Nathan Campbell

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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Christian, is there room in your church for an ____ voter? Would they feel welcome?

Our desire to verbal process the world, and our almost frictionless ability to process the world verbally in front of crowds of people on social media is a funny modern novelty. My wise old dad, he’s 60 soon, once said to me that for the vast majority of his life in ministry he’d have had no idea how his friends and ministry colleagues voted; politics just weren’t a thing that mixed with the pulpit.

How quaint, I thought.

And then I decided I’d dearly love to not know how a preacher votes. In a great twist of ironic fate, an article might come out elsewhere in a couple of days where I explain not ‘who I vote for’ but ‘how I vote’ (I’ve covered this in depth here previously). You may think you can guess how I vote from what I write, and what sort of moral matrix or grid I appear to filter things through, and that would, I think, represent a failure on my part. My prior training as a journalist, my career in a not-for-profit ‘apolitical’ lobby group, and my current vocation all require, I believe, a certain sort of objective detachment from the cut and thrust of party politics; a detachment that means it would be inappropriate for me to hold my job and be a member of a political party, or obviously partisan.

I’m not saying I’d love preachers and Christians to not be engaged in political issues — I’m with sociologist/theologian James Davison Hunter on the criticism of a modern attitude that leaves complex social and political issues to politicians and lawmaking; I’d love the church to be modelling an alternative vision for life together as the kingdom of God in this world, and for us to speak winsomely on political issues in the public square as ambassadors for Christ, trying hard to persuade our neighbours of the truth, goodness, and beauty of life with Jesus as king. I’d love us to be participating in, or creating, institutions that seek ‘political change’ or to impact the public, or commons, in positive ways as a way of loving our neighbours and testifying to the lordship of Jesus. I’d love us to speak widely, beyond just the few issues that seem to be identity markers for ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ politics to model what ‘Christ centred’ politics looks like; where there is no inch of life in this world that Jesus does not declare ‘mine!’

But I’m concerned, with James Davison Hunter, about ‘the culture wars’ (he coined the phrase back in 1991 in his book Culture Wars: The Struggle To Define America). He described these wars as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding” and emerging from opposing “assumptions about how to order or lives – our own lives and our lives together in this society.” It’s fine to morally disagree with people, across political, philosophical, and religious lines — the art is figuring out how to live in disagreement, and listen to the other, without adopting a winner takes all approach to wiping out those who disagree with you. Our desire to wipe out the other, the ‘culture war’ is a product of a polarisation that treats ‘other’ as enemy, and then justifies their extermination, or forced conversion via the threat of excommunication or exclusion from ‘society’.

Here’s what Hunter wrote in 1991:

But there is still another factor that contributes to the polarisation of public discourse and the eclipse of the middle. The polarisation of contemporary public discourse is in fact intensified by and institutionalised through the very media by which that discussion takes place. It is through these media that public discourse acquires a life of its own; not only do the categories of public rhetoric become detached from the intentions of the speaker, they also overpower the subtleties of perspective and opinion of the vast majority of citizens who position themselves “somewhere in the middle” of these debates…

“Middling positions and the nuances of moral commitment, then, get played into the grid of opposing rhetorical extremes.”

The problem with this last bit is that if this grid exists, and people place themselves in a position to listen to voices that reinforce their particular cultural convictions (including a position on ‘the other’), then nothing that is said, whether extreme or ‘middling’ is ever heard properly, it simply reinforces the polarisation. This is damaging for society at large, but it is even more deleterious to the project of unity in Christ within a church community. Is it possible for a church in this cultural climate to be a place where individuals from the left and right come together in fellowship, in a way that allows both left and right — all our politics — to be transformed by our union with Christ, through the Spirit, shaped by the ethics of Jesus’ kingdom as revealed at the cross?

What makes this vision for church community even trickier is when Christians leaders, or individuals, adopt combative positions in the culture war in ways that alienate the other, or worse turn the ‘other’ into an ideological enemy to be defeated rather than embraced.

What also makes this difficult is where the ‘culture wars’, politics, and the media have gone since 1991. Hunter describes the general tone of public discourse, in 1991, pre-social media as: “…elitist, sensational, ambivalent, suspicious of new voices, and intensified and further polarised by the very media by which such discourse takes place.”

This was before social media, which exists to serve up users more of what they want, which tends to be ‘more of what they have expressed an interest in’ that the algorithm can measure, which tends to be ‘more of what they already think but packaged in more sensationalist and titillating ways that retain attention by amplifying feelings (especially feelings of outrage)’… The mass media was bad for polarisation — targeted, algorithmically driven, social media that fragments right down to the individual level is worse. I wrote a series about social media, outrage culture, and virtue back here. Especially when the sort of positions that Hunter suggests represent the majority, de-escalate polarisation, and cultivate virtue and civility, the “middling positions’ that involve nuance take time and attention and space to think and process were hard enough in traditional media contexts, but are anathema to our infinite scrolling through social media newsfeeds.

Mark Zuckerberg once described the ‘self interest’ at the heart of Facebook’s newsfeed by saying:

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

This is also why you’re likely to see more online about New Zealand than about religious killings in Nigeria; this is the algorithmically perfected editorial policy of most major commercial news services — such services exist not for civic good, but for profit. Our media platforms serve up stories that appeal to their audiences. It’s now on us, the public, to cultivate the sort of consumption of media, and lives, that de-escalate the culture wars — especially those of us in churches where we’re first focusing on relationships in church.

In a 2018 interview about where these wars have gone since Hunter coined the term, he said the cultural conflicts in this war have amplified and intensified, and this is because ‘culture’ is actually profoundly important — it sits upstream from politics and law because it shapes our moral imagination.

“That’s because culture is not a marginal concern, as many educated people profess to believe—even as they often espouse their own dogmatic cultural positions. Rather, culture is “about systems of meaning that help make sense of the world,” Mr. Hunter says, “why things are good, true and beautiful, or why things are not. Why things are right and wrong.” Culture “provides the moral foundation of a political order.”

It’s not just Hunter who predicted the culture wars in ways that seem prophetic now, especially with the addition of social media.

Back in 2006, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a prescient piece about the polarised nature of two-party politics, and how the two parties rely on such polarisation fuelled from within, and by a war footing of sorts, to continue to exist. This leads to the destruction of public, political, conversation — and especially shapes how we see ‘the other’.

“The flamers in the established parties tell themselves that their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious too. They rationalise their behaviour by insisting that circumstances have forced them to shelve their integrity for the good of the country. They imagine that once they have achieved victory through pulverising rhetoric they will return to the moderate and nuanced sensibilities they think they still possess.”

Sadly, he predicted what might happen if his invented ‘moderate coalition,’ the ‘McClain—Lieberman Party’ (Republican senator John McClain and Democrat senator Joe Lieberman), did not get ‘absorbed’ into the policy platform of one of the major parties. This was pre-Obama, and certainly pre-Trump.

“The McCain-Lieberman Party … sees two parties that depend on the culture war for internal cohesion and that make abortion a litmus test. It sees two traditions immobilized to trench warfare.

The McCain-Lieberman Party is emerging because the war with Islamic extremism, which opened new fissures and exacerbated old ones, will dominate the next five years as much as it has dominated the last five. It is emerging because of deep trends that are polarising our politics. It is emerging because social conservatives continue to pull the GOP rightward (look at how Representative Joe Schwarz, a moderate Republican, was defeated by a conservative rival in Michigan). It is emerging because highly educated secular liberals are pulling the Democrats upscale and to the left. (Lamont’s voters are rich, and 65 percent call themselves liberals, compared with 30 percent of Democrats nationwide.)

The history of third parties is that they get absorbed into one of the existing two, and that will probably happen here…

But amid the hurly-burly of the next few years… the old parties could become even more inflamed. Both could reject McCain-Liebermanism.

At that point things really get interesting.”

And, so, Brooks predicted Trump. The collapse of the political middle into a zero-sum culture war that sees the ‘other’ side as an enemy to be polarised, whoever or whatever the other side stands for. A politics filled with political actors who’ve lost touch with the ‘moderate and nuanced sensibilities’ that produce stability and a ‘commons’ of sorts between right and left, in exchange for an entrenched flame war.

And here we are 13 years on from Brook’s piece. And the flames are burning. And violent political language and battlelines being drawn begets violence in the real world. I highlight that link only because it was particularly pugilistic, and it appeared in my Facebook feed for no reason that I could fathom. You might say ‘that’s just hyperbole’ — but it’s hyperbole that fits a trend that has been recognised and described for some time, and while it’s the nature of the business of Aussie politics, with our two party system, for politics to involve a certain sort of adversarial ‘theatre’ and an ‘us v them’ mentality, in order to divide and conquer… that’s not the business of the Aussie church.

Political idealists, especially partisan ones, whether left, or right, are now turning on the centrists — those who try not to play the culture war, or who seek moderation in all things — idealists on the extremes are increasingly suggesting that to adopt a ‘neutral’ or ‘apolitical’ stance on an issue — to not speak or act — is to adopt the status quo. This is not just a new type of ‘culture war’ against the middle, which was previously just eclipsed (Hunter) or encompassed (Brooks), it’s a deliberate move to exclude the middle in the name of the greater ideological conflict between the poles.  It’s an insistence that to be moral one must pick side, and that to be a moderate is to attempt to sit on the fence on all things. It is to insist that the ‘other’ is evil or complicit, and to stay on the fence makes one complicit too. This classically works better from the left, who tend towards systemic views of evil, and to annoy the right, who tend to see evil as an individual, personal, choice — where if you aren’t making it, you aren’t evil… but that’s changing the more the conflict ramps up, the more there’s an apparently clear ‘us’ and ‘them’… Quite apart from this turn towards resentment of the moderate position being a damaging move when it comes to individual conscience (you ‘must’ choose a system that tells you how to think), and our creatureliness (we must act on every injustice to be moral, if to not act is to participate in evil), and our limited ability to know and form thoughtful positions on many, often competing issues (ideology is a nice shortcut to deal with this), these idealists would say (and do say) that to listen to the concerns of the ‘other side’ is to legitimise those concerns (not simply to see the ‘other’ as a human worthy of love, attention, and understanding). This move is a move to dehumanise or dismiss every other who does not share your convictions. Christian idealists of any variety — those who ‘baptise’ a particular political stance as representative of the kingdom — would have us eradicate political difference as part of the kingdom of God; this makes Christian ‘how to vote’ cards, from the left, or the right, very simple to produce because voting as a Christian, and participating in the polis as a Christianis quite simply a matter of adopting the ideological platform, and fighting the opponent. I think this approach is wrong for a bunch of reasons alluded to above — but I think it also reinforces the culture war by amping up polarisation — the way to minimise the rapid run to the poles is to resist those forces that fling us there. It’s to engage in careful listening; to pursue understanding, and to arrive at conviction making sure you’ve charitably understood the position of the other. This is where the best sort of disagreement is possible, the sort that actually has the possibility to persuade the other, not just to re-convict them of their prior convictions (in other words, it’s not just a more virtuous, less vicious, strategy, it’s also more effective). Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, talks about the polarisation of left and right and how each group tends to assess morality using different categories and frameworks that mean we often use the same words to talk past one another. He talks about how we humans are less purely rational and in control of our decision making than we might think, and how ‘wars’ and ‘tribalism’ feed our decision making instincts, which are profoundly ’emotional’ — he talks about our emotions as a rampaging elephant in our decision making and our reason as the rider trying to tug on some reigns.

He says, in The Righteous Mind, “the persuader’s goal should be to convey respect, warmth, and an openness to dialogue before stating one’s own case,” he says our inability to understand another person’s point of view, to see the world their way, is at the heart of the polarising force of our political ‘culture war’ — suggesting we should seek this as a baseline for political and moral conversations, or arguments.

“It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.”

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathise across a moral divide.

It is very difficult. Imagine being called to not just ’empathy’ but to ‘having the same mind’ or ‘the one mind’ or the ‘mind of Christ’ with people where there’s a moral or political divide (ala Philippians 2:1-11). Imagine having to navigate that! Haidt even envisages the goodness that such a community might bring to this fracturing world, he’s not specifically describing the church, although he kinda, sorta, is.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

I think it’s very possible to be partisan and a Christian. I’ve often suggested one of the best things individual Christians can do to embrace James Davison Hunter’s motif of ‘faithful presence’ is join a, any, political party and then be part of policy discussions. I just don’t think the church — be it a denomination, institution, or local gathering — should be marked by a partisan approach to politics. And I fear, because I know how too many leaders of churches vote (both on the left, and on the right), that we are buying in to culture wars in a way that buys into the devil’s hands. The best form of Christian community is one where partisan Christians who are seeking to maintain a faithful presence in our political and cultural institutions shaped by convictions about Jesus and his kingdom, and personal convictions about how that plays out within and against these institutions, whether on the right or the left, can come together in fellowship in a way that models the way forward outside the community of believers — our ability to unite, to listen, to co-operate, and to disagree with one another with love and charity might be a beacon and a blessing to our neighbours. And yet, there seems to be no will to extricate ourselves from the culture wars — especially when it comes to the way Christian leaders (myself included) use social media. This is the sort of time when people say ‘you’re talking in generalities, prove it’ — and at this point I’d suggest that our denomination’s recent statement on abortion, while it adopts a position I agree with, had the unfortunate effect of equating a vote for or presence within the Labor Party as being a participant in evil, and I’d point to this cultural warrior, a Presbyterian minister, who wages the culture war in a media channel that is famously partisan, and I’d ask — could anyone outside the hard right comfortably attend a church where such views are linked inextricably to the pulpit?

Is this what we want?

I am certain that I’m perceived by many to be partisan when it comes to politics; I’ve been described by a dear Christian brother as ‘the left’s form of the ACL’. I felt misrepresented (if the interview I mentioned up top gets published you might see why), and like I was being interpreted through a particular grid, at that time, but I certainly do embrace issues and positions championed by the left (I’d like to think I also do that with the right). I’m distressed that taking a position, a political one, on an issue — even a moderate one — is seen as divisive and a reason for breaking fellowship. And I’ve experienced this as people exited our church community over my (and our) stance on the postal survey. Other friends who don’t buy in to the culture war have experienced a similar ‘exodus’ — these exoduses always end up creating little tribes within our church networks; little homogenous political communities, or demographics, that don’t have the opportunity to be the alternative polis modelling life across divides that we so desperately need. So I apologise and repent for those times when my rhetoric has fuelled partisan division, rather than calling us to a better conversation (note, I’m not apologising for convictions on issues, or for saying things people disagree with).

I fear that part of the alternative community that the church offers to the world is a community where people come together from different positions and backgrounds, with different convictions about political problems and solutions, and find unity in a king.

I fear that church is meant to be a community where people can belong and find their commitment to certain civic goods re-shaped, re-ordered, and transformed by the king — in ways that simultaneously affirm and invert good and not so good things about ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ solutions.

I fear that the church is meant to be a place of re-imagining and re-imaging life in ways that might re-animate our political right, political centre, and political left, and yet we are a place that too often has our imagination co-opted by a political ideology from the world, rather than by the life, death, resurrection and rule of Jesus.

I fear that our rhetoric and culture war fighting as ministers, preachers, or vocally partisan Christian punters fuels the division of our society into tribes even as we call people to follow the king of the universe.

I fear that whether a church leader is known for being partisan in any political direction, that the climate that creates is a drawing in of people who agree with that stance, at the exclusion of those who disagree.

And yet, I am also hopeful.

I hope that church communities can emerge that are the sort of communities Haidt describes — committed to truth, and to listening to the other.

I hope that our churches might be communities that are not ‘apolitical’ or defined by a particular partisan outlook — but rather be models of places where people can come together finding unity in Christ and his kingdom, to be sent as ambassadors into the institutions and political parties of our world.

I hope that we can lead the way for our wider community who so desperately need models of rich, loving, disagreement and co-operation around what we hold in common.

I hope that we can practice listening not just to one another, but to our neighbours who are not like us — that we can model ‘loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us.’

I hope that we can steer clear of playing the culture war and power politics game that so defines our civic life now, in favour of patient listening and the pursuit of nuance and wisdom.

I hope that we can look to voices not just explaining the cost of extremes, from the other side — ie listening to those voices we most naturally exclude, but also that we might listen to those voices who are pushing back against the idea that understanding the other is evil, unnecessary, or to be complicit in some horrid status quo (the status quo that conservatives are inherently seeking to uphold and defend).

I hope that we Christians can affirm that there are good things in creation, and in this status quo, things that have been hard won through the influence of Christians in our politics (both on the left and the right, and for progressives and conservatives). I hope that we can also admit that there are areas where progress towards our vision of the good, true, and beautiful — towards the kingdom of God, or shalom, are still possible and that the way forward isn’t simply to shift to maintain some vision of political utopia that we achieved in the past.

I hope that as well as listening to the voices we might normally exclude from our thinking — the voice of ‘the other’ — we might listen more to voices like James Davison Hunter who diagnosed and predicted this cultural problem almost thirty years ago. Here’s something he wrote in his more recent To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World:

 “It isn’t just the Constantinian temptation the church must repudiate but, more significantly, the orientation toward power that underwrites it. The proclivity toward domination and toward the politicisation of everything leads Christianity today to bizarre turns; turns that, in my view, transform much of the Christian public witness into the very opposite of the witness Christianity is supposed to offer.

A vision of the new city commons, rooted in a theology of faithful presence, certainly leads to a repudiation of ressentiment that defines so much of Christianity’s contemporary public witness.

Yet it also leads to a postpolitical view of power. It is not likely to happen, but it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilisation. This would not mean civic privatism but rather a season to learn how to engage the world in public differently and better.”

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Captain Marvel and dragon slaying

“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” — G.K Chesterton

Captain Marvel is the most powerful superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Captain Marvel is a woman. Captain Marvel is a human woman named Carol Danvers whose origin story is the latest instalment in the MCU because she’s going to be a major player in the next instalment of The Avengers. You can’t go far in a review or commentary on Captain Marvel as a cultural text without referring to Wonder Woman, the comparisons in terms of the function of these movies and these characters within their respective comic universes are obvious. We saw Captain Marvel yesterday, and Robyn’s analysis of this comparison was that Wonder Woman was a better movie (and funnier), and perhaps because it came first it felt more revolutionary — but that doesn’t mean Captain Marvel is not the sort of empowering movie we’d want our kids to see. Much of what I wrote in a review of Wonder Woman can be said about Captain Marvel.

Stories are powerful, and super hero movies, like it or not, are our modern myths, so stories that provide representation for people who aren’t used to seeing heroes who look just like them are powerful stories (think Black Panther). They don’t teach us that we need superpowers to save the world, because most of us know superpowers, outside of science (hello Iron Man) are unlikely to happen; they do teach us that evil can be overcome though, by good, often by love. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Stories that feature women as heroes have, until recent times, been exceptionally rare. Especially women that aren’t sidekicks. Back in 2016 I went looking for stories where women undertake what has been called ‘The Hero’s Journey’ (following a guy named Joseph Campbell) in a Facebook thread— there aren’t many, even though that thread had hundreds of comments. Finding stories with strong female characters who exist in their own right, not as trophies for men, is tricky. Which is why Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are such powerful texts — but I’d argue they’re more powerful because despite the godlike powers of Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel in these movies, they don’t function independently but in cooperation with supportive men. They aren’t stories of independence but interdependence, in a way that very few movies with male heroes pull off. There’s a danger with any super hero story that peddles a myth that individual heroism will destroy dragons (and this is where I think Jordan Peterson’s use of mythology to promote individual heroism miss fires, even if he wants a balance of “feminine chaos” (emotion) and “masculine order” (reason)). I want my daughters to watch this movie for the same reason I want them to read Rosie Revere, Engineer, or to watch this astronaut, a real life Carol Danvers, Kate Rubin, read Rosie Revere from space. Representation is powerful and it helps girls imagine their place in the world counter to the myths that come from curse.

It’s too early in the piece for substantial spoilers of Captain Marvel, but I’ll just say, as you watch it, pay attention to the way the evil empire tries to control Carol Danvers by limiting her ability to embrace her emotions — she’s basically told the same thing as Elsa in Frozen — ‘don’t feel’ — she’s told that reason will be her greatest weapon, and that her head, not her heart (or not the combo of both) is what must guide her and restrain her use of power. This is wrong. It’s when she embraces her emotions, driven by love and a pure hatred of evil and injustice, that she becomes the most powerful figure in the MCU; that’s when she escapes the voices that want to control her (embodied by the Kree General Yon-Rogg). Yon-Rogg, her malevolent mentor, wants to harness her power for himself and his ends, he’s contrasted with Nick Fury, the future leader of S.H.I.E.L.D, who’s happy to wash the dishes with Carol, to empower her, and take her lead on saving the world and beating the bad guys.

The moral to this story is that if you have great powers — like the ability to blast energy from your hands, and fly — and you have a good heart and mind — you should use them to fight against evil, joining other people who want to fight against evil.

Of course, our ‘friends’ at Desiring God didn’t see the movie this way. The man who brought you ‘effeminate men use plastic forks’ (which I responded to here) now brings you this hit piece on Captain Marvel and all it stands for. In an earlier edition he bemoaned the loss of trophy-princess role models like Sleeping Beauty (that’s been edited because someone must have pointed out the problems inherent with a story where a princess is kissed without her consent by a strong man she didn’t know she needed). This one scored a positive retweet from John Piper too. So there’s that. Here’s a few choice quotes.

“I do not blame Marvel for inserting the trending feminist agenda into its universe. Where else can this lucrative ideology — which contrasts so unapologetically with reality — go to be sustained, if not to an alternative universe? Verse after verse, story after story, fact after fact, study after study, example after example dispels the myth of sameness between the sexes. The alternative universe where an accident infuses the heroine with superhuman powers, however, seems to stand as a reasonable apologetic for the feminist agenda…”

“As I consider Disney’s new depiction of femininity in Captain Marvel, I cannot help but mourn. How far we’ve come since the days when we sought to protect and cherish our women.

The great drumroll of the previous Avenger movies led to this: a woman protecting men and saving the world. The mightiest of all the Avengers — indeed, after whom they are named — is the armed princess turned feminist queen, who comes down from the tower to do what Prince Charming could not.

Am I nitpicking? It is a movie after all. I wish it were. Instead of engaging the movie’s ideology as mere fiction, a fun escape to another world, we have allowed it to bear deadly fruit on earth. Along with Disney, we abandon the traditional princess vibe, and seek to empower little girls everywhere to be strong like men. Cinderella trades her glass slipper for combat boots; Belle, her books for a bazooka. Does the insanity bother us anymore?”

Now, there are some bits to what Greg says that I’m sympathetic to — I do think there are physical differences between men and women that play out in the world as we experience it; unlike Greg I think these differences, when met by the cursed pattern of relationships in Genesis 3:16, create a world that is harmful for women in a way that it isn’t for men (though it is also harmful for men). This is what terms like ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘patriarchy’ are describing — a world where men use their power to dominate and control women. Greg wants men to be men — for us to step up, not armed with plastic swords or forks, but real metal ones, to slay dragons on behalf of women everywhere. I do think men have a particular responsibility in a cursed world to choose to not benefit from the cursed status quo, but fight against it… Greg Morse is big on dragon slaying. It came up last time — and fair enough, because the story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is the story of the slaying of a dragon; but I fear Greg misses the point of that narrative. Especially, I think he misses the point that the dragon is slayed not by metal swords or heroism, but by a wooden stake (or cross), and that the design for men and women is that we take part in battle together, just as Jesus and his bride do…

“God’s story for all eternity consists of a Son who slew a Dragon to save a Bride. Jesus did not put his woman forward, and neither should we. Where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded. He is the Good Shepherd who laid his life down for his people. Even from the cross, God’s wrath crushing him, he saw to the welfare of his mother (John 19:26–27). Should we so cowardly send our women to protect our children and us? Protecting our women with our very lives is not about their competency, but their value.”

Greg wants men to fight battles and it seems that while he sees ‘laying down his life’ as a paradigm, he kinda wants men to do that while holding on to swords.

“Where can we more clearly display our ultimate resolve to love our women as queens than to step into hell on earth as sacrificial pawns in their defense? Generation after generation has mobilized its men to be devoured — that its women might not be.”

If a man with a sword (or gun) comes knocking on our door, I’m not going to send Robyn to face him alone… but I do wonder if there’s a better picture than the ‘solo warrior’ that Greg Morse might be blind to with his emphasis on individual heroism. I think he’s missing a vital part of the dynamic of Adam and Eve’s failure in the garden. Let me recast that story somewhat…

Genesis 1 tells us that God makes humanity — male and female — in his image; not just males, with females as trophies to be protected and kept at home. He tells us humans to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ — it’s clear that both males and females are involved with filling the earth with living images of God in procreation, why then do we think the ‘subduing’ or ‘ruling’ — as God’s regents, his living representatives — is suddenly the man’s domain? Not a thing we do together?

Genesis 2 tells the story of a particular relationship — within God’s garden sanctuary — a heavenly place where God dwells with people that Adam is told to ‘expand’ (he’s told to cultivate the garden and keep it, following Genesis 1’s instruction to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Adam can’t do this alone neither the expanding or guarding/keeping. So God makes him a ‘helper’ who completes him. They become one. There is no heroic individual in Genesis 2, but an heroic pair. Interdependent. The word ‘Ezer’ which is translated as ‘helper’ (Genesis 2:18) is used in places like these, in the name of one of Moses’ sons after God rescued Israel in his might:

“and the other was named Eliezer, for he said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.” — Exodus 18:4

And, as Israel is about to enter the promised land…

Blessed are you, Israel!
    Who is like you,
    a people saved by the Lord?
He is your shield and helper
    and your glorious sword.
Your enemies will cower before you,
    and you will tread on their heights. — Deuteronomy 33:29

In both these cases ‘ezer’ is used of God and is used in a military sense; a helper is involved in the combat.

Adam and Eve were made to fight a dragon — the serpent — just as Jesus was — and they were to do that together; exercising God’s rule over the world — his dominion even over serpents. And they failed — because they failed to cooperate. And the price for their failure is that rather than cooperating and ruling together, they (or we) compete for rule over one another, the sort of male heroism Desiring God describes is cursed not blessed.

Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.” — Genesis 3:16

The thing about Desiring God and its battlefield mentality in framing gender roles is that they’re focusing on ‘battles’ and missing the real war — the war we’re all called to fight as redeemed humans.

Note, that in Ephesians, Paul doesn’t say ‘finally, men’… but ‘finally,’ note also that he sees our enemy not as soldiers with guns but the devil and the ‘spiritual forces of evil’ — dragons are real. Note, that he also doesn’t expect women to sit behind enemy lines, but rather, to be dressed for battle. The real battle. The battle he doesn’t expect ‘the bride of Christ’ to sit on the sidelines for, but to be fighting — even as we know the real victory has been won.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. — Ephesians 6:1–18

In Revelation, John draws all this together for us, the real battle and the real victory — a victory that is secure not because Jesus took the sword, but because he went to the cross.

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon,and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

“Now have come the salvation and the power
    and the kingdom of our God,
    and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
    who accuses them before our God day and night,
    has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
    by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
    as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
    and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
    because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
    because he knows that his time is short.” — Revelation 12:10-12

That’s our paradigm — that’s our  truth, our readiness, our shield, our helmet, and our sword — that Jesus has won the victory. That’s what men and women co-operate with as we bring this message of victory to the world and so see God’s image bearers spread across the face of the world in opposition to Satan. Heroic independence is result of the curse — thinking that we should maintain that approach to this real battle is a lie of the Devil. Our inter-dependent following of the example of Jesus, together, one in him because the victory is won in him is what sees the devil and his schemes defeated, and the blessing of the new kingdom coming here and now.

The Desiring God piece cites C.S Lewis as an example for why women shouldn’t go into battle — and yet, C.S Lewis gets it — he gets the power of stories, or myths, that they don’t teach us just about heroism in real world conflicts, but about the enchanted world we live in and the Spiritual battle. This is the point of the Narnia series; you know, that series where a group of brothers and sisters — Peter and Edmund joined by Lucy and Susan — go to battle, armed, against the White Witch (the serpent figure), behind Aslan (the Jesus figure), their victorious leader who wins a victory by death.

This quote is, unfortunately for the purpose of this piece, from an era where the most frequent pronoun for talking about an individual was ‘he’ — but it applies to the power of stories in all our lives, and it’s why we need Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman, and the Chronicles of Narnia.

“…the fairy tale stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — C.S Lewis

I want my daughters, my wife, my sisters, and my friends who are women to see and be inspired by Captain Marvel. I want them to be inspired by Lucy and Susan (though not, ultimately, Susan — who ends up choosing “feminine” things like lipstick and stockings (you know, what the princesses Desiring God misses would spend their time pursuing in order to not accidentally be masculine), rather than the ‘last battle’ and Narnia — the things of this world rather than the kingdom). I want my daughters to read stories and watch stories where there are brave heroes who represent them so they take up their place in the real war. Fairy tales are powerful not because they teach us how to navigate a world where bullets fly, but how to face the one who drags us in to curse and away from blessing.

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Christians: Don’t be wedged by abortion; be different

Many Christians are single issue voters on the issue of abortion. And I understand that. For Christians who have convictions about human life and personhood beginning in utero (convictions I share) abortion at any point is the taking of a human life; the death of a person. These convictions about human life aren’t just Christian convictions, there are good scientific reasons to see a foetus as materially human, so now the debate about the morality of abortion in philosophical circles (rather than scientific ones) tends to focus on when a human is a person. Non-religious definitions of personhood tend to come from a mishmash of convictions or ideas about what life is and what makes life have some sort of dignity or worth — these positions are occasionally non-integrated or non-coherent positions. Sometimes these positions draw on certain ideas from our Christian heritage in the west, where persons have a sort of ‘sacred’ God given dignity (historically because of Christian belief about humans being made in God’s image, but in the secular west this dignity just ‘is’. The abortion debate is primarily framed around the rights, dignity, and self-determination of the woman as an individual who is sovereign over her body, and so even if a foetus is a person, there’s a philosophical question about that person’s sovereignty.

Christians are perhaps more inclined to push back against individual autonomy and-or sovereignty because we understand that ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ is a claim that God is sovereign over human bodies, as creator, and as Christians in particular we believe ‘we are not our own’ and that our ‘bodies have been bought at a price’… plus a reasonably orthodox view of sin is that it’s essentially a declaration of independence, or self-sovereignty, rejecting God’s rightful sovereignty over our lives and bodies. This is all to say the Christian worldview is fundamentally at odds with the worldview that makes abortion both a woman’s right and a human right. This also means when the Christian worldview (or its Jewish counterpart) does not inform or shape the view of a culture our position isn’t simply a contested position, where there are other views, but a minority position. Navigating this minority position while believing that abortion is the taking of a human life is a particularly fraught thing for Christians, especially those of us committed to a certain sort of pluralism in a modern, secular, democracy where perhaps the most we can ask for is to be heard and accommodated, because we’ve destroyed our social capital or any sense that we might be a coherent moral voice because our institutions have been found to be corrupt (ala the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse, and the recent Pell conviction), we’ve developed a reputation for being against affording human rights to minorities we disagree with (ala the same sex marriage debate), and we’ve done this while agitating for our own rights and freedoms (the religious freedom debate).

Politically, abortion is actually regulated by the states, so the Federal Labor party raising it as a policy issue in a federal election is an interesting move, and one that seems more about heat than light — more about turning up the heat on their ‘regressive’ opponents by painting themselves as ‘progressive’ than about a policy platform of substance. In short, it’s a classic ‘wedge politics’ move, and the temptation for us as Christians — not simply the challenge for politically conservative people who may oppose abortion on more than just religious convictions — is to not be wedged. Wedge politics needs a villain. A bad guy to point to to say ‘don’t be like these dinosaurs’ — and the classic Christian response to discussion around abortion plays straight into this divisive political strategy. The Labor Party’s number crunchers have obviously decided that the social capital of single-issue voting Christians (typically conservative theologically and politically) is currently so low that not only is there no political loss for wedging us and painting us as the villains, there is a political gain in the wider electorate for doing so. Our conservative Christian Prime Minister was savvy enough to refuse to be wedged on this issue, the question is, can the rest of us respond with similar wisdom.

I can totally understand single issue voting on abortion. I can understand wanting to belt out a hasty statement or letter to paint the proponents of the law change as evil… but I’m not sure it serves the political cause any more than it serves the mission of the church in proclaiming and living as an alternative kingdom following the true king. I’m not sure it even brings our neighbours closer to truth and morality in a way that restrains evil (which is a more classically reformed, Christendom, position than the political theology I’m advocating). It’s possible that jumping into what is clearly a wedge politics style trap is the right and noble thing to do anyway, but I’m not sure it’s being ‘as wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ in the face of a wolf like culture.

I’m also equally prepared to listen to those who argue that ‘pro-life’ has to extend beyond ‘pro-birth’ and so should include a coherent platform that supports vulnerable parents, tackles poverty and mental health (some of the social and economic factors that contribute to abortion), a coherent environmental policy that tries to make our environment compatible with human life, and a humane approach to foreign aid, war, refugees, and asylum seekers. No party has a perfect platform on these fronts, so voting is always a matter of wisdom and freedom, and politics is always about much more than where you cast your vote, and, especially for Christians, it’s about how we live our lives and how we organise our community within the community — or our alternative kingdom with an alternative politics that comes from an alternative, and radically subversive, crucified and raised king. Voting is a matter of wisdom and conscience, so if your conscience dictates that you can’t vote for the Labor party, then don’t. But politics is not as simple as ‘single issue voting’ — it’s equally important that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that our vote is our singular contribution on an issue. The nature of democratic parties is that their members shape the policy platforms and ideologies of particular parties, and single issue voting leads to a Christian evacuation from, rather than faithful presence in, these particular political institutions. We want doctors to maintain faithful presence in the public health system, with integrity — and our rhetoric sometimes makes it impossible for faithful Christians to remain, and work for change in, parties that currently have a pro-abortion platform.

Abortion isn’t an issue that wins the hearts and minds of non-Christians, and its often spoken about with passion and a commensurate lack of compassion for ‘the other side’ or charity. It’s a fraught space to speak into as a bloke, especially a bloke employed by a conservative religious institution. But it’s not an issue I’ve been silent about, or not been clear about you can read pieces both on this website — where, for example, you’ll find a piece from as far back as 2011, and as recently as 2018, and from our church, where we’ve preached and written about this topic being sure to consult, elevate, and include the voices of women. What we’ve tried to do is build empathy, imagination, understanding, and compassion into our response and to suggest ways of being political that aren’t simply tied to what our politicians do.

Christians have, since the beginning of the church, had to mark themselves out as different to the world on the issue of abortion. Abortion is not a modern invention; in any society where a foetus or a child was less than a person with less dignity than the adults in the society, abortion, even infanticide, was a common response to unwanted children who interfered with the plans of a family (typically of the father in more patriarchal cultures). There’s one example of a Roman soldier serving abroad writing home to his pregnant wife telling her that if they had a son he looked forward to meeting him, but if it was a daughter, she should ‘expose her’ (leave her to die, or be collected by strangers — usually either brothels or Christians). In one of our earliest Christian documents, a summary of the moral teaching of the Bible — a ‘how to live’ guide for Christians, there’s a paragraph that says:

“Thou shalt do no murder; thou shalt not commit adultery”; thou shalt not commit sodomy; thou shalt not commit fornication; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not use magic; thou shalt not use philtres; thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide; “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods”

This wasn’t simply a list of restated common moral behaviours, it was a guideline for Christian difference. A way of life for a different ‘polis’ — a new politics.

A little later there’s one of my favourite early church documents, the Letter to Diognetus (aka the Epistle to Diognetus) which says:

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. 2 Corinthians 10:3 They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”

They don’t destroy their offspring. This was something that marked out the Christians as ‘citizens of heaven’ living in a strange land.

This way of life was contagious. The empire eventually became Christian, and the Christian story of human dignity profoundly shaped the west — even giving rise to the full rights and dignity of the mother, not just the father, so that abortion is now a ‘women’s issue’. And it’s legit to ask questions of our culture and its leaders when it comes to how we understand personhood and whether the new western story of individual sovereignty where other lives are stacked up against our own in a battle of rights is better than the story we’re leaving behind, but one of the best ways to ask that question is to avoid being ‘wedged’ — to not be a political football lined up as ‘regressive’ people to be kicked around, but to be different. Genuinely different.

One of my favourite theologians/ethicists, Stanley Hauerwas, suggests this is a new/old frontier for Christians living in the post-Christian west. In this stunning interview where he critiques the Benedict Option and talks about the (positive) dangers of community to the world we live in and its rampant individualism, Hauerwas notes that it’s not in political victory over others via the power game that our alternative king will be visible, but in our different way of life.

“I say that in a hundred years, if Christians are identified as people who do not kill their children or the elderly, we will have done well. Because that’s clearly coming.”

Let’s not get trapped just offering a negative view to the ‘progressive’ politics of our day — to be painted as the ‘regressives’ who say no. Let’s not be wedged. Let’s live an alternate vision of the kingdom and build institutions that seek to make parenting plausible, and pregnancy and what comes after it something less than terrifying. Let’s make ‘pro life’ something more than jumping into exclusion zones with billboards. Political pluralism isn’t about silence, or ceding the case, but about clearly making the case that we live the better story; that our vision of what gives a person personhood and dignity — caught up with the God who made people and lovingly redeems them through the death and resurrection of Jesus — produces better outcomes for people and communities, starting with the most vulnerable, than the alternatives being served up by our world. That’s the challenge we face responding to Labor’s wedge.

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Toxic masculinity is in the Bible (but so is the solution)

Toxic was the Oxford English Dictionaries word of the year in 2018. A rapid increase in its use in public conversations, around politics, but especially around gender and ‘toxic masculinity’ in the #metoo movement, saw a massive spike in dictionary look ups. If you were to look up the Oxford definition it’s:

Toxic;

Adjective
1 Poisonous.
‘the dumping of toxic waste’
‘alcohol is toxic to the ovaries’

1.1 Relating to or caused by poison.
‘toxic hazards’
‘toxic liver injury’

1.2 Very bad, unpleasant, or harmful.
‘a toxic relationship’

There’s been all sorts of blow-back against the idea that masculinity in various, traditional, forms might be lumped under this banner of ‘toxicity’, especially amongst people suspicious that the current wave of feminism, in its identification of the systemic application of a certain sort of masculinity as ‘the patriarchy’, is seeking to deconstruct and disempower all masculinity. Now, there’s a thing where people who are on the political left tend to see things in systemic ways (like privilege and the patriarchy), and so they do ask individuals to consider how they might benefit from systems they don’t necessarily see or acknowledge the benefits they receive as a result, they do also tend to want to deconstruct systems and institutions defined as oppressive. Those on the right tend to see things more in individual terms and so when big systemic claims are made they get applied and weighed up against ‘my own individual experience, character, and decisions for which I am directly responsible.’ This means those on the right who are not embodying those abusive characteristics that are labeled ‘toxic’ but also don’t see life predominantly in systemic terms feel like they are being, unjustly, asked to give up certain rights and responsibilities, power, even, that limits their individual freedom or sovereignty. The whole Jordan Peterson phenomenon has emerged because those people who see masculinity in certain forms, especially in the use of power to bring ‘order’ and even in the creation of institutions and systems, being the source of much that is good. It’s impossible to speak across this divide so long as we are unable to recognise that we are simultaneous individuals and relational; that we exists as selves and in communities or systems of selves, and that once certain sorts of selves wield power and construct systems to their own advantage, even individuals who don’t participate in creating such systems, do benefit from them in ways that people outside that individual experience see but that we may not see, or may feel powerless to change, and so instead we take responsibility for our own individual action in the world. I read this piece against ‘toxic’ as descriptor of masculinity yesterday, I didn’t love it.

“The failure of current culture to define the term “toxic masculinity” (as mentioned in the recent Gillette ad) is a serious problem. Does it mean a subset of masculinity is toxic? Or, does it mean masculinity itself is toxic?

If masculinity itself is toxic (as some people claim is the point of the recent American Psychological Association guidelines) there is no motivation for men to change anything about themselves. “I was born this way!” they might retort. In that case (according to Leftist logic) perhaps men deserve toleration, acceptance and accommodation in the same way sexual minorities have recently been championed by the general culture. There are more women, so men arethe sexual minority after all.

If toxic masculinity is only an undesirable kind of masculinity, then we need to ask: what does good masculinity look like? But so far our culture’s answer seems to be: it looks like femininity, which is not very inspiring for most men.”

Again, this perception, or feeling, is real and we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it. It does, again, explain the popularity of Jordan Peterson and his appeals to hard-wired natural norms to suggest that masculine traits (whether you’re a male or female) are a pathway to a good and flourishing individual life, and then to a better society.

We Christians, whether left or right leaning (or centrist), have a unique contribution to make to public conversations about gender, and about what is good for humans systemically and individually. In discussions generated by my last post, where I suggested I had no issue with using the word ‘toxic’ to qualify ‘masculinity’, I was asked if I’d be equally happy to talk about ‘toxic femininity’. The answer is yes. But I also want to make the case that the Bible has a particular account for ‘toxic masculinity’ of the sort emerging in the #metoo discussion that means we can embrace the label and participate in the discussion… and we can go even further in our understanding of toxicity and what it does in systems and in individual lives.

There are plenty of Christians out there who want to redeem a certain form of (not Spiritually redeemed) masculinity as natural and good (especially those of us who believe there are divinely created ‘ideals’ of masculinity and femininity that work in cooperation with each other) and there are many of us who seem keen to jump on this bandwagon, much like on Peterson’s, without thinking critically about how much natural constructs of manhood and womanhood are tainted by sin and curse, and so toxic — incompatible with human life.

What’s not impossible is for those of us who call ourselves Christians to have our own account of masculinity and femininity, and the appropriateness of using ‘toxic’ as an adjective to describe either.

Especially those of us who see the Bible as an authoritative account of what it means to be human, what is good for humanity, why the world is like it is, and how it might be improved. If we do not speak about toxic masculinity, or femininity, or humanity — and look critically at the effect of sin on our individual and collective lives and norms — how can we speak of a redeemed humanity (we must, at the same time, consider how nature might be oriented towards its telos, where we might see God’s good and beautiful design amidst the wreckage wrought by our poisonous sin)? If we can’t recognise sin playing out in the real world in detrimental ways we’d have to start asking how real an account of humanity we have to offer.

When it comes to the toxicity of natural-to-us relationships between men and women, the Bible provides an account for the destructive nature of a ‘toxic’ default, a description of how that default plays out in individual relationships that are toxic, and some reasonable evidence that this toxicity is systemic. It also suggests a toxic femininity, in that our relationships are corrupted from God’s good co-operative design and purpose in two directions. This pattern of relating from Genesis 3 becomes the norm for male-female relationships through the rest of the Old Testament, it is not a new ‘good pattern’ extending Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, but an inversion or corruption of the ideal.

“To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” — Genesis 3:16

Genesis 3, an account of why the human heart is the way it is, and human cultures and societies are the way they are, suggests that there’s a new toxic pattern of relationships for both males and females — toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. The outworking of sin and the curse is gendered (or, rather, sexed), because men and women are different in ways that play out differently in the physical world. Men are typically bigger and stronger (which is part of how we get a patriarchy when our cultures are built around physical dominance or the amassing of power). There is a ‘toxic masculinity’ here that maps pretty exactly on to the sort of toxic masculinity identified in the Gillette ad.

King David is sometimes held up as an ideal masculine figure (though I suspect if some people grappled with his emotional life and his harp playing he might be ‘too effeminate’ — he even kills Goliath with an improvised and surprising weapon from a distance; hardly a (normal) warrior’s approach. But when David has power and opportunity he ‘rules over’ Bathsheba (and Uriah) in what seems to me to be the literal embodiment of #metoo’s description of toxic masculinity. David knows he needs redemption so I don’t think it’s uncharitable or unfair to point this out. The systemic nature of this toxicity is evident in how his sons treat women; one amasses them like trophies (Solomon), one sexually assaults his sister (Amnon), the other publicly assaults his father’s wives in a brutal power game on the same rooftop that David was on when he claimed Bathsheba (Absalom). Toxic masculinity is intergenerational. It is systemic.

When the Apostle Paul writes about the cultural effect of sin becoming our new ‘natural’ in Romans 1, we see how the collective decision to replace God with created things has widespread (plural) consequences for people; sin is structural and effects what we see as ‘normal’ or natural. Sin is toxic; so is the ‘curse’ — the punishment — and the result is death.

All unredeemed humanity expresses itself in toxic ways. Sin poisons us; as individuals and in the systems, cultures, norms, and institutions we build so that we are poisonous to one another. Here’s what Paul says a bit later in Romans:

“As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.””— Romans 3:10-18

If people are recognising and calling this out — the way our collective behaviour brings ruin and misery to others — we have two choices — we can embrace the diagnosis and point to the solution, or we can cut Genesis 3 from our Bible and try to find some good, common, created masculinity to uphold for the ‘good’ of all. The problem with the Gillette ad isn’t the diagnosis, it’s the solution (and though he comes from the other direction, I’ve argued elsewhere that this is the same with Jordan Peterson). It offers an incomplete solution that doesn’t escape the heart problem; it aims at mitigating the symptoms not dealing with the heart. It’s a form of palliative care for this condition that is incompatible with human life.

Our human norms were poisoned by sin — and so our patterns for relating as men and women became toxic. Deadly. Even as the toxicity of sin kills us by pulling us further away from God. But our human norms are redeemed, purified, and renovated in Jesus.Here’s the curse-reversing, toxicity-purifying, relationship changing solution offered by the Bible. Find new humanity in Jesus — by following him as king. The Bible says this involves a change of our nature — we receive God’s spirit (which is a bit mysterious) — but as a result we have a new template for relationships that isn’t just a return to what we were created for as men and women, but is a picture of a future world where there is no curse.

There is no healthy masculinity or femininity that is not crucified and raised with Jesus. No human pattern or norm not connected to the divine by God’s Spirit that is ‘good’ or true or worth anything. Jesus doesn’t just deal with the symptoms brought about by sin and our toxicity, he provides a new pattern for a new way of life together as people; as males and females (for eg Romans 8, Ephesians 5, Philippians 2); a new model for non-cursed, non-toxic, cooperation in the world, that creates new life-giving systems as we use power and strength for the other, not for our own gratification or advancement. Here’s a picture, from the Bible, of a different sort of masculinity (and a different sort of femininity). Toxicity is anything that departs from this pattern.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus — Philippians 2:1-5

Note that the last bit sounds a lot like the solution offered by the Gillette ad, but the first bit — being united with Christ, and sharing in the Spirit, is what changes our hearts so we ‘have the same love’ and are ‘one in spirit and of one mind’…

Patterns of masculinity or femininity that are not crucified — or cross shaped — are the same patterns that led humanity to nail Jesus to the cross, and that lead us to destroy each other as we seek to be tyrant kings and queens of our own little empires. Jordan Peterson’s natural masculinity won’t save us from that, nor will #metoo, but all these conversations about the sorts of masculinity and femininity that might lead to human flourishing are opportunities for us Christians to engage, from our own account of humanity and its ills, and to point people to the source of life and love and restored relationships with God and one another.

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When I don’t Desiring God

Of all the commentary about Gillette’s recent video essay on toxic masculinity/razor advertisement the one that left me scratching my head the hardest was this piece posted on Desiring God.  Now, I’m not unbiased. I’ve long grown weary of John Piper and his troupe of culture warriors. As I’ve packed my books into boxes for an upcoming (temporary) house move, Piper’s books haven’t been going in the keep, giveaway, or sell piles. I find the vibe of Piper and his merry men’s take on manhood and womanhood hard to take (toxic even). But this piece lacks the nuance Piper brings to his own cultural analysis. And that’s saying something.

I didn’t write about the piece at the time because to write about things like this is to give them oxygen, and clicks.

And look, off the bat, I’ll say that the way adjectives work is to qualify nouns, so I have no problem with ‘toxic masculinity’ describing a certain sort of masculinity in the same way that ‘poisonous water’ tells me not to drink water that will be bad for my health and ‘ridiculous article’ describes the both the first of this now two part series, and its follow up. As a result, I’m more likely to be drawn to the Gillette ad than the Desiring God ‘think piece’ (and I use that adjective not to describe actual intellect, but to describe a certain sort of genre of blog post, and I use ‘blog’ there to differentiate a written article from a piece of wood in the ground, because this is how language works and that is important to understand).  Here are some of the more head scratching moments from the original post.

Too often we swing from decrying chauvinism and abuse to producing a society of plastic forks, nonfat lattes, and men who don’t mind going to church because of the free babysitting. When our children look at men today — the kind in television shows, homes, and the classroom — what do they see? What is this masculinity of tomorrow we are all concerned with?

I don’t know if it’s ironic that the guy gets on a soapbox about pendulum swings and over-correcting and then creates, ex nihilo a set of weird, extreme, measures to determine whether or not the man in your life is not quite man enough.

“Just having returned from a visit to “the greatest place on earth,” my wife and I were shocked at how many men boldly acted like women. Lispy sentences, light gestures, soft mannerisms, and flamboyant jokes were everywhere to be seen — on display for a park flooded with children. No hiding it. No shame. No apologizing. This perversion of masculinity warranted no commercials.”

Yes. We must certainly never let a real man make flamboyant jokes. Especially not in parks where they might accidentally groom children with a Gillette razor and no apology. What’s even more bizarre is that while creating this rod, and using it to measure someone’s manhood, or, er, masculinity, the author returns to his rod in the follow up. But there’s a couple of other points that merit some deeper critique. One, the author supplies a series of ‘dragon killing’ non-passive examples of masculine manhood from the Bible, lionising David for his ‘manly’ courage (and ignoring that when he didn’t go to war he decided to send armed men to ‘take’ Bathsheba so he could sleep with her… which has absolutely disastrous results for the next generation of his family, especially his sons). That sort of ‘morality tale’ thing is not how Bible characters work, they’re much more complicated and three dimensional than black and white caricatures allow… if it was one might make the following observation from Genesis 25, where we meet two brothers of whom God later says “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated” — ask yourself which of these brothers embodies a more ‘Desiring God’ style masculinity?

 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” — Genesis 25:27-30

Jacob, at home, smooth skinned (thanks Gillette) cooking with mum… or Esau the hairy meat-eating hunter…

Now, there were many other awful things about the first Desiring God piece (the bit in the heading, that brought in some double entendre to compare Gillette’s ad about personal grooming with the way adults prepare children for abuse was, I thought, beyond the pale); but it seems the worst of all the bad things is that the editorial team at Desiring God believed it worthy of a sequel, and not the sort of sequel that brings clarity, it’s simply a double down. It’s a piece that assumes not just the doubtful the exegetical bona fides of the first, but it also  quotes, and argues from the authority of the first piece and its ‘rules of the faith’ in order to make even more ridiculous qualifications — while also acknowledging that gender norms (the things we describe as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are culturally constructed. Anybody who dares question his adroitly observed and official list of effeminate qualities is on #teamSatan.

“But as it pertains to today, Satan whispers confusions into modern ears. If one should give such traits to effeminacy as “lispy sentences, light gestures, soft mannerisms, and flamboyant jokes,” Satan immediately suggests a handful of men who, not having these qualities in the aggregate, have one individually. He lisps, but he isn’t effeminate; he just has a gap in his teeth. He has a softer demeanor, but he isn’t effeminate; he just is introverted and weak in tone. Instead of simply concluding (rightly) that such people aren’t effeminate, we conclude that these traits don’t really characterize effeminacy. We deny the existence of forests by examining each tree individually.”

But effeminacy stands as an obvious forest to all honest men and women. The deception became clear to a friend recently when, after he nitpicked each individual trait, I asked plainly, “So you are saying that you cannot tell when a man lives an effeminate lifestyle?” Of course he could.”

Of course. Then he argues for these ‘tells’ being culturally constructed.

“God also gives us a culture to live in, which assigns masculine and feminine to certain amoral things like speech, objects, and behavior. American culture associates pink with women, as it does dresses (contra Scottish culture and William Wallace’s kilt), and expects heterosexual men not to walk down the street holding hands with another man (as heterosexual men often do in other cultures).”

So if it’s about how a culture understands things like speech, objects, and behaviour — what is wrong with a culture redefining the symbolism of different colours, items of clothing, or styles of speech? How does this work in an increasingly multi-cultural world where not only are people from different ethnic backgrounds and nations coming together in public places, but sub-cultures exist that interpret different symbols differently? Perhaps his rod isn’t a great measuring stick at all?

There is half a point buried in the dross about what happens when we moderns de-couple our personhood from a sense of ‘givenness’ — including of our biology — where there are things that are essentially and physically true about who we are that come from a creator and define us externally. Without our personhood being given to us we’re left constructing an identity and wondering what, if anything, is ‘essential’ and out of reach of our imagination. This is one of the reasons why identity, built on personal autonomous choice, is a thin concept — but you won’t find that analysis (or acknowledgment of complexity) in the Desiring God pieces. The closest we get is:

Sex, in this modern chaos, means little more than body parts. Males happen to have male genitalia — but that need not lock them into expressing their sexuality in any particular way. They can “marry” either a man or a woman, and even decide to keep their male members or not. Fluidity is one of Satan’s new favorite words. In this view, man, enthroned as his own maker, chooses who he (or she or they or “ze”) will become.”

Perhaps, really, this is just a Centre for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood piece on the perils of egalitarian theology masquerading as biting cultural commentary.

All around us, mountains of God’s glory carved into the landscape of his world are eroding. Homosexuality and egalitarianism flatten distinctions between husbands and wives. Androgyny and effeminacy flatten vital sex expressions between men and women. But God made us distinctly male and female, and gave Eve to Adam (not vice versa), because he already conspired in his eternal plan to give the church to his Son. Our distinct manhood and womanhood, our marriages, and our human nature itself guide us to properly reflect the most precious reality in the universe: God’s glory shining forth in the good news of his Son.

Look, this last sentence is absolutely true.  The telos of heterosexual marriage and sex is the heavenly marriage between Christ and his bride, the church. But, I’d humbly suggest two things. First, the author of these pieces should grapple with a masculinity that also allows us blokes to be united, in the church as the bride (which is presumably feminine, right?). Which, along with a little humility around the area of cultural construction of ‘norms,’ makes space for slightly more nuance than black and white proclamations of ‘shoulds’ and ‘Satans’… Second, the author might like to consider how people, both as individuals and cultures, might be more complicated than his biting cultural analysis and wit allows, and how his ‘norms’ might ‘flatten distinctions’ between men or women who are different to other men or women… He might work a little harder to not impose a one size fits all rod on different people, not just because some men have high pitched voices or a gap between their teeth that creates a lisp, but because biology, itself, isn’t as straightforward as he’d like it to be… which isn’t to say that there aren’t essential, rather than constructed biological realities, but rather that those essential realities are less polarisingly binary than he might think (or argue).

What’s interesting in this particular cultural moment is that there are, in the complexities, fascinating opportunities to paint a different and compelling picture for how different experiences and physical realities can be accommodated in loving union — not through an open slather approach to marriage, but in the body, or bride, of Christ. Instead of rod-beating calls to arms, we Christians might engage in careful listening to, and observation of, the stories being lived out by our neighbours. We might notice fracture lines appearing within modern coalitions of interest, around competing accounts of identity, and stand by with compassion, a better story, and more radical inclusion of difference. We might read a piece like this recent article by gay, conservative, blogger Andrew Sullivan and ask if his utopian vision might be best satisfied in union with Christ, and inclusion in the church — in a way that helps people order their lives, and loves, around his love (rather than around rod-whacking, line-drawing, and graceless posturing). Sullivan identifies a trend within the trans- movement (as opposed to the trans- experience) that seeks to eradicate biological sex (something essential) as a factor in one’s personhood, in favour of gender (something constructed). He, like Desiring God, is trying to articulate what is contested about masculinity and femininity in this cultural moment. He says, of a piece of legislation in America that is seeking to replace biological sex with a broadened category of ‘gender identity’ which includes “gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms, or characteristics, regardless of the individual’s designated sex at birth…” this redefinition has the same issues as the Desiring God insistence that gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms, and characteristics are essential to personhood and the performance of our particular sex/identity. Sullivan points out that this view is a regressive move that reduces us humans to stereotypes awaiting normalisation and classification:

“It implies that a tomboy who loves sports is not a girl interested in stereotypically boyish things, but possibly a boy trapped in a female body. And a boy with a penchant for Barbies and Kens is possibly a trans girl — because, according to stereotypes, he’s behaving as a girl would. So instead of enlarging our understanding of gender expression — and allowing maximal freedom and variety within both sexes — the concept of “gender identity” actually narrows it, in more traditional and even regressive ways. What does “gender-related mannerisms” mean, if not stereotypes?

Sullivan is worried that this will ultimately mean a gay identity — built on attraction to physical realities about another person, rather than simply ‘gender expression’ — will be flattened out into a ‘trans’ identity (because their attraction is about something more nebulous and quasi-spiritual than about the relationship between sex and gender being held together in a particular person). He says:

“This is the deeply confusing and incoherent aspect of the entire debate. If you abandon biology in the matter of sex and gender altogether, you may help trans people live fuller, less conflicted lives; but you also undermine the very meaning of homosexuality. If you follow the current ideology of gender as entirely fluid, you actually subvert and undermine core arguments in defense of gay rights…

Transgender people pose no threat to us, and the vast majority of gay men and lesbians wholeheartedly support protections for transgender people. But transgenderist ideology — including postmodern conceptions of sex and gender — is indeed a threat to homosexuality, because it is a threat to biological sex as a concept.”

Then he says:

“There is a solution to this knotted paradox. We can treat different things differently. We can accept that the homosexual experience and the transgender experience are very different, and cannot be easily conflated. We can center the debate not on “gender identity” which insists on no difference between the trans and the cis, the male and the female, and instead focus on the very real experience of “gender dysphoria,” which deserves treatment and support and total acceptance for the individuals involved. We can respect the right of certain people to be identified as the gender they believe they are, and to remove any discrimination against them, while also seeing biology as a difference that requires a distinction. We can believe in nature and the immense complexity of the human mind and sexuality. We can see a way to accommodate everyone to the extent possible, without denying biological reality. Equality need not mean sameness.

We just have to abandon the faddish notion that sex is socially constructed or entirely in the brain, that sex and gender are unconnected, that biology is irrelevant, and that there is something called an LGBTQ identity, when, in fact, the acronym contains extreme internal tensions and even outright contradictions. And we can allow this conversation to unfold civilly, with nuance and care, in order to maximize human dignity without erasing human difference.

Let me just pull out a little bit of that pull quote so that you can mull over how much it is actually arguing for something Desiring God both says it wants when it comes to the difference between men and women, while also trying to eradicate difference under the subsets ‘male’ and ‘female’…

“We can see a way to accommodate everyone to the extent possible, without denying biological reality. Equality need not mean sameness.”

What if that vision for freedom and accommodation and acknowledgment of biological reality actually comes from a church upholding the givenness of our personhood, and the discovery of our purpose according to that givenness, rather than the cultural norms around us? What if we discover that personhood in Jesus? What if this happens not in a way that insists we conform to norms, or ‘sameness,’ but that acknowledges that our persons find their purpose not in expressive individualism, but in reflecting the glory of God as his image bearers, in community and relationships, through the redemption of our bodies in Jesus and our transformation into his image by the Spirit?”

These pieces double down on weird, culturally constructed, visions for manhood and masculinity from a previous cultural moment, instead of finding positive things to say in the face of poorly articulated cultural constructions. They co-opt the image of Jesus to advance this cause instead of thinking carefully about masculinity, femininity, and about how biological realities shape and inform both created patterns and sinful distortions of those patterns. They fail to find the antidote for cursed toxic masculinity in the curse-breaking life and death of Jesus — for example how his strength plays out in the defeat of Satan at the cross, and how Jesus’ life models a counter-cultural approach to a toxic masculinity that is big on violence and power, rather than wanting a sea of unshaved mini-Samsons to punch out the Philistines…  but more than that, they exclude from the body those who belong. They double down on Esaus at the expense of Jacobs.

The tragedy of these two pieces from Desiring God is that they do the over-correcting opposite of the cultural wave it seeks to defend against. In a way that is every bit as damaging as the ‘eradication’ of anything essential about our personhood. If nothing is free to be constructed, intentionally, by us, as a sort of cultural expression or performance of character, or at least if the construction is only done at a cultural level then you’re in big trouble if you sit biologically or experientially outside the norm. There is no space for an intersex individual to navigate the world on their terms, let alone those who like Jacob, simply prefer a performance of their biological sex, or gender, that others might deride as weak. There is no space for a masculinity (or femininity) as a deliberate counter-cultural construction that deliberately, consciously, and individually, communicates one’s particular story (even if it is that our story is of being reconnected to the givenness of things), the only way to articulate a Biblical manhood or womanhood is to see our lives as combative performances in a culture war. There is no place for the subjectivity of aesthetics or experience (and taste) to be accommodated in neighbourly difference and love within communities. It robs us of the very personhood it seeks to establish, and the richness of life together.

Reading the Bible (and life) as the story of God ‘re-creating’ and ‘re-vivifying’ broken images of God: Part 2 — ‘he lays me down’

Back in 2015 I posted one part of a planned two part epic ‘By the rivers of Babylon’, I didn’t ever post the second part, and nobody seemed to mind. Until today.

To recap, I posted some quotes from ancient near eastern rituals to do with the creation of ‘images of God’ — particularly idol statues — and looked at comparisons with Genesis 2, to suggest that there’s a conceptual link; that in the Genesis creation story we see God creating living, breathing, representatives of the divine, in deliberate contrast to rituals, creation stories, and an understanding of humanity in the ancient near east where man created dead, breathless, statues of gods and then had to develop a cognitive dissonance to be able to encounter that statue as though it was a representative of divine life. We have existing accounts, from the ancient world, of the creation of a divine image and its revivification or rededication after an idol had been captured by an enemy or removed from its sanctuary. I have written bits and pieces expanding on this theme, but thought it’d be nice to come back and finish the ‘epic’ as promised.

I suggested the parallel between the Genesis type scene of creation and re-creation of a divine image (which repeats itself through the Old Testament), mirrors these ancient rituals in the following ways, where an image (tselem) is:

  1. Formed and fashioned, near water (and symbolically, in a sense, moved through water, it’s interesting that God places the man in the garden twice, once before the mention of the water, and once after) (Genesis 2:6, 8, 10-15)
  2. Inspired, or given ‘breath’ so that it the image is vivified. It is to be thought of as a living representation of the God whose image it bears. (Genesis 2:7)
  3. Declared fit for purpose within a system, and via connection to God. (Genesis 1:26-31)
  4. Placed (or enthroned) in the Temple/garden sanctuary and given a job within the Temple. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15)
  5. The images are provided for with food and drink. (Genesis 2:16-17)
  6. The image fulfills a function in representing the God behind the image (Genesis 2:19-20)

I pointed out that this pattern repeated itself with Noah, in the creation of Israel as a people, and was anticipated by the prophets about Israel’s return from exile — where God’s people would be recommissioned as his image bearers. And then promised a follow up post to connect this to the rest of the story of the Bible.

Recap over.

One of my favourite bits of Biblical Theology — perhaps because it was one of the first pieces to grip my imagination about how the Bible might work — comes from connecting Psalm 23 to Jesus, the good shepherd.

 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
   He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
     he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever. — Psalm 23

It’s a beautiful Psalm as a standalone. But now read it against that number list. The narrator (first David) is:

  1. Placed by waters in the sanctuary of green pastures;
  2. His Soul restored — literally this is ‘nepesh’ in Hebrew and ‘psuche’ in the Greek translation of the Old Testament — the words used for the ‘breath of life’ breathed in to Adam in Genesis 2. It’s a recreation. The ‘restored’ word is the same word used to describe return from exile in places like Deuteronomy 30:3, 1 Kings 8:34, and Jeremiah 30:3
  3. He is guided along the right paths by God for his name’s sake (a purpose within a system, where the ‘for his name’s sake’ is the purpose, connected to image bearing representation and the failure to live for his name is what lead Israel to exile, to no longer being ‘image bearers’, which is a breaking of the 3rd commandment).
  4. He is taken to a place where there is a table, but at the end ‘dwells in the house of the Lord forever’ (placed in the temple)
  5. He is fed, and his cup overflows (the images are provided with food and drink).
  6. He is anointed with oil — which presumably has some connection to fulfilling a function to represent the God behind the image, alongside the ‘his name’s sake.’

Now. In terms of the Biblical theology thing, i’d often simply connected The Lord as shepherd to Jesus as shepherd — Jesus as the provider who specifically does all these things for people, or promises to, as the good shepherd. Look at what Jesus says around the feeding of the 5,000 as recorded by Mark (Mark 6, where the people are ‘like sheep without a shepherd) and John, where the feeding of the 5,000 comes before passages about the gift of the Spirit as living water that brings eternal life — in fact, the whole of John’s Gospel essentially unpacks that re-creation schema. But the Biblical theology connection that makes Jesus ‘the Lord who is the shepherd,’ with the feeding of the 5,000 in the mix, goes something like:

  1. He places people by water, on green pastures (Mark 6:39, John 6:10)
  2. He feeds them with ‘overflowing’ provision (Mark 6:42-43, John 6:12-14)
  3. The people are ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6), and Jesus calls himself ‘the good shepherd’ (John 10).

There’s a degree to which I think this is still a legitimate line to draw from Old to New Testament. But there’s a better story, a better line through the Old Testament story of God creating and revivifying broken images that involves Jesus being the ‘new Adam’ — the new ‘image’ — through whom we are restored as we are united to him; an a reading of Psalm 23 that places Jesus in the narrative schema as the first ‘restored Israelite’, the one whom David points to, who can say ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ — I owe much of this reading to Doug Green, whose paper ‘The Lord is Christ’s Shepherd. Psalm 23 as Messianic Prophecy’ is brilliant.

He says, amongst other things:

“… it is appropriate to read the whole of the Psalter in a prophetic and eschatological direction. More specifically, all of the “Psalms of David” should be read as messianic psalms that describe different dimensions of the life — and especially the suffering — of Israel’s eschatological King.”

“In other words, the apostolic authors adopted not simply a general Christological approach to reading the Psalter, wherein Christ could be “seen” in the psalms, but more specifically a decidedly Christotelic approach, reading it in connection with Israel’s great narrative of redemption, which from their perspective had reached its surprising climax (Greek telos, “end” or “goal” in the story of Jesus, the Messiah.”

Green describes the structure of the psalm as a move from “pasturage to wilderness to temple” that can be described as paralleling “promised land -> exile -> restoration” or “Eden -> Exile from the Garden -> New Jerusalem”. He says:

“Even in their grammatical-historical context, verses 4 and 5, with their images of escape from the threat of death and (possibly) return from exile, tell an incipient resurrection story. Read prophetically, these verses echo the story of the Isaianic Servant as they depict the Messiah’s journey through some kind of suffering, which will subsequently change into his enjoyment of the blessed life, and more specifically to an eschatological banquet…

“If Jesus Christ is indeed the telos, or goal, of Israel’s story, and more specifically the fulfilment of the OT’s messianic prophecies — including the Psalter understood as a prophetic book — then Christian interpretation of the OT must be an exercise in reading backwards, of rereading earlier texts so that their meanings cohere with what God has actually done in history in Jesus Christ.”

He concludes “the eschatological David has been brought from the valley of death into the heavenly house of the Lord, to reside there.” Green, I think rightly, describes this as “the story of those who have been united to Christ by faith” — we’re brought into the story through our union with Christ.

If this Psalm is messianic in this sense, then in some way the Lord’s anointed — who is shepherded by God — somehow leads God’s people through exile from God — or death — into restoration and the temple. If Jesus comes as the restoration moment promised in the prophets, and this Psalm, and he does this by being the true image bearer but his restoration into being an image bearer through exile and death is also grounds for our restoration.

So, that’s a fun reading of Psalm 23 that connects it to the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies — where Jesus is the king who ends our exile from God, but there’s more to this story that is explicitly connected to the proposed metanarrative of the Bible; that it’s about God re-creating and revivifying divine image bearers (where idolatry transforms us into the image of dead idols rather than the living God).

My suggestion is that the Gospels, in depicting Jesus as a new Adam, and new Israel, also follow the pattern of establishing Jesus as an image bearer — according to those Old Testament (and Ancient Near Eastern) types — and that this is applied to the church both through union with Christ, baptism, and the indwelling of the Spirit — the things that mark out our transformation into the image of Jesus, from being broken idol-worshipping images. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and the “exact representation of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3), but there are also ways the Gospels follow the script.

  1. Jesus is, in a particular sense, ‘formed’ or fashioned near water  at his baptism — if crossing the Jordan was Israel’s path to nationhood and part of how Exodus paints them being presented as God’s image bearers — his children, then Jesus’ baptism in the waters of the Jordan mark his calling in the same way. All four Gospels include the baptism of Jesus.
  2. Especially if the Spirit descending on Jesus is the ‘breath’ of God marking him  . — if this is Jesus symbolically being given a certain sort of ‘breath’ as Adam was (though Adam receives the ‘psuche’ and Jesus the ‘pneuma’ in Greek — and that distinction is interesting particularly because Paul makes it a distinction between Adam the ‘psucheikon’ (or natural/breathed/souled image) and Jesus the ‘pneumatikon’ (or breathed/spirited image) in 1 Corinthians 15:44 as he reflects on and quotes from Genesis 2 and the resurrection, see below). Pneuma and psuche are used in a way that, at a glance, looks interchangeable for breath and Spirit throughout the Old Testament.
  3. Jesus is declared ‘fit for purpose’ in connection with God in the words that speak from heaven — “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11), “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17), “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22), while John’s Gospel has John the Baptist say, of Jesus, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” (John 1:33 — which is significant if the bringing of the Holy Spirit is connected to the end of exile and the restoration of God’s image bearing people).
  4. Jesus is the Temple — or the dwelling place of God — but he also goes in order to prepare an eschatological temple, and in order to transform God’s new image bearers into human temples. This one takes some unpacking. He is also the living representative of God (Hebrews 1), and if we see him we’ve seen the father (John 14:9). He is the “word of God” in flesh, and he “is God” ‘tabernacling’, or ‘dwelling’ in the world in the flesh (John 1:1-14). In John 2, as he cleanses the Temple (which has not ever had God’s spirit come to dwell in it after exile in the way that it did before exile) he speaks of his body as the temple (John 2:22). But he also speaks of his “father’s house” (John 2:16). In John 14:1-3 Jesus says: “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am…” this has often been understood as being about the heavenly city-temple — a new Eden — that John sees coming down to earth in Revelation 21, but in an immediate sense of fulfilment of the ‘place for you’ and the going and coming, Jesus says the Spirit is him ‘coming back’ —  “But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:17-18) and then “you heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.” (John 14:28-29). The ‘coming back’ might purely be eschatological, but it seems to both immediately describe the resurrection, the ascension (as part of the “going”), and the coming of the Spirit as part of the “return” to them (and the end of the exile that ‘restores their souls’ — and ours).In John 16, in the same extended episode of teaching, Jesus explains more of the going and coming — “Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:19-20)… then, following Jesus death, and their grief, and his resurrection, John records the following: “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit…” (John 20:20-22). When Jesus breathes into his disciples and commissions them in John 20:22 it uses the same Greek word for what God does to breathe life into Adam in the LXX.

    The point at which the disciples understand Jesus’ reference to his body as the temple, we’re told, back in 2:22, is the resurrection: “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” When this happen — the disciples become the ‘many rooms’ of the house of God, his Temple — as Jesus has been already, as marked by the Spirit descending on him at his baptism (a sort of symbolic end of the exile — God dwelling with his people again).

    Luke does a fun thing with this in Acts 2, where he has the Spirit being poured out on God’s new temple (and I think given Luke’s Gospel ends with the followers of Jesus meeting daily in the temple, and given Acts 2 ends with a reference to the followers of Jesus meeting daily in the temple, and given the festival of Pentecost is a public gathering and there are many witnesses from the Jewish diaspora there, that the events of Pentecost probably happened in the Temple courts, not the upper room mentioned as the setting of the events in Acts 1). God’s new temple — his re-created image bearers — receive the Spirit, in an echo of the glory of his presence coming in to the first temple — with clouds and noise and flaming glory — in the courts of the temple building Jesus had condemned — the temple whose curtain tore when Jesus died as an expression of a sort of judgment on that building and a new way of access to God’s presence…

    Jesus is also positioned as a new Adam in his temptation, especially as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, where the temptation follows the baptism, and genealogy (which goes back to “Adam, the son of God”. There’s some fun stuff going on with gardens, both Gethsemane, and at the resurrection where he is mistaken for ‘the gardener’ — where Adam’s original task in the garden was to ‘work and keep’ the garden.

    The rest of the New Testament makes explicit what this point makes implicit, and draws us into the story through our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit  — so that we too become temples of the Spirit, and we are transformed into the ‘image of Jesus’ rather than Adam.

  5. If Doug Green’s schema for Psalm 23 is correct, and it depicts Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the movement from Eden, to exile, to restoration in a new Eden, then there’s something nice about the resurrection appearance being in a garden, and being followed by Jesus eating with his disciples — but also, this becomes something fulfilled in Jesus’ ascension to heaven where he dwells with the father forever, and where there is a new Edenic orchard of food available (near running waters). The new creation is the ultimate re-creation, and Jesus, the Lamb, occupies a particularly central place in this new garden sanctuary — the ‘forever’ house of God.

    Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” — Revelation 22:1-3

  6. The imperative that follows the baptism, and later the transfiguration, where Jesus is revealed as God’s son, with whom he is well pleased is “listen to him” — Jesus is God’s representative. The word made flesh (John 1), the way God speaks (Hebrews 1). The ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1). this point seems the least controversial.

There’s a difference between us, and Jesus, in this metanarrative — where the story of the Bible is the story of broken images being restored — we are broken by our sin and idolatry so that we bear the image of our counterfeit gods, as the Psalms put it the result of idolatry is that “those who worship them will become like them.” Sin — idolatry — leads to exile from God, curse, and death. De-creation even. The coming undone of the image we were created to bear. Romans 1 fleshes out how this works with regards to our exchanging the creator for created things. Our restoration comes through Jesus restoring us as worshippers (ala Romans 12) — through his sacrifice, his resurrection and the outpouring of his Spirit which is our ‘baptism’, the moment (depicted as receiving ‘living water’) that recasts us into his image as it re-creates us (see Paul on our being baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus in Romans 6, such that we, as we receive the Spirit, become children of God again, conformed to the image of his son (Romans 8)). Jesus is a broken image restored because he takes our sin on his body at the cross — he is scourged and scarred and moves through death (God’s image lives and breathes but he breathes his last for us). The resurrection is his re-vivification, and the source of ours – where we move from death in Adam to life in Jesus (1 Corinthians 15) as our ‘psuche’ — the ‘breath of life’ in Genesis meets its ‘end’ or ‘telos’ — the life of God by his Spirit making us immortal images.

Where Paul says: “it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” the word natural is psuchikon (ψυχικόν), while the word ‘spiritual’ is pneumatikon (πνευματικόν). Paul then quotes Genesis 2:7 to contrast Adam, the living being (ψυχὴν ζῶσαν) — something like ‘a living soul’, but I think it’s better rendered ‘a breathed being’ — in part because in Genesis 1:30 the animals also have ‘the breath of life’ in them’ which, in the LXX, also uses “ψυχὴν ζωῆς”) — with Jesus who is a ‘life-giving Spirit’ (πνεῦμα ζωοποιοῦν). God re-creates us, by the Spirit, through replacing Adam with Jesus in our genetic makeup… so that we share in the resurrection of Jesus rather than the death of Adam.

“And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.”  — 1 Corinthians 15:49

It’s probably become clear now from much of the scaffolding above that the six elements of that ‘re-creation’ story also apply to us, in Christ, in ways that make the grand story our story. But here are some fun connections…

  1. We are formed via ‘water’ — Baptism is our visible picture of salvation — a picture of what the Spirit does for us as our ‘hearts are circumcised’ — as we are brought from exile away from God, from death and the dead future of our idols to life with God forever.
  2. We receive life by God’s breath — When we receive the Spirit it is ‘breathed into us’ by God as a gift of immortal life that changes who we are — moving us from Adam’s image of God to Jesus’ image of God.
  3. We are declared fit for a purpose within a system — When this happens and we are adopted as children of God, being transformed into his image we have a new purpose — the ‘great commission’ is a new ‘creation mandate’ — a call to be fruitful and multiply, filling the earth. We are also “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10) — Ephesians 2:10 uses the same pair of words for created and ‘handiwork’ that Romans 1:20 uses for ‘what has been made’ (and these are the only times that ‘handiwork’ word is used in the New Testament) — that which is meant to ‘reveal the divine nature and character of God’ — the things declared ‘good’ for that purpose in Genesis 1.
  4. We become priests/images/temples — The job Adam was given in the garden was priestly, Israel’s job was to be a ‘nation of priests’, and that is now the job of the church — the priesthood of believers in/as his temple. Our bodies are the ‘temple of the Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 6:19).
  5. We are fed/provided for — We receive ‘the bread of life’ and ‘living water’ and are invited to eat at God’s table — a reality we celebrate as we break bread together and remember Jesus’ sacrifice in anticipation of the heavenly banquet. There’s a fun thing with the Lord’s Prayer as it relates to all this (and the Psalm 23 stuff about God’s name) as it is a prayer for ‘the bread of tomorrow today’ — the Spirit — which arrives at the feast of bread, Pentecost — but you’ll have to wait for my boss to write his book on that for more…
  6. We are united by the Spirit to be God’s representatives in the world — his image bearers — transformed into the image of Christ as the ‘body of Christ’… Together. Think 1 Corinthians 12, 2 Corinthians 3-5, Romans 8, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, Colossians 3… and heaps of other places…

It’s fun seeing how this plays out in something like the account of the church in Acts 2, where this recreation process seems to be happening en masse as a fulfilment of the prophets, through Jesus’ ascension and the pouring out of the Spirit, and it’s fun drawing a line from there through to Revelation 21 and 22, then asking where in this narrative any particular passage sits, and considering the mechanics by which we become part of the narrative (via union with Christ).

,

Hunting paradise in a haunted wild western world (or playing Red Dead Redemption 2, listening to Mumford and Sons, and watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs)

But what if I need you in my darkest hour?
What if it turns out there is no other?
We had it all
If this is our time now
We wanna see a sign, oh
We would see a sign

So give us a sign
I need some guiding light
Children of darkness, oh — ’42’, Mumford and Sons

I heard someone recently say that the history of art in the west can be described as a thousand years of religious art and then stripes — the idea being that once the transcendent or sacred disappears from our cultural narrative we’re left with trying to make meaning from the very mundane. It’s an interesting thesis, but I don’t think it bears scrutiny, at least not when it comes to art that is worth one’s time and attention (whether high or pop culture). While stripes abound as a certain sort of artistic response to a reality that is flattened and turned in on itself, modern art is more complicated, more haunted, and less monolithic than such a reduction allows — and good modern art confronts this haunting sense front on, and asks us to consider what we might have lost in our culture that means we produce less overtly religious art.

I heard this idea while my imagination was consumed by the wild west, at least as modern secular artists render the wild west in order to tell stories. I’d watched the Coen brothers’ new Netflix special The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and was playing Rockstar Games’ western epic (in every sense of the word) Red Dead Redemption 2. I’ve also had Mumford and Sons’ Delta on high rotation since its release — and all three of these cultural texts, these works of reasonably good popular art, push back against the idea that modern art is hollowed because it is no longer hallowed… in this movie, this video game, and this album, all of which, to some extent, explore the wild untamed land of life and death with or without God, there’s a truth that modern art that is worth our attention is not hollow, but rather, haunted.

Two of these texts deliberately and directly interact with an older piece of art, from the ‘religious’ era — John Milton’s Paradise Lost, asking questions about where paradise might be found in this new, wild, western world. The other, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs confronts us with the truth that humans destroy paradise by nature, because facing death without hope destroys us all.

One popular version of the theory of secular, modern life, the ‘stripes’ theory of art, is that religious themes don’t make sense, and that they’re not worthy of being celebrated artistically — there’s certainly lots of ‘art’ and lots of stories that are ‘stripey’ in this sense, but that’s not the ‘secular age’ theory put forward by philosopher Charles Taylor, or unpacked by James K.A Smith in his commentary on A Secular Age titled How (Not) To Be Secular. Smith’s analysis of Taylor’s work was bouncing around my head as I watched, played, and listened to these texts. Here’s Smith:

“Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.”

Mumford and Sons have always been overtly secular in this sense — the haunted sense — frontman Marcus Mumford’s parents are pastors, and right from their debut album Sigh No More there’ve been religious undertones to their lyrics. The lyrics of their songs are often ambiguous such that Mumford could be singing to a woman he loves, or to God. In this sense the band’s back catalogue, and this current album, function like a welcome reversal of contemporary Christian music, which seems to take the lyrical sensibility of modern songs celebrating sexual love only to replace the ‘you’ — the human other — with ‘God’ (as lampooned by South Park). So much Christian art is, thus, haunted — or colonised — by a modernist ‘stripey’ aesthetic. It adopts the content and form of this ‘secular’ immanent art, rather than pushing us towards the transcendent.

Mumford and Sons’ religious oeuvre continues in Delta where themes of darkness and light play out against the backdrop of songs about finding love and satisfaction through being a ‘beloved’ ‘forever’, while also navigating ‘the wild’ as mortals. In Guiding Light, Mumford expresses a certain sort of monotheistic faith in this awe inspiring one who’ll ‘always be my only guiding light’…

Well I know I had it all on the line
But don’t just sit with folded hands and become blind’
Cause even when there is no star in sight
You’ll always be my only guiding light  — ‘Guiding Light’, Mumford and Sons

It’s not smooth sailing and light. There are some pretty dark places the album’s “I”— and I say this because it’s not just Mumford, the band write together, and we as listeners who participate in the album by listening are caught up in the story — explores through the musical journey. It’s a journey from the ‘wild’ that “puts the fear of God in me” (The Wild), through a crippling ‘fear of what’s to come’ that is replaced by ‘hope once more’ when the “silhouette” of this loved other, who had been obscured by “blinding light” is “branded on his mind” so as to shine brighter on his “wondering eyes” (October Skies, I’d love it if that was ‘wandering eyes’ but the online lyrics sites are divided) … through to the ‘Delta‘, where the river meets the sea.

The album gets more overtly religious — whether or not its God or a lover in view — when Mumford quotes Song of Songs chapter 2:1 to describe his beloved, in this ‘cursed world,’ as his ‘rose of Sharon’.

And I will surround you
With a love too deep for words
Hold you from the world and its curse
So long as I have breath in my lungs
Long as there’s a song to be sung
I will be yours and you will be mine
Ever our lives entwined
My rose of Sharon
My rose of Sharon
With a love too deep for words
I’m yours forever — ‘Rose of Sharon’, Mumford and Sons

Song of Songs is, if nothing else, an exploration of the place that sexual love occupies in a cursed, fallen, world; a world where we’re inclined to scratch an itch in our hearts with as much sex and love as possible — where it appears the itch is actually caused by our haunting sense of ‘paradise lost’. Song of Songs grapples with the ‘cursed world,’ and uses Edenic imagery — pictures of paradise — to describe sexual love. Asking if it rediscovering human passion is the way back to Eden; the way to recover ‘Paradise Lost.’ The Song invites us to ponder whether the two lovers are a new Adam and Eve; restorers of our fortunes. Ultimately it asks if sex can save us if we don’t first returning to God (such that our approach to romantic love is re-ordered by his love for us). It’s this question, more than any other that subtly haunts Delta. The catch is, that the Song, with its connection to Solomon in the Bible’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. Solomon’s loves — his pursuit of sex — don’t restore Eden, but repeat the Fall, carrying God’s people into exile. We’re left waiting for one greater than Solomon to restore us to paradise and re-order our loves.

And lest you think I’m making this undertone, this subtle note, up — Mumford and Sons then quote Milton’s Paradise Lost to make the subtle overt. In Picture You, possibly my favourite track on the album, there’s a darker note underpinning what until this point has sounded like a satisfying and deep love — a relationship that fills this void.

If I could tell you “no”
I thought it best you didn’t know
Don’t see it coming
The darkness visible
But when its eyes fix mine
The silver in its stone
I feel it rising, oh
The gathering storm

And when I feel a darkness is a heartbeat away
And I don’t know how to fight it
It’s a heartbeat away
And now
You don’t know me like this
It’s a heartbeat away
And I don’t know how to hide it
It’s a heartbeat away

And I picture you
Soaked in light
I picture you
And in you I had no doubt
When the chaos calls me out
And it feels like there is nothing I can do
I picture you — ‘Picture You,’ Mumford and Sons

Light and love is the answer to chaos and darkness. But here, more than ever, the question is — is Mumford singing to his beloved woman, and can she save him — or to God? And who can save him from this darkness? Truly?

What was a foreshadowing, or passing reference to Paradise Lost in the phrase ‘Darkness Visible’ — Milton’s description of Satan’s experience of Hell in Book 1 of his famous poem, is unpacked in the next track as this section of the poem is performed as a haunting spoken word.

“Nine times the space that measures day and night
Rolling in the fiery gulf
Confounded though immortal: but his doom
Reserved him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witnessed huge affliction and dismay
Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate
At once as far as angels ken he views
The dismal situation waste and wild
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end still urges
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible” — ‘Darkness Visible,’ Mumford and Sons

If this is the future — if death, and ‘darkness visible’ await — is sexual love worth it? Is replacing God with the best of human love a wise gamble? Can it provide the meaning and satisfaction required for a flourishing life? And even if it can, is it worth it? While the album asks plenty of big questions, it’s interesting that the quote stops there… here’s the next little bit, about what that ‘darkness visible’ does.

Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed:
Such place eternal justice had prepared
For those rebellious, here their prison ordained
In utter darkness, and their portion set
As far removed from God and light of heaven
As from the center thrice to th’utmost pole. — John Milton, Paradise Lost

It’s a high stakes game — this pursuit of life without God, because if God is light and life and love, then the reality of being ‘as far removed from God and the light of heaven as from the center thrice to the utmost pole’ is about being removed from all that this album finds worth celebrating in a temporary reality. Which is where the album now turns, unpacking more of this existential crisis, and the question of where (or whether) paradise — or the good life — can be found in this world. It gives no easy answers, from If I Say I Love You and the lyrics “If you were given one more chance, would you bring me back to life? Bring me back into the light?” to Wild Heart and the line “mortal once again,” questions of life and light and meaning and love are threaded through this album — right up to the final two songs Forever and Delta. Forever is fascinating in that the tension seems to have resolved itself — or at least the choice has apparently been made, though doubt remains — and the answer to this ‘doubt’ is apparently to focus on the here and now so that these days ‘turn to gold’, and yet, the chorus is “love with your eyes, love with your mind, love with you – dare I say — forever.” If these days are all there is, this idea of forever is a nonsense. A platitude. And yet it feels like there’s a resolution to avoid the bigger questions about the way faith, or piety, might reshape our lives and priority — to choose to ‘not be saved’ in order to live quite happily… ‘forever’…

And I’ve known pious women
Who have lead such secret lives
Shameless in the dark, so shameful in the light
And you may not be pious and I may not be saved
But we could live quite happily and quietly unfazed — Forever, Mumford and Sons

In Smith’s, or Taylor’s, terms, this seems a resolution to say ‘secular’ — to remain haunted and simply make the best of it, rather than jumping to nothingness or to resolute faith. It’s like the “I” of this album resolves to not resolve anything, but to live in the here and now with these questions still pressing against reality. At this point the album feels lots like the book of Ecclesiastes — a companion piece in the Bible to the Song of Songs, that asks questions about the good life and what that might look like without God (“under the sun”) or with God. But Delta, like Ecclesiastes, has something like an epilogue. A final note exploring just how meaningless that previous resolution to pursue the good life without God, haunted by the absence of that which addresses the ‘eternity written on our hearts’ looks. In an interview I read, Marcus Mumford says he agonises over and overthinks every word he uses, the track ’42’ is the 42nd original song the band has released, it’s also a play on Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyDelta, the final track of the album is also the title track — the delta is the place where ‘the river meets the sea,’ a movement from the safety of a river to the wilds of the ocean, it’s also, they say the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet and an appropriate title for their fourth album — but there’s another thing the Greek letter signifies. Change. And one wonders if the placing of the song as the last of the album represents something of a denouement after the stormy, doubt-filled, journey through darkness and towards light, maybe ‘Forever’ isn’t the landing place of the album’s “I” — maybe this life isn’t all there is. Maybe the comfort of the Thames and the Liffey rivers — or the arms of one’s lover — aren’t the place to find ultimate meaning and security… the album ends with a staring out into the unknown, a search for a new way, and an acknowledgment that ‘what’s behind I can clearly see, but beyond that’s beyond me’. Delta is, to the album, what the epilogue of Ecclesiastes is to Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes concludes with the wise teacher having searched for meaning ‘under the sun’, but with death looming large, it concludes an exploration of the pursuit of paradise, or the good life, apart from the creator with a call to ‘remember the creator’ in order to enjoy the good life.

 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,

    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.

    “Everything is meaningless!” — Ecclesiastes 12:6-8

A better translation for ‘meaningless’ is ‘breath’ — the idea that this is life, and its good things, are fleeting and temporary and gone in a moment, when we long for ‘forever’. Delta the album, thanks to Delta, the song, asks the questions Ecclesiastes asks about the meaning of pleasure — including love and sex — if this is all there is, when it’s all just ‘dust to dust’. Maybe that sort of life — the ‘dust to dust’ life of Ecclesiastes without the epilogue is meaningless, maybe there is more, and the haunted nature of reality pushes us somewhere beyond ourselves.

“When it’s all just dust to dust
And it’s how it will be
When it’s all just nothing else
That means nothing to me
When it’s all just dust to dust
And how it will be
When it’s all just nothing else
That means nothing to me

Does my love prefer the others
Or does my love just make me feel good
Does my love prefer the others
Or does my love just make me feel good” — Delta, Mumford and Sons

Looking for the paradise and love lost in Eden in the arms of a woman, rather than God, is a folly as old as Solomon’s… and one that leads to death, rather than away from it. Something Delta acknowledges as a problem not yet overcome — and not overcome by a ‘love that just makes me feel good.’ The whole album, from the opening song, through to the conclusion asks the question: do you want to be a child of darkness, or light. It posits love — love that is not self-interested, and love directed to some other — as the way out of darkness, but the question is whether it escapes the haunted ‘immanent frame’ to be connected to something transcendent — to the creator of light and light and love.

This question of life in the wild, life in the cursed world, life and love in the face of death, and where a long-lost paradise can be found also occupies Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs too — which is what made Delta such an apt soundtrack for the former, the latter had its own soundtrack of sorts, opening with gunslinging troubadour Buster Scruggs aka ‘The Misanthrope’.

The Coen Brothers’ western anthology is a collection of six short stories seemingly linked by nothing but the bleak message that death comes to us all. This means that comedy can only be black — funny tragedies — because our laughter is always in the face of the harsh reality of death… unless there’s some glimmer of hope — a place where poker is played fair in the “place up ahead”… Which is an idea that at least the concluding song from the first story, the eponymous ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs‘ explores…

Yippee-ki-yi-yay
I’m glory bound
No more jingle jangle
I lay my guns down
Yippee-ki-yi-yay
He shalt be saved
When a cowboy trades His spurs for wings —When a cowboy trades His spurs for wings, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The last story is even bleaker — a carriage full of western citizens travel with a dead body on the roof of a stage coach — death looming large over all of them — and this little song  The Unfortunate Lad:

Get six pretty maidens to carry my coffin
And six pretty maidens to bear up my pall
And give to each of them, bunches of roses
That they may not smell me as they go along — The Unfortunate Lad, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Death hovers over us, and we’re left finding ways to pretend it doesn’t. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t let us do that; not for a second. It scoffs at the idea, because death is omnipresent in the movie’s six stories. Its characters, the ones who bring and taste death, are almost exclusively “children of darkness” — and even those who aren’t, those who bring some light, end up dead, and this often at the hands of embodied darkness, never quite as starkly depicted as the black clad gunslinger who takes down Buster Scruggs in the first act.

There’s one exception, perhaps — the old prospector played by Tom Waits, whose story All Gold Canyon takes place in something very much like a wild western Eden. A paradise. His story is rudely interrupted by violence — but this violence does not have the final say. And yet, paradise in Buster Scruggs is only restored to the canyon, that pocket of Eden, when all its human inhabitants depart. The thing about good art created in this haunted bubble is that it’s not so much ‘religious art then stripes’, it’s more like Tasmania’s MONA, it ends up just being art that has to grapple with the good life in the face of death and then the haunting ‘maybe’… maybe there’s more… the hope of the first ballad does seem to give way to the darkness of The Mortal Remains (which, when you squint at it, bears a testimony to a certain outlook in its title, only those who are still alive remain.

Buster Scruggs was a particularly interesting experience for me because its stories were played out against almost identical backdrop to Red Dead Redemption 2, with a startlingly similar aesthetic. Asking similar questions (depending on how much you played the protaganist, Arthur Morgan, in parallel with ‘The Misanthrope’)… Video games are an immersive form of storytelling, and the world building in Red Dead Redemption 2 is just incredible. The game takes place in a vast, carefully rendered ‘wild west’ as carefully crafted as the shots in Buster Scruggs, and if you’re going to explore that sort of virtual world on the back of a virtual horse I can highly recommend Delta as a soundtrack. The story is a prequel to the first instalment of the game (the second if you count a much earlier game in the same world); it’d be almost impossible for a game set in this period to be true to its setting without some nod to religion and the part it played in the fabric of American life; but this isn’t just a story set in the wild west — it’s a commentary on what has gone wrong with the western dream; our grand story of bravely inventing and taming wild frontiers, and the hopes that we could overcome some the ‘cursed world’ — nature and our human hearts — through adventure and technology. Like Buster Scruggs, and Delta, it tackles the reality of death and love and life in a haunted world where belief in God is simply one option amongst many that might deliver the ‘good life’. Like Delta the story is cleverly laced with references to Milton’s Paradise Lost — the levels often have religious names, including ‘Paradise Mercifully Departed’ and references to Jesus’ sermon on the mount.

The leader of your gang — the man you’re hunting down in the original (albeit as John Marston), is idealist and visionary Dutch Van Der Lynde. His ideal of a wild, untamed, west where there’s ‘no king, so everybody does what is right in their own eyes’ is falling to pieces, and as it becomes increasingly improbable, his fervent, fanatical, behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. While riding towards one of the new cities in the brave new world of progress, Dutch says to Arthur:

“For a long time, I truly believed a paradise lay somewhere in the west for us but I just… don’t know any more.” — Dutch Van Der Lynde, Red Dead Redemption 2

Dutch is looking for paradise — and he’s certainly not finding it in the modern vision of civilisation. Here’s a dialogue with the carefully named ‘Agent Milton’:

Dutch: “This place ain’t no such thing as civilised. It’s man so in love with greed he has forgotten himself and found only appetites.”

Agent Milton: “And as a consequence that lets you take what you please, kill whom you please, and hang the rest of us? Who made you the messiah to these lost souls you’ve led so horribly astray”

Dutch: “I’m nothing but a seeker, Mister Milton…”

Dutch is willing to do whatever he can to keep the west wild in order to find a paradise untainted by greed and the appetites it creates in us for whatever it is we lust after. The problem is Dutch’s own heart is every bit as corrupt; every bit as fixated on his own vision of paradise. If you’ve played the first game to its end, you’ll know there’s no redemption for Dutch — the question is whether those ‘lost souls’ he led could find redemption for themselves. While you control Arthur Morgan, and then John Marston, in this story it’s not just their stories you encounter — and its not just their worlds haunted by these questions of ultimate meaning in the face of death. A friend described this game as “the most profoundly Christ-haunted videogame ever made,” and if you’re looking for the Jesus shaped hole in the world you’ll find it in the questions it asks about meaning, sin, redemption, and repentance.

Dutch’s favourite in-game author (such is the world building) is a character named Evelyn Miller. He makes a cameo in the main storyline, his books are available to read in the outlaw camp, and he’s a substantial character in the playable epilogue where, upon meeting him atop a mountain, he declares that ‘this is God’ — that the splendid beauty of creation is part of the divine, and the hope of humanity; there are echoes of the Coens’ All Gold Canyon here; but these ideas were also developed in the books that shaped Dutch’s eschatology — ‘An American Eden’ and ‘An American Inferno’. These are quite profound little reads offering a diagnosis of the western disease, if not a genuine solution.

“…The delusions that we can compete with God. That our built environments can transcend his. That our factories and the squalid conditions that arise in the towns in which they are built will somehow allow us to be happy. We are fools, for fools cannot see their idiocy…

… By attempting to transform it into a poor impersonation of Europe, we are as Adam, eating once more of the apple, only this time knowing full well of the consequences. To free the American soul, this new world soul, we must free the American spirit from the prison in which we have placed it, we must seek our solace, our comfort, our very heaven in the perfection and splendour of this place.” — An American Eden

You can subsequently pick up An American Inferno lying around the Outlaw camp (and if the first owed something to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the second is a nod to Dante), which describes a trip to New York, the “grand human inferno, the fiery and mediocre hell that is Manhattan.” If we are pinning our hopes of restoration, or a return to Eden, on human ingenuity and city building, Red Dead Redemption 2 wants us to think twice, even if we think a third and fourth time about the alternatives as well…

“A place that shows, beyond all reasonable doubt, that when left to his own devices, when removing God entirely from his creation, man will induce not heaven, but hell. The gilded inferno. The marbled purgatory. This American churning sea of desire, the place where see we man for what he truly is, and recoil in horror. He is the destroyer of all. Of nature, of course, of his brothers, seemingly as sport, and finally of himself.

Men are fixated on greed, on desire, and on the acquisition not of experiences or pleasures but on the ability to acquire. People are fixated on wealth. Man is reduced to the desire for desire. Wanting is all that matters. No loving, not being, not having, but wanting. We are killers for desire. Even sport would be preferable. This is the grand sickness, the eternal sickness of this land – it is, man unleashed. Man unleashed and turned into, he knows what not?”

… I came to appreciate a hideous truth; the system that allows poverty and degradation such as i saw is wrong, and the impacts of the degradation on humanity are profound, but far worse is the impact of wealth upon those who possess it, who are possessed by it… Manhattan at once depraves the poor and dehumanizes the rich. Its purpose is unhappiness. The nurturing and blooming of suffering. — An American Inferno, in-game book in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Paradise lost, indeed… and a diagnosis of the sort of western disease that produces a President known for building ‘gilded’ towers in the inferno. When you cross paths once more with Miller in the epilogue he has been cast out from civilisation, rejected by the church and his family as a heretic, to live out his days in a cabin seeking hope for humanity. Miller ultimately feels defeated, he can’t escape that haunted sense of having had and lost some infinite thing (thanks David Foster Wallace). In his final manuscript, he writes:

“I am almost entirely consumed by my doubts, yet there is within me still a tiny spark that tells me it is possible, this land makes possible, the chance of absolution. Absolution from the European hell of thought and back to the Eden in which man can live as a sentient, yes, but above all as sensate. As a creature of God, alive in his world.

This world. Pure. Not clouded by idiocy. Not imagining himself as God as so many of us are forced to do, but happy as a child of God. But still my thoughts come upon me like wolves. My needs swamp me. My desires overwhelm me. It is not mortality I now fear but its opposite. That idiots part of me that attempts to convince me I am above mortal concerns. The foolish part of man that tells him he is immortal. That tells him, that whispers like the serpent, that seduces like the apple, that charms like Eve, that tells him he is God. I am not God. In this truth, I will find my absolution.”

This vision can’t animate anybody beyond Dutch (or Dutch himself), progress is inexorable, the landscape of the wild — like the Gold Canyon — will ultimately fall foul to human greed. Paradise is lost. The untainted ‘wild’ is destined to be replaced by our ‘infernal’ cities, hell on earth constructed as monuments to our greed; modern towers of Babel. Paradise is lost, if paradise is a beautiful unspoilt wilderness…

Depending on the choices you make in the game — whether to embrace a life of crime, bringing death and destruction in pursuit of a quick buck, or a life of seeking righteousness, your character, Arthur, is offered different advice on his path to redemption. A chance to trade his spurs for wings, perhaps.

In the penultimate moment in the story Arthur has the chance to give a last confession of sorts, either to the gang’s erstwhile, though ultimately redeemed confessor, Reverend Swanson, or to a nun you may help on your journey.

Reverend Swanson is an interesting character — your first interaction is rescuing him from a drunken binge, and if you find his Bible in camp and open it up, you see that it, like him, has been hollowed out to accommodate his addictions (in the form of drug paraphernalia). But if it’s him who hears this confession of yours, it’s as he boards a train, departing to a new life you can later read about in the in-game newspaper. He ends up in the belly of the inferno; the ordained minister of the ‘First Congregational Church of New York’, where he “delivered an impassioned and heartfelt sermon about acknowledging sin and seeking redemption. He spoke about his own break from faith, a dark period when he could no attend church, falling into sin, depravity, and wanton gluttony.” Swanson finds some sort of redemption in the belly of the beast.

If you’re met by the nun you’ve helped earlier, the dialogue includes her responding to Arthur’s confession that he’s “lived a bad life” by saying “we all sin…” she says “Life is full of pain but there is also love and beauty,” and then she offers this path to redemption.

Sister: “Be grateful that for the first time you see your life clearly… perhaps you could help somebody. Helping makes you really happy.

Arthur: But. I still don’t believe in nothing.

Sister: Often neither do I. But then, I meet someone like you and everything makes sense.

Arthur: You’re too smart for me sister. I guess I, I’m afraid.

Sister: There is nothing to be afraid of Mr Morgan. Take a gamble that love exists and do a loving act.”

Arthur is haunted, belief in something beyond death terrifies him. He’s asking how to live in the face of death, and gets this “moral therapeutic deism” so often served up by the modern west — the idea that redemption, the return to paradise, would be found by people resisting the temptation towards greed and its appetites, to instead act in love… that we’re to grapple with the mix of beauty and pain by maximising love, and that this will restore us. But I’m not sure the story, Christ-haunted as it is, lets us just sit with that. To truly redeem, or help, those around him, Arthur can’t just ‘help,’ he has to sacrifice. His redemption is bound up in the end of his story.

It’s not just the name of the agent chasing down Dutch to protect a state-sanctioned vision of paradise or civilisation that tips the hat to Paradise Lost, and that alone might just be a coincidence… but later in the story, when John Marston is travelling incognito he gives his name as “John…er… Jim Milton.”  He’s the last hope Red Dead Redemption 2 puts forward. In the unholy inner sanctum of the gang — Arthur, Dutch, Hosea, Micah, and John — he’s the only one who ‘makes it’ (according to Arthur). His new life was won through Arthur’s sacrifice (though those who’ve played Red Dead Redemption 1 know this hope is temporary). It seems that, almost despite himself, he too has been caught up by Evelyn Miller’s visions of a new, natural, Eden — paradise rediscovered by pursuing goodness and beauty of this world. Here’s a conversation he has with his son about his new life — on the land, farming — his sense of paradise.

John Marston: Pretty countryside ain’t it…
Jack: I guess?
John: The grass and the light. There’s a lot of ugly in this world, but there sure as hell is a lot of beauty.
Jack: Yes.
John: You’ll see it better when you get older. It’s tough at your age. Just, land and light. But to me  it’s, it’s, life. I can’t explain it.”

His assumed name isn’t the only connection to John Milton. Jack is obsessed with heroic tales from King Arthur’s court. Milton contemplated penning an epic Arthurian tale, before writing Paradise Lost, which contains references to the legendary British king who ruled his own, briefly realised, paradise from Camelot. Milton was a fierce political voice, an English republican, whose works also included titles like ‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,‘ which argued for the freedom and dignity of all humans — that “All men naturally were born free.” This text was hugely influential in the founding of the American political vision, and these ideas seem to permeate the political outlook of Evelyn Miller and Dutch Van Der Lynde when it comes to ‘progress’ under those ruled by desires and passions rather than God. Milton, in Paradise Lost, suggests that the fall — Adam’s ‘original lapse’ in the following quote, damaged true freedom — he sees freedom and paradise being closely linked in both his theology and politics. The damage was done by a departure from reason and the raising up of passions, or inordinate desires — appetites — in the place of reason.

Since thy original lapse, true Liberty
Is lost, which always with right Reason dwells
Twinned, and from her hath no dividual being:
Reason in man obscured, or not obeyed,
Immediately inordinate desires
And upstart Passions catch the Government
From Reason, and to servitude reduce
Man till then free.” — Paradise Lost

He saw the resulting loss of freedom corresponding with a rise in tyranny and violence.

Therefore since he permits
Within himself unworthy Powers to reign
Over free Reason, God in Judgment just
Subjects him from without to violent Lords;
Who oft as undeservedly enthrall
His outward freedom: Tyranny must be,
Though to the Tyrant thereby no excuse.

A world of death. A world of greed, and human appetites bringing hell on earth. Paradise so lost that there’s no man-made path back. Not love, not proper passionate enjoyment of the things of this world, not a commitment to nature — none of these things will restore the good life, though we might taste it temporarily. Fleetingly. As breath…

What do these stories have in common? A western aesthetic? A sense that the answer to our modern ills might be found in the untainted wilds, away from human greed and consumption? In sacrificial love? A use of the western genre and the frontier, foundational, moments in American (and so western) cultural narratives to critique the modern account of flourishing human life? A playing off of ‘light’ against ‘darkness’ as metaphors for life and death? A haunting sense of loss of something eternal in the face of the death and destruction we bring as we fixate on amassing temporary things to satiate our appetites (that might actually be eternal or infinite longings)… And in two out of three, quotes or allusions to Paradise Lost, and the Bible.

Paradise Lost wasn’t Milton’s only religious poem… It had a sequel. One that specifically dealt with the question of how to rediscover paradise — one that answers the fears of ‘darkness visible’ and our mortality with a commensurate hope of paradise restored, and being returned to the presence of “light from above, from the fountain of light” and life — the presence of God — Paradise Regained. A new Eden being ‘raised in the vast wilderness’. The path to this satisfaction — this restoration, this paradise, was not our getting life right. It was not our redemption or repentance; it was through the obedience of a new Adam. Jesus.

The problem with Christ-haunted art — even if it is more interesting than stripes — is that it might point you towards Jesus, but it doesn’t throw you into his story. Milton sees this paradise regained in Jesus forgoing the worldly temptations that capture our hearts and pull us from God; though this happens ultimately at the Cross, he builds his poetic account of the restoration of all things in Jesus going head to head with Satan at his temptation; where Jesus, in the wilderness — the wild west — is offered all the good things of this world to turn his back on God, and he refuses. Thwarting the plans of Satan. Resisting the lure of those dark voices. Keeping his eyes fixed on the light.

Not all modern art is stripes — but perhaps all great art is religious in some sense. Great art gets us confronting darkness. It asks questions about what haunts our collective imaginations. These texts — an album, a film, and a video game — do that… but it’d be nice to have some great art that throws us into the light and gives us some answers every once in a while though too.

I who e’re while the happy Garden sung,
By one mans disobedience lost, now sing
Recover’d Paradise to all mankind,
By one mans firm obedience fully tri’d
Through all temptation, and the Tempter foil’d 
In all his wiles, defeated and repuls’t,
And Eden rais’d in the wast Wilderness. — Paradise Regained, Book I

Christmas presents and paradoxes

By a weird quirk of timing and the way the Presbyterian Church works, I landed in the Courier Mail’s ‘religious round-up’ Christmas story yesterday. I was asked to provide around 300 words reflecting on the significance of Christmas. Here’s the story as it ran.

Here’s what I said in my 300ish words (I’m pretty happy with the edit).


Holidays. We Aussies can’t get enough of them. While more of us than ever before are letting go of religion, especially the institutional variety, we cling to these days of celebration and rest. There’s nothing we love more than to eat, drink, and be merry with our family and friends; so we will still raise a glass to the birth of the Christ once a year to keep this holiday in our shared calendar.

The western calendar — and thus, our public holidays — once marked the passing of a year through a series of ‘holy days,’ now our retailers mark the calendar for us according to a new “religion”; the belief that consumer choice is ‘Christ’ (which means king), and that the key to joy, and to salvation from the mundane, is “more good things. Christians have often been accused of stealing pagan ‘holy days’, but now our ‘holy days’ have been co-opted by this religion. Shopping centres are the temples for this religion, and you can be sure their halls will be decked with Halloween merchandise each October, then Christmas paraphernalia, and as surely as the sun will rise on Boxing Day, we’ll find Hot Cross Buns in the bakeries.

This raises the question: does this religious vision satisfy? Does it do a better job than what it replaces? Does it bring salvation or joy? Can we escape the irony of the carols that blare through our shopping centres at Christmas time? Carols like ‘Joy to the World’ that proclaim the subversive message of Christmas: that Jesus alone is king and saviour? That he alone brings real joy. That the things we turn to on our ‘holy days’ won’t deliver the goods? The rest we enjoy on our holidays is short lived if we have to keep working to buy our salvation and joy. Fight Club had it right; the things we own end up owning us. This new religion of consumerism is not freedom, but exactly the sort of joyless drudgery and captivity to the mundane that Jesus came to save us from. Why not ponder what makes your holiday ‘holy’ this year? Merry Christmas.


Which is all to say I’m now ‘on the record’ about the crass materialism of the ‘secular Christmas’… and yet, I’m a big fan of Christmas being ‘material’ and gifts being generous and even impractical (ie things a person doesn’t ‘need’ but things that are fun, delicious, or beautiful). I think the commercial takeover of Christmas is pretty terrible — but this isn’t because Christmas isn’t about material things; it absolutely is. That’s the whole point. Creator in creation. Materially.

The problem with the modern disenchanted, secular, Christmas is not that people are materially generous, but that we have flattened the paradox of Christmas. Christmas isn’t just material, or just spiritual. The magic of Christmas is the fusing of material and spiritual — the Christmas story is the story of the divine, the transcendent, the infinite, or the Spiritual — the ‘other’ — entering the realm of finite, fleshy, earthy, material, existence. It is an awful, gnostic, mistake to push back against the hyper-physicality of the consumerist Christmas by totally hyper-spiritualising our response, by de-crying material generosity and gift-giving, or looking for less material alternatives because we ‘have stuff already’ (and I loved how Megan Powell Du Toit and Michael Jensen discussed this in episode seven of their podcast). Christmas is about abundance and sacrifice, it is about riches and poverty, the spiritual and the material… it is about a generous physical gift from God — from Jesus himself — who gives up an eternity of ‘spiritual’ existence to become fully divine and fully human, for the rest of eternity.

Nobody grappled with paradox in the Christian faith better than G.K Chesterton who called Christians to remain ‘orthodox’ on issues of extremes by holding both extremes and holding them furiously… he wrote lots on the paradox of the incarnation, and especially of Christmas. And it’s worth sitting with these words while navigating an antidote to consumerism that isn’t an over-correction that wipes out the material generosity of God to us in Jesus — such that our Christmas gifts to one another are tangible, tactile, celebrations of the God who in Jesus became tangible and tactile, a taste that God does not loathe the material but creates, sustains, enjoys and renews it.

“The idea of embodying goodwill—that is, of putting it into a body—is the huge and primal idea of the Incarnation. A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the epigram of the creed. Christ Himself was a Christmas present. The note of material Christmas is struck even before He is born in the first movements of the sages and the star. The Three Kings came to Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. If they had only brought Truth and Purity and Love there would have been no Christian art and no Christian civilization.”

But it’s not just luxury and riches, either. This generosity can’t just be for the ‘haves’, but our generosity to one another should push out to hospitality and generosity to the ‘have nots’… Here’s more Chesterton exploring more of the paradox of God’s entering the story as a king born in a stable, turned aside and rejected by all.

“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”

So, I hope you got some wonderful presents that point you to God’s wonderful present to you, that teach you the joy of giving wonderful presents to others, to point them to God’s wonderful present (you get the picture — our gift giving and our gifts have a purpose beyond themselves). Merry Christmas.

Religious Freedom and reaping the whirlwind

Everybody wants to be a weatherman. There’s great money to be made in being able to accurately predict the future — and reputation or influence to be won. Especially if you can predict a cataclysm.

There are two narratives circulating, like cyclones circulate (that is to say with great destruction) to explain the current debate about religious freedom in Australia and why it is going so badly (or so it seems) for Christians.

One is that this was always a category five system of extreme destruction — that the same sex marriage debate was a Trojan Horse; a referendum on a host of LGBTIQA+ rights and a larger political agenda. This is what Lyle Shelton and the ACL/Coalition For Marriage/Australian Conservatives argued. Then they lost. And now instead of seeing that they positioned the debate as a referendum such that the winning side has a mandate, they keep pointing to all these flow on debates saying ‘told you so’ and ‘now we need to stop’ — whereas, if their narrative is correct, this agenda is exactly what the majority of Australians signed up for.

I have significant doubts about this narrative — I don’t doubt that there is a political movement committed to securing full equality and particular rights and freedoms for the LGBTIQA+ community (here’s a news story announcing a lobby group committed to just that), I just don’t believe that the Australian public was voting on more than simply the legalisation of same sex marriage in our nation. I’m not suggesting there’s not a relationship between this right and the move for other rights — that would be naive — but it’s the religious community who have made this a zero sum game; especially by failing to see how the postal survey was an opportunity to extend a freedom to others in our community, a pluralist democracy, where free expression of sexuality is essentially religious in nature as it is seen as being essential to human identity and flourishing by a particular community. What did we expect when Christians publicly campaigned against (religious) freedom and then turned around to ask for our freedom to be protected and upheld? How did we expect those we ‘othered’ and fought against, rather than those we loved and co-operated with across our differences in the program of a pluralist democracy, to act when they won? How did we seek to use power? What would we have done for them if we’d won?

Everyone wants to be a prophet. Everybody wants to be a weatherman.

The second narrative is one I’m more sympathetic to, but still disagree with — it’s connected to the first — but it’s the idea that the postal survey wasn’t a ‘slippery slope’ or Trojan horse, but a ‘precipice’, pace Stephen McAlpine, who sees things in more apocalyptic terms — with the notion that the marriage survey reveals a deep commitment to ‘the sexular age’ (a term I like), that brooks no opposition such that religious freedom outside the dominant sexular religion. Here’s what he said in his ‘one year on’ reflection on our headlong rush off the precipice.

“Turns out, the “much to be done” is less to do with vows and cakes and your first dance as a married same sex couple, and more to do with ensuring religion is no longer allowed to get away with its refusal to sign up to the Sexual Revolution.   Clearly that is where attention has been turned in the past twelve months.  Clearly.

Because of course this was always a precipitous matter, never a slippery slope.  And the naysayers, even among the progressive Christian crew, have gone strangely silent on how wrong they have proven to be in their much vaunted public refutation of this.”

I think this account is equally problematic. Certainly, there has been a ‘turn’ to a new battleground. Certainly this wasn’t a slippery slope (the activists campaigning for same sex marriage had previously campaigned for such rights as the overturning of legislation that made homosexuality illegal). Certainly religious freedom has to be part of the conversation for how we navigate life in a post-Christian, pluralist, society — for the good of all… but a narrative that places the blame for this moment we find ourselves in on those agitating for an expansion of rights, at the expense of the religious, rather than a narrative that sees the responsibility for the circumstance we find ourselves in as shared, is incomplete. And perhaps this is why the ‘progressive Christians’ aren’t coming to the party as quickly as their conservative brethren might like? I’ve found those on the progressive side of politics are committed to listening to accounts of systemic injustice — sometimes to the point of paralysis on our part, certainly — and to acknowledging our culpability for that injustice — sometimes to the point of not asking for more privilege, certainly.

I’m not suggesting that religious freedom for those who have a religious framework committed to some sort of ‘natural law’ created by a God is not a competing right; in competition with the modern push to be free from physical ‘nature’ when it comes to our identity. The LGBTIQA+ movement is, in many ways, a move to free oneself from ‘natural law’ in order to express one’s true self — to live embodied lives that reflect our inner desires and values whether on gender or sexuality. Whatever the non-religious, or non-Christian, impulse for the definition of marriage that operated for the majority of human history, and still operates in the majority of the world today, it’s tied to biological fact, rather than our individualised or tribal pursuit of authentic identity. This isn’t to suggest there aren’t complex interplays between biology, desire, and experience — the reality of intersex, and the component of gender dysphoria and sexual attraction that appears to happen at the level of the structure or operation of the brain are also realities that make living out ‘nature’ something that requires an admission of tension and complexity (and requires religious believers to grapple with that complexity). Those committed to a physical, biological, or divine account of a certain sort of nature — brute physical fact — when it comes to sexuality and gender are outside a newly emerging orthodoxy — and this includes most versions of the major monotheistic religions of the world. To continue to hold this position freely, seems to be the subject of a contest of rights. A contest we’re not well equipped to have in our public conversation. What I’m suggesting is that accounts of the current conflict that do not acknowledge the culpability of Christian voices in this debate, and grapple with a way forward, are a guaranteed way for us to reap the whirlwind as it were — to make it even more difficult to have such a conversation.

There was an op-ed in the Fairfax family of publications this week from the deputy dean of education at Alphacrucis College carrying the warning — a storm warning at that — that to target Christian schools and restrict their freedom would be politically diabolical; that this would lead to Labor reaping the whirlwind (a phrase from Hosea 8), and they should act according to their political self-interest, rather than according to what is right and good for their constituents. In short, that they should act for the good of their Christian constituents because we’re a powerful voting block too…

“What goes on in Australian religious schools, after all, affects several million Australians.  Including grannies and siblings, this is a voter base of about four million  out of a voting population of 13 million. They are hard to mobilise and slow to awaken. But perish that legislator who startles them, with rash actions, from the long slumber of our fat peacetime. They might reap the whirlwind.”

This is an interesting approach to the conversation and one that continues the Hungry, Hungry Hippoes zero-sum game that has got us into this mess of competing rights in the first place.

Every man and his blog (or woman and her blog, but that isn’t as punny) wants to be a weather man. A long range forecaster. We all want to say ‘I told you so’ and ram current events through our paradigm. But hey. I predicted this too. This state of affairs. It’s up to all of us, when the storm is hitting, to ponder which account is actually going to help us predict its movement, and the future. My account, my reason for opposing the postal survey and for not voting was that to vote against the religious freedom of others would come back to bite us when it came to seeking our own freedoms. It wasn’t ‘they’re out to get us’ but ‘what happens to us if we’re perceived as being out to get them’? Why an ‘us and them’ at all rather than a commitment to figuring out a broader ‘us’… a commons where we might operate together in disagreement and charity?

A commitment to the idea that the best possible playing field for shared life — the best commons — here in Australia is a generous pluralism not a theocracy means a deep commitment to religious freedom; but it means that commitment also has to be extended to those who are seeking freedom not for explicitly religious reasons, but from categories we religious people recognise as religious. I don’t want Australia to be a Christian nation; I don’t think that’s possible — I do want the church to be able to operate as an expression of the Kingdom of God, or the ‘city of God’ within our polis though. And here’s my bold prediction of the current climate: the religious freedom debate, as it is currently framed, is destined to fail unless we, the church, repent for restricting the religious freedom of others (and by this I don’t mean other explicitly religious people), and unless we work to specifically uphold and defend those freedoms in the commons so that we can hold our own views in the commons, not just in private.

Currently, when it comes to religious freedom, we religious people are reaping the whirlwind of our own making; it’s time to sow something different, or be wiped out by the coming storm.

It’s time to consider that ‘treat others as you would have them treat you’ and ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ should shape how we Christians approach politics; that this means gently speaking from conviction about what is good and true, hoping to have the freedom to live out that vision of what is good and true, and extending the space in our society for others to do the same. Maybe it’s time to find or cultivate shared spaces for hospitality and love of the other, where we can talk through these competing visions with our neighbours, not just to appear to clamour for our own rights at their expense — or our right to exclude others as though their visions of the good life are never up for conversation.

Review: A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus by David Bennett

It’s very rare that a book offers both sides of an issue with a generous and balanced perspective, rarer still that the balanced perspective comes from one individual who graciously seeks to represent each position, while vulnerably sharing their journey from one position to the other. A War Of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus by David Bennett is such a book, and his is a timely voice on sexuality, more than that, his voice is a voice worth hearing on the Gospel and what it means to be human. For David, this war of loves was an arms race — a battle to determine if satisfaction could be found in the arms of a saviour, or a lover. His account of being pursued and loved by Jesus, even while pursuing meaning and satisfaction in romance is

David, a celibate gay Christian, shares his ‘unexpected story’ of coming to meet, love, and worship Jesus in a way that re-orders his loves, especially his sexual desire. It’s unexpected in many ways, not least of which that he recounts moving from student politics and activism for LGBTIQA+ rights, to pursuing celibacy and advocating for the place of celibate gay people in the church, and in the gay community. It’s unexpected because he recounts his transition from hostile to Christianity, and Jesus, to studying theology in Oxford, training to preach the Gospel and engage richly in communicating the truths he has come to adore. It’s unexpected because his account is, frankly, miraculous — and for many reformed evangelical types the first half of the book, recounting this part of his journey, will present robust theological challenges around the work of the Spirit, and how revelation works.

A War of Loves is profoundly insightful in many ways. David’s stirring, vulnerable, account of his sexuality, through his school years, through relationships, and as his heart was captured by God provides not just a plausibility structure for others making a journey from finding their identity in sex to finding their identity in Jesus (more on the identity thing later), but a unique perspective on how members of the gay community see and experience the church from the outside as a potential barrier to knowing and loving God.

David’s account of his journey begins in high school, where he attended a church school and, as his sexuality became more apparent, his perspective on Christians and Jesus were formed in opposition; if the church stood against his desires then both it, and the God it claimed to represent, were at war with him. Because David writes from the heart, and presents such a coherent account of his emotional and rational state in these progressions through stages in his narrative this ‘war’ is not easy to dismiss; Christian readers are presented with a rare insight into the way our politics interferes with our pastoring and preaching… Too often the political stance we Christians take on an issue presents a barrier to core business; placing walls between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — and David’s account, though he was equally political is a shot across these bows.

Perhaps the other powerful aspect of David’s account of his pre-conversion years is his description of the inner war being fought at the same time; our reasonably unsophisticated account of human behaviour and identity, in part a product of the us/them distinction means we often fail to consider the experience of people within the LGBTIQA+ community who are all too aware their experiences fall ‘outside’ the cultural norm (even if the pendulum is swinging). David describes the journey he went through to understand his sexual desires, and where they came from:

“A war developed in me about how to understand this part of my identity. The belief that we’re all born this way wasn’t the whole story. I was more confused than ever.”

And then describes coming out to his mother — then an agnostic — but herself on the path to meeting Jesus, in a way that highlights that life for those in sexual minorities isn’t all about smashing Christians and their institutions into the ground…

“She reached over, wrapped me in her arms, and wept. I’ll never forget the feeling of the leather seats, her wet tears on my clothing. And in that moment, I felt peace—real peace—for the first time in years, for the first time since I’d discovered I was gay. And I somehow knew that her tears weren’t about her at all; they were about me. She knew how much harder my life would be as a gay man.”

This is the experiential and emotional context where any Christian politicking is felt and interpreted by ‘the other’… amidst the turmoil of developing his sense of self in the highly contested, or hostile, environment of his school, David does mention a couple of experiences of love from Christians that stood out, transcending the ‘us/them’ divide. He recounts the actions of a teacher who committed to answering all his questions and objections about Christianity — beyond simply the question of his sexuality. This teacher patiently and faithfully persisted in dialogue — including listening…

“It was too evident that he cared. It was the first time I’d felt loved by a Christian. He took each question seriously and wrote back with his opinion.”

David’s journey from paganism to Pentecostalism is, frankly, miraculous. Any movement from the worship of something or someone other than God, and the pleasures this world offers, to life with God for eternity is miraculous, and too often our accounts of such journeys are sanitised; David’s path offers no such luxury. It cannot be flattened or hollowed out of divine activity; I admit, as a non-pentecostal, I was much more comfortable with David’s growing love for hearing the voice of God through the Scriptures than in stories of his relatives prophesying about his future conversion, and even a tarot card reader predicting he would end up as a ‘child of the light’, and yet, without such direct intervention there is little doubt his voice would be heard the way it is. His path through this ‘war’ to Jesus is not the only way; there are other soldiers who have charted different, but no less miraculous paths, and yet, his passionate call to whole hearted worship is prophetic not just for others in the gay community, but for a church that is all to often conscripted to fight a ‘culture war’ not a ‘war of loves’ — and for a church that all too often lacks the imagination to properly empathise with our neighbours rather than seeing them as ‘other.’ His is a clarion call for ongoing reformation in our churches.

“God wants all people everywhere to turn from their ways in order to know him. He wants us all to adopt an entirely different view of meaning, transcendence, and worship. Can you imagine how healing it would be for the church to acknowledge that it is just as broken and sinful as the gay community? Can you imagine the power in store if Christians were to humbly repent of hypocrisy before expecting others to repent?”

David’s story reveals a deep fault line in the church in our ability to imagine that love for God might possibly supplant our own idolatrous view of eros — sex, and marriage, and our own heteronormative assumptions about ‘identity’ and what it means to be human in Christ. And here’s where David provides an explicit challenge to an internal conflict the church is taking, and one where we’ve tended to buy in to the ‘identity politics’ or ‘identity war’ thinking of the prevailing culture, providing thin theological justifications (though often deeply held, and with pastoral concern). There is a war raging about how appropriate it is for Christians who are same sex attracted to use the label ‘gay’ — it’s not a new conflict, but the lines have been more clearly drawn recently around the Nashville Statement and in a debate around a conference in the United States called Revoice, which provided a platform for those occupying the ‘Side B’ position in the conversation; a position David holds, along with the likes of Wes Hill.

“As a gay celibate Christian, I recognize that Christ is my ultimate identity; gay and celibate come second. My identity is first and foremost in Christ, but those other two descriptors tell the redemptive story of God’s grace in my life.”

Identity is a thin concept, a largely modern obsession that must be imported into our theological frameworks with great care; there is no doubt that the answer to the questions ‘who am I’ or ‘what does it mean to be a person’ are important, and that there is a theological account that supplies the important answers; but much of modern ‘identity’ is a constructed concept emerging as the concept of the ‘givenness’ of our humanity, from God, has been evacuating the western framework. As I mentioned in a previous post, the obsession with identity — the projection of our true, inner self — our ‘id’ — into the external reality of our lives, and the idea that we answer these important questions from within, rather than looking to our relationships, and a creator, to supply them, this obsession is a very novel, western idea. It’s perhaps the case that David concedes too much ground to this modern obsession in order to justify his self-description. Early in the debate about terminology, Ron Belgau from Spiritual Friendship, a site run by celibate, gay, Christians, made the point that those who wish to make big claims about ‘identity’ are operating as though the word ‘gay’ is an ‘ontological’ marker — a statement about one’s being, where those who tend to use it (quite carefully) are not making ‘ontological claims’ (about their ‘being’) but ‘phenomenological’ claims (about their experience of life in the world, and about more than simply sexual activity). These are big philosophical words — and the fact that they are confusing, and that even people who are careful about the use of terms might not be aware of these dimensions probably means that words are much less ‘prescriptive’ than those in the ‘ontological’/identity camp might like to acknowledge (there’s a classic modernist v post-modernist division operating behind the sort of theory of words at play here too). It is, frankly, quite ridiculous to attempt to make the case that one position on the use of the label ‘gay’ has the definitive, God-ordained, view if ‘identity’ is such a nebulous, modern, ‘secular age’ connotation; if it is largely a tool for the sort of fragmented ‘expressive individualism’ that has somehow given rise to ‘identity politics’; and if the very nature of language, and how we use it and understand it, is also not able to be settled. People within the Christian community will just continue speaking past one another — and very rarely think about speaking to the gay community outside the church.

Biblically, the ground is much safer if we acknowledge that the ‘image’ we present to the world is fundamentally formed by what it is we worship — the God who made us in his image, and forms us by his Spirit, or the images we make, that then de-form us.

This is where David’s theological framework sings; his ‘war of loves’ is the Augustinian idea of the ordering of our heart and our loves via that which we make ultimate; that which we worship; that love that defines who we are. To take the label ‘gay’ is not, and should not be heart to be, a claim that homosexual sexual activity is the defining feature of a person’s existence or identity, especially when it is so carefully qualified; to suggest otherwise is to judge a person using categories and criteria that come from a world that denies this fundamental aspect of our being (that we are worshippers), and that our identity is ultimately given by the creator. To obsess about ‘identity markers’ — like those who write statements — is ultimately more useful as a political tool to create ‘us’ or ‘them’ than to create conversations and plausible pathways for people from the gay community to discover Jesus, and through him, God’s life-altering love. His use of the label gay is, to some extent, about the re-ordering of his identity around Jesus and the cascading effect that had on his sexual attraction, but it is also about building common ground for Gospel conversations with LGBTIQA+ people.

“Identifying with others in the LGBTQI world can open doors to engage people who need to hear about Christ. It can also give us the chance to speak honestly against the horrible ways Christians have often treated the gay community.”

David’s heart is to see people know this love as he does, and his framework is imaginative and grounded in his own, very real, experience. He asks the questions one can only fantasise about the church having asked before taking any political stances on issues surrounding the LGBTIQA+ community. He is prepared to acknowledge goodness and beauty — the image of God — at work in the achievements of the gay rights movements (law reforms that limit violent crimes against members of minority groups, for example, that uphold the God-given dignity of all people), so long as we keep the real call of God on our lives — and sexuality (that is, for all of us) front and centre.

“The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality. It is holiness. We need to stand for a different way to live in the gay community, and welcome others from that community into the church to receive Jesus’ love, without denying so many of the goods won through the gay rights movement.”

He’s even prepared to challenge us to consider what might be redeemed within gay relationships, should a couple turn to Jesus — to have us asking better questions about what we might do to help others ‘win the war’ and not just find love in Jesus, but to have all their loves transformed by his love.

“There may be aspects of gay relationships or unions that Christians should learn to accept and recognize, such as the bond of friendship and the self-sacrificial love I have seen in many of my friends’ unions. Christianity has room for affirming so much of the good and beautiful there, while still keeping traditional views of sexual expression and love. For those in gay relationships or marriages who bravely repent of sexual sin, the solution is anything but simple. It takes time, and many answers are going to be messy. Gay couples often have children and become a family unit. What is their call? Easy answers break down very quickly without the Spirit’s leading and discernment.”

This is an important book, and David joins a growing list of faithful, same sex attracted, voices who have stepped back from our cultural consumption of the ‘sexuality is your identity’ Kool-Aid, to offer us a real path to the one who provides true satisfaction. These men and women are like the desert fathers of the third century who disconnected from the cultural stream they belonged to in order to discern where false worship had taken hold, in order to call the church back to the one who gives living water. The Lord Jesus.

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” — John 4:13-14

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It’ll be all white in the end: on hope and love in these ‘last days’

The fires of our Christian persecution complex are being stoked this week by those who warned as all (and boy, did they tell us) that the same sex marriage vote was about more than marriage.

These fires are burning brighter with the news that the magazine, White, will be shuttering after an activist campaign saw advertisers desert their platform because the owners, a Christian couple, adopted an editorial policy consistent with their personal views.

It was a year this week since the postal survey results were announced; and the doomsday prophets have formed a line behind Lyle Shelton to announce that they ‘told us so’, because this was never just about marriage, and now we have a bona fide story of martyrdom. Here. On our shores. It’s not just bakers in the UK. There’s nothing I like more than reading think pieces beating that same ‘told you so’ drum as a ‘hot take’ on current events. So here’s mine.

I’m sure the couple in question are lovely, faithful, people – I’m sure they’ve been caught up in the modern ethical minefield, a minefield produced by the rapid shifting of the ground beneath our feet. I’m sure that you can draw a straight line between the existence of same sex marriage and the position they find themselves in. I’m sure they agonised about their editorial policy, and whether to go public in the face of pressure. I’m sure their position has caused them real pain. I’m sad for them, it seems tragic to watch the business they spent years building disintegrate. I’m not sure how I’d feel about the amount of free publicity they’ll now receive, because they’re a political football, coming after this commercial decision.

I’m not sure it’s the editorial policy I’d take, even though I share their views on the definition of marriage. I’m not sure it represents a hospitable or generous pluralism; but it is absolutely their call to make — what they do with their platform, and what they promote. I’m equally sure, that at this point, they aren’t facing legal consequences for the position they took.

Their experience is not an experience that religious freedom laws would protect while we also operate in a free market (and to be honest, the free market is a bigger idol than sexuality in our culture, and it’s one where most Christians are happy to participate in the temples and cultic practices of our economy, where we aren’t when it comes to the cult of sexuality, sexual identity, and expressive individualism). Exactly the same principles that give this couple the right to hold on to, and act according to their convictions — the same religious freedom, or freedom of speech, give rise to the rights of those who put pressure on their advertisers to line up with their own convictions. It seems certain that some of the ‘free speech’ directed at this couple was hateful, and crossed a line, into threats and bullying — and yet, what they’re experiencing is the cost of doing business in a fractured, pluralist, world — where each side plays a zero sum game. They were, perhaps, naive to think they could play the game in any other way — that they could continue operating according to a now obsolete status quo — that they could ignore the hashtag campaign and that it would go away. It seems to me they had three zero sum options — ‘capitulate,’ close down, or pitch for financial support from institutions and businesses who share their values (and so become a pawn in the ideologically driven culture war). If 40% of Aussies share the definition of marriage of these editors, including the religious establishment, we churches could put our money where our mouths are and take out advertising space. We could make this magazine part of our strategy for burnishing and promoting traditional ‘white’ weddings between a man and a woman so that they shine brightly among the alternatives. But we won’t. Because we have no imagination — and we prefer the alternative of sitting on the sidelines, proclaiming ourselves prophets, and distancing ourselves more and more from the hearts and minds of the average Aussie punter while participating in the culture wars. I suspect there’s a fourth — the option of hospitality, where they made their views known, consistently and editorially, but adopted an inclusive editorial policy as an act of generous pluralism that refused the ‘zero sum’ options on the table.

We’re quick to say ‘told you so’ and slow to say ‘tell you what’ — we offer no alternative vision, just an apocalypse — and we have learned nothing from the apocalyptic moments of the last few years — like the Coopers’ Brewery fiasco — when it comes to shaping our public posture. As I’ve often pointed out in these posts, the word ‘apocalypse’ really just means ‘revelation.’ And so we, again, are having not just the state of the world revealed — but the ‘hope-less’ state of the church and our engagement with the world around us.

While some see the legalisation of same sex marriage as a ‘precipice’ that we jumped from, and we’re now plummeting off wondering if we packed a parachute, I’m more inclined to challenge that narrative on two fronts — firstly, the political debate was about the political reality, so it was really about marriage — and the result of the postal survey and subsequent legalisation of same sex marriage only impacts this magazine decision because it introduced same sex weddings (and thus, a new market in the wedding industry), which is explicitly the same thing the political campaign was about. And secondly, politics is downstream from culture — and the cultural horse bolted on this issue long before the postal survey. This moment was coming with the cultural winds that saw most commercial interests in Australia line up behind the ‘yes’ vote, because before it was a political reality the hearts and minds of the average Aussie were won by the narrative of progress and equality. There’s no precipice, the marriage vote was the last domino to fall in a long line of other legal issues (that, in honesty, did need to fall — like the criminalisation of homosexuality, and the ‘gay panic’ defence for killing somebody if you thought they were gay and trying to have their way with you).

This, incidentally, is why the official ‘no’ campaign did us a terrible disservice in making it about consequences and not at all about anything positive about traditional marriage and why we’d want to keep it as a social and cultural good, and keep it exclusively for heterosexual couples. Perhaps they knew that would be an impossible sell…

So here’s a hope-full suggestion.

It’s time we Christians poured our effort into showing why our vision of marriage — God’s vision — is compelling, and not just for straight people. It’s compelling because marriage is a ‘created thing’ that reveals something about God and his love, and ultimately about his plans and love for us.

It’s time we realised that in the era of the Royal Commission, and in the wake of not just the postal survey but years of the gay community in Australia campaigning against unjust laws that were justified as ‘Judeo-Christian’ — we have no social capital.

If we’re going to burn actual capital it’s time to stop spending it trying to prop up a status quo that no longer exists; we should spend it first in making recompense for those times our institutions have failed, then we should devote our significant human and social capital to positive and hopeful contributions to the public conversation.

We should throw our weight — in volunteer hours, energy, attention, and dollar terms — into improving the lot of our LGBTIQA+ neighbours, in anti-bullying campaigns, in creating safe spaces where they can explore and develop their identity in conversation with Christians rather than across picket lines or ideological boundaries, we should spend time listening to minority voices in our community (and in our churches). This would start rebuilding some of the capital we’ve done our best to pour into the toilet, one $1 million donation to the ‘no campaign,’ or campaign against bullying programs, or letter about the right to expel gay kids and fire gay teachers at a time (not that it started with any of these).

We should invest capital in telling stories of our own — stories about marriage and what it means — not about why others are wrong, but about why God’s way is good, true, and beautiful. We should realise that making media — whether online, in print, or on television — comes at a cost; a cost proportionate with how beautiful it is. And we should start investing in a long term campaign for hearts and minds. For many years the church was a significant part of ‘the wedding industry’ in Australia; we’ve lost our monopoly, but it still raises revenue for many churches (and ministers). We could direct a proportion of that income to promoting marriage, and having good material to distribute when preparing a couple for marriage seems a no brained. White looked like it had a cracking aesthetic. We should back it; perhaps to model an inclusive conversation about love and marriage, funded by Christians, or perhaps as an ideological contribution to the public conversation funded by Christians.

We should stop writing prophetic, apocalyptic, think-pieces that offer no solutions, only commentary — and bad commentary at that — and start turning to the pages of our own divinely inspired apocalyptic text — a text all about what life looks like for faithful witnesses of king Jesus, the bridegroom, in the world that executed him on a device designed to bring maximum public humiliation. A text about our hope in the ruins. A text about a white wedding. The wedding of the lamb, whose bride is the church (Ephesians 5).

“Hallelujah!
    For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
    and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.” — Revelation 19:6-8

We should stop saying ‘I told you so’ — stop feeling hopeless and aggrieved — stop playing the victim — stop being doomsday prophets with no map for turning back — and start living as the hopeful bride of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Dressed in white.

Our hope does not rest in a redirection of the public narrative, or a return to ‘Christian values’ — our hope doesn’t rest in religious freedom, or our unfettered access to the free market on a level playing field. Our hope doesn’t rest in marriage here and now. This future with Jesus is our hope. Nobody in this world can stifle it. It’s time that hope re-captured our hearts and imaginations (and that we spent less time worrying whether other people think we’re pretty enough).

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Friendship and Redemption in Hell’s Kitchen: Daredevil, Job, and Jesus

“Though I cry, ‘Violence!’ I get no response;
    though I call for help, there is no justice.
He has blocked my way so I cannot pass;
    he has shrouded my paths in darkness.
He has stripped me of my honour
    and removed the crown from my head.
 He tears me down on every side till I am gone;
    he uproots my hope like a tree.” — Job 19:7-10

The writers of Daredevil sure know their theology.

In season 1, Matt ‘Daredevil’ Murdoch went toe-to-toe with Wilson ‘Kingpin’ Fisk with both initially identifying themselves as the ‘good samaritan’ — reaching out to help the beaten and bloodied citizens of Hell’s Kitchen out of a ditch… only for Kingpin to end up declaring himself the ‘man of malicious intent’ (identifying with the characters in Jesus’ famous parable who put the poor, bloodied, citizen in a ditch, before the good samaritan came by). Plenty of people ‘generalise’ the figure of the Good Samaritan, as a picture of the ‘good neighbour’ — the sort of heroic person we’re all called to be, but this heroic figure who does what the religious leaders of Israel can’t, or won’t do is the archetypal good neighbour in Luke’s Gospel — a Christ figure; a picture of the despised outsider who pulls broken humans out of the ditch to restore them… This was pretty sophisticated stuff identifying Matt Murdoch with a certain messianic vision – superheroes are often thinly veiled Jesus figures, with Daredevil the veil is essentially transparent.

In season 2, Daredevil identified himself with the ‘suffering servant’ — taking the pain and suffering of his people on his own shoulders; sacrificing and suffering to deliver his people, believing there was some good in them, where The Punisher and the sinister ‘The Hand’ were more hellbent on slaughter. Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ is another messianic/Christ figure. Daredevil has consistently been Christlike in his Netflix iteration — right up to his apparent ‘victorious’ sacrificial death on behalf of his team, and the city, in The Defenders.

This is the opening image of season 3 — where a cross visually resolves itself into Matt’s cruciform body, emerging from flames, through water, and back into the land of the living. Matt has been through his own personal crucifixion. Death. Hell. Resurrection. But has he kept his soul? That’s in many ways, the driving question behind the narrative in this season.

Season 3 of Daredevil is every bit as theologically rich as the first two outings, while there’s a fascinating problem with a show being both deliberately theologically astute, and having a messianic protagonist who occupies the place of Jesus in the narrative (who can’t turn to Jesus to understand God’s character and plan)… this season links Matt to the Old Testament character of Job, in order to consider suffering, the question of God’s apparent absence, and the place of friendship.

Across three seasons Daredevil invites us to connect Matt Murdock, and so, by extension, Jesus, with the Good Samaritan, the Suffering Servant, and now Job. This is a rich reading of the narrative unity of the Bible — in fact, it’s cutting edge Old Testament scholarship to see a connection between Job and Isaiah’s servant — and if the writers aren’t making that connection deliberately, they are certainly providing rich fodder for viewers to explore how the Bible holds together… so long as Matt manages not to lose his soul. 

Old Testament academic (and now faculty member here in Brisbane, who, disclosure, is also a friend and member of my church), Dr Doug Green, gave a series of guest lectures in Brisbane while I was at college where he proposed a link between Job and Isaiah’s suffering servant (I wrote his lecture up here). He points out several linguistic links between the portrayal of both the Servant, Job, and righteous, God-fearing, Israelites in exile — those who shared the fate of disobedient Israel, and suffered, while still being faithful. He also makes the case that Job’s restoration is framed as a ‘return from exile’ — a resurrection. Job, and the suffering servant, become the figure who will lead Israel out of exile from God — death — and into life. A shared resurrection. The Good Samaritan is this sort of figure too — if the person in the ditch is also exiled Israel. In his lecture notes (that he provided, which were received in thanks) Doug says:

“Just as the Suffering Servant points forward to the intercessory – and more deeply, the atoning work of Christ – the same is true for Job. And because of this parallel to the Suffering Servant, as we see Job praying for his friends, we get a faint picture of Christ’s intercession on our behalf. In fact, Job’s prayer on behalf of his friends finds an echo in Jesus’s prayer for those who crucified him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).”

“…we should not interpret Job as a stand-alone piece functioning as a sourcebook for theological reflection on the general problem of human suffering. Instead it should be interpreted in close connection to Israel’s covenantal history. Combine this with the numerous connections to Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant, and that inclines me to understand Job (the character) as a righteous Israelite who experiences suffering (a metaphor for exile) but is brought out the other side to experience a double blessing (a picture of the end of Exile and the Age to Come). And ultimately this experience of inexplicable suffering in some way makes him fit to function as an intercessor (or mediator) for those who are the object of God’s anger…

… this intertextual and prophetic reading of Job as Suffering Servant allows us to at last draw a connection between Job and the eschatological suffering Servant, Jesus Christ (and ultimately to Christ’s Suffering people). It allows us to go back and read it as a pre-told story of Christ – the truly righteous and blameless one who suffers “unfairly,” as it were.”

This framework makes Daredevil‘s theological arc, across three seasons, particularly rich, and yet, having Matt operate as the Jesus-figure, participating in an essentially Christ-less Christianity, in the story creates a mind-bending paradox. There are plenty of crucifixes on display around the place, so it’s not that Daredevil invites us, visually speaking, to ignore the place of Jesus in Christian practice, but he is curiously absent from the overt displays of religion — he’s not mentioned in Father Lantom’s homily, he’s absent in Matt’s musings about the place of suffering for the righteous, and, in many ways, he’s absent from Matt’s messianic vision — beyond bearing the suffering of the innocent while punishing (though not executing) the redeemable guilty. Matt, as ‘the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’ doesn’t embody the cruciform pattern of Jesus life — though Matt the lawyer, the Matt who looks for non-violent solutions and justice, is perhaps closer to the mark.

When we’re tackling questions of theodicy — God’s relationship to suffering, evil, and violence, in the real world — you just can’t do it without appealing to God’s self-revelation in Jesus; Daredevil’s answer is profoundly theocentric (particularly centered on God the father) and anthropocentric (particularly centered on humanity’s position with regards to evil and suffering). Jesus, in his full divinity and full humanity holds those two aspects of any answer to the question in tension. He’s more than just ‘God’s soldier’ acting in suffering, in the cross, God himself suffers. What Daredevil is good at, so long as we recognise the big answer to the big question of suffering involves this tension, is focusing on the humanity of suffering — and how Jesus is an archetypal sufferer. The servant. The Samaritan. Job. Daredevil. They are all ‘types’ that provide anticipation or echoes of the human life of Jesus. It’s legitimate for us to ask why suffering and evil happen, and where justice will be found if God appears to be stepping back — questions Daredevil explores — but, these questions are profoundly answered in the life of Jesus. The experience of Job, and righteous Israelites suffering in exile (the suffering servant), anticipate the suffering of Jesus.

Job is not just an account of suffering — but of exile from God, and restoration. It’s not just a theodicy, but is specifically connected to the suffering of the righteous. It’s legitimate for us to ask why the righteous suffer — as Matt does… but we have to consider that none of us can claim the righteousness of Job. But on with the show… which is also most rewarding if it’s not just about suffering — but about whether Matt is able to function as a hero while he is in exile from God.

At season’s opening, Matt has lost his mojo — more specifically, his powers that he saw as part of God’s calling, what made him a ‘soldier’ for God; capable of delivering justice, opposing evil, facing death, and helping the residents of Hell’s Kitchen out of their ditch. His loss of these abilities, and questions about what happened to Elektra in The Defenders’ finale, sets up a conversation with the nun looking after him in his convalescence (another Good Samaritan; though it turns out this nun has significant vested interests in his wellbeing, both spiritual and physical). Matt frames his crisis as ‘finally understanding’ where he stands with God. And he launches into a retelling of Job with himself as the ‘telos’ of the narrative; the one Job’s experiences point to… he is a new, and different, Job.

“The book of Job. The story of God’s perfect servant Job, who prayed every day at dawn with his knees on the ground and his face in the dirt. Slaughtered ten goats. One for each of his children, and burned them at the altar in God’s honour. Of all God’s soldiers, Job, he was the most loyal.

Sister: I know the story Matthew.

Matt: Well, then, you know what happens next. God murdered all ten of his children in cold blood, scorched every inch of Job’s land, lashed at his body until his skin was covered in bloody welts. God rained shit and misery on the life of his most perfect servant, and still, Job would not curse him. You know what I realised. Job was a pussy…

See. That was me sister. I suffered willingly. I gave my sweat and blood and skin without complaint, because I truly believed I was God’s soldier. I don’t any more. I am what I do in the dark now. I bleed only for myself… I’d rather die as the devil than live as Matt Murdoch.”

Matt has lost his connection to God; he’s now explicitly not a Christ figure… or at least, he bleeds ‘for himself’ and not for God… but somehow still wants to heroically bleed for others. He is not God’s ‘suffering servant’… He is not Job; or he is, but a different kind of Job. A Job who can’t fathom God’s plan and so, in his suffering, in God’s apparent absence — in exile — Matt turns his back on God… or tries to.

In the story of Job, Job is visited by a bunch of friends who try to explain Job’s suffering. Friends who visit him in his misery, and, rather than being a comfort, pile on more misery… mostly by giving horrible advice. Job’s friends speak as ‘wise’ voices from the nations around Israel… all except Elihu; who speaks with the pious, naive, voice of an Israelite who claims to speak for God. These friends seek to uphold God’s goodness, and blame Job… while Job defends his righteousness. Job is ultimately vindicated by God, he is a ‘righteous sufferer’ — a ‘suffering servant’. He is not suffering because he did something wrong. God has not abandoned him. And yet… he suffers.

Where Job, for the most part, is devastated, bemused, and conflicted by his suffering — and afflicted by his friends — while remaining confident of God’s goodness even in suffering, Matt goes another way, losing confidence with God… and where Job’s friends are useless in guiding him to a right way of understanding his suffering, Matt’s friends are redemptive and useful. And it’s his friends and their relentless presence with him in his suffering — and their good advice — that chart the path to redemption; in their faithfulness to Matt, they start to taste redemption for themselves.

The central moral dilemma in this season is the question of what should happen to Kingpin. There’s lots to this season around the development of a foe for Daredevil — Bullseye — who, incidentally, is the only character to don the red leather suit in this season — and there’s the thread around the mysterious nun and her interest in Matt… but Matt’s real dilemma isn’t how to take down Bullseye, or how to deal with the secrecy around this nun; it’s whether to stray from the path of righteousness; to truly enter the darkness.

In an interaction Karen Page has with Father Lantom while taking refuge in the church building, Father Lantom, Matt’s priest, articulates Matt’s theological vision — “whatever it is that you’ve done, or haven’t done, it can still be redeemed” — Karen says “I’m not so sure I believe that.” As Matt embraces the darkness he tries to push his friends away — he isolates himself from their counsel — like most of us do with our wise friends, or even that internal voice that says ‘stop’ as we embrace sin… he has decided to kill Kingpin, and doesn’t want to be told otherwise. He says he’s pushing them away in order to protect them from what he might become, to keep them ‘innocent’… While Karen and Foggy Nelson, Matt’s two friends, are initially convinced that Matt’s vigilante justice is not the answer, and that he should go ‘through the system,’ Karen starts to think that Matt should kill Kingpin. But Foggy… Foggy knows what straying from the path of righteousness would do to Matt’s soul — and, what it would do to their friendship as a result. His friends are true friends in the face of suffering — they won’t let him go, even when he tries to push them away, they are determined to be there for him, and to lead him out of darkness into the light — not just because he depends on that, but because their friendships do. His friends are faithful.

Foggy: Matt’s Matt because he believes that everyone deserves a shot at redemption.
Karen: Except Fisk.
Foggy: Everyone. It’s a Catholic thing. That’s why he doesn’t kill people. If he crosses that line Matt will never be able to forgive himself.
And being around us will just remind him of who he was and what he’s done.
Karen: Yeah, we’d really lose him, wouldn’t we? — Forever, this time.

From this point, Matt’s friends are relentless in their counsel that this would be disastrous; profoundly because it would represent him truly abandoning God, and his claims to be a righteous, suffering servant… for Matt to kill Fisk would represent his becoming Fisk. The visuals throughout this series on this note, where Fisk is presented in white (and as obsessed with a particular white artwork) and as a ‘warrior of the light’ — operating under 24/7 scrutiny as an FBI informant, while Matt dons the black, and occupies the shadows, are compelling. The tension in the narrative, shaping Matt’s decision, is the question ‘is there anything ‘white’ in Fisk? Is there anything that can be redeemed? And once he decides that there is, he can’t kill him — and in this, Matt finds his own redemption.

Matt’s showdown with Fisk is his apocalypse — it reveals who he truly is, and where God really is in suffering — that God is at work in redemption, forgiveness, and friendship. Where he has Fisk truly at his mercy, in that crucible moment, he stays his hand.

God knows I want to, but you don’t get to destroy who I am.

From this moment on the tension in the series is resolved; it’s the denouement, much like the epilogue at the end of the book of Job. Matt is restored. His relationships are mended. His rediscovery of his faith — his compass — doesn’t just put him back on the path of light, but Karen and Foggy are now linked with him again, sharing in the light and life of Matt’s discovery. He returns to the light. Bloodied. But restored. Truly resurrected. He has listened to his wise friends — and in his restoration, his redemption, they are all redeemed. They all discover the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. Much like Job ends up making sacrifices to restore himself and his friends to relationship with the life-giving God. And much like Jesus, the suffering servant, offers himself as a sacrifice to restore us to life and relationship with God and one another…

Matt connects his suffering to the moment that made him — the moment he was blinded as a child. There’s still no Jesus explicitly found in his theodicy, but there is the answer Job receives from God amidst his questions; that God is the artist and architect of this world, and our sight, like Matt’s, is human and limited.

See, I was pretty angry at God and bitter towards his world.
How could a loving God blind me? Why? Anyway, he told me God’s plan is like a beautiful tapestry.
And the tragedy of being human is that we only get to see it from the back.
With all the ragged threads and the muddy colors.
And we only get a hint at the true beauty that would be revealed if we could see the whole pattern on the other side as God does.

Matt realises that God’s redemptive plans for the world might involve a suffering servant; that they might involve a faithful Job, a Good Samaritan… it’s not just an ‘everything happens for a reason’ trite answer, but rather a discovery of who he — and we image bearers — were made to be in a world where suffering and evil exist. That we were made for life-giving friendships that allow us to enter in to the suffering of others, and to stand against evil, as we reflect God’s presence in his world.

“I realise that if my life had turned out any differently, that I would never have become Daredevil. And although people have died on my watch, people who shouldn’t have, there are countless others that have lived. So, maybe it is all part of God’s plan. Maybe my life has been exactly as it had to be.”

Matt realises that his priest, Father Lantom, modelled sacrificial love — the death of self — and that this sort of posture is freeing; that it drives out fear in the face of suffering. Matt can be the ‘man without fear’ again. Matt is now free to be Job; free to trust God. Free to suffer. Free to be a servant. God’s soldier… He is truly restored. Finally resurrected.

But Matt’s answer would be richer and fuller if he wasn’t totally occupying the place of Jesus in the story; if he, like Job, could respond to suffering — even suffering as one who is righteous by trusting God as redeemer, looking forward, like the rest of the Old Testament, to the truly righteous suffering servant; the Good Samaritan. Light in the darkness. God’s true answer to suffering, and the moment we see the real picture woven in the tapestry of our existence. Jesus.

I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me! — Job 19:25-27

In Jesus we see real redemptive friendship. We see God. We see God, our friend, stepping in to our suffering — and taking on suffering, death, hell and exile, for us, to bring not just his resurrection, but ours, to end our suffering, exile from God, and death, by giving us life with God forever, so that we might face what comes without fear. Because our redeemer lives, and so shall we.

Why, with all due respect, it’s wrong to pit social justice against the Gospel

Eternity News has a new podcast, With All Due Respect. It features two people I appreciate and respect, Baptist pastor-theologian Megan Powell Du Toit and Anglican pastor-theologian Michael Jensen. The first four episodes have been fun, and a model of irenic disagreement. In episode three they tackled the relationship between social justice and the proclamation of the Gospel, a discussion prompted by a new ‘statement’ issued by a bunch of Christians in the U.S, who seem to have nothing better to do than sit around and come up with line drawing exercises to decide what really is and isn’t kosher for Christians; it’s in the tradition of the Nashville Statement, with a series of ‘affirmations’ and ‘denials’, and this one, The Statement on Social Justice, aims to make it clear to true Christians that the social gospel, especially as it applies to issues of racism and social justice is a distraction from the work of proclaiming the Gospel.

As something of a follow up to the podcast episode, Eternity ran this piece from Michael Jensen, fleshing out his argument — he’s not embracing the Statement, but he does share some of its concerns when it comes to the way the mission of the church might be confused when it comes to ‘social justice’ — he argues, in sum, that:

“The gospel of Jesus Christ demands social justice but working for social justice is not the gospel.”

His piece tracks back through the history of the evangelical movement’s approach to (and embrace of) the pursuit of justice as a fruit of the Gospel, to a fork in the road moment. A divide he describes between:

“… those who were committed to personal conversion through evangelism as the supreme, even only, calling of the church, and those who argued that the Christian gospel was advanced as much by social justice as by evangelism.” 

He reflects on the polarising way this debate has often been framed; and then attempts to chart a via media — and a new one — through the poles. Between “Christians are doing gospel work when they argue for racial equality or promote more just treatment of the poor, regardless of whether the gospel is preached or not,” and “our task is to preach the gospel, and when hearts are changed we find that society is changed.” 

The position, or understanding of the Gospel he sees underpinning the former, the social gospel position, is a version of the Gospel that recognises that there’s more to sin and evil than the individual, and that sin infects systems, institutions, and other social structures (a classically ‘left wing’ approach. The position, or understanding of the Gospel he sees underpinning the latter, is a version of the Gospel that focuses on one’s individual sin, and that Jesus takes the penalty for that sin. His middle way:

“And that means we cannot think of discipleship in simply individual terms. Neither can we think of the Christian gospel as only a matter of the individual’s reconciliation with God. But if it doesn’t begin with the individual’s reconciliation with God, it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus did not just die for sin. He died for sinners.”

And this is all good stuff. It rejects a certain sort of reductionism that plenty of us fall into along tribal or ideological lines, and invites us to consider that the Gospel has both individual and systemic implications.

Jensen does make a claim about the priority in this relationship — the individual. And I’d like to humbly suggest that this definition of the Gospel also turns a fruit of the Gospel into the Gospel; that it is an anthropocentric Gospel rather than a Christocentric Gospel… that the Gospel ‘begins’ with Jesus, not our reconciliation with God; that it is good news because it is an announcement about the victory and rule of Jesus, as God’s king, and that this victory has individual and corporate fruits — the forgiveness of sins for the individual, and our reconciliation with God, is a fruit of this victory at the same time (and with the same priority); that Jesus is king of a new and different kingdom.

If we make the Gospel first about Jesus, rather than about the implications of what Jesus does for us, then we don’t have to resolve certain tensions but can hold them together (this is a bit like the way the reformers seem to use union with Christ to resolve a tension we’ve then tried to create between justification and sanctification).

Jensen’s conclusion is eloquent and excellent, after making the case that “the gospel demands that we think about social justice” he says:

“… we can too easily substitute working for social justice for the gospel – in which case we just become a reflection of whichever political philosophy we prefer, progressive or conservative. The power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts, by drawing repentant sinners to the cross of Jesus Christ and by unleashing his resurrection power in them, is the power we wield for change.”

It is absolutely the power we wield for change. But how then do we wield it. Presumably, because he doesn’t expand on this point — he sees this wielding happening predominantly through proclamation, that there’s a priority here being expressed of word over deed. And again, I’d humbly suggest that this still resolves a tension that doesn’t need to be resolved, or prioritises one arm of a paradox. I think we’d do better to hold ‘word’ and ‘image’ or ‘speaking’ and ’embodying’ together in the way the incarnation of Jesus does; so that our actions and words together are what proclaims the Gospel. Our lives are part of the medium that carries the message of the Gospel.

In this way “the Gospel” has both individual and corporate fruits, and they work themselves out in the world through Christians — ambassadors of Jesus — as we live as embodied communities and individuals who belong to his kingdom; the church being both ‘the body of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 12) and Christians being those the Spirit is transforming into the image of Jesus. It seems oddly reductionist to separate word and deed the way we so often attempt to in these debates about what has priority. And here’s my real disagreement with this piece… It’s about who we are as humans and what it means to be human, then, what it means to be embodied speakers, and finally, the relationship between ethos and logos in communication. If we insist on splitting embodying the Gospel (or its fruit) from proclaiming the Gospel (or its fruit) in order to decide which activity has priority, we tear apart things that are held together both biblically and in our experience of reality.

One of Michael Jensen’s specialty areas is theological anthropology — what it means to be human. And I’m not going to be the young punk who tries to undo him on his own turf. I’m going to suggest he’s already undone himself… In one of my favourite essays (not just ‘essays by him,’ but essays), ‘Through a Glass Darkly: Social Media and the Paradox of Virtual Intimacy,’ he says:

“The Word, as John wrote, had become flesh: and the appearance of the Word enfleshed had been proclaimed as the decisive manifestation of the divine presence, full of grace and truth, revealing the glory of the Father. The fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily on Jesus Christ; and now that that body had ascended, and was no longer present to be touched, the presence of Jesus could be experienced textually – by means of the spoken and written recollections of Jesus. The fellowship of believers is then is called into being as itself the “body” of Christ, so as to mediate the presence of Christ in the world. It has in its possession the recollection of Jesus’s words and his works – and so it is called to believe his words, and depend upon his works, but also to repeat his words and perform his works.”

It’s difficult to split the church mediating the presence of Jesus in the world, and taking up the task to ‘repeat his words and perform his works’ — much as I’d suggest it’s difficult to split proclaiming the Gospel and living lives marked by the Gospel… especially if the Gospel is not about me, or us, but Jesus (with implications for me and us), and if Jesus is both the ‘word of God in the flesh’ and the image of God — an embodied communication (in word and deed), then these two tasks — word and deed — are aspects of one task. What I’m really trying to say… or what he said… is:

The Incarnation of the Son of God as “the image of the invisible God” is also a refraction that most basic of anthropological themes, namely, the imago dei. As the English theologian Alastair McFadyen and others have argued, the “image of god” is not a reference to some particular ability or capacity that human beings have, but to their vocation: they are called to represent the creator to the creation, in visible, bodily form. For this role they are made articulate: they are agents of communication in part because they are tasked with declaring the will of God to the world, and because they are invited to declare his praises to him. And they are made as bodies, located in time and space. They are something to see, and hear. The New Testament not only sees Jesus Christ as the one who finally fulfils this human vocation (see, for example, 2 Corinthians 4:4), but the church finds its new vocation in being renewed in the image now of Christ (as in Romans 8:29).

Splitting ‘representing the creator’ in visible, bodily, form and ‘proclaiming the Gospel’, given that this representation is about mediating or communicating, and ‘articulating’ starts to seem a bit like splitting a hair to me (as opposed to hairs).

Even if the church’s primary task is proclaiming the Gospel — especially because the Gospel is the power we wield in the world — then the idea that we can proclaim something just with words doesn’t grapple with who we are as people, how we communicate, or how we are persuaded. It assumes that our words (logos) can somehow exist in a vacuum, apart from our lives — our integrity and credibility as speakers. They can’t. Medium and message are inextricably tied together — if a message comes without a medium (well it can’t), but if it were simply words on a page with no reference to a communicator, that, in itself, communicates something that shapes the way the message is received… Our lives, our pursuit of justice and our lives as individuals, provide the context for others to interpret our proclamation. Here’s Jensen again, on Paul.

“It was not only his words, but his observed manner of life in connection to those words – in imitation of Christ – that establishes his apostleship, and proves his sincerity of motive. He reminds his listeners of his costly service of them and of the way in which he supported himself financially when he was with them.”

This is true for individuals — that our lives are the ethos that form the basis of our communication — that our words and manner of life work together… Why then, when it comes to the pursuit of justice, systemically, would we split our ‘observed manner of life’  — the imitation of Jesus our king — from the proclamation that Jesus is Lord and king of a God’s kingdom? Why split the pursuit of justice from proclaiming the Gospel so long as both are consistent and there’s an integrity to our words and deeds?

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Play as a disruptive witness: How Bluey is a great show for parents (and for kids)

I watch lots of kids TV. Usually with the kids. There’s a new hit in our house — we measure the ‘hits’ based on whether one child will round up the other two when the theme song hits.

It’s called Bluey. Each episode offers 7 minutes of laugh out loud fun — and it’s Australian. It’s made here in Brisbane. It’s bouncy and light and ‘Aussie,’ but with no cultural cringe. The settings — like an episode in a local farmer’s market complete with German sausage stand and poffertjes store — are refreshingly relatable. The scripting, especially the jokes, is zesty and nails the pathos required to be ‘educational’ without veering into preaching or too ‘didactic’. In morning TV stakes, Bluey eats Peppa Pig for breakfast.

Here’s how the ABC describes Bluey, the titular character:

“Bluey is an inexhaustible six year-old Blue Heeler dog, who loves to play and turns everyday family life into extraordinary adventures, developing her imagination as well as her mental, physical and emotional resilience.”

Our kids aren’t short on imagination, or on the desire to turn every moment of play time into some sort of story or adventure — they’ve started playing out scenes from Bluey... but Bluey isn’t just a great show for kids; it’s a revolutionary show for parents. Perhaps especially dads.

Dads get a bad wrap on TV — whether its the “stupid white male” trope in advertising, or the animated versions of that trope where Homer Simpson is the archetype, and Daddy Pig from Peppa Pig isn’t far off, the bar is set pretty low for dads when it comes to interacting with their TV progeny. Daddy Pig is flawed, but relatable — and most definitely present in Peppa and George’s life in a loving, but bumbling manner, where he is often the butt of the joke… Bluey’s daddy, Bandit (usually called ‘Dad’ — and voiced by Custard frontman Dave McCormack), is a breath of fresh air. He’s the champion of his children’s play; when he’s the butt of jokes it is usually voluntary and self-deprecating  and for the sake of Bluey and Bingo (there’s one episode that veers into ‘dumb dad’ territory — when he takes the kids to the pool and leaves all the boring swimming stuff like hats and suncream behind), he’s fun (and the show is riotously funny); and he’s an exemplary dad in a television world that is crying out for a character like this. The way the relationship with ‘mum’ Chilli is portrayed is also sweet and refreshing.

While we’ve been discovering the joy of Bluey, we’ve been listening to an audiobook on drives with the kids, Alan Brough’s Charlie and the War Against the Grannies; it contains a little bit of social commentary on ‘digital orphans’ — those kids whose parents (like me) are often present in body, but not attention, with their kids. In a review of the story that touches on digital orphans and our failure to be attentive to our kids, Brough tells a story of what is too typical (and too descriptive of my own addiction to distraction).

“I was at the park with my daughter and there was a guy pushing his daughter on a swing while holding his phone up to his face, checking something… He wasn’t concentrating on the child at all, and at one point the swing whacked him in the side of the head and knocked him to the ground.”

There’s all sorts of research out there about screen time and kids — that I’ve wilfully ignored to date because screen time is so easy and parenting is hard (and also because I figure all the kids of this generation will be in the same boat, so at least some of the problems will just be new norms) — but this new study suggests a link both between screen time and anxiety and depression, and with that, a decline in imagination and all the things Bluey, ironically (as a TV show), aims to foster.

Even after only one hour of screen time daily, children and teens may begin to have less curiosity, lower self-control, less emotional stability and a greater inability to finish tasks

Bluey is an antidote to this malaise — a picture of parenting with verve, and imagination, and the reminder that kids are pretty awesome and often the best thing you can do with (and for) your kids is play with them. This reminder is particularly pertinent coming as, for me, Apple’s screen time tracker is telling me I spend almost a full day a week staring at my phone screen (and it doesn’t measure computer screen time or TV screen time).

It may just be that imitating the sort of play Bluey’s dad engages in with your kids is what fosters their imagination and resilience, not simply watching it, or outsourcing parenting to screens so you can have more distracting screen time of your own… or bombarding them with extra-curricular work (or STEM homework). This sort of play could be the sort of disruptive witness, or practice, that shapes our kids to engage and transform the future. Alan Noble’s book, Disruptive Witness (reviewed here), made the case that our world normalises distraction and disenchantment; this is the world our kids grow up in, and a world that we Christians need to be pushing back against because belief in God requires contemplation and enchantment (a belief in the supernatural, transcendence, and wonder). Noble talks about the sort of practices to cultivate that are disruptive in a distracted world.

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence… Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.” — Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

Play is a practice, a spiritual discipline, both for adults and kids because it carves out the space we need to resist the world, and to keep re-forming ourselves to see the world properly. It’s about presence, but it also creates the sort of space for delight and an avoidance of repressing wonder and awe and a belief in magic in order to grow up. Teaching our kids to be present with their good and loving parents is a step in the direction of learning to be present with our good and loving heavenly father. Despite being a cartoon about a family of dogs, Bluey gives some concrete and beautiful pictures of what this could be like.

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Is nothing sacred any more? How an ad about organ donation reveals more about us than we might think.

Here’s the modern dilemma; I reckon. In a world where science and medicine is our best bet for staving off that great enemy, death, and where life itself on this ‘mortal coil’ is all that we have and we have to construct meaning for ourselves by valuing life: What do you do with the story of Jesus?

It’s clear his is an exemplary life in many ways – he’s some sort of wise teacher or guru on sacrificial love, we just have to figure out how to strip the story of all that super natural guff, not to find the ‘Jesus of history’ that scholars have been looking for, but the Jesus of the ‘good life’ for the here and now.

When we pushed away the idea of spirits and the supernatural – the ‘sacred’ – first from the ‘every day’ to the ‘church’, and then out of the picture all together as we pushed church and religion to the margins of our life and culture, we’re left with a different playground to come up with what is moral, or good, and this sense that Jesus, who’s been part of shaping our western moral imagination, might still have some role to play. We just weren’t quite sure what the role was…

Until someone had to come up with an ad for organ donation.

Have you seen it? Here’s a clip from the Today Show featuring the ad itself, and some discussion from the film maker who made the documentary the ad promotes.

The premise for the ad is ‘do what Jesus would do’ – the filmmaker was ‘brought up in a Christian home’, and says:

“You have to look at the intent… to really look at what Jesus would do if he was alive in 2018… seeing religion is all about being selfless, this is the most selfless act anyone could do, if they were going to pass, you know, giving up their organs so that someone could have a chance of not dying and having a chance at life.”

The problem with our world isn’t that the story of Jesus is sacred and this ad profanes his life, it’s that nothing is sacred. It’s that, as the ad says “no one wants to talk about death” and we know, deep down, we actually need something like religion to allow us to stare into that void, or be confronted with that reality. We’re left satirising what we’ve lost while at the same time being haunted by that loss… We imagine a 21st century Jesus who, himself, has lost his spirituality, a Jesus who isn’t divine, who can do nothing real about death except extend the lives of others, here and now, by dying.

Our cultural narrative is so hollowed out that to make a serious point about sacrificial love – whether its giving organs, or giving blood, we have to reach back into the tool box to find a narrative that shaped this value, and then subtly re-introduce it through irony. It’s sad, and yet, even in that haunting there’s a hint of truth.

Jesus did what the ad “dying to live” says on the tin – donated his life to give life. A donation that if the spiritual, sacred, stuff the ad brushes off is real did more than save seven lives.

“Not all of us are going to the ah, eternal paradise, and your organs could save the lives of up to six… no… seven… people.”

This is one of those ads that garners attention by fostering outrage; but it’s not outrageous, it’s confronting and revealing. If we sit with it long enough to make sense of just how clever it is. When you lose a sense of the eternal, of life beyond death, and define love in those terms the story of Jesus is still the best the west has, but it’s so hollow.

The problem, of course, with the use of the story of Jesus to push for people to be selfless, if it’s not ‘true,’ is that there’s a more compelling narrative than sacrifice. Being ‘selfish’, or, as the Apostle Paul puts it, to ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ because tomorrow we die, the Jesus story is foolishness if it isn’t true (1 Corinthians 15). And Paul is right. The Jesus story doesn’t cut it as a secular narrative, if ‘the’ secular narrative about the meaning of life and the ‘sacred’ is true. What could be more foolish than giving up anything for anybody else? That we find the narrative of sacrifice appealling at all is precisely because of the way the sacred has worked its way into our collective moral imagination.

You also can’t really push the sacred stuff out of the Jesus story, you don’t have much left in the Gospels if you take the scissors to anything super-natural or miraculous. The Christian story says, to a world where we want nothing to be sacred, ‘everything is sacred’…

Jesus didn’t come just to give us a full and abundant life now (John 10) – the sort of good life re-gained when we’re reconnected to the giver of life (and I think we can be confident that life lived this way, is, on balance better and more meaningful). Jesus came to give us eternal life, to re-make us so that every moment is lived connected to that maker, so that everything is sacred, so that we can stare at death and talk meaningfully and courageously about it – about a ‘good death’ and what ‘life giving’ looks like… and we can live selflessly all the time not just when we tick a box on an organ donation form.

We can look at the cross and its culture-shaping power without feeling the need to resort to irony or deprecation, and instead have it shape the way we live, the way we give our lives… that’s what Paul says in the Bible, anyway.

This is what Jesus would do in 2018 – not to save seven lives from death, not to give people a new lease on life, but to purchase eternal life for all, because no matter how hard we push back against eternal, infinite, spiritual realities – they keep pushing themselves back into our pictures.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. – Romans 12:1