Amy Winehouse and breaking the Golden Rule

Maybe my mind is just less well ordered than most people’s, but for me some the moments of real intellectual breakthrough come when I find myself thinking something that surprises me, and so am forced to analyse that surprising thing to work out why I was thinking it. Whether the thing turns out to be right or wrong, or just complicated, I understand better my own instincts and assumptions as a result. One such happened last week, in an ETS panel session in Atlanta. One of the other panelists, David Gushee, closed an impressive impromptu peroration with an appeal to ‘the golden rule’ – ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you.’ I realised that I was thinking that this principle was wrong. Doubting the golden rule, of course, is one of those ethical positions that you are really not supposed to entertain. If there is a universal ethic, it is this. And Jesus says it, identifying it with the core teaching of the Mosaic law: ‘Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.’ (Mt 7:12) So I thought a bit about why I was doubting it, or at least David’s application of it. My analysis goes something like this: so stated, the ‘golden rule’ assumes a level of moral awareness that I am sure is not universal, and am not sure is at all common. If our instincts about what we would like others to do to us are bad instincts, the golden rule offers bad advice. More commonly, I suspect, our desires are extremely conflicted, and so the golden rule offers no meaningful guidance at all. I rarely watch movies on planes, but I had watched one on the way to Atlanta. It was the recent biopic about Amy Winehouse, which intersperses clips of her – astonishing – musical performances with the story of her life spiralling out of control, finally to her tragic death. The film portrays her essentially as a victim, thrown into impossible contexts by decisions made by her partner, her manager, or her father. The sympathetic characters were female friends from childhood, who tried to help her. In the middle of a drugs binge they would come and try to encourage her to get clean, whereas her partner would be encouraging her to try something even stronger. Who was doing the thing she wanted to be done to her? The answer is profoundly ambiguous: straightforwardly, she wanted to be high; no doubt there was a part of her that wanted to be clean. According to the portrayal in the film, what she actually needed – whether she ever wanted it or not – was to get out of the celebrity spotlight, because she was unable to cope with it and was using drugs to deal with that inability. ‘Do to others what you want them to do to you’ is not a straightforward piece of advice here… (This is, after all, the woman whose biggest hit was built around the lyric ‘They tried to make me go to rehab; I said no, no, no’…) Now, it would be possible to suggest that, because of her relative youth and her addiction issues, Amy Winehouse was considerably less rational than is normal for human beings; I suspect, however, that this is false. I reflect on my own pastoral experience, and supremely on my own life: there are questions I desperately don’t want people to ask me, whilst at the same time I know that it would do me good to face those same questions. What do I want them to do to me? I don’t know, so I don’t know what I should do to others, if I am following the golden rule. More, I remember moments of genuine intervention, such as when my fellow leaders at a previous church banned me from preaching for several months because they had decided I was neglecting family relationships too much in my desire to serve that fellowship. (We had been going through some tough times; I still don’t regret stepping up to do what I did, but in hindsight I accept that it was unsustainable, and I had reached, or gone someway past, the point where I needed to stop and pass the baton.) Did I want them to step into my life like that? No. Am I now grateful they did? Yes. Do I hope I would have the courage – and love – to do what they did to someone like me in future, despite her not wanting the...

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‘These are the days of Rebekah’

My friend Natalie Collins was on Twitter tonight bemoaning a youth resource that claimed to cover the whole Biblical story in 32 sessions (!…) but that managed to mention only one woman who appears in the Bible in that survey, that woman being Eve. I don’t know the resource, and Natalie didn’t elaborate, but I’m guessing that Eve was not given a positive write-up. I have three daughters who are in youth and children’s programmes at church; it would be nice to think that the people who write the material they will access were actually working to make sure they are aware of the many positive female role-models there are in Scripture, rather than erasing all women except Eve from the story of God. In this spirit, I offer a parody I started to write a couple of years ago, but never did anything with. If you know modern evangelical songbooks, you may be able to find a tune that this fits quite well… These are the days of Rebekah, Who trusted the word of the Lord. And these are the days of your servant Deborah, Who led forth your people in war.   These are the days of Queen Esther, Who rescued God’s people through faith. And these are the days of your prophet Huldah, Who renewed the temple of praise.   Behold God comes, in tongues of rushing flame Opening daughters’ mouths to prophesy in God’s name So lift your voice, sisters of the Christ Out of Mary’s womb salvation comes.   These are the days of the women Who funded the ministry of Christ. And these are the days of the Magdalene, Who first preached of resurrected Life.   These are the days of Priscilla, Who taught male church leaders the truth, And these are the days of your apostle, Junia, Before whom Paul was just a youth.   Behold God comes, in tongues of rushing flame Opening daughters’ mouths to prophesy in God’s name So lift your voice, sisters of the Christ Out of Mary’s womb salvation...

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