To mock or not to mock

21 05 2011

So today is judgment day, and I have mixed feelings. Not about whether the Rapture might happen or not, but about how I should conduct myself in the run up to 6pm, and what I should do and say at 6.01.

To Mock

I truly think that the guys who think they’ve calculated the rapture, and the thousands who have given up their homes, jobs, and wasted thousands of dollars on this are a few sandwiches short of a picnic. And I very much want myself, my church, my faith and my Lord to be disassociated from their fruitloop theology!

So on the one hand, I think mild mockery is probably the best way. I’ve enjoyed reading some of the #rapture tweets, particularly by some Christian friends. I’ve laughed at a bit of satire and have joked about it a little. I’ll be at a wedding this evening, and think it might be kind of amusing to leave little piles of clothes and shoes out in the corridors for people to stumble across… or play a trumpet fanfare from my iPhone in the middle of the speeches. (Of course, I won’t do either…)

And I hope that my friends who aren’t Christians will look at those things and realise that Mr Camping does not speak for all Christians. I hope that they will appreciate that many Christians think this is as silly as they do, and I hope that as a result they will be able to differentiate between oddball fanatics and the real deal.


Not to Mock

… I do wonder if mockery may do more harm than good. In passing Camping and his theories off as a laughable fiction, we may well give people the impression we don’t take the second coming seriously. And that could be a serious hindrance for the gospel.

Already I’ve noticed that early comments on the Camping phenomenon labelled May 21st ‘Judgment Day’ whereas more recent ones tend to say ‘Rapture Day.’ In creating a mockery of it, have we removed the fear of judgment? By mocking and joking, I do hope that we can strip away some of the nonsense, but in so doing, I hope we don’t cause people to take judgment less seriously.

Paul’s words to the Athenians are still as true and urgent as ever:

‘The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’
(Acts 17:30-31)

I do slightly fear that in telling people it’s not going to happen at 6pm we may end up making them think it’s not going to happen at all. In so caricaturing Camping’s vision of judgment day so as to seem unthinkably foolish, do we run the risk of making judgment itself seem unbelievable?

Tomorrow I shall, God willing (!), be preaching on Ephesians 2:1-10. It’s a bold and striking passage with some hard truths to hear. I shall make no mention of the rapture, Harold, or the end of the world, but I hope to preach a message that is faithful to the difficult truths, and yet still full of hope, inviting and urging people to make a decision…

Judgment is coming. Probably not at 6pm this evening. It could happen sooner… Either way, are you ready?

Night of the living dead

30 10 2010

In some senses my return journey to Brixton at midnight last night was not dissimilar from any other. Most nights of the year there will be the odd person looking half dead and zombified through an over-imbibing of alcohol. But yesterday was a little more grotesque.

I’m sure it has not escaped your attention, but this weekend is halloween.

Halloween - John Althouse Cohen

Halloween, the one time of the year when all those people who have laboured hard at producing bizarre latex products and tubes of fake luminescent blood, finally get to see the fruit of their labours for 48 hours or so. Slashed throats. Bullet holes in foreheads. Blood-stained t-shirts and women dressed as if witches have some kind of supernatural allergic reaction to non-revealing clothing! Again, not an uncommon Brixton weekend experience.

But why do people enjoy dressing up like thoroughly depressing, undead beings? What is it that people find so attractive about the idea of making yourself look like you have just undergone a grotesque murder, but still lived to drink yourself silly in celebration?

Is it an obsession with defeating death? Perhaps a dissatisfaction with the intangible idea of floating souls escaping a physical world, and a wish for something more concrete? Dead bodies still able to walk, talk, touch. Is it simply macabre, or is it a deep heart cry – a longing for resurrection?

This halloween, why not spend a moment reflecting on this puzzling little section of Matthew 27. How does the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus connect with the wannabe-zombies strolling our streets this weekend? I like this little passage. I’d quite like to see this take place… though if it happened this weekend, I’m not sure anyone would notice:

‘And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.’ (Matthew 27:51-53 ESV)

Honour and Shame iv – Strung Up and Lifted Up

24 09 2010

In this fourth and final post I explore two more passages of Scripture that address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example:

Disarming the Powers

‘When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.’ (Colossians 2:13-15)

Similarly to Leviticus 16, in Colossians 2 we see God dealing not only with the legal demand of guilt, but also the problem of shame. The cross was a hugely brutal and shameful thing to endure. As Jesus hung there, bloody, bruised, broken, naked and humiliated, with a mocking sign above his head, to all intents and purposes it seemed like the powers and authorities (both Roman and Demonic) had won. But actually, as Christ wilfully endured that shameful act of cruelty on our behalf, he turned the tables on the powers, triumphing over them and putting them to open shame as he broke their power forever more. Colossians 2 says he did it ‘at the cross’ but implicit in this as well is the resurrection. It was not only at the cross that he shamed them, but at the grave as well, where he demonstrated their impotence and rose again in glory. And now he is ascended into heaven and there is only, and will only ever be, glory for him!

The Christ Hymn of Philippians

‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ (Phil 2:5-11)

Philippians 2 is an awe-inspiring passage that depicts beautifully Jesus’ willingness to transition from glory, being in very nature God, to shame, becoming like a servant/slave, and ultimately dying a humiliating criminal’s death. The passage ends with God exalting him to a position of extreme honour – every knee bowing before him in heaven and on earth and under the earth. Jesus took on a shameful form to pay for our shame, and his resurrection and ascension in glory prefigures our own eventual resurrection at the second coming.


The Gospel cuts across every culture at some point and causes discomfort. It is not only those in honour/shame cultures that will feel some repugnance at the notion of leaving your family (and dying father?) without a farewell, in order to follow Jesus (Luke 9:59-62). Socialising with prostitutes is as much of a cultural faux pas for modern western politicians (and footballers!) as it was for ancient eastern Rabbis! (Matthew 21:32) The Gospel has always been, and will continue to be, foolishness to the perishing (1 Cor 1:18).

There is no easy and comfortable portrayal of the Gospel, as it will always confront our assumptions and challenge us to give up something our culture holds dear; independence, personal comfort, prejudices etc. In a sense, Gospel and Culture will always be somewhat in opposition.

Having said that, it is vital we contextualise the Gospel responsibly, and ensure that we present it in a way that genuinely addresses the concerns of the recipient. Failure to recognise the differences between cultures can result in the presentation of an irrelevant and incoherent gospel.

Honour and Shame iii – Scapegoat and Son

23 09 2010

In this third of four posts I intend to briefly explore two passages of Scripture that address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example.

The Scapegoat

‘Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat.’ (Leviticus 16:9-10)

Leviticus 16 tells the story of two goats, one of whom is killed on behalf of the people as a means of paying the penalty for their sin (guilt), whilst the second is sent off into the desert, carrying their shame with him. The second goat, the scapegoat, is driven outside the camp, separated from the community. It is symbolic of the penalty of sin; shameful separation. [1]

Removal of guilt is not the only thing God is concerned with. He is concerned with the feelings of shame and the social and relational ramifications of sin. His scapegoat is the means of removing that shame, and Jesus, who was sent outside the camp, ridiculed, naked and bearing our shame, fulfilled both the role of the sin offering and scapegoat in one fell swoop.

The Prodigal Son

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:21-24)

The story of the Prodigal Son is a brilliant example of how the gospel is relevant to the honour/shame culture. In fact, there is little in it to appease those of us entrenched in a guilt culture, such is the emphasis on the restoration of relationship. The following elements are of particular note:

  • The younger son brings shame upon himself by wishing his father were dead, thus enabling him to have the inheritance (15:12)
  • He brings shame upon the father by squandering his hard earned wealth (15:13)
  • He gets a job tending swine, which is immeasurably shameful for a Jew (15:15) and he even contemplates eating the swine food (15:16)
  • He is in such dire need that he considers going back to his father, begging him and offering to become a hired hand – to give himself in slavery to his father and giving up his title as son (15:19)
  • But the father himself takes the bold move of running, undignified, towards his returning prodigal son (15:19) rather than rejecting him.
  • Even more amazing, he refuses to allow his son to be a slave, but blesses him. He doesn’t even allow him to return and carry on as if nothing had happened, but he showers honour upon him, with a robe, a ring and a feast (15:22-23)

This story paints the picture of a God who won’t abandon you to shameful separation, even when that’s what logic and society deem appropriate. He will step out and come running toward you, eager to restore you to a place of honour. I think it is telling that the Father takes a potentially shameful step, putting his reputation at stake by running (an action not befitting of an older gentleman!) and accepting a clearly sinful man back into your family. It beautifully makes sense of the God who was willing to endure the shame of the cross to take away the shame of humanity.

There is a great significance in the character of the older brother as well. He reproves his father, a clear advocate of the honour/shame mindset; “This son has dishonoured you, I have only brought honour to you, it is dishonourable for you to accept him back!” But God defies the logic of those who are bemused by his lavish grace. The cross is foolishness…


[1] It is worth noting that death would have been the fate of both goats. The scapegoat didn’t simply wander off to live a long, albeit lonely, life. In fact the Rabbis indicate that they went to extreme lengths to ensure the goat didn’t return, bringing the shame back into the camp. They established ten booths along the way towards a large ravine in the wilderness. At these booths, a man whose job it was to lead the goat could stop for water, food and rest. When the man reached the ravine he would push the goat into it, ensuring it died. He would then wave a towel so that the people at the last booth could see the goat was dead. This was communicated from booth to booth all the way back to the camp, where the people would rejoice that their shame was gone, no more to return. Thus it was essential that Jesus not only bore our shame and went outside the camp, but that he died too, thus putting an end to our shame once and for all. He will never return to us with our shame. Our shame is in the grave, and now the risen Christ is clothed in only glory!

Honour and Shame ii – Eden and Exodus

22 09 2010

In this second of four posts I intend to briefly explore two passages of Scripture that address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example. It’s a fairly arbitrary selection and there are, of course, many more I could add…

The Fall

‘The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed […] Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths […] And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.’ (Genesis 2:25, 3:7, 21)

In God’s original creation, shame was non-existent; or at the very least, the things of which we are now ashamed bore no stigma. Right at the beginning of history we see a story that shows a number of key elements of the gospel, namely:

  • We were created to be without shame, in perfect relationship with one another and with the Lord (2:25)
  • Sin leads to shame (3:7)
  • Man tries to cover his shame through his own efforts (3:7)
  • Shame leads to fear, not only of what others think, but what God thinks (3:10)
  • The result of man’s actions is a curse of enmity (3:15, 16), pain in childbirth (3:16), a curse on the earth (3:18), painful work (3:19), physical death (3:19), loss of eternal life (3:22) and, crucially, banishment from God’s presence (3:24)
  • God took an active role in covering our shamefulness and restoring dignity to us (3:21) probably through an act of sacrifice.

Thus in the story of the fall we have a basic structure for explaining how sin affects relationships, creating a sense of shame that results in banishment, and how God Himself offers a way of covering our shame and restoring our dignity.

The Exodus

‘The Egyptians set taskmasters over [The Israelites] to afflict them with heavy burdens […] they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.’ (Exodus 1:11, 13-14)

The Exodus story depicts a people who are removed from their homeland and reduced to the shameful position of waiting on their ruthless Egyptian captors. Slavery is a shameful thing, and being oppressed and unable to do anything about it would be looked down on in honour/shame cultures (as it would in most cultures, I imagine.) Yet the Exodus story paints a picture of a God who:

  • Cares about His people, and doesn’t abandon them because He is ashamed of their degraded state
  • Acts to bring an end to shame, when the Israelites could do nothing by their own strength to free themselves
  • When God brings Israel out of exile, he doesn’t merely bring them to a neutral position, but promises to bless them with an honourable status in a fertile land flowing with milk and honey

So although it takes a step of humility for someone in an honour/shame culture to recognise that they are unable to do anything to remedy their shameful state, and that they are indeed in need of rescue, the Exodus narrative gives a good structure for showing how God is not ashamed of His people enough to give them up, but instead gets involved to rescue and restore them.

Honour and Shame i – The Jumping Frog

20 09 2010

Tiswango - Hurricane Katrina

Mark Twain once stumbled across a French translation of his short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. He decided to convert the French version back into English, word for word, retaining the French grammatical structure and syntax. There were, predictably, quite notable and humorous differences between the original and the back-translated versions. The latter was clunky, indecipherable and bore little resemblance to the original story. Finally, in 1903, the three versions were published together under the title The Jumping Frog: in English, then in French, and then Clawed Back into a Civilised Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil.

Back-translating a document, from one language to another, and back to the original, is a perilous undertaking; a good deal may be lost in the process, and you’ve got to wonder what you’ve gained over simply using the original document!?

I can’t help but feel that the question of how to communicate the Gospel in an honour/shame culture has the potential to fall foul to the hazards of back-translation. The audience to whom Jesus spoke was, after all, entrenched in an honour/shame worldview. And so here am I, not particularly au fait with the intricacies of the honour/shame worldview, trying to back-translate my own interpretation of the gospel into its original form!

I say this not to claim it is an impossible or unfruitful task, but simply to highlight a slight peculiarity about the task in hand, and also to admit that I know very little about honour/shame cultures. I should like to know more, and given that Britain is becoming increasingly multicultural, our interaction with people who hold this worldview is only likely to increase.

A short while ago I had to write an essay on how the gospel could be communicated in an honour/shame culture. It was a challenge and I fear my own observations, given their lack of intricate knowledge, may prove to be as clunky and indecipherable as version three of the Jumping Frog! Reading Carson’s article reminded me that I wanted to revisit the subject and give it some further thought.

Given that the New Testament was written to people in an honour/shame culture, is no great surprise to find that it contains not a few elements, metaphors, stories and concepts that lend themselves to communicating the gospel to these cultures. In these next few blog posts I propose to make a few tentative observations about honour/shame cultures, followed bare-bone structures for how one might present the gospel from six passages of Scripture.

Initial Observations

One of the elements of honour/shame cultures that works in favour of communicating the gospel is that there is already an established understanding of sin. People recognise that some actions are good, and others bad, or at least that certain actions have good or bad outcomes. The concept of sinfulness is therefore relatively familiar to individuals in honour/shame cultures. People will hardly need convincing of the existence and effect of sin, as it is experienced on a regular basis.

However, there are a number of differences between our understandings of the effect sin has. In our culture, which one might call a ‘guilt culture’, the issue with sin is that it leaves us with a sense of guilt for the wrongs we have committed. What we require, in order to appease that guilt, is forgiveness. In honour/shame cultures, guilt is not so much a consideration, as alienation; as a result of your shame, you will be shunned by those you have hurt, and particularly your family. What you need, therefore, is not so much forgiveness – although that will no doubt be a part of it – but reconciliation to your family through the removal of shame.

Sinfulness is often determined in honour/shame cultures by the effect your actions have upon your relationships. What constitutes sin is often defined by how other people perceive your actions, rather than the inherent goodness or wrongness of the action itself. Thus what constitutes a shameful action could vary significantly according to the crowd with whom you interact. [1]

What’s more, the fact that sin is defined as something that brings shame upon the community, may actually prove to be a hindrance to someone making a response to the gospel. In shame cultures, it may be considered a seriously shameful thing to convert to Christianity. Hence many converts who come from Islamic backgrounds find themselves disowned by their family members, or in extreme circumstances threatened with death. The belief that conversion will bring shame upon your family may prove to be a significant stumbling block for a potential convert in a shame culture.

Another potential hindrance raised by the honour/shame understanding of sin is that it has the potential to create self-reliance and promote a works-righteousness mentality. If your actions have the potential to bring honour or shame upon you, then the way in which you obtain greater honour is by performing more honourable actions. This has the potential to create self-reliance and legalism.

Related is the concern that allowing someone to die in your place is a hugely shameful thing to do. Substitutionary atonement will not sit will with someone who believes it is shameful for someone else to take the blame for your iniquities, or that requiring rescue is a sign of weakness, and thus shameful. Of course, pride is not unique to honour/shame cultures, and is likely to be a universally recognised stumbling block, but it is perhaps worth noting.

There is also an inherent and perhaps unhelpful aspect to the concept of shamefulness that produces an inward-looking approach to morality. Take the example of a man who is faced with the potential to exploit someone else’s weakness for their own gain; perhaps stealing from an old lady. In an honour/shame culture the imperative that causes you to resist such a crime is that taking advantage of your strength and someone else’s weakness brings shame upon you. In our culture, presumably, the motivating factor for resisting would be that mugging an old lady is either (i) illegal or (ii) unfair on the lady.  In option (i) an appeal is made to an objective morality that exists apart from us and in option (ii) it is the victim’s wellbeing that is put first. In the honour/shame culture abstaining from robbery has the potential to be a predominately selfish act, motivated by the concern of how your actions will be perceived by others, and what ramifications that will have upon you.

Of course, it is conceivable that the would-be-mugger in our culture may be motivated by the fear that (iii) his actions will leave him unable to sleep at night, a selfish motivation or (iv) the objective morality (in the form of the British legal system) will catch up with him, a selfish motivation which still appeals to an objective moral imperative. But I think the observation stands that actions in honour/shame cultures are more likely to be motivated by selfish ambition than out of respect for the wellbeing of the victim.

Our two cultures are not entirely distinct. There are common elements in each, and it’s not easy to polarise them into neat packages. But nonetheless, with some of these comments in mind, the next two posts aim to summarise six passages of Scripture that appear to address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example.


[1] Of course, this is not unique to honour/shame cultures, and in many areas of the western world relativism is still rife. The motivating factor may be different, (honour/shame = what will people think of me if I do this? Western postmodern = ‘it feels good to me so it can’t be wrong!!”) but the effect is the same; a rejection of moral absolutes in favour of a more flexible morality. Additionally, in honour/shame cultures, they still have a law to which they need to abide, and breaking that law will have judicial consequences; imprisonment, mutilation, death. But in the arena of day-to-day life, the sinfulness of the words you say and the way you treat people will be determined not by a perception of ‘what is good and proper’ but ‘what will cause people to think positively or negatively of me.’

We have met the enemy, and he is us

26 08 2010

I recently came across the following quote from actor Lee Marvin, about a moment of realisation he experienced, as he rewatched one of his films:

‘I found it very unpleasant recently when I saw a film of mine called Point Blank, which was a violent film. I remember; we made it for the violence. I was shocked at how violent it was. Of course, that was ten, fifteen, eighteen years ago. When i saw the film I literally almost could not stand up, I was so weak. I did that? I am capable of that kind of violence? See, there is the fright; and this is why I think guys back off eventually. They say, “No, I’m not going to put myself to those demons again.” The demon being the self.’ (Lee Marvin, quoted in Carson, How Long, O Lord?, p41)

It is a powerful statement of that moment of stomach wrenching revelation, when one realises, perhaps for the first time, the depth of their depravity. I am worse than I ever imagined. Or as the oft-quoted aphorism puts it: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.

In Acts 2, Peter explains to the crowds how their actions led to the rejection and execution of Jesus (v22-23). There is suddenly a moment of revelation in the listeners – ‘I did that?’ You can well imagine them, like Marvin, weak and barely able to stand as the truth of their wickedness hit home.

The language Peter uses is strong. They were ‘cut to the heart’ (v37). Witherington notes that the verb κατενυγησαν appears only here in the NT, though in the LXX its meaning ranges from ‘remorseful’ (Gen 27:38) to ‘anger’ (Gen 34:7) to ‘stung’ (Sir 12:12) to ‘humbled’ (Ps 108:16) to ‘struck silent’ (Lev 10:3). (Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles, p153)

I wonder how many of us became acutely aware of the depth of our depravity in such close proximity to our conversion? I’m not sure I would use many of those terms to describe the moment I responded to the Gospel: humbled, angry, remorseful, stung and struck silent. Cut to the heart. To be honest, I think I would have used far more pedestrian, sanitised, cuddly terminology – I felt curious, up for trying something new, like my life could be marginally improved. I genuinely believed, but only in time did I come to realise the true nature of what I had been rescued from and to.

I do long to see more people have Acts 2, Lee Marvin experiences at the outset of their Christian life. But I’m also comfortable that many will come to Jesus initially not with fear and trembling, but because they are weary, heavy laden and want to swap their heavy yoke for a lighter model (Matthew 11:28-30). All are valid ‘entry points’ to the gospel. But note, even the weary and heavy laden need to have an accurate understanding of their frailty before they can come to Jesus to redeem their impoverished state.

Michael Green comments:

Not everybody comes to Christ through a bad conscience. There are many gateways into Christ. But I do mean that whenever anyone comes face to face with Jesus, he is driven to the conviction that he is unworthy, and that Jesus is supremely worthy. One of the surest signs of an authentic conversion is a conscience that has become sensitised.’ (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World, p76)

Unless at some point in our early Christian life, preferably sooner rather than later, we come to a stark realisation of our depravity outside of Christ, we will lack both an impetus to pursue holiness and a genuine foundation for a life of constant gratitude. It is only when you realise your complicity in the death of Jesus, on account of your sin that you will truly be able to appreciate that ‘you are weaker and more sinful than you ever before believed, but, through Jesus, you am more loved and accepted than you ever dared hope.’ (Tim Keller)

In his talk at Mobilise last year, Andrew Wilson spoke of this brilliant moment in a sketch by Mitchell and Webb (Particularly up to 00:52). Watch it, chuckle, reflect, and allow yourself to be ‘cut to the heart’…

Related Post: D.A. Carson – Pastoral Pensées