believe A, they may be ignorant enough to believe B.

With ‘A’ being the view that a blastocyst and a grown human are equally sentient and ‘B’ being murder. What her argument amounts to, then, is basically that people who are ‘Pro-Life’ are ignorant and stupid, and that stupid people might kill people.

This conclusion seems to me to be disingenuous. Laci Green has not actually presented any argument for abortion within this video and rather than refuting a Pro-Life argument she seems to have merely misrepresented one in such a way that she’s left with no actual argument or reasoning in favour of abortion other than the observation that a grown human and a blastocyst are different; particularly with regards to ‘sentience’.

Later in the video she moves to discuss the ideological underpinnings of each side. Apparently the real motive of the ‘Pro-Life’ movement is the:

5323025205952512

This is followed by saying that those who are pro-life believe that sex is only for procreation and that women who have sex for pleasure are ‘sluts’.

The reproductive justice movement, however, asserts the ‘philosophically imperative’ right to individual autonomy.

Apparently the ‘Pro-Choice movement can’t compete with doctored photos, crocodile tears… but it’s important to understand that this is just propaganda and it’s propaganda which is made effective by the fact that a lot of people are scientifically illiterate and they’re easily manipulated, emotionally.’

Thus, “The only conclusion a halfway reasonable person can draw about the Pro-Life movement is that they’re seeking state control over, primarily, women’s bodies and lives in ways that are medically unnecessary and patronising and invasive. This is a deliberate attack on women, and by extension it’s an attack on anyone who can get pregnant. It is a deliberate attack on women who are poor, who are disproportionately women of colour. Without reproductive choice gender equality cannot and will not be achieved and that is exactly their point.”

Tangent: As I said, I’m not interested/don’t have the time to verify and engage with the statistics here, but it is worth noting that the disproportionately high ratio of women of colour who have abortions compared with white women has been used by both Pro-Life and anti-racism activists against freely available abortions as well.

Returning to the underlying point here, Laci Green’s arguments about the Attack on Abortion is actually no such thing, it’s about a perceived attack on women and more than that an attack on the here unnamed but implied feminism of Hilary Clinton which is so central to her campaign.

Wait, Hilary Clinton? Where does she come into this? Well, it turns out that:

In August 2015, Hilary Clinton publicly supported Planned Parenthood.

On the 11th January 2016, Planned Parenthood endorse Hilary Clinton.

21st January 2016 Laci Green, affiliated with Planned Parenthood releases her video which concludes by stressing the importance of voting for Democrats, with Hilary Clinton being given prominence.

At the end of the day, abortion is a wildly controversial topic with many different facets to it, including the divide between opinion on the morality and legality of it, but this video by Laci Green has done nothing to help explain the actual issue of abortion by examining arguments for and against. Rather, it seems that the moral issue has been taken as moral fact. Those who disagree are ‘ignorant’, sexist and may ‘not see a moral problem with killing [a] grown human being’ – illustrated below.

The argument goes: if you’re not one of those stupid, scientifically illiterate and easily manipulated types, then you should at the least vote Democrats; but ideally vote #Hilary2016.

I watched Laci Green’s video on abortion out of curiosity to see what she would have to say from a Sex Education perspective. Apparently though, this is not a sex education issue, or even a moral one; it’s a political one.

 

EDIT: Since I posted this, Planned Parenthood have spent six figures on a last minute ad campaign for Hilary Clinton in Iowa, helping her clinch the caucus by a hair’s breadth over Bernie Sanders (who is being depicted as ‘pro-abortion’). To my mind, this solidifies the links made above between Planned Parenthood, and by extension Laci Green, and Hilary Clinton. Sources here, here and here.

 


Notes:

This is not my usual topic or theme for a blog post but I will from time to time comment on things which catch my attention or pique my curiosity, as with this one.

You’ll notice that there’s lots of weblinks. These are not ad links picking up on SEO phrases but rather are links to articles and sources I’ve referred to. Do check them out and feel free to comment with links to articles which correct mistakes or errors in the ones I’ve used, or with your own thoughts and reflections.

Blessings,

Samuel S. Thorp