So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (The Bible)
There must be more to life than stereotypes. (Blur)
The great John Stott, one of the grandfather figures of Western evangelicalism, a man you couldn’t be in the same room as without being struck by his humility and graciousness, titled his brilliant book on the Sermon on the Mount ‘Christian Counter-Culture’. Those three words speak volumes about Stott’s prophetic vision for the church. One where church and Christians are so devoted to Christ’s call to a radical self-redefinition and compassion that a vision is painted of how life can be that’s compelling and luminous. It implies a way of living as Christians which calls us to something subversive, something liberating, something hard but offering eternal rewards. Stott was a man of conviction with whom you could disagree – which of course meant he was far more likely to win you over in the end.
This Christian faith to which Stott devoted his life takes as undergirding and forming it a book and as its object of worship a God who is so beyond us that He makes Himself accessible to us by living amongst us as a human being. It’s a journey of faith replete with revelation and mystery, with liberation to be who we are called to by our creator to be and of radical self-giving to neighbour and enemy. It’s what God’s done first for us, and it’s what He calls us to model towards others in His power.
It’s a majestic vision of life. It’s one I can’t live up to, but I love trying to because doing so sets me free. It’s tempting as one who’s been called by God through the church to exercise leadership within the church to simplify the call. At times, of course, it’s right to do so. Sometimes pretence and pomposity needs to be stripped away and unvarnished simplicity must shine through. God can do anything and often does; we are saved; Jesus is the Way. God forbid self-aggrandisement obscures the King of Kings from view, even if it is through a glass darkly. With that, there’s a temptation to strip mystery away and make it all easy. Do this and more people will be healed. Do this and you’ll have more Sunday School volunteers. Do this and you’ll have a better prayer life. Deep down we all know it can’t work the same way in every case, but it’s no less tempting to portray it as such.
Still, I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of much of this over-simplification, of what should be a vision of counter-culture instead being a pale imitation of the sea we swim in. That takes many forms; for me, today, it’s about being reduced to archetypes and stereotypes.
There’s a few foundational truths about humanity in Scripture; the first is that we bear the stamp of the creator. His signature is written on our souls and bodies: on mine, on my wife’s and on every last single snowflake unique human being ever to grace creation. It’s a signature that at times seems smudged and illegible; that’s my fault and our fault, not the artist’s. Why, then, do such vocal parts of what should be the Christian counter-culture persist in such a shrivelled vision of our mutual gendered image-bearing? Why do we shrink the culturally specific and historically located complex individuals like David, Moses, Sarah and Delilah into examples of what men and women should be thousands of years later? Biblical people are just that – people trying to figure out how to follow God in a specific place and time. They don’t show us that a man has to be a warrior or a woman must wait for a man to win her.
I’ve had enough of Christian books and talks and articles about men and women taking their templates from fairy tales and movies, then reading those back into scripture, shrinking God’s image-bearers into versions of pop-quiz pseudo-wisdom that belong more properly on the back of a cereal packet. I’ve had enough of marriage being reduced to who obeys whom, when Scripture frames it as mutual submission and leaves us to figure out the rest in the awkward ambiguity of squaring eternal words with two people living together in a time and a place. I’ve had enough of women being told they are all waiting to be rescued and men being convinced they are the ones who have to do the rescuing. I had enough of the unbearable pressure that puts on anyone who feels that somehow they don’t quite fit. I’ve had enough of lazy analogies about roses and thorns, of stereotypes about being passive or active, of big name preachers going on and on about sex and intimacy, about his role, her role. I’ve had enough of single women being told they are being prepared for something that may never come, so missing out on God’s rich and deep calling to them. I’ve had enough of men’s groups that always seem to revolve around curry or outdoors activities, alienating fifty per cent of men.
I’ve had enough of a reductionism in Christ’s name which bears no relation to the expansive new creation I read of God bringing about in the pages of Scripture. I’ve had enough of God’s mutual image bearers being reduced to seven quick tips for a peaceful marriage. I, you, we are graced by the image of God; we also obscure it. We’re preciously, dangerously unique. We’re called to express that and also hold back from expressing it in mutual submission to those with whom we live. We’re called to read the God-inspired words of Scripture with brains and hearts and bodies – all of which are alive now, so of course it will need some interpreting.
Yes, it’s hard being called to be part of bringing to birth a new creation which we only see fleetingly.
Who said that which is hard isn’t worthwhile, though? It’s easy to swap the words of eternity for glossy magazine-style quick tips. It’s tempting to trade wisdom for one word answers. Jesus is the Way. That’s a process, a journey, not a cop-out.
Enough, then. I’m trading in answers for wisdom, solutions for ways, archetypes for endless variety.