Sermon for Evensong at Sexagesima, 4th February 2018

Genesis 2:4-25; Luke 8:22-35

I really liked our churchwarden Ray’s article in the parish magazine about his tour of North and South Carolina and the Churches he saw there [See http://www.standrewscobham.org.uk/churchbuilder/get-doc.php?docid=199&page=Together+Feb+2018.pdf]. Ray said they particularly liked one called the ‘No Nonsense Church’, which he said was ‘not affiliated to any particular denomination’ as far as he could see on its sign. ‘It raised a few questions’ in Ray’s mind ‘as to who decided what was nonsense and what was not’. ‘…. A bit further along the road was the “Freedom Church”, which perhaps provided a haven for any backsliders from No Nonsense. If neither suited, then maybe the “First Assembly of God” would provide for someone who wanted to go back to basics.’

I thought the idea of the ‘No Nonsense Church’ and Ray’s entirely justified reservation concerning what was nonsense and what wasn’t, was very thought-provoking. Look at what is on the agenda tonight.

The creation story in Genesis and particularly the creation of woman from Adam’s rib; the delightful Psalm 65: ‘Thou shalt shew us wonderful things in thy righteousness, O God of our salvation:… Who in his strength setteth fast the mountains: and is girded about with power. Who stilleth the raging of the sea ..’ And then indeed we had the stories in St Luke’s Gospel where Jesus stilled the storm, and called the multiple devils, the ‘legion’ of devils, out of the man who was driven mad by them, and let them migrate into the Gadarene swine, ‘and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked.’

Now if we were in the No Nonsense Church, how much of that would get past the Nonsense-Meister, the arbiter of truth for that congregation, presumably the pastor, the minister of that church? And how would he decide what was authentic and what wasn’t? I think this question of what is true, what is authentic, what is reliable, what can we believe in, is terribly important. This morning on the wireless, for instance, I heard Revd Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, saying what I would imagine they would expect in the No Nonsense Church. He could be my idea of a Nonsense-Meister. All he would look at would be the literal words of the Bible, however unsatisfactory this might be. What did he think of same-sex partnerships? ‘The Bible says it is wrong’. And he would not look at anything else. Genuine love between the partners? ‘The Bible says it is wrong’. I’m not going to argue this out now. I just wanted to show that there are still people who go by the literal words of the Bible.

Just suppose that the story of Adam and Adam’s rib, of the Garden of Eden, the demonstration of control over the weather, God and Jesus stilling the storm; and Jesus also somehow getting mental illness to migrate from humans to pigs – just suppose all those stories hadn’t actually been in the Bible: that there wasn’t such a thing as the Bible, and you’d come across them in some other context, let’s say in an ancient history book, an obscure bit of Herodotus perhaps; or in Tacitus’ Annals. After all, that Roman historian mentioned the early Christians, as did Suetonius, but he had them down as cannibals.

Just suppose that we hadn’t come across the stories in the Bible: in fact, that we didn’t know about the Bible at all: they were just stories written in other literature. It could indeed be serious literature, like Herodotus or Tacitus or Suetonius. What do you think we would think about them? Would we be, in Ray’s terms, ‘backsliders from No Nonsense’ or would we perhaps have to go back to basics in the First Assembly of God? Or would we just dismiss them as being totally implausible? There must be something which comes from their being in the Bible.

Sometimes when I meet people who say that they are atheists, I’m not really sure what they mean. I try to get them to be a bit more specific, by asking what it is that they don’t believe in.

Actually this question of authenticity, of suitability of things to be believed in, to be trusted in, relied on, in a literal or in a spiritual sense, probably goes a bit wider than simply a question, ‘Did it happen, or not?’

When we think about the story of the creation of woman from Adams’s rib, our poor old atheist will probably say not only that he thinks that the story is not a factual description, but also that it is a creation myth, perhaps intended to be spiritually authentic, without being literally true; but it is still objectionable, because it casts women in a subordinate role. Of course it reflected the way in which society worked 2,500 years ago; but sexism is still a live issue today. After all, later this week will be the 100th anniversary of votes for women in this country. Only the 100th anniversary, which is surely not long against the whole span of human history.

The other thing that I came across this week, in addition to Ray’s fine travel story, was the story of the Manchester City Art Gallery taking down one of their best known and best loved pictures, the Victorian painter John William Waterhouse’s ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’. [See https://www.artble.com/imgs/9/9/4/87801/hylas_and_the_nymphs.jpg]

The picture shows one of Jason’s Argonauts, Hylas, on the edge of a lily pond, in which there are a number of naked girls trying to attract Hylas into joining them in the water: not for a spa experience, unfortunately, but with the intention of drowning him. A curator at the Manchester City Art Gallery decided to take the painting down – even though it is one of the most popular paintings in the Gallery – and leave a blank space in which they invited visitors to express their reactions to the fact that the painting had been taken away, by writing comments on Post-It notes and sticking them up where the painting had been. Before you get terribly excited about it, I can tell you that, following an absolute torrent of criticism, the painting has now been hung back up again – and the Post-It notes have presumably been dealt with appropriately.

But who’s right? What is the No Nonsense Church view of Hylas and the Nymphs? Are we allowed to go to a respectable municipal art gallery and look at topless women in mildly erotic poses? Are we not treating women as objects? (And, by the way, what I am saying about men looking at women surely goes equally the other way round, for women looking at men.)

Another complication in the controversy concerning Hylas and the Nymphs is that, if there is sex in it, it’s quite complicated, because Hylas is supposed to have been the homosexual lover of Hercules: so it’s a bit odd that he seems to be rather susceptible to the charms of the water nymphs as well. Perhaps he was amphibious…

But look: that was all about a painting created in 1896. Is what was once regarded as harmless, now immoral?

Even if we look at it through the eyes of the No Nonsense Church, I think that we would say that there was a great deal of nonsense in the story of what the Manchester City Art Gallery has been doing with Hylas and the Nymphs. Perhaps Franklin Graham would disagree, though.

And I think that we might say that the story of the Creation, Adam’s rib, and so on, is nonsensical in roughly the same way. It just doesn’t conform with our current scientific ideas of how things come into being. Just as a mildly erotic Victorian painting doesn’t square with what we think of as being pornographic or unacceptable, so with the Creation: in both cases our reaction, our assessment, is quite spontaneous, and comes from our own judgment, not depending on someone else to judge.

We don’t say what we think about Hylas because Andrew Graham-Dixon or some other authority doesn’t like the painting (and actually, I don’t know what he feels about it); we feel we can make up our own minds. We like the painting. We don’t want it to be taken away.

So who decides these questions? Whom do we believe? Who is authoritative? When we go to meet our friends in the other churches, in the Lent course, one of the really interesting things that will come up will probably be that quite often we will find that our friends in the other churches actually look at some of the Bible stories in rather different ways. I suggested a minute ago that we might reflect what our feelings might be concerning the various stories that we have read about in our lessons today, if they hadn’t been taken from the Bible. The fact that they do come from the Bible, the Book, the ‘word of God’, may be enough for some people. They might be creationists, who believe that the book of Genesis is a true account of how the world came into being.

How do we answer them? What answers do we have that the No Nonsense Church or Franklin Graham cannot offer? How do we cope with things in the Bible that really look very unlikely to be literally true? The Anglican answer is that we use the ideas that the theologian Richard Hooker, who was active in the 16th century, put forward. Hooker came up with the idea of a ‘tripod’ of belief, according to which the test for authenticity is three things – Scripture, Reason and Tradition.

So for an Anglican it’s not just what we find in the Bible, when we reflect how the human race began. We are allowed to use our common sense – that’s reason – and to reflect on how others have looked at the same problem – that’s tradition. So today, in the light of scientific knowledge, we might reason, about the man possessed by ‘devils’, the ‘legion’ of devils, that an explanation might well be that he had a mental illness. It doesn’t explain what happened to the Gadarene swine, though.

But Revd Franklin Graham, and perhaps the No Nonsense Church, might go on to chapter 5 in the Book of Genesis, and say that all the complexity of relations between the sexes, and the fact that some people have both male and female characteristics, is summed up in the words, ‘Male and female created he them’. It doesn’t seem to worry the Franklin Graham people, incidentally, that if you read on in chapter 5 of the Book of Genesis, it says that Adam was 130 years old when he fathered a son, Seth, after which he lived a further 800 years; and he was 930 years old when he died! Do they really believe every word? I wonder.

But some of the words of the Creation story still do ring true, not in a scientific way, but rather in a metaphysical, spiritual sense. The idea, the concept, of the beginning of a perfect new family, is beautifully expressed. ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.’ One flesh. It’s an ideal state. Of course it doesn’t always work, and some children never leave home. But we would all recognise it as a picture of an ideal family. We want to believe in it.

So when we meet our friends from the other churches and take part in the Lent discussion groups, or indeed if we get involved in a debate with someone who says they don’t believe in God, it may be rather useful to have in mind Ray’s picture of all the many churches in Charleston. Are we in a No Nonsense church – or are we backsliders in the Freedom Church, I wonder?

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