Steve Chalke, Rude Archaeology and Faulty Conclusions

I enjoy archaeological sites, especially Roman ones. As they built in stone, there’s generally more to see than at the sites belonging to other peoples. In 2016-17 alone, I visited Rome, Ostia, Naples, Pompeii, Herculaeum, Jerusalem, Masada, and most of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall. Yesterday I re-visited the sites at Ribchester here in Lancashire. One thing that almost all Roman archaeological museums contain are…well, it’s a little embarrassing to write such things on a church blog. How can I put this? Phalluses; representations of the male reproductive organ. In Pompeii, one finds them used as sign posts to the brothels, carved onto paving stones.

At the remains of Chesters Bridge in Northumbria, a large phallus was carved onto the foundations’ side. It was presumably a symbol of good luck; this bridge would need such luck if it was to avoid being swept away by storms and barbarians.

In the nearby fort, another phallus is found in the Headquarters Building’s court yard. Again, it may have been a symbol of luck, like a horseshoe today. Superstitious legionaries may have rubbed a foot against it before heading out on some arduous patrol.

I could go on; but to save readers’ blushes and maintain interest, I shall desist and ask you to take my word for it that this was a common symbol of Roman life.

Another interpretation of the phalluses is that they represent an unhealthy obsession the Romans had with sexual intercourse. This might be correct; slaves, women, gladiators and children were readily available to most men, whereas marriage was primarily about siring legitimate children and inheriting property, not love and companionship. This is where Steve Chalke rubs his hands together and gets to work.

Chalke is a Baptist pastor from ‘down south’ who used to be on Good Morning Television when I was a child. His warm personality and tanned good looks made him the acceptable face of evangelical Christianity. Sadly, as time went on, he began attacking key tenets of the faith, likening Christ’s substitutionary atonement to ‘cosmic child abuse’. Chalke’s latest attack on Christian orthodoxy comes in his loud support for same sex marriage. He accuses traditional evangelicals of ‘weaponizing’ scripture and ‘destroying LGBT’ people. In a series of videos, he argues that the Bible has no bad word to say about same sex relationships per se, but rather condemns the sexually saturated culture in which abusive males could penetrate social inferiors with impunity. This culture is epitomised in the excessive numbers of phalluses found at archaeological sites throughout the empire.

Chalke says: For too long the remains of Pompeii have been little known to members of the general public, but when the chance to examine them is taken, it becomes abundantly clear that in ancient Rome, sex was everything. 80% of the artwork recovered from Pompeii and its sister town of Herculaneum is sexually explicit and also reveals a fascination with the image of the stiff, erect penis – a symbol of power and pleasure.  This is the context into which the New Testament was written.

Chalke is right when he says that Roman society was geared towards patriarchal men expressing their dominance over others with their phalluses. The biblical writers were indeed appalled by such assumptions and practices. But to make the leap to say that Paul and others did not have in mind at all standard same sex relationships demonstrates Chalke’s own prejudices, rather than his evangelical opponents’. So determined is he to receive the world’s approval, he attempts to demonstrate that 2000 years of biblical interpretation is mistaken on the grounds that…there are lots of phalluses in Roman remains. 

Chalke’s organisation, Oasis, was engaged to manage the day-to-day operation of The Grand, here at Clitheroe. Oasis claims ‘to promote Christian values but in a non-confrontational manner.’ Unless of course, you’re an evangelical Christian, in which case Chalke will take great delight in confronting your plain reading of scripture in order to make Christianity better-liked by a hostile world.