Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Public Life/Private Life

Sermon preached by Penny Wheble at St Martin's on Sunday 28 October 2012

I’d like to start by asking you how you see yourselves. Then I’d like you to think how other people see you.

We all have 2 or more sides to our personalities and what we present publically may be entirely different from what actually goes on behind closed doors.

As I was thinking about today’s talk I wondered how I’m perceived – extrovert or introverted; highly strung or placid; confident or full of self doubts; organised or disorganised – the list goes on, and I can tell you that in each of those pairs, the latter description applies to me. You may be surprised to know that I also have quite an addictive personality too!

When I come into church or to talk or sing in a public setting I need to display confidence – I need feedback and perception. All of us have working models which are the experiences in our journey, and the positive and negative experiences make us act the way we do. These formative experiences are very powerful influences of how we see the world. Sometimes they can be buried, and when triggered can cause a huge emotional reaction. So our perceptions actually affect the way we act in the world.

Think of it like this – Front stage or how we see the world equates to how we are in public; Back stage is our secret life, the way our friends and family see us - how we really are.

We all need to create an impression of how we really are, -
for example, at home, how are we seen by our family and friends? Do they really see everything that goes on? Or do we hide things even from them? Do they see anger and the things in our lives that need dealing with? Interestingly, many people in high profile jobs have addictions – to painkillers, tv, money, sex, drink problems – the list goes on. It’s a way of coping with the stresses.
But there are things that can resource us – for some, hobbies, keeping fit, others, comfort foods, others, sex!

So what do we want to present to those we meet and know? We are one person but express ourselves in many different ways.
So my front stage presents itself (so I’m told!) as confident, prepared, organised, in control, spontaneous and a ‘people person’.
However my back stage shows otherwise – cluttered, disorganised, full of anxieties and self doubts, a last minuter and a bit of a loner.
As disciples of Jesus we are called to take off the old and put on the new, casting aside the things that control our everyday lives.

When we offer our entire selves to God, a change happens in relation to the world. We are called to a different lifestyle than what the world offers us with its behaviour and customs, which are often selfish and corrupting. There is pressure to conform, to continue living according to the script written by the world, but we are forbidden to give in to that pressure. We need to change the way we think, and experience a complete transformation from the inside out. And that change must begin in the mind, where all thoughts and actions begin. Much of the work will be done by God’s Spirit in us, and as our thoughts change, we will instinctively know what God wants for us, and we’ll want our behaviour to be pleasing to God, and perfect for us.

Today I’m going to tackle a subject that many of us feel uncomfortable about (myself included)and maybe don’t talk about very often – thank you Simon for giving me this one!

In May, I was ill with probably the worst bout of flu that I’ve ever had – 2 weeks of being unable to even get downstairs and as I began to recover a friend filled with good intentions came round and brought me a best-selling book which she thought would take my mind off the way I was feeling. She told me it was very popular with women and was adding spice to their mundane lives! Would anybody like to hazard a guess as to what the book was? It was 50 Shades of Grey – a best selling debut book which was part of a trilogy.

Great, I thought! So I got stuck in to reading it. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the poor literary style and to be honest was getting bored, but I made it through the first 100 pages before starting to feel quite uncomfortable with it.

According to the publisher’s research, Fifty Shades is proving most popular with 20- and 30-something women (hence it being dubbed ‘Mommy Porn’ by the media), a demographic group that is renowned for its viral marketing potential (and if you think that’s a sexist caricature, I give you one word: Mumsnet). The book is being read and discussed everywhere from Facebook to the school gate. One explanation for the book’s phenomenal success, then, is simply that the mix of titillation and everyone’s-reading-it word of mouth has proved explosive. But these aren’t the only factors at work in James’ journey from fan writer to movie deal negotiator (Universal Pictures have already acquired the rights). Another is the proliferation of e-reading devices, which allow for the discreet – and cheap – download of books that one might not want to be seen reading.  Fifty years ago it would have been Lady Chatterley’s Lover hidden at the back of the cupboard. Pornography and erotica are always at the forefront of every technological advance, and the growth of the Kindle and its, er...kin has resulted in a predictable increase in sales of such titles. Perhaps the biggest factor, however, and certainly the one which is fuelling the now stratospheric growth of Fifty Shades and its two sequels is simple intrigue, both about the popularity of the book, and its (for want of a better word) plot.

Here it is, then: 21-year-old virgin Anastasia Steele meets charismatic billionaire Christian Grey, and falls for him. He’s not just stunningly handsome and rich, he’s also trying to save the world and stop famine. What a hero! Well, except that, thanks to an abusive childhood, he has a severely twisted sexual appetite. Despite this, Ana is drawn into his world, and into his arms, via lots of gasping and swooning – and begins a long-lasting liaison with him. He’s not really capable of a healthy relationship, however, so instead introduces Ana to a world of controlled violence, submission and, of course, lots of (very badly written) sex. Within a few short weeks, Ana goes from repressed virgin to sexual deviant, and despite – or perhaps because of – the violence, falls deeply in love.

This is not a good book. Aside from the tortured prose, the storyline is hackneyed, predictable and ‘nods’ to a host of influences including, most bizarrely, the cinematic rom-com; the 500-plus pages drag like the post-lunch session of a Christian conference. The sex scenes fluctuate between creepy and comical. The whole story is narrated as Ana’s inner monologue, so we’re treated to lots of descriptions that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Mills & Boon novel. Actually, they wouldn’t feel out of place in a Mills & Boon parody.
Here’s what really bothered me, though. I can’t work out whether postmodernism means you can write whatever you like as long as you claim irony. But on the face of it, this appears to be a book about a man who takes a woman as his slave, and tortures and hits her. She submits to him completely, and she likes it. I’m reliably informed that this isn’t just a male fantasy, but a common female one too. Either way, this isn’t a description of healthy sexual behaviour. While the book tries to suggest that it’s an extreme and deviant form of love, it also gives us a protagonist who was abused as a child and then turns abuser. If this is the new romance, then give me the new celibacy!
If Christians are outraged by Fifty Shades, then, it should not be simply because EL James has made it acceptable to read pornographic stories on the train, but because those stories are, like video porn, teaching and advocating sexual dysfunction. They subtly feed readers a story which feels exciting, but – when fiction becomes experimentation, then becomes reality – it results in an abusive distortion of real love and healthy sex. Rather than decrying those who seek to make money out of sex, we should be modelling a better way. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did, when, during his time on earth, he spent time with those in the sex industry and led them away from it?
Sex has always sold. There has always been a market for pornography and sexual ‘services’; what’s changed is their accessibility. Inventions such as the home video and the Internet have caused a proliferation of sexual material, and that in turn has led to a gradual erosion of the line between taboo and mainstream. Twenty years ago, hardcore pornography was subject to censoring and could only be bought by adults in licensed shops. Since this book was written, the private adults only shop on Stafford Street has on it’s door “You’ve read the book, now come in and buy the equipment.”  Shocking in my mind!

Today, children are watching unrestricted video pornography on their home computers and smart phones, and we’re now hearing more and more of young people’s lives being severely damaged by internet porn. Controversially, this week has come the announcement that there will be teaching in junior schools about pornography and the harm it can do.
Sadly, Christians aren’t immune to the temptations of this world and I personally know of a couple who, even after 50 happy years of marriage have big issues with pornography – something that started with the husband gazing at attractive young women in the Sun newspaper. It’s become a major obstacle in their lives as more and more he wants to spend time looking at more explicit images on the internet of women being exploited for his personal satisfaction.

The Church should be giving serious consideration not to campaigning against books like this, but to standing for something better. In Christianity magazine, there’s a Dear Maggie column – a problem page where people can discuss intimate and personal aspects of their lives.

Love and sex by Christian rules means freedom, tenderness and equality. Jesus, teaches us that far from being abusive, healthy relationships involve each putting the other first (John 13:35; Mark 9: 35), not making a choice between dominance or submission. Love and sex shouldn’t be about violence, fear and cheap intrigue. When it comes to sex, the Bible provides a far more fulfilling framework than EL James’ sadistic anti-hero.
50 Shades is porn. Fact. It is written to appeal to women’s sexual appetites. It is expecting our husbands to live up to this made up, make-believe man in a book and taking our affections away from our husbands and onto another (fake) man. It is emotionally and in some cases, physically draining on our marriages. It’s detrimental. I don’t care about the reviews that say ”it’s bringing marriages closer” or about the “50 Shades of Grey” baby boom…’s taking your physical desire away from your husband in your own mind. It is finding your pleasure in something else other than your husband.

OR, in the cases of single women…’s finding your pleasure in an unnatural source. It’s still porn. While young men are known to be frequent users of porn, they have found willing partners among their female counterparts, who accepted the declaration made by Sex and the City’s Samantha that women should be able to go out and have sex like a man, and who believe that recreational sex makes them look confident.

Girls often portray young people living in a world where casual encounters are so embedded in their culture that they have a new terminology such as ‘hook ups and friends with benefits’.

Disturbingly, with the average age of first exposure to porn being just ten, many young males have viewed brutal online sex before they have even kissed a girl, and 90% of porn scenes contain physical or verbal abuse of women. Is this right for them to grow up thinking this is the norm? Of course it’s not!

1 Peter 5:7-9  Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

Now, I realize the early church was not speaking on pornography for women, but it IS a warning: Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. I don’t know about anyone else, but that SCARES me!

These books are Satan’s way of devouring us with a made up man named Christian Grey. It’s his way of steering us away from God. Not the direction I desire to go. And it worries me how very popular these books are.
1 Corinthians 6:18
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.
1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God;
Matthew 5:28
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman [OR MAN] with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

I’m saying all this from a Christian woman’s perspective. It is directed at Christian women out there. Those who do not know Christ will not understand what it is I’m trying to convey. I do believe that books such as 50 Shades and today’s attitudes towards sexuality to be a stumbling block in a Christian woman’s walk with God.

And this is something very personal that God has laid on my own heart. If He has not convicted you (and you have sought Him on this), then by all means, make your own decision. But I cannot, in all good conscience, recommend this or similar books on any level.

I’d like to finish by saying to you that God accepts us where we are, because he chooses to pour out his unconditional love for us – it’s so liberating! We need to be free from the things which entangle us. Vulnerability and weakness are NOT barriers to our calling.

We don’t need to be clever or witty or beautiful. God delights in us and wants us to hear his calling. He wants us to stand tall with the authority He has given us. We MUST answer his call.

Let’s pray –
We pray for ourselves.
In a moment of quiet, open your own heart to God.
Share with him now those areas of ife which cause you most difficulty,
The times when you know temptation will come.
May the faithfulness of Christ hold us for ever,
And hold us till the end and beyond.

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