What was he Thinking? Aronofsky’s Noah…

Recently, after browsing through a bunch of conflicting reviews, Mick and I finally got around to seeing Aronofsky’s Noah for ourselves.

The reviews had been all over the show. At first American conservative evangelicals were slavering at the prospect of a shiny new Biblical epic movie, while the rest of the world seemed merely bemused.

But once these enthusiasts had seen the film, the ructions began. This wasn’t the Biblical story. For goodness’ sake, Noah comes over as an environmentally-aware vegan, while God is made out to be ruthless and capricious; some of those on the ark have no right being there – in fact, they were never in the bible, let alone on board the ark; there are weird, low-budget-looking ‘rock people’ lumbering through the landscape… and worst of all, whispered hints that the reason for all of the above is a sinister Gnostic thread intentionally woven through in the most dastardly way by its atheistic Director, Aronofsky.

Outrage. Then, as the evangelicals fired off furious blogs on the undermining nature of this unbiblical Noah movie, others began to take notice. Perhaps this film was worth a look after all?

Sure enough, the film reviews steadily warmed up as more liberal Christians now argued the case for a film that departed from the original text – on the basis that, duhh, it’s a film, not a Bible teaching module. Many from this group as well as those of other faiths and none, found they related to the anti-capitalist, ecological values of Aronofsky’s Noah.

I can’t remember ever going to see a film with less idea of what was coming. And in the event, I was impacted in a completely unexpected way.

The film opens looking very much like a classic Biblical epic, and features a gentle, compassionate Noah who risks his life for vulnerable children and animals, and is careful to bring up his own children with strong environmental values.

Then slowly, subtly, Noah’s natural compassion gets swallowed up in his dark conviction that God is entrusting his callous plans to him, and he assumes personal responsibility for realizing his bleak vision. Noah hardens progressively, becoming obsessive, judgmental, dogmatic and joyless, until eventually he alienates his entire family.

Finally, Noah’s understanding of God’s instructions conflicts with his deepest instinct to love and care in a terrible emotional crescendo. And when love eventually wins out, he broods, convinced that in choosing to go with his heart, he has failed God’s ultimate test.

In his depression, Noah doesn’t register that even as he envelopes himself in self-loathing, physically removing himself from his family, they are instinctively warming back to the man who rediscovered his God-given natural compassion when it counted most.

Finally, rather less sure now of his grasp on God’s voice, Noah is restored to those he alienated, his faith now sitting more comfortably with his compassionate nature. He has become kindly and approachable once more. And arguably a truer representation of a God of love.

Regardless of whatever else can be construed from Aronofsky’s Noah, the film didn’t come across to me as the story of a righteous man whose innate compassion shows up the gross shortcomings of a cruel, capricious God. Rather, it struck me as a timely illustration of the different stages of the believer’s spiritual journey. James Fowler’s valuable Stages of Faith, based on his personal research, reveals how faith development passes through up to 6 progressive stages, from the initial child’s understanding of God, through to the dogmatic certainties and judgmentalism of the Stage 3 fundamentalist stage, and eventually on to the humility of the more open and inclusive later stages.

Noah’s fixated belief that the Creator is making such harsh demands actually links closely to Fowler’s Stage 3 on the spiritual journey, the fundamentalist stage most often characterised by certainty, conviction and dogmatism.

As he wrestles with the mounting implications of that stage, Noah arguably finds himself caught between envisaging God’s displeasure at his questioning and the prospect of having to re-evaluate all he thought he knew… without really knowing how far this process could unravel: the Stage 4 position that so many evangelical Christians are encountering today.

Finally, Noah learns to travel more lightly, spiritually-speaking. He begins to hold the tension between faith, doubt, and unanswered questions, to let go of his dogged insistence that he alone holds the monopoly on the truth, and to value his natural intuition and discernment. All of which can be understood as having reached the wiser, more peaceable and authentic shores of Stage 5.

So, what did you make of it? Is Aronofsky’s Noah a story of the amoral nature of a ruthless God being thrown into sharp relief by the compassion of Noah? Or is this a tale for our time, in which the Director tracks with the expansion of Noah’s spiritual awareness, from an ego-led dualistic Stage 3 perception towards the deeper, more authentically spiritual understanding of the later stages?

Or maybe there’s a third option. That in the end the message we glean from the film actually has less to do with Aronofsky’s personal agenda and more to do with the faith stage we ourselves happen to be on at the time…?

‘Who is on The Lord’s Side?’ A thought on the death of Fred Phelps

So earlier today Fred Phelps, of ‘God Hates Fags’ Westboro Baptist fame, died at the age of 84.

Members of his church were featured on Russell Brand’s show, the video of which was linked to this blog’s Facebook page. The most interesting aspect was the way in which their bigoted so-called ‘Christian’ stance was shown up by Brand’s genuine efforts to ensure they had a fair hearing, and that they weren’t pilloried by the audience, or in other ways made to feel uncomfortable.

It’s interesting to see how a similar scenario is playing out in many cases following the death of Mr Phelps. Given that he and his church would cruelly picket funerals with any trumped-up association with being gay, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise if gay people everywhere were now gleefully preparing to return the favour – if only a funeral were on the cards for Mr Phelps.

A number probably would be. But what really gets the attention – in line with the reaction of the gay guests on Brand’s show – is when those in Fred Phelps’ line of fire refuse to react in the same spirit.

George Takei’s (Star Trek’s Sulu, and gay activist) Facebook page today carried the update: ‘Today, Mr Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no-one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace through death that was so plainly elusive during his life.’

And according to cjonline.com, Planting Peace, the group that painted their resource centre (across the road from Westboro Baptist) in rainbow colours to symbolize peace and change for LGBT communities, responded by sending their condolences, saying: ‘(Our) philosophy has always been to overwhelm hate with unconditional love.’

How ironic that the upsetting, hateful actions of a so-called church group should be answered in such a different spirit by those not even claiming to be Christian.

Earlier this week, I was asked whether a lovely young man I knew was ‘the Lord’s’. I find the assumptions behind that question breath-taking. And the actions of Fred Phelps v today’s grace-filled reactions of some of those he targeted remind me just why.

All Most Welcome or Almost Welcome…?

Over the last little while I have been out of the loop, not just of the Spiritual Journey site, but the normal things of everyday life. Everything suddenly ground to a halt when my father suffered a major stroke early in December, and several traumatic weeks later, died in hospital.

Life immediately transitioned into a swirl of hospital life, caring for my mother, and sharing in the chaotic lives and emotions of the relatives of the other stroke patients in my father’s ward. Pretty much everything else was parked on the shelf.

And then one morning, as we were with him, my father passed on quietly in his sleep. Just like that.

The enormous grief we all felt was swiftly swallowed up in another round of intense busyness, this time centred around funeral planning and all the administrative paraphernalia that claims your time and attention when a close family member dies.

Then, finally, came the day of the funeral; a beautiful, crisp, sunny morning with a very special touch that would have appealed to my meteorologist father: a beautiful double rainbow edged its way spectacularly across the blue skies over the church just as the last two people arrived. The atmosphere inside was warm and supportive, the pews packed with assorted friends and family. The service itself was a sensitive and meaningful celebration of my Dad’s life, with the music, the readings and the shared memories all piecing together something of his very essence.

Yet… in amongst all the positivity, something, somewhere had jarred. One of my daughters put her finger on it later that week, quoting from the format suddenly as we chatted: ‘…the great promise of new life – for those of us who are Believers…’ She pulled a ‘yikes!’ kind of face, instantly nailing my own source of discomfort. The church hadn’t been filled solely with professing Christians. Yet this phrase had popped up more than once, pointedly implying that the assurance may not be applicable to everyone there.

Meanwhile, another, somewhat higher-profile funeral took place around the same time… that of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. The Reverend Dave Tomlinson took Mr Biggs’ funeral – and, having also presided over the funeral of Bruce Reynolds (seen as the Robbery’s ‘mastermind’) a year earlier – found himself scathingly dubbed ‘The Villains’ Priest’ in some quarters of the press.

Personally, I loved the label. It sounded to me reassuringly like Jesus, the ‘friend of sinners’.

Dave seemed fine with it, too, responding thoughtfully to his critics in an article in the Church Times. He explained how he had joined many of Ronnie’s friends and family in the pub after the service (happily handing yet more ammunition to a few journalists), describing them as representative of ‘the hordes of people who know that their lives are a bit screwed up, who make no claim to being squeaky-clean Christians, but whose hearts are open to God, in all sorts of ways.’

With humility, he pointed to the deeper complexities of the concept of a ‘sheep and goat’-type Last Judgement: ‘…The reality is that there is a sheep and a goat in all of us – certainly within me. Divine judgement has to be more sophisticated than simply telling the Biggses of this world to stand on one side, and people like me to stand on the other.’

Whether the ‘sinners’ with whom Jesus shared his life all went on to step over some qualifying line or not, they evidently sensed that they were accepted rather than being judged by him. Just as the Prodigal Son was extravagantly welcomed home rather than quizzed first to ensure he had signed all the officially-repentant forms.

So I’ve been musing… isn’t it likely to be more productive, let alone more authentically spiritual – more Jesus-like – to count people in rather than to assume that unless they conform to our particular spiritual brand, or are at the same point on the journey as ourselves, that they are unlikely to make it safely through the Pearly Gates?

And how significant is it, I wonder, that shortly after Dave took Ronnie Biggs’ funeral, he was once again featured in the press alongside the Biggs family – this time welcoming Ronnie’s grand-daughter, Lilly, into the church at her baptism…?

No Fear…

Remember Peretti? His ‘light versus darkness’ popular Christian fiction demonizing the spiritual ‘other’, were part and parcel in my younger days of the general climate of fear and prejudice towards any faith or spirituality outside of evangelical Christianity.

In reality, I guess those books were probably the inevitable outcome of a generation already steeped in the superstitions of a conservative charismatic Christian mindset. Looking back over the years, I can recall seriously weighing strong warnings from the front of the church never to remove my shoes before entering a Sikh/Hindu temple – the very act would signal submission to the demonic powers of that temple; that spirits were hanging around waiting to jump out at you at psychic fairs and Mind, Body Spirit festivals… and so much more, it’s embarrassing. The ribbons of looped tape reels wafting around the grass verges here and there were tangible evidence of the various witchy curses just waiting to attach themselves to unwary Christians. We had to tread very, very carefully – the world was a spiritual minefield out to snare us…

I went along with much of it – or at least, kept many of those things under review on my growing Shelf of Spiritual Questions. But even I was taken aback many years later by the powerful reach of this mindset. I was walking for the first time on to a particular TV set with the Executive Editor of one of the Christian media Channels I worked for. It was a set for a series I would present, and the original, rather sterile professional design had been vetoed. Relieved, I had quickly sketched out an alternative design – an altogether moodier look incorporating a background of heavy drapes woven through with Latin calligraphy. Happily, this one had met with approval.

So there we were, entering the studio filled with various TV crew busily adjusting their cameras and lights, to view the finished article – more beautiful even than I had envisaged, a gorgeous set bathed in the gentle glow of flickering candles. I beamed – but the Boss was jumpy. ‘Liz – are you sure this is ok? It all looks very dark… spiritually dark.’ Eyeing the drapes, his agitation increased: ‘What do those words mean…?

It was too much for me and my personal ‘dark’ side quickly shot back. ‘Oh those – nothing to worry about. Just a verse from the Karma Sutra. In Latin.’

‘What…!’ Eyes wide he spun round – before slumping and grinning sheepishly as the entire crew convulsed with laughter. ‘Liz Ray – you are one wicked woman!’

At least he had the grace to laugh. My sense is that years of dodgy teaching have left many so bound up with fear of potentially ‘dark’ people and situations that they have walked narrower and narrower paths, opting out of God-given opportunities and compromising their own personal identities for fear of spiritual contamination. And, ironically, the blanket-vetoeing and suspicion of anything that doesn’t conform spiritually means that true spiritual discernment is never cultivated.

How strange that with such reverence for C S Lewis in our circles we missed his own insightful thoughts on different faiths and spiritualities: ‘The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as the gap between those who worship & those who don’t.’

I decided eventually to test the validity of these words. On the look-out for ways in which to connect with spiritual searchers some years back, I trained in a Bible-based model of dream interpretation to use in a booth at Mind Body Spirit-type fairs.

The one thing those experiences impressed on me was the inclusive, affirming nature of the message of people’s dreams. I once found myself interpreting a dream which clearly signaled that the dreamer was a healer – were they? Their face lit up, buoyed by the recognition – yes, a Reiki Master. Didn’t God know that that Reiki didn’t actually count, I mused? Nope, evidently not. Taking a deep breath I continued to give the interpretation straight… it clearly showed the dreamer’s healing gift increasing as they followed the deeper spiritual path they had connected with recently. Moved, the dreamer explained that they had been brought up in a Christian home and had lately found themselves being drawn back to the church that they had earlier rejected… The Missio Dei, I discovered, is more just than a religious phrase… God really is at work in his own world, and the best response is to watch what he is doing – and the awesome respect with which he operates – and get alongside it.

Over the years I’ve followed with interest the spiritual journey of a major New Spirituality leader in the UK, fascinated by what has always come over to me as a mix of deep integrity and authentic spiritual hunger. Where would this take him, I had wondered? Originally, he would – by his own admission – promote any spiritual guru who produced some sort of authenticating supernatural manifestation. Until he began to notice that supernatural effects didn’t necessarily equate with values, ethics, or ‘goodness.’ In fact, even information gleaned directly from an authentically spiritual source was no guarantee of the truth of that information. Spirits themselves, he discovered, could lie. He wrote eventually that the deepest truth he had gleaned from his spiritual experiences over the years was encapsulated in the Bible verse, ‘Beloved, believe not every spirit, but test the spirits whether they are of God.’

Browsing the web recently, I saw that he had been an attendee at a leading New Spirituality centre – where a gifted Christian acquaintance of mine was giving a seminar on Christ-centred spirituality. The ‘guru’ had evidently taken to this person, and afterwards wrote a thoughtful reflection on both the appealing stance he had taken and the positive spiritual content of his message.

Interesting to see the route this particular journey is beginning to go. And sobering, too, to realize that had my friend been fazed by fears of connecting with those running a New Spirituality retreat, the message that is now helping to shape the journey of this particular spiritual guru would never have been heard…

God, NLP, and The Big Questions…

Yesterday morning on BBC’s The Big Questions, one atheist guest, Jonny Scaramanga, spoke about his charismatic evangelical upbringing, and how as an adolescent he would feel euphoric during times of worship – transported in a way he ascribed at the time to the work of the Holy Spirit. Later on, he made the unsettling discovery that he could experience exactly the same emotions listening to secular music. So it had all been down to the music and not God at all, he reasoned, and, disillusioned, his faith swiftly unraveled.

I believe Christians everywhere who have dipped their toes into unfamiliar aspects of either secular culture or different faith/spiritual cultures will have had similar experiences. Those who read or watched the film of Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat Pray Love’ will probably recall Elizabeth’s irritated struggle in an Ashram with a painful Hindu liturgy that seemed interminable and discordant – until the night she tried it once again, this time with a heartfelt focus on her young nephew’s sleeping/nightmare issues. It is as though she wrestles with God through the medium of the liturgy and then finally breaks through – when in apparent confirmation of the outcome of her spiritual battle, she learns that her nephew has had a breakthrough of his own with a peaceful, unbroken night’s sleep. So does Elizabeth’s experience validate Hinduism, invalidate Christianity, is this all a coincidence… or is something else going on?

Talking of Hinduism, I know one person who was very impacted by the ‘Toronto Blessing’, and like many others, would fall to the floor jerking wildly whenever he was prayed for. Wow, this had to be God. Then he learned from a Hindu colleague that worshippers experienced exactly the same manifestations within his own religion. Did that nullify my friend’s experience? He certainly thought so, and like Jonny, he too began to lose his faith from that point.

I remember being unnerved myself as I began to attend NLP-based (Neuro-Linguistic Programming – the study of the structure of human experience) conferences when I first trained as a coach. At times, these actually looked and felt uncannily like church, complete with encouragement to connect spiritually, times of corporate release of forgiveness (that were actually more radical than anything I had encountered in church), values that included the belief that identity is to be found in contribution to the world, and so on. One particular session resembled the aftermath of a Toronto church gathering, with groups of giggly shiny-eyed people hugging one another and generally engaging in a huge corporate love-fest. They had just spent a session re-connecting spiritually and by all accounts it had worked.

It was an unnerving period. I would experience times of being in church that were interpreted as the Holy Spirit showing up. Then I would find myself in an NLP group situation that felt very similar, yet which I knew had been engineered through language and other sensory anchors. I began to understand the incredible power of language, and the part this plays in creating our experience of reality. And I began to wonder…

I examined the church situation more closely and realized that those very anchors I had learned about were firmly in place there, too. So here was a dilemma. Did that mean that my experience of God had actually been about the use of language, music and other natural tools all along? It was one of the most challenging times of my life…

Finally, I realised that there was a third option. That God was far bigger than I had conceived him to be, and was actually being accessed and experienced by people everywhere. He was there, present, in the language, in music, in the hearts of those of different faiths and spiritualities (and none). The one thing I couldn’t hold on to any longer was the illusion that God was only to be found within the confines of the Christian church – let alone the narrower confines of the charismatic evangelical church.

On the final day of my NLP Practitioner course, students were asked to write and read aloud a passage using what is known as the ‘Milton Model’ – conscious use of language in order to produce a desired effect. I decided to write about – and recreate for the audience – the very similar experiences I had had in a church situation and in an NLP conference, mentioning the different labels that the speakers in these 2 situations had used to describe what had happened. I brought the piece in to land with a final Miltonian-crafted suggestion:

‘And it may be that as I relate these experiences to you that you find yourself wondering – was there anything transcendent at all about the first experience? Or did the second event show that in reality the Milton model has far more to do with changing your experience – that this is actually one of the incredible uses, joys and delights of his language approach. Or it could be that the extraordinary power of mere words to effect change, itself suggests that there are hidden depths to the universe – couldn’t it?’

Interestingly, numerous students and trainers approached me excitedly after this piece to confide that I exactly articulated their own experience, too. Using the Milton Model had given them a new awareness of a deeply spiritual dimension to the world, one that a number of them were now consciously pursuing.

‘Almost all religion’ explains Richard Rohr, ‘begins with a specific encounter with something that feels “holy” or transcendent: a place, an emotion, an image, music, a liturgy, an idea that suddenly gives you access to God’s Bigger World. The false leap of logic is that other places, images, liturgies, scriptures, or ideas can not give you access.’ And, by extension, that any other apparent means of access has by definition to be false – and also to cast aspersions on the validity of the original ‘holy’ encounter…

Personally, I finally gave up on drawing boundary lines for God and graciously permitted people to access him wherever she was to be found. After all, whether we listen to secular or Christian bands, go through times of spiritual wrestling in a variety of faith traditions, believe ourselves to be moved by the creative power of language or by the direct power of God himself, the bigger truth has to be that there is actually nowhere that God isn’t, ‘for in him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17 v 28).

Something in the Air: Beyond Woolwich

We knew it would happen. Just as it did with the Oklahoma tornadoes and countless other catastrophes. The fundamentalist claim that the Woolwich murder had been orchestrated by an angry God for some imagined offence.

And it wasn’t long in coming… Westboro Baptist Church’s incendiary tweet, alleging that God sent the killers as a payback for the equal marriage bill that passed its third reading on Tuesday.

At around the same time, a radical Muslim cleric claimed that God destined British soldier Lee Rigby to die in the terrible attack.

Meanwhile, in contrast to the callous, gloating spirit of both of these claims, a small group of clerics representing the major faiths came together to denounce both the barbaric act and the violent reactions they sparked, and speak up movingly and authentically for an integrated community built on mutual respect and solidarity.

This outlook has been echoed most passionately on my Facebook Newsfeed by a Pagan friend. In all honesty, it’s been disarming to discover that I often find myself more in agreement with his updates than I do with some of the evangelical Christian ones.

Many of us grew up in ‘us and them’ Christian communities that honestly believed their expression of faith held the monopoly on the truth. But surely the real differences are to be found not between those of differing faiths, but between the well-intentioned of all faiths and none, and extremist fundamentalists of all faith backgrounds.

I’m not sure why this should come as such a surprise. The scriptures are full of accounts of good ‘God-fearing’ people who were neither Jew nor Christian… as well as a few give-away pointers along the lines of ‘by their fruits you will know them.’

And there are so many illustrations from our own day and age. A few years back I made a series of programmes with Canon Andrew White, ‘the Vicar of Baghdad’, who explained to me that a large proportion of his Iraqi Anglican congregation were Moslems who recognized that this community also worshipped God, or ‘Allah’. He spoke moving about his Ayatollah ‘brother’ who had suffered so much under Saddam Hussein, and with whom he shared a deep spiritual connection. He found it difficult to understand why Christians should even question the natural affinity between these religious groups.

Something is shifting in the spiritual world. Surprising things are being said by surprising people, and old models of divvying up the world just won’t do. And it’s going to take more than the odd modifying tweak here and there to really get it. A whole new paradigm… or wineskin, perhaps?

It’s always helpful to give an ear to those who have understood something of this paradigm and worked with it for many years. Talking of which, watch for an interview with Noel Moules on his explosive take on Shalom, coming to this site soon…

And in the meantime, hot on the heels of Pope Francis in the contest for Surprising New Religious Commentator award, I bring you Russell Brand’s reaction to the Woolwich tragedy: ‘Let’s look beyond our superficial and fleeting differences (and) instead leave flowers at each other’s places of worship. Let’s reach out in the spirit of love and humanity and connect to one another, perhaps we will then see what is really behind this conflict, this division, this hatred and make that our focus…’

Christian Spirituality: What is it… and where to from here?

Drinks & Dialogue with the Dranes!
8.00 pm, Wednesday 10 April, Molesey (Venue tba)

For those who have grown up in the Evangelical church, this is an intensely interesting time. Niggling questions that, for many of us, refused to be quelled by the church culture of certainty, are now not only being engaged with seriously but look set to bring about a paradigm shift.

Many Christians are relieved at the conversations taking place about issues such as Christian Universalism, hell, gay sexuality and so on. But for those whose faith has been built on certainties about the pre-requisites of salvation and focused on saving souls from hell, the current debates can also be confusing and destabilizing. Why worry if God has everything in hand? And if we believed the wrong stuff for so long, how can we know if perspectives popularized by the likes of Steve Chalke and Rob Bell are any closer to the truth? What does our faith actually rest on? And if so much of what we once believed has unraveled thus far, how can we know if there will be anything left at the end of all this…?

John Drane is a great person to have around at such times! An academic, theologian, author of best-selling books on the Bible, Introducing the Old Testament and Introducing the New Testament as well as numerous challenging books on culture and spirituality, he is truly radical in every sense of the word… able to go to the very roots of the Christian faith, and also to envisage freeing, creative ways of living it that connect us with, rather than distance us from others. John’s wife, Olive Drane lectures with John in Fuller Seminary, has authored books on creativity and spirituality, and is also very engaged with finding imaginative ways to connect with those on a spiritual journey.

If this evening sounds up your street, please reserve your place with Liz asap. Then come with your thoughts and questions and join us for an edgy, inspirational evening of Drinks and Dialogue with the Dranes!

Controlling or Controlled…?

Over the last few days, the issue of gay marriage has acted as a touchstone for an avalanche of strong emotions from Christians with widely-differing viewpoints. Comments and disagreements lie strewn across Facebook, sometimes reasoned and courteous, at other times more barbed, graduating to the downright insulting and apoplectic.

Christians who shout down the idea of gay marriage, or gay sexuality in general – often peppering their views with Levitical texts – are usually perceived to be harsh, controlling characters. Sometimes they are. I was once stalked in my media career by a ‘Christian’ spokesperson who believed that the reason we had such a homosexual ‘problem’ in the UK was that we refused to take the Old Testament seriously. So what was he proposing, exactly? ‘String them all up’ he bellowed, ‘and the problem will disappear overnight!’

Hate-filled extremes exist. But I often find myself focusing on ‘controlled’ church members, rather than ‘controlling’ ones… those who, hand on heart, would dearly love not to stand in judgement on anyone, but have been convinced that this is what the bible demands of them. Caught in a cruel double-bind, they believe that keeping quiet would not merely threaten their own eternal destiny, but potentially those of others, too.

Fundamentalists are so often trapped in a life and personality-cramping fear of hell. I know – I experienced it. For many years there were two of us slugging it out in my body: the real, flesh-and-blood me, who instinctively resonated with people from all walks of life and longed to respond to them warmly and spontaneously; and the fearful legalistic side of me that felt weighed down with responsibility for their ticket to eternity.

As, mercifully, I finally clawed my way out of this angst-ridden black hole, I found myself drawn to others trapped in the same crippling mindset. One of the earlier encounters still lives with me. I was speaking at a church on ‘colouring outside the lines’ – on the impossibility of reaching the limits of God’s love – when I noticed one of the visitors shaking, almost imperceptibly. I had spotted her immediately – a serious-faced girl with long blonde hair and ethereal model looks, enigmatically dressed in shapeless nondescript clothes. I started multi-tasking, trying hard to stay on-message while also keeping an eye on her as she variously welled up with tears, sat upright suddenly, and glanced knowingly at her husband, continuing to shake gently throughout.

It transpired that the couple were from the US; they belonged to a strict fundamentalist church where pretty much everything that wasn’t compulsory was forbidden. Somehow the girl had discovered Rob Bell’s ‘Velvet Elvis’ and was riveted, her soul sensing the promise of liberation. Her husband shared her excitement – but they had been conditioned to be wary: what if this was all just too good to be true – a ‘snare’? With hell always snapping at their heels, there was just one thing for it – they decided to consult with a church leader.

Unsurprisingly, the rug of hope was swiftly yanked out from under them as they were set straight: engaging with Rob Bell’s deceptive message, they were told, would hurl them onto the slippery slope towards Liberalism and ultimately an eternity without God.

So near and yet so far. The girl confided that at that point she had felt herself sinking into utter hopelessness. But her spirit had been too stirred to let go entirely. She informed God that she would indeed steer clear of Rob Bell – but asked that if there was any truth in his message, that somehow this would cross her path another way.

The couple prepared to visit their friends in England, where they accompanied them to their church – and were amazed to hear a very similar message. Since Rob Bell’s book had just been published, they assumed I had drawn from it for my talk. The fact that I hadn’t heard of him seemed to encourage them – this must be bigger than Rob Bell! As the girl sat, wondering at just how quickly they were hearing the unfamiliar message of God’s unconditional love yet again, her soul soared, and she described how she shook as she felt the sensation of bonds snapping off, liberating her from the harsh, legalistic spirituality that was all she had known.

Conforming to church teaching her entire life meant she would have come across to her non-church friends as a dour, judgemental kill-joy. Yet part of her motivation in taking an uncompromising stand for her beliefs was to save others. It’s an irony that the most sensitive people can be the very ones liable to take such a stand – the predicament of others is of far more importance to them than their personal popularity.

With the backdrop of my own experience and this girl’s dramatic personal story, I was maybe less surprised than some to see earlier this week that even in Westboro Baptist church, people can be more complex than they appear.

Megan, the daughter of the notorious Fred Phelps, who regularly turned up to carry placards on their obnoxious, high-profile ‘God hates Fags’ demonstrations, and twitter her extreme religious views, has apparently made a dramatic theological u-turn, extricating herself from both her family and her father’s church. In an interview, she explains how she finally woke up to the deep flaws in their beliefs and practices. But why had she aligned herself with this group for so long, harassing gay people and the churches that supported them? She had just wanted to use her life for good. Now that she and her sister are free to think for themselves, they are taking time to process their recovery, and consider more positive, loving ways to make their lives count.

A timely reminder that sometimes even the most apparently opinionated, intolerant and judgemental may just be idealistic, well-meaning people cruelly skewed by a harsh, controlling theology…

On Gay Sexuality and Scriptural Clarity…

I’m lucky enough to have a Christian academic friend who has proved an enormous help over the years as I have sifted through my accumulated weird and not-so-wonderful rag-bag of charismatic evangelical beliefs. Usually he would say very little as I sought to draw him out on yet more superstitious clap-trap; he would just listen intently – and then with laser accuracy, pose a quietly explosive question. Once we knew each other well enough, he confided that he used to think that people who actually believed all that kind of stuff were ‘nutters.’ Even that comment brought a little more freedom to my spiritually schizophrenic soul, our laughter effectively pinging off yet a few more strands of any lingering bonds.

‘Nutters’ – it sounds somehow sad yet harmless. But this morning I clicked on a youtube video to find a story of American evangelical funding being diverted from feeding the hungry to pushing for anti-LGBT legislation in Uganda – which originally included the death penalty.

It throws Steve Chalke’s candid stand last week against the traditional evangelical line on homosexuality into sharp relief. And also contextualizes Steve Clifford’s official Evangelical Alliance response, which though seemingly-respectful, nevertheless emphasizes their stance that homosexuality is clearly incompatible with scripture.

I was convinced of that myself, once. Not that I really gave it much thought. After all, not so long ago, homosexual acts were illegal in the UK, so those of us old enough to have been around at the time, grew up accepting that they were just wrong. The fact that this was apparently borne out in scripture was unsurprising.

There’s an old saying that used to be quoted in my NLP ‘modeling’ class: ‘you can’t understand someone until you have walked a thousand miles in their moccasins.’ As evangelical Christians, we were taught that scripture was clear enough for us not to have to engage in any real ‘understanding’. But when I finally woke up to the fact that I had never heard gay Christians themselves represented in our church teaching, I began to take steps to listen to the experiences of any who were prepared to risk opening up to me.

The stories were diverse. I had extensive conversations with some who were petrified about peers in their church learning about their sexuality, to others who had come out about their sexuality but believed they should be celibate, to a number who had repeatedly asked for prayer, or put themselves through ex-gay ‘programmes’ – including some who had self-harmed or attempted suicide when it failed to change them – to a few who had found a measure of peace and contentment in a heterosexual marriage, to others who were deeply frustrated with their experience of heterosexual marriage, some who divorced and then settled in monogamous gay relationships… and so on. Such a wide range of personal experiences and beliefs about scripture and how it played out in their lives. Definitive scriptural truth continued to be beyond my grasp; but these deeply painful experiences did at least show me that what I had been taught amounted to little more than old wives’ tales mixed in with a pinch of shallow conjecture.

And meanwhile, something else had been happening. Hearing and engaging with these stories had drawn me out in a way that my attempts to arrive at a clear biblical line never had done. I broke through the need to arrive at the objective truth on this issue by discovering a deep sense of affinity with and care for many of these friends who were having such an agonising journey.

And surely that is the whole point? Coming up with an objective scriptural perspective on gay sexuality may be beyond our scope. But maybe the very impossibility of producing a crystal clear scriptural line underlines the fact that the really important issue is the foundational call to love one another? That much, at least, really is crystal clear in scripture.

And when care for one another not only flies out of the window in our obsession with scripture, but potentially leads to utilising church donations given in good faith to push through harsh anti-gay legislation – then continuing to be a Christian ‘nutter’ has surely gone way beyond a laughing matter.