21st Century

Le pudeur and sex in the Song of Songs revisited

A couple of comments on my recent post on “la pudeur” have prompted disbelief: surely I cannot be saying there is no sex in the Song of Songs! Well, let me assure you, I am not. Of course, there is sex there. But what I am strongly suggesting is that the book is not a sex manual, which fascinates our culture’s mentalité where all is devolved into technique. And as such, I am extremely dubious about attempts to find certain sexual exploits in the book. I am not convinced, for instance, that there is anything in this text about fellatio, contrary to the arguments of certain recent commentators. The verses that were used to buttress this argument were as dubious to me as John Walvoord’s pointing to Revelation 4:1 as a reference to the rapture (if the dispensationalist rapture is true it must stand on better grounds than that!).

Moreover, without necessarily adopting the rampant allegorizing of our fathers in the Faith, surely they were right to argue this book is also about Christ and his church. And to read it as primarily a “holy” sex manual surely misses one of the rich reasons it is in the canon!

La pudeur and our sexualized culture

A good sign of the fact that we live in a hyper-sexualized culture is the way the term “sexy”—which used to have a distinct meaning of sexually alluring—has morphed over into a variety of spheres where the adjective has no business being used: course descriptions, cars, and cameras, for example, are all sexy—or not, as the case may be! Personally, I can’t stand this abuse of the adjective, and especially when even Christian authors routinely use it in such ways. But surely the latter simply indicates that even among Christians, the hyper-sexuality of our culture is re-shaping their world as well—witness the adoption of the frankly absurd eisegesis of the Song of Songs that sees in the ancient text all kinds of blatant sexual activities that titillate the modern palate. Here we need to step back and take a lesson from the French language (my Francophone friends will love this!). The French have a wonderful word to capture the veiling of one’s intimate feelings and doings, pudeur, a “holy bashfulness” (HT Alice von Hidlebrand, the Catholic philosopher). Surely, the time is ripe for such a response to this moment of our cultural sexualization. This is not Victorian prudishness, but—if I read the Puritans aright—a proper biblical approach to sex and the marriage bed.

Linquenda and the lack of reality in contemporary culture

My wife has been working afternoons at St Joseph’s Hospital this week. And so I have been dropping her off and driving back through an area of Hamilton very familiar to us: the Aberdeen area just under the Mountain brow. From 1976 to 1982, Alison and I lived in a second floor apartment on 149 Markland Avenue. There are many beautiful homes in the area, each with their own character. But there is one remarkable house I had never forgotten: an old home, much older than the 1890s–1910s homes that form the majority of the homes in the area. It is 28 South Street, is set back from the street and has a whitewashed exterior. What struck me about the house in years gone by was the house’s name—I love the idea of naming homes; if I could name mine, I would call it possibly Pantycelyn (after my Welsh hero W Williams) or maybe Haworth (after my Yorkshire hero Grimshaw) or even Olney (after John Sutcliff) or possibly Kettering (after my mentor)—maybe this is a reason I have not named our home—too many good names to choose from.

Be all this as it may, what struck me about the house when I would walk by it in days gone by was the name of the house, painted in large black letters on the whitewash: Linquenda. It is Latin from the verb linquo, and means “Things left behind.” It is a graphic reminder of the nature of all things in this world: one day they will all be left behind. Well, I thought as I was driving home after dropping Alison on Tuesday, I will drive by the house and see it since it had been probably a decade since I had seen it last. To my surprise, the name was gone and there was simply whitewash. No name and no apparent evidence of the name that had adorned the house for years.

As I thought about this incident later, it struck me: it is not surprising. All that men and women of our culture have is the secular, the temporal, the things of this world. The idea that all will one day be gone or left behind is simply too much reality to bear. So, in this case much easier to remove the horrible reminder and paint over the offensive house name. I could be wrong about the reason for the removal of the house name; it might be much simpler and quite other.

But I am not wrong about the deep malaise of contemporary Western culture: it is hollow, flat, or as Herbert Marcuse said, one-dimensional. One sees it on every hand. Belief in another life and another world, another dimension of reality—I affirm unequivocally the reality of that world in which dwelleth righteousness and the saints and where the Lamb is all the glory—gives a richness and depth to life. In the rejection of God and the divine, our secular culture has taken its cue from science and its faith in the phenomenal—and we are much the poorer. O for the recovery of the noumenal and true spirituality!

Two simple questions

Here is a simple question: If a Christian community is regularly speaking of reconciliation to God through the Lord Jesus Christ, and that by sovereign grace alone, but is rent by divisions with little or no actual reconciliation between the various groups within this community, what should we say about this community? Here is another: If a Christian community is passionate about truth but has no obvious relish for unity with others who preach the same fundamental truths, and if they never speak about these others, let alone pray for them, what does this say about this community?

Why Baptist history is so vital for modern-day violations of freedom of conscience

One of our precious freedoms, won in part by Baptists, is freedom of conscience. Recently, the Hamilton Wentworth School Board here in southern Ontario has ruled that alternative lifestyles are to be taught in public schools and that parents will not be allowed to withdraw their children from classes when this issue is taught. The argument that I saw promoting this likened the issue to racism. Children are not exempt from classes dealing with the latter and therefore ipso facto should not be exempt from the former. This is all very interesting and confirms my own conviction formed over the past few years that one of the greatest challenges to the Church in the West is going to be obedience to state matters that violate our conscience as Christians. 

In brief: this is not like racism at all. That is like comparing apples and oranges. I have known racism firsthand becuase of my Kurdish background in the UK--was regularly called Arab in High School and even called by the N-word. I loathe racism. But I do not believe sexual preference is in the same category. Nor do I believe the state has the right to dictate ethical values to myself or my children. Everyone has an ethical position and the state is hardly neutral.

Being a Baptist and having a rich heritage to draw upon I now see as so vital for the modern-day. We need to revisit the lives and thinking of Baptists from the 17 and 18th centuries.

Reflections on the True Church conference 2010 and on Alexander McLaren

This past weekend (February 19–21) I had the distinct privilege of being a speaker at the 2010 True Church Conference held at Grace Life Church, Muscle Shoals, Alabama. What a privilege to meet and hear Jeff Noblit, pastor of the host church, Conrad Mbewe—“the Spurgeon of Africa”—and his wife, Barry King, a church planter in London, Jonathan Sims and David Miller—a really deep privilege. I spoke twice: once on “Defining hyper-Calvinism” and on “Missionary Pioneer Andrew Fuller & hyper-Calvinism.” The first talk was particularly difficult to prepare, since I decided to focus on the soteriology of John Gill (1697–1771) and his teaching on the pactum salutis, eternal justification, and the free offer of the gospel. I do think Gill to be on the hyper-Calvinist side of the equation and thus to have been an innovator, following lesser lights like Joseph Hussey and John Skepp rather than the broad stream of Reformed orthodoxy of the seventeenth century. Although Gill quoted Thomas Goodwin, for instance, in supporting his view of eternal justification, he misunderstood Goodwin. But to present such in a popular format, I felt peculiarly difficult. Then to speak on Fuller and do him justice was a challenge. But I am so thankful for the opportunity to be with those brethren.

Flying back this a.m., I missed worship at the house of God. I therefore “listened”—that is, within my mind as I read it—to a sermon preached over a hundred years ago: “Feeding on ashes” by Alexander McLaren (1826–1910) [in A Rosary of Christian Graces (London: Horace Marshal & Son, 1899)]. What a gem—in many ways he was good as a preacher as his contemporary, C.H. Spurgeon (1834–92). A reminder of what life and true life is all about. I was struck by the way he read that clause, “Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you” (p.213), which he took spiritually and an offer of Christ of himself. Spurgeon had a richer view of the table of the Lord.

Celebrating Baptist roots like a rock concert!

Am working right now on a talk for tomorrow at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church in Toronto on “Celebrating our roots; Anticipating the harvest”—a 400th anniversary celebration of Baptist origins with John Smyth and Thomas Helwys and the like. It is historic in some ways since it will bring together Baptists from the FEBC and BCOQ to celebrate together our forebears and God’s goodness over the years.

 

 

In some ways gathering to recall the beginnings of those Christians called Baptists is a little like one of those rock concerts for boomers, who come together to hear a sixties band belt out some of their favourite rock n’ roll hits from that era. It would be easy to think that those aging rockers are merely indulging in nostalgia. Sure, there is some of that. But to a real extent their roots lie back in the sixties. That was the era that defined their social, sexual, and spiritual views and reliving the vibrant music of that era that stirred their souls so deeply then helps them reaffirm their identity now. In a somewhat similar way, what we are doing when we celebrate our roots is not mere antiquarianism: oh, wouldn’t it have been lovely to live in that era! No, we gather together to re-affirm who we are by recalling where we have come from.

Studying spiritual formation: a prolegomenon

The challenge with the whole area of studying spirituality and spiritual formation is that for decades, the Roman Catholics have dominated this area of study. While Evangelicals poured in tremendous resources preaching the gospel and responding to liberal theology and modernity (all of which needed to be done, no doubt about that), Roman Catholic theologians developed a whole area of what they would call spiritual theology. Now, Evangelicals are playing catch up and so frequently do not have the depth of thought on the subject. And given our ecclesial climate (ECT e.g.), it is all too easy to see the Roman Catholics as the masters at whose feet we need to sit. It is almost as if Evangelicals are saying: if you want to learn about how to be saved come to us. But then, on how to live the Christian life, you need to learn from the Roman Catholics. This is a vast over-simplification, but explains a little why Roman Catholic devotional practices are so easily assimilated into Evangelical piety.

 

But this is deeply problematic, for the theological foundation upon which Roman Catholics do spiritual formation is skewed (the Reformation was not a mistake and is still needful to orient our thinking). So there needs to be laid—which is what our Puritan forebears did—a solid theological foundation, from which proper reflection on piety can be done. And here Puritan methodology surely points the way. This does not mean that the Roman Catholics have nothing to teach us, but whatever is appropriated must be in line with biblical foundations.

Avatar: a few scattered impressions

My family and I just got back from seeing James Cameron's Avatar. Without a doubt the graphics were amazing. The Na'vi were beautiful as were the animals of the world of Pandora. I am sure this is in part what inspired some of the culture critics' raving about the movie. But the storyline was thin and so predictable, and if one looks at it from a philosophical angle, it has a very distinct political message that, to this viewer, seems to be the standard "hate the West" rant that the Left has indulged in for years. Along with that, the Mother Earth Goddess worship of the movie is naively presented and a far cry from the horrific reality that the ancients knew.

I am fully committed to ecological stewardship--surely the mandate of Genesis 1 commits us in this direction, despite the way some have misinterpreted the text. But Avatar would pin the blame for ecological disaster on one culture--the West--when the situation is far more complex. But is this not the problem of the medium of celluloid? It cannot tackle complex issues, but is good for getting the blood boiling and thrilling the imagination.

La belle province and the gospel

On a much more pleasant note, I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to have been in Quebec twice in the past two months. Once for the Montreal Calvin conference (see the picture of the participants attached) in late October (thanks to Drs. Andre Pinard and Jason Zuidema for arranging the details of this), and then just this past week, teaching La Reforme at SEMBEQ.

The needs of Quebec are great--in some ways, greater than any in the rest of North America: a largely Roman Catholic society that, since the Quiet Revolution, has thrown off all of the legalism of the Roman Church, and embraced modernity with a passion. It is easily one of the most secularized cultures I have taught in. But teaching trips to la belle province are always a delight, mainly because of all of the dear brothers and sisters there.

Many years ago, in 1978 to be precise, I heard a French Baptist preacher, Elisee Beau (d.2009), speak at my home church of Stanley Ave. Baptist in Hamilton, ON. I had the distinct impression that I needed to learn French. That impresson was God-given and I wished I had followed it up. I spent time mastering written French, but I wish I had put the effort and energy into also mastering conversational French (my spoken French always embarasses me!).

It was five years later that Francois Picard--then a student at Central Baptist Seminary, Toronto, where I had just begun to teach, and now the President of SEMBEQ--asked if I would be willing to come to Quebec to teach at SEMBEQ. And over the past quarter of a century (wow, hard to believe it has been that long), I have been involved with teaching courses, mentoring, and giving conferences. I would not have missed it for the world. It has been so enriching!

Brothers and sisters: pray for Quebec, and for SEMBEQ and for the Evangelical Baptist churches there, for one of the most challenging mission fields is right on our doorstep here in N America.