Matthew’s Gospel: Cool story; just enough dragons

I’m loving our current series on Matthew’s Gospel at Creek Road… the catch is that it might make blogging here a little more irregular than usual over the next 10 weeks.

It’s a series not just inspired by reading Matthew’s Gospel and noticing how much supernatural stuff is happening around its ‘epic’ story; it’s not just inspired by observing that Jesus follows the ‘Hero’s Journey’ common in many epics, it’s not just inspired by Charles Taylor’s analysis of the problem with disenchanted modern-western ‘secular age’ life, or by Tolkien and Lewis’s writings on the Gospel being ‘true myth’… it’s not just a series featuring some pretty fantastic (in every sense) graphic design stuff… It’s all of that… and it has a kids spot series thing with dragons! Cause in some sense the Gospel story is the ultimate dragon slaying story (I mean, seriously, read Revelation — that’s what Jesus does).

You can check out the talks from the series online, and the kids spots, and here’s 13 ‘studies’ written for our Growth Groups… plus some of the team will write blog posts like this one from time to time. Like this one I wrote this week. I’ve often been defensive when people have suggested that Christianity is akin to the belief in fairy stories; I recently decided to embrace it, this post explains why.

“Atheist philosopher A.C Grayling is one of those who wants to dismiss belief in more than the natural world as the equivalent of belief in fairy stories as though that’s a bad thing. He sometimes calls himself an ‘a-fairyist’ because “this properly implies that there is nothing supernatural in the universe – no fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses.”

No magic. No enchantment. Nothing to answer the longing of our heart for something more, except, perhaps, technology and science. It’s a soul-crushing story. And man-made technology can’t deliver on the desires of our god-made hearts. Technology over-promises and under-delivers. You just have to walk into a crowded space full of people alone-together; captivated by smartphone screens and desiring to be anywhere-but-here, or look at how technology is used to make us more efficient killers, or more brain-addled addicts, to see that technology crushes hope and desire as much as it might answer them.

The story of the Gospel answers our longing for meaning beyond simply the natural; in Jesus, the fully divine, fully human, hero we our desire for life to be enchanted is met with the one who shows us how the natural and supernatural overlap and are completely inter-woven, rather than separate streams of reality.”

Australian Stories: On resting in and wrestling with the paradox of modern Australia on Australia Day as a Christian

Twice a year I get invited to speak to a bunch of American (and sometimes Canadian) university students on an exchange program about ‘what it means to be Australian’… I confess it’s not a question I’d thought much about until my friend who runs the program asked me onto this panel.

On Australian Stories

I’ve been more deliberate in thinking about this question since the first time around; it makes me look and sound smarter; so I’ve become more deliberate in how I approach Australia Day, and in how I understand the ‘Australian Story’ (or, rather, stories). I’ve decided that the answer to the question ‘what does it mean to be Australian?’ is often profoundly shaped by how you understand the ‘Australian Story’ (and how many stories you recognise). There are, I believe, four fundamental stories always intersecting in the Australian identity (and in many Australian family stories, and so in many individuals).

  1. The Indigenous story: a story of invasion, dispossession and perpetual systemic injustice perpetrated by those in power, and reflected in the surrounding culture.
  2. The ‘Establishment’ story: a story of the expansion of the British empire (including membership in the Commonwealth, a system of government, an established religion and ‘establishment’ high culture).
  3. The ‘Convict’ story: a story of getting one over the establishment from back home; who sent our people to paradise as a ‘punishment’ for very small misdemeanours, who were brutal when we arrived, but who eventually released us into a land of opportunity. There’s an amalgam of these two stories in the ‘settler story’ which is a story of deliberate migration for new opportunity.
  4. The ‘Migrant’ story: this story is a more recent version of the settler story; it’s of people who’ve arrived post-establishment, seeking opportunity and prosperity. This included the gold rushes, the waves of immigration from Europe (especially Italy and Ireland), and more recently immigration from Asia. There’s a subset of this story that includes both refugees and asylum seekers.

Before being confronted with this question for the purposes of this class, I’d almost assumed that to be Australian was pretty much to be like me… to really love the idea of multiculturalism (especially the food); to have almost no sense of my ‘European’ heritage, and to believe that most of my view of Australia had been developed in my formative years growing up in a country town on the east coast. I was definitely aware that there were ‘other’ Australian stories out there that were part of the tapestry of Aussie life; the community I grew up in had a relatively large indigenous population, living in a city meant I’d spent more time with first and second generation migrant families from various places (especially from within Asia), and living in North Queensland and promoting Ingham and Charters Towers as holiday destinations built on their Italian and gold rush histories meant I was aware of different historic influxes of migrants who’d arrived in Australia seeking opportunity.

Despite being someone who’s possibly a bit of a European mixed bag of ‘establishment English’ (on my mother’s side), and Irish settler (though probably not convict side), I think the story I most closely resonated with was that of the convict; sent off to ‘purgatory’ by the stuffy British establishment only to end up in paradise. There’s an anti-authoritarian streak in Aussie culture borne out of this story, and reinforced by the possibly inept expressions of rule from the ‘mother country’ particularly in the trenches when we’ve gone off to fight for the Commonwealth. I’d say this is the story my public school education reinforced for me. I’ve become increasingly aware, the more I pay attention online to what Sydney Anglicans (as a generalised tribe) seem to believe about the ‘establishment church’ and Australian history (including the narrative that Australia was a ‘Christian country’ at European settlement) that there are other ‘stories’ out there that people tell about what it means to be Australian (my bias is to the convict/settler narrative I tend not to take this claim seriously because pretty much as soon as convicts were freed from having to go to church, they stopped)… I suspect, though I don’t have first hand experience, that this ‘establishment’ narrative operates in ‘establishment’ schools (especially church and private schools that come from the ‘establishment’ set). This is a different story to the anti-establishment story I’d had in my head about what being Australian is, and it leads to all sorts of different places when it comes to life now.

Stories matter. They really really matter. Our identity doesn’t just come from our tribe, or our ‘preferences,’ or what we choose for ourselves as though our humanity is some sort of blank slate that we, as individuals, are the only people get to write on. Your slate is written on before you are born, and as you are raised… and the thing that most shapes what is written is the story you are born into, and brought up believing.

On ‘Australia Day’ as contested ground in these Australian stories

The story we tell ourself about what it means to be Australian matters (which is why the ‘history wars’ were a thing when it came to the curriculum for teaching Aussie history in schools).

It shapes our understanding of what both progressive and conservative political agendas look like, because it orients us in particular ways to government, the world, our ‘history’, and the ‘ideal’ Australian story (typically subjectively viewed from our own story). Both the ‘establishment’ and ‘convict’ stories start at roughly the same point — some time around the 26th of January in 1788, which has become ‘Australia Day’ — which is a shame given that Australian history starts much, much earlier. There’s another story. One I’ve become increasingly convicted that I should be listening to in order to understand being an Aussie.

One of the results of being confronted with my default ignorance about what it means to be Australian by having to explain it to some outsiders (American students) is a desire to pay attention to other Australian stories. This has shaped the way I’ve understood and approached Australia Day this year. My neighbours are, mostly (to give them plausible deniability), like me. Their stories are like mine. Australia Day on our street has been one of the best parties of the year and it represents all that is good about my story. Over the last few years we celebrated this story in our Australia Day street party. Last year, our church family held a BBQ on Australia Day to celebrate the migrant story; and particularly that our church community embraces those who’ve come to Australia as asylum seekers (in this we were deliberately modelling an alternative Australian story; a kind of subtle protest movement against an Australia Day that has, in parts, become an ugly sort of ‘patriotic’ celebration of a particularly exclusive Australian story. This year, we did both these things again, but because I decided to consciously seek out another story, the first Australian story, I also attended a service of lament and prayer organised by a local Indigenous Christian Leader, Aunty Jean Phillips.

There were amazing things about this service that I’ll get to below; but it was a profound telling of that first Australian story, and the modern day implications of that story being over-written by other ‘Australian’ stories. The more I am confronted with this first story the more I recognise what drives the marches, the tent embassies, and the other efforts indigenous people make to have their story told, and the injustices it contains heard, recognised, and dealt with. I learned, as I listened in this service, that I shouldn’t speak as though there’s just ‘one first Australian story’… there were, I’m told (because this is how we learn stories) 300 indigenous nations living on this grand island. There are lots of stories about what it means to be Australian that come from our first people; and there’s little doubt that when European settlers declared Australia terra nullius and then set about establishing a colony of the commonwealth, part of what happened was a reflection of a desire to bring many of these stories to an end. And yet they, like the people who own these stories, survive. They survive as a testimony that terra nullius was a lie; as a testimony of resilience, and as a reminder that part of the settlement story was very, very, ugly.

There are things I love about my own ‘Australian story’… things I want to celebrate on ‘Australia Day’ that come from British settlement (but things that don’t necessarily need to be celebrated on the 26th of January).

I love our lifestyle, the laconic approach to almost everything, our in-built egalitarianism that means people are quite happy to think of our leaders as ‘mates’ (which also underpins the good bits of our democracy), there’s a dark side to this, of course, which manifests itself in tall poppy syndrome.

I love the sort of innovation that drives Aussies, born out of a need to survive in the harsher parts of our terrain. I love that some of our innovation is geared towards making laziness (or relaxing) more possible. One of my favourite things about visiting my pa, on the Campbell side, who was a sort of rural entrepreneur in country New South Wales, was finding little ‘fixes’ he’d installed around his house and shed (like belts cut in half and nailed to walls to keep the gates open or shut), this was a man who had owned stakes in produce stores, a piggery, and would buy farm machinery to on sell at a profit. When I think of what it means to be Australian, he’s the first picture I get in my head. I love everything about ‘Australia’ the image of my pa conjures in my head; I’ve got this romanticised notion of who he was, no doubt, and my own sense of what it means to be Australian includes the beaches of the north coast of New South Wales, and cane farmers, cane fires, and fishermen who run trawlers.

Now I’m citified, I love that being Australian means the easy availability of cuisines from many different cultures, and that my kids will go to school alongside people from many nations who now call Australia home.

I think it’s totally legit to look for an opportunity to celebrate these things. I love that I can do that with my neighbours and friends who share many of these loves (or similar loves when it comes to their own histories) and hold them as common goods that Australians enjoy as a result of our shared stories.

As a Christian, I also love that the Gospel of Jesus made it to these shores with European settlers (but hate how this Gospel is associated, forever, with what some of these settlers did), including, for example, the devoutly Christian governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, who it is said believed “that the Protestant religion and British institutions were indispensable both for liberty and for a high material civilisation” (there’s a Christian leadership institute named after Macquarie and a secular university). He was almost certainly a Christian (I mean, I can’t say that anyone certainly is), but also, certainly, part of the ugly side of Australian settlement. Here’s an excerpt from his diary.

“I therefore, tho (sic), very unwillingly felt myself compelled, from a paramount sense of public duty, to come to the painful resolution of chastising these hostile tribes, and to inflict terrible and exemplary punishments upon…

I have this day ordered three separate military detachments to march into the interior and remote parts of the colony, for the purpose of punishing the hostile natives, by clearing the country of them entirely, and driving them across the mountains.

“In the event of the natives making the smallest show of resistance — or refusing to surrender when called upon so to do — the officers commanding the military parties have been authorised to fire on them to compel them to surrender; hanging up on trees the bodies of such natives as may be killed on such occasions, in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors.” — Orders from New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie, 1816.

Australia’s history is messy. Ugly. This is true, as far as I know, of every human nation. We’re not unique in this; nor are we really unique in wanting to live in blissful ignorance, or comfortable denial, or to not be held responsible for the ugliness of our nation’s past. That this is true of all nations.

That I, personally, wasn’t responsible for the way Europeans arrived in Australia, doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from European settlement (in a way that others have not), or from the stories we’re told, and that we tell, about what it means to be Australian. This benefit is part of what people talk about when they talk about privilege; that, and that the ‘establishment’ looks and talks like me and largely identifies with the same story. The white bloke who signed that order quoted above, Lachlan Macquarie, looked like me; spoke like me; could well be my ancestor; and it’s a sort of chronological snobbery to assume that I would’ve been able to avoid the evil he was part of perpetrating through these orders had I been in his shoes. It’s absolutely true that I wasn’t responsible for how the first Australians were treated by British migrants, but I am, in part, responsible for how they are treated today. It’s possible that in denying responsibility for our history, we also avoid taking on responsibility for our future. It’s absolutely true that many Aussies aren’t racists and hate the situation our first Australians find themselves in when it comes to health, imprisonment, education and life expectancy; but it’s individuals who build and renew systems.

This all brings me back to the 26th of January; which, since 1994, has been a federally recognised and public holiday, celebrated nationally: Australia Day.

But whose Australia is celebrated on this day?

In which stories is this a day for celebration?

In the establishment story it represents the expansion of empire and the arrival of a certain sort of civilisation, technology, and worldview (including the religion of the establishment, Christianity).

In the convict story it represents the start of us getting one over the bigwigs who sent us to a country of sun and surf from their rainy misery; a chance for us to embrace our anti-establishment, egalitarian, tendencies and our valuing of mateship (and beer). 

In the migrant story, perhaps it is this settlement that made Australia a desirable destination to seek opportunity, prosperity or a fresh start.

In my own ‘story’; there’s little to no chance I’d exist, let alone exist in somewhere as amazing as Australia, if it wasn’t for European settlement, on this basis it’s hard for me to think that that first Australia Day was entirely a bad thing. It’s also quite probable that some sort of ‘conquest’ or settlement of Australia was going to happen without the British; and it’s possible that settlement would have been as bad, or worse, than British settlement… possible… but what we know for sure is that British settlement included such poetic instructions as ‘hang their bodies on the most public tree possible to terrorise their friends and family’… and that’s a real part of our history that we must confront, and be confronted by. It’s a part of our history that in some real way began around the 26th of January with the planting of the Union Jack on the shores of Sydney.

What are we celebrating on the 26th of January?

There are definitely good things that exist in Australia now because of how history has unfolded; there are things that are particularly good when viewed in the context of particular ‘Australian’ stories. But in the first Australians’ stories; well, I can, when I read things like Macquarie’s orders, and listen to the stories of indigenous friends and leaders of different indigenous communities, recognise that the 26th of January, this day, is not a day for celebration, but lament and anger. And it’s in moments like this that I need to consider the limits of my own story (especially its subjectivity), and ‘check my privilege’…

There are, also, things I don’t love about modern Australia; an ugliness that comes from, what I think in part is unchecked or unrealised privilege, and that is related, ironically, to our ‘settlement stories’. It certainly also comes from us wanting to honour the Australia shaped by people like my pa; the way of life and common goods they’ve carved out in living out the ‘settlement’ stories (either convict or establishment).

For many people there’s a good and natural desire to conserve things our ancestors have lived for and that have been produced through the ‘Australian story’ that is a sum total of all the Australian stories… but I suspect our treatment of asylum seekers is the product of a particular sub-story about what it means to be Australian… and I’m not sure this story is the one that should be our dominant story. But our treatment of asylum seekers (increasingly if the One Nation narrative picks up steam) comes from the idea that Australia is our country, and that our borders and lifestyle should be maintained against foreigners who come by boat and threaten our way of life. I hate what this leads us to do to those seeking asylum among us; those who’ve fled war, or persecution, who we lock up and systematically dehumanise for our own safety and security. I hate that we don’t recognise the inconsistency at the heart of this treatment of boat arrivals (and love the way I’ve heard the indigenous community speak of a desire to welcome and resettle refugees; which compounds the irony). I hate that we don’t recognise that this same desire to conserve a way of life is not something those who launched our ‘stories’ offered to the first nations people.

I hear indigenous Australians call for a change of date and I recognise the pain behind that call… and ultimately I think it’s the call of the indigenous community — the wronged — that we should hear.

It is clear that the 26th of January is not a day for unmitigated celebration of modern Australian life; and that the championing of a single Australian story is unhelpful anyway. If there was public will to change the date then that might be a very good thing indeed.

But my own (perhaps privileged) inclination is to leave ‘Australia Day’ on a contested date in order to make us sit with the paradox that is life in Australia. There is so much to love. So much to embrace. So much to celebrate. But there is also so much to hate. So much to overcome. So much to lament. And it is possible that attempting to do both — to experience the ‘contest’ of many Australian stories internally and to have that shape our own ‘story’ might lead to a better and more compassionate Australia; to a better future.

I’ve seen a few other people (all white so far, and mostly from the ‘establishment’ story) make this suggestion, and I’m offering it very tentatively; and I’m offering it largely because as a Christian I believe that grappling with paradoxes, rather than seeking neat resolution, is where real wisdom and progress towards what is good comes from. As G.K Chesterton put it:

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

I’d like Australia to get over the difficulty of combining our contested stories by recognising that there is meaning, and warning, and opportunity in the midst of the conflict, not in victory/simplicity (the One Nation approach), or in elegant conflict-avoiding resolution (a date change). But, I recognise that I say this as someone who has the privilege of a story free from being a victim of the ‘fury’ of one of these stories, and that the elegant solution of changing the date is far better than most of the alternatives… I suspect keeping it would mean not just us white Aussies lamenting at the evil in our own story; but hearing the voices raised in protest of our first Australians; and it would only be of any value if we were really committed to listening to these voices and having them change our shared story in ways that bring meaningful, tangible, change to our future.

Whatever happens with the date, there’s a way that is better by far in terms of bringing real change. The way of Jesus.

How the Gospel story ‘contests’ this contest, and provides a better resolution (and how Aunty Jean models this)

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’” — Acts 17:26-28

Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles…” — 1 Peter 2:10-11

There’s a tension at the heart of being a Christian when it comes to our national identity; we believe that God is sovereign and places us (as in gives us a place to live) as ‘storied creatures’ (who exist in time and space and do things, and inherit ‘stories’ from those who come before us), but we also believe that as Christians our story is profoundly changed from what it was before; in such a way that our first ‘belonging’; our first ‘story’ is not our family story, or national story, but the story of the mercy we receive through Jesus which makes us into a new family; a new kingdom (a kingdom of priests cf 1 Peter 2:8-10). We become ‘foreigners’ even in lands we call home; lands we’re born into, perhaps with thousands of years of family history.

This isn’t to say our place, and our stories, and our families, don’t matter; they still profoundly do. We’ve just got another story in the mix that trumps the default, self-interested, reactions that happen when human stories are contested like they are for us on January 26.

And this is why I loved Aunty Jean’s service of prayer and lament (which was not just Aunty Jean’s, but thoughtfully constructed by Brooke Prentis from Common Grace). Aunty Jean is passionate about her people; but passionately believes the best thing for them is not tied to the Australian story but to the Gospel story. She’s said this thing to me a few times, and said it in this service; the great hope for indigenous Australians is found in the cross of Jesus. And she means this. And she lives it. Lots of Aussies — indigenous and white — were protesting today, and I can understand this; Aunty Jean wants Christians to be praying; and what she models in this is a deep understanding of life as an ‘exile’; life as a foreigner in a country where her people have roots that are significantly deeper than mine; she lives as one who believes that forgiveness and embrace is the key to contested stories; not conflict and exclusion or exclusivity.

There’s a letter from the early church, the Epistle of Diognetus, which talks about what life as ‘exiles’ looks like. The writer (probably someone called Mathetes, says of Christians, that they don’t look profoundly different to the people of the surrounding culture; they don’t live in their own cities and speak their own language, they dress the same, eat the same, and mostly live the same in the ‘ordinary’ stuff… but somehow “they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” He says:

“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 pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”

This epistle is a powerful sort of concept, and let me tell you, it’s powerful to witness. Because I see it in Aunty Jean. Aunty Jean who as a member of a people horribly oppressed responds in incredible love and compassion for her people, but extends that love to others, even to those who number with the oppressors. Aunty Jean who is a dynamo, who’ll embrace anyone who is prepared to journey with her towards a vision of reconciliation built on the mercy of God displayed in Jesus.

I’ve had the utter privilege of spending some time listening to Aunty Jean in the last few months, of hearing her vision for Australia, and for her people, of hearing her desire to raise up new indigenous leaders who are committed to the Gospel of Jesus, of wanting to see her people better embraced by the Australian church, and of wanting to see the church speak up with her in pursuit of justice where injustice exists. And I’ve caught a bit of this from her.

Our story is the story of a God who doesn’t just take ugly stories and make them new (which he does in us); he takes the ugliness of extreme human evil, and uses it for his good purposes. That’s what the story of the Cross is; the ugliness of the human heart on display, but the beauty of God’s reconciling love overpowering that evil (which is why I think there’s maybe some hope for Australia bringing our messed up stories together to make something beautiful). Our story is a story that calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus; the Jesus who calls us to love our enemies, and calls for the forgiveness of those jeering him as he’s crucified… which when you understand the whole point of the Cross — is actually a picture of what Jesus is offering all of us… and there’s no part of the lives, stories, and identities of those who follow Jesus where that call, and that example, does not reach. And wow. It’s powerful when you see that lived in the context of these conflicting Aussie stories surrounding Australia Day.

Our job is to take up the picture of the kingdom of Jesus we’re offered in his story, the Gospel, and in its ending, which is found in the last pages of the Bible, and to live lives oriented towards that. It’s a powerful picture and that’s part of what compels us to live as exiles. A picture of life where our old stories of pain, and suffering, and evil, are done away with and all things are made new. A story built on reconciliation with God, that leads to reconciliation across historic and present enmity, with others.

Aunty Jean is committed to a sort of peacemaking that comes from having the story of the Cross of Jesus as her first story. She, and Common Grace’s Brooke Prentis, definitely want us to hear the story of our first Australians, and to respond with love and compassion; but they don’t tell that story in a way that leads to guilt or in a way that amplifies the contest; they tell it in a way that helps us to see an alternative future. And they don’t just tell the story, they live it.

It’s the “privilege” of the victim in the utterly subversive way that the Gospel story is lived, to be the one who can magnify the truth of the Gospel by offering forgiveness (this isn’t a thing you get to force either… it’s just beautiful when you see it. And it’s the privilege of the “privileged” in the Gospel story, to be prepared to give up privilege for the sake of the other). When it comes to Australia’s history the ‘privilege’ line is pretty clearly not the Indigenous Australians whose ongoing survival seems miraculous,

This ‘Australia Day’, it was Aunty Jean (and those she leads by this example) who modelled a way forward towards a better Australia to me, and if it looked like her vision for Australia, it’d be a beautiful place worth celebrating on any and every day.

 

 

Join a party, for God’s sake: An interview with Hilary, a Christian who’s a member of the ALP

I wrote recently about why one might consider joining a political party for the sake of being a faithful Christian presence in the world; even if the party platform involves compromising your Christian beliefs (so as to work towards better outcomes by ‘getting your hands dirty’). At the bottom of that post I mentioned that I’d reached out to some friends who I know are members of the major parties. My friend Hilary is an ALP member, and here are some of her thoughts about how the Gospel works in the political realm.

Like I said in that post, there are good Christian rationales for being involved in either the conservative or progressive sides of the political divide (depending on your picture of progress, or what you’re trying to conserve), or the left and the right (perhaps depending on whether you see responsibility for the ordering of society resting in the hands of the individual or in structural/systemic change). I’m not wanting this to be partisan, and have also asked a couple of Liberal/National Party friends to respond to the same questions. Back when I was living in Townsville, I interviewed the then perennial Greens candidate in North Queensland, Jenny Stirling, who is a Christian, about her membership of the Greens (and if you’re reading this and you’re a member of the Greens I’d love to hear from you on these questions too).

Why did you sign up/ why are you still a member.

I first joined the ALP when I was about 18 because I was very interested in current affairs and politics (no aspirations for myself, I just wanted to be involved in what was happening in our country, talking with other people who were keen about it too and helping support candidates when elections rolled around).

I’m still a member for the same reasons, plus a few more.  I was pretty idealistic and black and white about things back in my late teens/early twenties days, and as many have found out, it turns out things are a lot more grey than would be convenient.  While I think I was originally very firmly of the opinion that ALP equals the right policy and everyone else is wrong, that’s not my position anymore.

I find some of the party’s practices (when in government) and policies (in and out of office) problematic but my decision to remain a member is based on my belief that there is no perfect party; as a member I have the opportunity to be involved in pushing for better policies from within (and so much of that goes on); and I still feel feel a sense of responsibility/obligation/calling to participate, rather than sit on the sidelines.  Having said that, I’m a pretty inactive party member these days and haven’t been to a branch meeting for a very long time.

 How do politics and faith mix for you?

Growing up in a family with Christian parents heavily involved in politics, this question has always seemed strange to me, because there’s never been a separation.  Both have always been part of my life and I absorbed an attitude seeing political activity as one means of serving others.

I can try to analyse how it fits together and how to explain it to others who haven’t had that particular upbringing, but it really is hard for me to separate.

The world is a broken place.  I truly believe that the Bible provides the context and the answer to this, and I know that Jesus is my only way to have a right relationship with God.  Jesus has called me to repent and believe, and I have done that.

Christians having accepted Jesus’ salvation still live in a broken world.  We’re told to be in the world but not of the world.  We do not live in a Christian nation, despite what some would say, and we should not be trying to make Australia (or anywhere) into Christendom, which didn’t work out that great anyway.

I honestly feel that my involvement in politics (at its varying levels over the years) is an (not the only) outworking of my faith.  The purpose of my involvement in politics is to seek justice, good governance, equality and peace for all members of our communities, whether I agree with them on their politics or not, and certainly whether or not they are Christians.

There are some policies of the ALP that I will not ever agree with.  There are many that I do.  The same could be said for a Christian who is a member of another political party. I freely accept that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ do not share the same political opinions as I do.  In fact, they might list the same things I have above and see the best way of achieving them as being involved in a different party.   I respect that.  Jesus comes first, and we’re united in God’s family.  Political beliefs comes second and I can agree to disagree with other Christians.

What opportunities are there for Christians to work towards the common good via faithful presence in these institutions (the parties) that are part of life in Australia?

There is limitless opportunity.

Christians have a responsibility (and I do not believe that we all really grapple with this to the extent that we should) to think beyond abortion and same sex marriage as issues that require their attention.  These are the go to topics raised when politics comes up.  I think we do a disservice to the gospel by limiting our opinions and action to these issues.  If you join or vote for a party that has policies you like about those two issues, great.  What about everything else?

Christians have an enormous amount to offer in terms of shaping all sorts of policies, because if your conscience is informed by your salvation in Christ, you will be seeking justice and mercy for the weak and the strong in every area of their lives.  Every area of political leadership is a moral issue.  Christians involved in politics have the opportunity to have a say on all the issues that affect people – health, education, social housing, the economy, everything else.  Those issues are worthy of our attention, and we neglect them badly.

If you are a Christian involved in a party, or actually involved in elected office, you will come up against things that are very difficult to reconcile with the gospel and part of being part of a political party means you may have to accept policies from time to time that do not match up with your personal beliefs.  Non-Christians in political parties deal with this too (think refugee policy).  Smart and passionate people play the long game – there’s work to be done within the party.

Having said that, there may be some issues that you can never reconcile, and that is difficult.  But I come back to the fact that we are not entitled to impose the principles of a Christian life on everyone else, we are not living in a “Christian nation”, and whether or not you succeed in getting the majority of your party to agree with you on a particular issue, that does not negate the greater contribution that can be made by those who love and serve Jesus in loving and serving others in the way they engage with politics, in seeking to love and serve the greater population.

Minimalism and the danger of replacing one idol with another

Robyn and I watched Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things on Netflix last night. And now I want to throw out all my stuff.

The doco follows the two guys behind The MinimalistsJoshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, on a speaking tour around the United States, interspersed with little interviews and vignettes with people who’ve adopted the minimalist philosophy including popular atheist philosopher/neuroscientist Sam Harris to Project 333 founder Courtney Carver, to a few Tiny House dwellers, to Colin Wright who lives his life from two bags while travelling the world, with plenty of other people thrown in the mix. It makes the compelling case that we need less stuff; that we should disengage from the modern default of pursuing happiness through consumption, because, in the words of Fight Club’s narrator; the things we own, end up owning us. It challenged me to think about my consumer habits as a Christian, and where they might reveal what I treasure, it gave me some fun ideas, but it also left me wanting more in terms of a solution to the problem it recognises in modern western life.

“We spend so much time on the hunt. But nothing ever quite does it for us. And we get so wrapped up in the hunt that it kind of makes us miserable.” — Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

It’s a bracing reminder of what our consumption does to us, to our brains, and to our world and of the perennial dissatisfaction that comes from life lived vicariously through our possessions.

“You have this thing that you were obsessed about, but then the new version comes out and now you no longer care about the one that you have. In fact, the one you have is a source of dissatisfaction.” — Sam Harris, in Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

The diagnosis of what is wrong with a consumption based approach to modern life is spot on. My favourite quote of all in the documentary, from a speech by former U.S President Jimmy Carter titled Crisis of Confidence, explains a little of my uneasy relationship with Minimalism (even as I plot a widescale decluttering of my life, and a continued changing of my consumption habits).

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Carter’s diagnosis — which Minimalism endorses — is on the money. Modern consumerism isn’t just a behaviour; it’s about our identity. It’s about worship. From the Bible’s insight into our humanity it’s about how we feel the void left by our departure from God. It’s idolatry.

I thought Minimalism was spot on both in its diagnosis of what’s happening in our hearts, and thus in our culture, and of the damage our consumption does to us, the planet, and to others. Sadly, I’m not totally sold on the solution they (and those the people they featured) offer. Their solution was about a change in identity, a change in lifestyle, a change in consumption, and ultimately a change in worship. And while the gods they chose to replace ‘stuff with’ might make them better people to know and love, and give them more satisfaction, they’re still ‘idols’… it’s still ‘stuff’ just less of it, or less tangible stuff in the form of relationships and experience. The solutions offered in Minimalism still involved essentially defined by ‘stuff’ — sometimes just by its absence (whether in a tiny house or via meditation/stillness). The various minimalists spoke of pursuing something like asceticism, or simply a more self-controlled (no less self-indulgent) approach to consumption. I felt like most of the ways the minimalist alternative to maximalist-consumption driven living were built on an approach to life that is still built around being a consumer; but consuming more carefully by pursuing things of value. There’s a sense to that the idea that we should focus our ‘ownership’ on things that we love, that do give us pleasure, that this is actually just consumption with a modified philosophical aesthetic. I look at the sparsely furnished rooms and carefully curated piles of possessions and think ‘there’s beauty there’ and wonder how I can work my way towards achieving that particular way of life.

“There’s nothing wrong with consumption, the problem is compulsory consumption. We’re tired of it. We’re tired of acquiring things because that’s what we’re told we’re supposed to do” — Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

This approach reminded me of a bit in C.S Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters where the character, Screwtape, writes on gluttony — and our possession based, greed-driven, over-indulgence is very much like gluttony. Screwtape wants his apprentice Wormwood to know that the most pernicious type of gluttony actually comes with the appearance of self-denial; because it’s actually ‘self-interest’ that makes gluttony or consumption so harmful (Carter was right!). My concern is that the solutions offered in Minimalism (though perhaps not the ones modelled by the Minimalists on their journey of self-giving, and by some of the other people interviewed who’ve simplified in order to maximise generosity) fall into the trap of replacing one excess with another kind of gluttony… And there’s a danger in my own heart, and my own desire to correct my excess, that I’ll go the same way.

“My dear Wormwood,

The contemptuous way in which you spoke of gluttony as a means of catching souls, in your last letter, only shows your ignorance. One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled by it in the whole length and breadth of Europe. This has largely been effected by concentrating all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of Excess. Your patient’s mother, as I learn from the dossier and you might have learned from Glubose, is a good example. She would be astonished—one day, I hope, will be—to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness and self-concern? Glubose has this old woman well in hand. She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile ‘Oh please, please … all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast’. You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance. In a crowded restaurant she gives a little scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says, ‘Oh, that’s far, far too much! Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it’. If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.”

If you want a really radical antidote to consumerism — one that might help you avoid both gluttony of excess, and gluttony of delicacy, one that might do something more to kill consumerism in your life and replace it with an alternative, one that might bring a truly meaningful solution in community not just individuals… the answer might not be to listen to a bunch of millionaire businessmen and people who tasted worldly success telling you about their conversion to a newer, simpler way of life. The answer might be to listen to a bloke who swore of this way of life from the beginning because, well, he was perfect. Jesus has some pretty profound things to say about humanity, consumption, and the pursuit of meaning.

He says life as humans is ultimately about the pursuit of treasure. This is because somewhere in our DNA, we pursue meaning through worship

Jesus said ‘where your treasure is, there your heart is also’ he said this having said ‘store up for yourself treasures in heaven’…

We are, by nature, worshippers who look for identity in what we treasure. The Bible’s answer to this is not to find the right thing to treasure, but to treasure Jesus… to pursue treasures in heaven. And this provides us with some guidelines not just for approaching the good stuff in this world with moderation (without worshipping it), but for understanding that the best way to approach consumables isn’t fundamentally about self-interest, self-indulgence, or self-control (though it will produce this), it’s about the other. Jesus models the pursuit of treasure in heaven when he lays down his life for the sake of others. He comes back to this theme of ‘treasure’; or consumption, and our desire to find meaning in controlling and possessing as much as possible, in a slightly indirect way when he challenges us to be givers not consumers; sacrificers, not killers. To follow Jesus is to adopt a life not of self-denial, but self-giving from a place of knowing God gives us everything.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. — Matthew 16:24-27

This does involve a radical approach to our stuff; you might remember the story where a rich young bloke comes up to Jesus to ask how to be part of God’s kingdom — how to have treasure in heaven, and Jesus tells him to give away everything to the the poor, and to come and follow him. This approach to stuff is what taking up your cross ultimately looks like — and it’s a death to self that I’m still working on in my own life. The bloke can’t do it, and Jesus says those famous words:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven…”

Now. Giving away everything doesn’t actually get you into heaven; there is grace even for my inability to totally kill my idolatry of my stuff and my comfort. Part of the point of the stories about Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel up until the crucifixion are to show that Jesus is the only truly faithful law-fulfiller. The Sermon On The Mount is first about him, and its an exploration of what it looks like to fulfil the humanly impossible Old Testament command to “be holy because I (God) am holy”… When the disciples are blown away by how big this command sounds and ask “who can be saved” if this is required, Jesus says:

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

What he calls the rich man to do is what he did when confronted with temptation, and what he did in his whole earthly life, up to and including the Cross. And that’s what makes following him the way; this means both following his example (discipling ourselves to become like him, or ‘worshipping him’) and relying on him as the one who actually achieves the righteousness God commands.

Following Jesus means changing who we worship — where we look to for identity and satisfaction — it means shifting our eyes from the things of this world to the one seated ‘in his Father’s glory’ — and having that change the way we live. It means ditching our old habits and consumption, and switching it for something else; not just mastering our vices but taking up virtues. Idols don’t just get killed they get replacedMinimalism offers a compelling picture of a replacement for the idol of worldly physical treasures, only it replaces them with other worldly things; one guy they interview says his whole approach to life is built on the idea that this is all there is, and our time is all we have. When Paul reflects on what it means to become a ‘new self’ with new worship in Colossians 3, he does something interesting that parallels Jesus’ call to pursue treasure in heaven by talking quite concretely about how we live here on earth. He starts by connecting us to Jesus promise that the “Son of Man” would come into his father’s glory:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

And he uses this to call us to put to death the idolatrous parts of our ‘earthly nature’ — our default patterns of looking for meaning through consumption and stuff… to ‘put on the new self’ which is being ‘renewed in the knowledge of the image of its creator’ (and from Colossians 1:15, that’s Jesus, this is about being a disciple, it’s about taking up our cross). Then he gives us this new pattern of living; one not built simply on being more appropriately ‘self-indulgent’ but rather built on putting others first.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Looking for meaning in consumption — the hunt for identity in buying or not buying things — is a vice. It’s destructive; not just for hoarders, but for minimalists as well. If we believe we’re living a good life simply because we’ve adopted simplicity we’re still missing the heart of true worship. The opposite of greed — or the virtue that combats the vice — is not frugality (or minimalism), but generosity. Just as the opposite of gluttony is not abstinence, but hospitality. Generosity and hospitality require a particular approach to stuff that means not finding meaning in it, and not holding on to it — and there’s plenty of great stuff in the habits and philosophies put forward by the people featured in Minimalism that’ll help me (and maybe you) embrace a more generous and hospitable way of life; so long as my approach to stuff is profoundly ‘other-centred’ because my treasures are in heaven. That’s where love kicks in. Which is interesting, because the closing words of Minimalism which is something of a slogan for the Minimalists:

“Love people, use things. The opposite never works.”

The Minimalists have some fantastic stuff to say in Minimalism, but really following Jesus is the way to do this right.

14 Propositions and 3 stories on being the church in post-Christian/post-modern/post-truth Australia

Somewhere in the notes on my phone I’ve started jotting down the different labels people are applying to modern life; post-modern, post-Christian, post-truth…

Post-truth was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016, where it means:

“‘Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”

I’m not an expert on anything much (just making coffee and how to write obscenely long blog posts really)… so I assume when I write stuff people will take or leave it based on its usefulness or truthiness or whatevs. This is something of a caveat or a disclaimer on this post; an acknowledgment that these aren’t definitive things for me inasmuch as they’re the building blocks of how I’m approaching life in the church in however you’d describe modern Aussie life… the nature of time moving forward and different cultural and intellectual epochs being left in the past is that we’re always ‘post-‘ something; at the moment it’s hard not to feel like we’re post-everything; when I talk to different people both in and outside the church there’s a sense that life is changing pretty fast and there’s a temptation to either try to change the church (and what it looks like or does) just as fast to keep up, or to not change how we do things at all. I suspect both these options are wrong and right (at the same time); that we need to change pretty rapidly, but that the change shouldn’t be ‘innovative’ purely for innovation’s sake where we copy the culture only with a bit of Jesus tacked on… it should almost be a rediscovery of who we’re meant to be.

I’ve written a little bit about different approaches to our post-central position in culture (as the ‘church’) and an idea being developed and put forward in the US called The Benedict Option first considering the church as something like the mutants in the world of the X-Men, then considering the post-everything culture as a sort of zombie apocalypse where we’re wanting to survive and thrive; which is a return to a sort of monastic approach to life in the world; not total withdrawal, but a sort of firming up of community boundaries so that mission seems to involve people coming in to our community more than it involves us living as people sent into the world to be a faithful presence… I’m not sure this is the answer to our post-whatever milieu, or what life as exiles should look like (which I think isn’t just the paradigm for life-post-Christendom but for life-post-cross), but part of what I’m trying to sketch out as I write, for myself perhaps more than for others, is a framework for thinking about the life of the church — the body of Christ — in this world; my assumption is that the church should be proclaiming and living the good news of the kingdom of God and its king, Jesus, and that this is fundamentally counter-cultural, it is its own post-everything community, this shouldn’t feel like a call to a new ‘reformation’ in the Aussie ‘evangelical’ scene, though in some ways it is.

There’s not a heap of ‘new’ stuff in this post; what I’ve been aiming to do with this little corner of the Internet for a while is articulate how I’m approaching life and church as much for my sake as for anyone else’s, as a way of tweaking and working out my paradigm. That means there’s a fair bit of repetition, but it also means the archives here chart the development of my thought, which I find personally useful… if this stuff is useful for others along the way, then that’s a bonus.

So here, to perhaps clarify about 50,000 words of previous posts on this blog, are 14 propositions and 3 stories on what I think church can and should be in a post-everything world. It’s long. I’m assuming you’ll skim read if you bother, but part of this is to have a comprehensive one stop shop that spells out my approach to being the church in the post-truth age. I don’t think these are new ideas, though they might be old ideas applied to new threats and opportunities. The stories aren’t meant to be heroic, they are, however, reflections on where I’ve felt like things have ‘clicked’ for our church in the last few years. There are lots of stories, good and bad, from three years of church stuff, these are the ones that fuel the ‘propositions’…

Story 1.

For the last three years (it’s our anniversary in a couple of weeks), I’ve been the campus pastor of Creek Road South Bank. One of my greatest privileges in that time has been baptising 16 Iranian brothers and sisters in Christ. Before I baptise anyone it’s part of my job to hear the story of how they came to follow Jesus (and to ask questions to make sure to the best of my understanding I’m pouring water on Christians). These 16 people share a few things in common: they’re all asylum seekers who arrived in Australia having fled Iran with a particular suspicion about Islam because of the Iranian regime, they’re all able to overcome the language barrier enough to answer my questions about the Trinity (which is a thing I probe because it’s a big difference between Christianity’s view of God and Islam’s), they understand the Trinity, they get the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus for their standing before God, and they’ve universally told me that the reason they began investigating Christianity, and stuck with it, is the love they received from Christians from when they arrived in Australian detention, to when they’ve been resettled in the community, to when they’ve met Christians in church. I can’t take any credit for anything except that I ask questions and do the water bit; but I’m so deeply encouraged, every time, not just by the ‘homecoming’ involved for these brothers and sisters, but by their simple testimony that it’s loving, gospel-shaped, community that makes the Gospel seem worthy of investigation.

Proposition 1: Media matters: You are the social media for whatever you worship

We’re made in the image of God and part of that is that we’re designed to worship and so represent God in his world as his living, breathing, imagining, creating, life-giving people; we replace God with dead idols that take our breath away and we end up adopting new ways of dying based on what it is we worship (most people are poly-theists when it comes to idols, worshipping from a sort of smorgasbord of ‘gods’ like family, money, career, sex, power, popularity so we all look a little different).

Proposition 2: Our ‘media habits’ matter: our worship involves our habits (our repeated actions), which feed and shape our loves and our thinking.

There’s an aspect of ‘post-truth’ stuff that we need to recognise is a misfiring of some fundamental parts of our humanity; we’re made to love and feel our way around the place — but we are, as Augustine might put it, disordered lovers; our media habits — what we fill our time, our attention, our imaginations with and do with our bodies shape us. We live in a world that’ll be increasingly shaped by content-on-demand TV which we binge watch on our couches while eating convenience food (where we’re totally disconnected from the process of the food getting to us), by pornography, by addiction to black glass screens that bombard us with content and fill our attention from the moment we wake; by buying ourselves (fleeting) happiness, and shaped by the equally idolatrous over-correction — those who see the problems with this way of life and so live sort of monastically ‘disconnected’ lives focusing on the pursuit of the perfect meaningful romantic/sexual relationship, ‘slow-food’ that you grow and hunt yourself that you prepare following the recipe of a celebrity chef, or buy from a fancy locavore restaurant, with lots of silence and mediation thrown in for self-mastery’s sake. We are all somewhere on the spectrum between Biggest Loser and MasterChef.

Proposition 3: We live, worship, and image bear both as individuals and corporately/culturally/in community

Bearing the image of the God who is a community (the Trinity) is not something we can do alone even if we try, and it was never a thing we were meant to try; we’re relational/social animals. That’s why God says ‘let us make mankind in our image’ and then makes us male and female… We’re defined as much by relationships with others as by whatever ‘image’ we try to craft alone; and even as we craft an image for ourselves and so worship in particular ways, that’s inevitably a thing we do in community with others that is shaped by the culture we define ourselves through or against. ‘Cultures’ are the product of a sort of coherent mass of ideas and artefacts that tell some sort of story about life and shape the way members of a culture ‘worship’.

Proposition 4: All ‘media artefacts’ have some sort of ‘story’ or value proposition and collections of these artefacts make ‘cultures’

In the past idols had ‘statues’ to represent them; now idolatry seems to happen more through a collection of ‘widgets’ or artefacts that stories or the sort of things we use in stories, that equip people to pursue their worship. I like Andy Crouch’s insight that cultures are a collection of ‘artefacts’ with some sort of coherent story.

Just like God’s ‘art’ — creation itself (and us) — is made with the purpose of representing true things about him… Art, whether written, performed, or fashioned isn’t neutral, it’s made with purpose and represents ‘true’ things about us. The technology (whether hardware or software) and ‘media’ we create are types of artefacts,’ they aren’t neutral. We can always take and repurpose things to use for good, Godly, purposes, just as we took God’s world and used it for our bad purposes; but we need to be aware of what’s under the hood.

So, for example, ‘slow food’ might actually be a better way to articulate true things about God’s world than fast food (just as specialty coffee is better than instant coffee), but we need to make that decision with imagination, discernment and clarity (and applying the same to other ‘artefacts’ in order to be creating an alternative ‘culture’. We need to find a way to ‘plunder Egypt’ for golden ‘artefacts’ that are good and true and beautiful that become part of our ‘culture,’ but we also need to beware the human tendency to use Egyptian gold for golden calves (we take the good stuff God made and use it for our own idolatry). We also need to figure out how to make stuff with gold — our own artefacts — in ways that line up with God’s purposes for creation. Christians could be making things that are good, and true, and beautiful both on a local (neighbourhood) type scale, and on a ‘global’ scale, for the good of everyone not just for our own Christian marketplace.

Most people in our culture don’t think of themselves as worshippers, but that doesn’t mean they’re not. They don’t think of themselves as being searchers for ‘truth’ or meaning (like the people of Athens) and part of our culture-making probably has to be question-provoking; it might have to carry a degree of oddness or mystery that makes people ponder why we’re so different (but in a way that is compelling because it is linked to helping people rediscover the created purpose of our humanity. We also can’t take for granted that people will have any of the conceptual building blocks of the Christian story where that might have once been the case.

Proposition 5. Our aim isn’t to smash idols with sledgehammers (except in our own lives perhaps) but to hollow them of meaning and value, and to show how the inclinations of our hearts that produce them are better satisfied in a better story, with a better God.

In Deuteronomy Israel are told that upon entering the promised land they should totally destroy the idols of the nations; lest their hearts be captured by them. That’s a guide to life in God’s kingdom in Israel; there’s a particular socio-political reality underpinning that approach to idols. In the New Testament Paul tells us to keep ourselves from idols; basically to smash them within the boundaries of the church. He takes a very different approach to the idols of his culture. In 1 Corinthians he tells the church to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols in the presence of non-Christian friends or family who are hosting dinners until the host makes such eating a specific kind of participation in idol worship; until they make a big deal about the sacrifice in a way that makes eating some sort of participation in worship that confuses the people you’re trying to invite to an alternative type of worship. In Athens, Paul walks the streets of the idolatry capital of the world without a sledgehammer; and when he gets the opportunity to speak he doesn’t tell the Athenians to knock down their idols, he understands the human impulses that have led them to worship the wrong thing; to imagine different gods as the solution to their desires, and he attempts to redirect those impulses to the true God in a way that shows their idols as foolish distractions; he does this by quoting the poets and philosophers of the time, he shares as as many assumptions, as much empathy, or as much humanity, as he can with those he is preaching to, without joining their worship. The effect of this is to, much as the Old Testament prophets did when writing about ‘breathless’ idols, hollow them of any legitimate value or meaning, by pointing to the truly valuable God, the one ‘in whom we live, and breathe, and have our being’… his preaching of the more valuable God has a profound impact on people in this ancient world. When he gets to Ephesus a couple of chapters later, the same preaching causes a bunch of people to switch to worshipping the Christian God, and so to burn incredibly valuable (idolatrous) magic books. The impact on the idol-making market — because of the way the Gospel hollowed out the value of the idols of the time — is so great that the local idol making cartel starts a riot to push Paul out of town.

About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” — Acts 19:23-27

This is what we should be aiming for; to acknowledge our desire for life, meaning, joy, comfort, and significant relationships and to rob the idols of the present of their value because they don’t provide actual answers. Not with a sledgehammer, but by offering something better. One of our age’s own poets, David Foster Wallace, in the speech This Is Water (which I quote all the time (because it’s the equivalent of Paul quoting the non-Christian philosophers at the Areopagus cause they were so close to getting God right) points out that our culture has its own ‘cartel’ of idol makers; the powerful and influential systems and leaders who get more wealth and power so long as we all mindlessly participate in the default worship of our culture; which he calls ‘the worship of self’ — and which he suggests manifests itself in the worship of sex, money, and power. This is our Athens:

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

Our job is to afflict those who have become comfortable via these defaults, and to comfort those afflicted and oppressed by these defaults, but to do it not by taking a sledgehammer to the sort of idol-perpetuating cultures (like capitalism and power-politics) but by offering a better way; a way that shows that the promises of ‘gods’ other than the one we see nailed to a cross, have no ‘divine majesty’ but are hollow and life-taking.

Proposition 6: The ‘post-truth’ world should rightly refocus us on ethos (and even pathos) as part of Gospel proclamation; it’s what gives our message integrity, credibility, and appeal

One of our misfires in the ‘truth’ world has been to assume that truth is found in the realm of ideas and words; that it’s a thing you predominantly think and that our heads lead to change; that we’re sanctified via education alone. We’re not just logical brains, or computers (I’ve heard some interesting stuff from brain scientists about how unhelpful it is to treat the brain as a ‘fascinating computer’ and I think we’ve made this mistake in our approach to church; trying to get the programming right). We love and feel and experience truth. Ancient communications theorists were all over this — logos (words/logic) alone is a terrible and unpersuasive ‘proof’… when we add the stuff about us being visible media into the mix (and think about how God communicates via visible media from the creation of the world, to laws that produce rituals and story-telling celebration, onwards to the word being made flesh in Jesus), it’s hard to get to a position we’re our words aren’t being given their weight and meaning by our actions and character. Words are always necessary; not just because we do think logically, but because words are also part of the way we calibrate our hearts. Words are something fundamental to our humanity; something we share with God that animals don’t (unless we teach them to parrot us), but we need to think more about the sorts of words, and about how words that have integrity have integrity because they line up with actions. Tying the above propositions together; this ethos is a thing we share across the church community, not just an individual thing.

Proposition 7: The church is the plausibility structure for the Gospel

Because persuasion happens via ethos as much as the logos that shapes it, and because that’s corporate, and because worshippers represent the God they worship, it shouldn’t surprise us that communities built around gods make those gods plausible. This is true of the shopping centre, where the story of happiness via consumption is told/pursued by all the people shopping together (or together alone) and shopping in ways that follow ‘trends’ (which often feature cultural artefacts that everyone wants to buy and own and attach to their ‘image’). The church community is where the Gospel is displayed as it is lived and articulated.When we forgive each other for wrongs and hurts we inflict on one another by bearing the cost of wrongdoing on ourselves we show the truth and goodness of the forgiveness Jesus pours out on us in his death.When we respond to messy sin with grace, rather than disgrace or shame the person (in a way that is utterly counter-cultural in our new shame culture) we make the Gospel more believable for us, and them.

When we have permission to be broken and vulnerable but are treated as though we have inherent dignity and value in the life of the community we make the claim that we are loved by God and being transformed into the image of Jesus feel true.

When we love each other the way Jesus loved us and commanded us to love — for the sake of the other, not our own sake — that makes the love God displays for us in Gospel believable for us and for others.

This isn’t revolutionary thinking either; it’s there in the words of Jesus when he says “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another…” (John 13:35, which is basically the idea that underpins the whole of 1 John where the possibility of continued belief in Jesus, and loving like Jesus are linked inextricably). Discipleship is about formation; we’re all disciples of whatever god we worship, shaped by those who are more ‘mature’ worshippers because it comes via imitation not simply education; for Christians it comes via imitation of Jesus (to love as he loved, which is also what he commands us to do in John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another…”).

Proposition 8: For the Gospel to be proclaimed/plausible/lived 24/7 (not just on Sundays) we need to think of the church (community of believers) and its worship (corporate activity of sacrifice/service of God) as being a 24/7 thing not a two hours on Sundays thing.

We humans are worshippers 24/7. We’re always giving ourselves to our gods and getting shaped by them in return. Worship delivers transformation (and often disappointment, or in the words of David Foster Wallace, worshipping idols ‘eats us alive’…). To make the Gospel plausible in post-everything Australia we need to be quite deliberately combating other types of worship in how we live 24/7; a get together on Sundays for an hour or two won’t cut it because it won’t display our ethos (the Gospel enacted in the love of Jesus) for long enough to be plausible for us, let alone for others. This will mean deliberately building different rhythms into the lives of Christians to the rhythms we adopt without realising as we live and breathe in idolatrous post-everything air.

Proposition 9: In this model of corporate proclamation (ethos and logos) by the church all the time, the priesthood of all believers really matters; which requires an upping of the levels of commitment of ‘unpaid’ church members and lowering the commitment of paid staff.

If corporate ethos really matters; and the church community speaks, lives and breathes the story of the Gospel to ourselves, and the world, then it’s hard to outsource the ‘ministry’ of church to a handful of paid professionals. That’s been an unfortunate part of seeing church as predominantly a Sunday thing; ‘serving’ at church becomes less important than ‘being served’ or ‘consuming’ a ‘worship event.’ And all of that is wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. There’s certainly a case to be made for paid church workers (quite explicitly in the Bible) and I definitely think I offer some value for money to anyone considering reading this point and not giving at church anymore… there’s also a case to be made for a significant portion of a church’s budget being used to free people up from secular work to pursue a gospel calling. We’re all, as Christians, called to Gospel ministry (which means service), and this will take different shapes based on our gifts, circumstances, and maturity. What this ‘call’ looks like will be different for everyone, and it’s important that we don’t enforce some sort of secular/sacred divide here; a Gospel ethos underpins the work of the cobbler as much as it underpins the work of the preacher.

Work matters; but seeing your work (including what you choose to do) and how you do it as part of your ministry (not just your colleagues as people to bombard with Gospel ‘logos’) is part of making work truly matter.

Part of ensuring that church/worship of God/being the body of Christ is the most fundamental part of setting the agenda of your life might involve you having that agenda less set by work (and the imperatives of our modern idols of career, money, comfort and power); this might mean resting, recreating, and relating more with the people in your life, of changing career, or going part time and figuring out how your gifts might be more directly used for the Gospel.

Story 2.

In the first couple of weeks of meeting in the Queensland Theatre; one of the brilliant theatre company staff who was tasked with helping us out happened to mention that their ‘charity partner of choice’ was a local social justice group called Micah Projects who run an apartment building around the corner from us which provides permanent supported housing for formerly homeless and low income people. It turns out Micah was founded as the social justice arm of the local Catholic church, but it has sort of taken on a life of its own since then. I thought that sounded like a great opportunity for us to join something already happening in our area and to practice the sort of cross-shaped ‘ethos’ the Gospel creates in us. So I volunteered. I’ve been volunteering for almost three years now, and have been part of a cool project (including the launch of a social enterprise cafe). But I’ve mostly spent time hanging out with Micah Projects’ passionate and capable team. A lady in our community got a bit excited about Micah, and she volunteered too. She volunteered for a project face-to-face with residents of this apartment building and set about faithfully and enthusiastically loving people. Others from church started attending a community meal. This lady is so warm and genuine in her love for others; a love that crosses barriers, that soon a resident of this apartment building, a lovely older lady (perhaps more enthusiastic about life than even our volunteer) started coming to church. She’s not originally from Australia, has no other family here, and now, in her emails and in conversations with people from outside our church calls us her ‘Aussie family’…

Proposition 10: As an alternative ‘community’ with an alternative king and alternative ethics (ethos), the church is profoundly ‘political’ (and both ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ at the same time).

The church can’t simply attempt to be an arm of the secular state; wielding worldly power as though we’re not profoundly different to our neighbours. We follow king Jesus and are ‘citizens of heaven’ who ‘live as foreigners and exiles’ in this world; but nor can we pretend the Gospel is apolitical; that following Jesus has no bearing on how we live in God’s world amongst people now. The word ‘politics’ originally meant: “of, for, or relating to citizens” and we have some very big ideas about what it means to be citizens of God’s kingdom; to follow Jesus, to obey his commands, to: ‘‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

The Gospel gives us a new vision of ‘the ethical’ and ‘good’ human life; which in the context of relationships/community gives us a new ‘politics’ — the word Gospel is, in itself, a political statement that Jesus is king (that’s what a ‘gospel’ was in Rome). Being part of God’s kingdom, the church, brings a whole new way of doing politics that come from our understanding of what the good life for a citizen looks like; the sort of life we aim to live as we follow our king, but also the sort of life we hope might appeal to others and commend the Gospel to them (not the sort of life we want to coerce people into living without a regime change in their heart). 

Our understanding of what it means to be human means we see humans as made in God’s image; so that there are certain inherently good and natural things that we commonly hold together (a sort of divinely inspired moral compass), so we’ll naturally want to conserve those things in a shared approach to life together as citizens; but we also see humans transforming themselves into the image of destructive idols via corporate/cultural replacement of God with created things, and we see that as profoundly damaging to our humanity (and to others) (Romans 1). We’ll see most cultures/institutions as being produced by image bearers who are also idolaters and so on a sort of spectrum towards deathliness depending on how much they’ve been given over (together) by God to the consequences of rejecting him (Romans 1) — people who know what they should do, but often don’t do it (Romans 7), so we’ll naturally want to call for a sort of progress away from that broken humanity towards the example of humanity we see in Jesus. We’ll call for this without expecting people who don’t follow Jesus to adopt that ‘progress’ for themselves, and we’ll call for it loudest by living it as people/citizens being transformed by God’s Spirit (Romans 8).

This means there might be things Christians can achieve for the love of God and neighbour through involvement in conservative or progressive human political institutions as an outworking of our alternative politics; it might also mean not being part of those systems; it definitely means our first allegiance is to Jesus and his kingdom, and it means having our ‘politics’ first shaped by this citizenship.

Proposition 11: Part of the nature of the Gospel’s ‘ethos‘, the nature of our politics, and how we see the value of people and the use of power, pushes us towards the marginalised in our community not towards occupying or cosying up to ‘powerful’ worldly leaders (and for those of us in positions of power and influence should shape us to use that in particular, sacrificial, ways on behalf of the vulnerable).

The way Jesus uses power is the anti-thesis to the way the Serpent, Satan, uses power and following Jesus brings with it a new way of approaching power that isn’t the grasping, self-interested approach introduced by the Serpent in Genesis 3. The way of the Serpent is the way of the ‘beastly’ Roman empire (see Revelation); it’s the way that culminates in humanity driving big metal spikes through the hands of God With Us (Jesus), and killing him on the best weapon of utter humiliation-via-powerlessness that humanity could devise. The cross worked by robbing someone of their dignity and their ability to inspire (both in terms of breathing or leading). That’s why Rome used it to punish treason and insurrection; it was meant to give Caesar more power by robbing power from pretenders. The serpent makes powerful people into crucifiers; Jesus makes people cruciform (cross shaped). This orients those who follow Jesus to a particular understanding of how sinful people (and cultures) will wield power for their own self-interest, and attunes us to the sort of cost that inflicts on the people who powerful people use to their own ends; it means that we use our own ‘human power’ as a gift from God to be poured out for the sake of others; whether we occupy an ‘office’ that brings a degree of authority, or we’re just human, there’s an orientation towards the poor, the enslaved, the widowed, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the abused, and the victim. Most people are ‘marginalised’ in some way by the use of power, because ultimately power used to our own selfish ends is power being used by ‘that great serpent’ whose reign is destroyed by the reign of Jesus (again, see Revelation).Part of the ethos that comes with serving the king who lays down his power for the sake of others to make a ‘home’ for the marginalised and re-affirm their dignity will involve us pursuing justice and mercy and love for the marginalised in our world; not in a way that tosses out the truth that we’re all ‘marginalised,’ excluded, and exiled, from God by our sin (a trap the ‘social gospel’/liberation movement fell into), or that sees this as the only marginalisation that matters (the trap the more fundamentalist ‘preach heaven to the dying world’ movement falls into) or that our homecoming to God involves being ‘exiles’ from the world of human/serpentish power (a trap a sort of ‘reconstructionist’ approach to government falls into sometimes), but in a way that sees how we live and love being part of how we proclaim and live the truth of the Lordship of Jesus over all things.

Proposition 12: We are ‘narrative animals’ and it’s stories that underpin our worship

As people we occupy space and move through time; the thing that separates ‘narrative’ from other forms is that events that happen in space, over time are understood/told that way. That’s how a story and a statue convey meaning differently. It’s also the difference between a computer and a person. When I turn on a computer it has no deep knowledge of the idea that it has been turned off for days, weeks, months or years, or that it is in a different place (even when software options recognise those things for us as users, they’re not ‘meaningful’ for the computer itself). We’re ‘narrative animals’; the post-truth thing where ’emotion,’ intuition, and our ‘personal narrative’ trumps facts is, in part, a corrective against a view of people that treated us more like computers who just had to be programmed right in order to perform right.

Plausibility in a post-truth world means treating people ‘narrative animals’ who organise our passing through time and space by telling stories that help us understand, love, feel, and intuit our way around the world; and telling a better/more-compelling story that brings a vision of what life should look like; it’s these stories and this vision that will shape our habits and loves, and so shape us.

These stories use words, but they’re also lived. Part of the task of the church community is to be a story-telling community in word and action; a community that lives and breathes the story of the coming of the kingdom of God and the death of sin and death in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Stories go hand in hand with ‘history’ — the collection of stories over time that give an account of who we are. There’s a movement called the “Big History Project” which aims to equip people to live more scientifically in a post-truth world by starting ‘history’ teaching with the big bang and giving people a sense of the tiny amount of space and time we occupy; we’ve got a better big history, that also begins with creation, but centres on the God who spoke the universe into being showing his incredible love for us and making us eternal. We should tell that story (like Paul does in Athens in Acts 17) as a way to move people from worshipping idols to worshipping the true God; because he’s actually a better God with a better story to be part of. This has to shape the way talk about the Bible (as a story not a weird collection of rules and facts, which is actually truer about how the Bible seems to understand itself — and how the apostles preach the Old Testament in Acts).

Proposition 13: Because we’re worshipping ‘narrative’ creatures who understand our world and are formed through ‘story’ and action (ethos) in community, not simply detached ‘facts’ (logos) Christian formation happens through the hands and the heart (our loves) as well; so we can’t just ‘educate brains’ to make disciples.

This is just Augustine and James K.A Smith and the implications of the stuff above. We become what we worship; and worship is about much more than simply knowing. I know I should eat healthier and that will re-shape me; but until I love the idea of a healthy me more than sugar and junk food and habitually say no, the knowing does nothing, and I know sugar is bad for me the less I eat it… If it doesn’t work in dieting (or any realm of human behaviour built on producing a changed image) why do we think formation happens purely by education? The implications for this are massive in terms of investment of time and energy in the rhythms of church life (the sermon can’t possibly be enough), but also changes the things we say when we preach and where we pitch stuff. The caveat is that of course the head is important; it’d be a weird sort of irony to write this much and not acknowledge that.

Proposition 14: Propositions are dead.

Propositions are a reasonable way to do logic, and they were perhaps okish in a pre-post-truth context (particularly in a modernist context). They’re a reasonable way to argue. I’m not so sure that many people have been argued into the kingdom of God (though I’m sure some arguments have been part of getting people to consider Jesus)… I’m fairly sure arguments/debates/logic won’t do much if the post-truth thing is the spirit of the age we live in. It’s still important to have some sense of the logic of belief in Jesus, but that won’t be the thing that gets someone to check out, or believe, the Gospel at a gut, or heart, level.

Propositions are actually a terrible way to do anything that looks like ‘change’ in the scheme of things whether that’s in the life of individual Christians, or in how we do church. And as much as a very long post on a blog might seem like a lot of energy to invest in a thing that doesn’t work, I’m much more interested in investing my energy into demonstration of this stuff in the context of the church community I’m part of, and through telling stories. There’s, of course, an irony in all this, but these propositions have largely been derived from how I understand the story of the Bible works, and from my observations of stories of God at work in the lives of real people in our church, lives that reflect this grand story…

Story 3.

In the beginning, God made a good world — an ordered and beautiful world where every created thing had a built-in purpose. It’s purpose was to reflect his goodness, his character, and his love. It was a gift for his children; his image-bearers. He made us to represent him, to rule with him, to spread and create things that would reflect his goodness throughout the world. He made us with another job in mind — as men and women — he made us to take part in the cosmic battle to defeat evil. Evil personified in the Serpent. Satan. He gave humanity what was required to defeat him; simply the opportunity to choose good, not evil, when the serpent came knocking. That would’ve been his end. Perhaps the serpent might have struck out and killed humans, but God has always been the life-giver who is capable of resurrection, and the gift of immortality via the ‘tree of life’ is part of his expression of love for his children. Who knows? The serpent struck with his words, not his teeth, he invited us humans to replace God with a false picture of God… first by suggesting that God wasn’t a generous life-giver who gave people everything they need, and more, and then by inviting them to decide what ‘image’ of God, what likeness, they would present in the world God made. Stuff God. Do your own thing. Worship some other picture of wholeness and goodness and pursue that. Only, none of these give life, or breath, or being; instead, they take life and breath. And that’s what humans choose, by default, to be our own gods, to worship false gods, to pursue satisfaction in using the things God made to our own ends. And it’s not just not-satisfying (it always leaves us wanting more), it’s also deadly. These things don’t give life.  

The story of humanity from that point is the disappointing story of hearts too easily lured away from God towards death, but God constantly pulling people from the smelting fire, re-forging them, breathing new life and purpose into them, offering life again… only for those same ‘new image bearers’ to head towards the exile door, away from him, away from life.

The Old Testament is a story of failed kings, failed states, and exile; of God’s images being captured and corrupted by foreign ideas — as idol statues often were in other military conflicts of the time — and so losing their created purpose. Of hearts turned towards wrong pictures of God, of imaginations misfiring. This is not just Israel’s story; it’s the story of humanity. It’s what we do. We’re haunted by having known the infinite, life giving God, and having lost that knowledge, collectively and culturally, by replacing him with things he made. It’s also the story of God’s faithful commitment to his original plans; the defeat of the serpent and the creation of a people who join him in spreading good, and true, and beautiful things — in spreading life itself — around the cosmos. Using our desires and imaginations; our creativity; to make things that are life-giving, not death-bringing. 

The story happens all over again with Jesus. When the author of life writes the word of life into the story of the world as a character. Jesus, both God and man, a new Adam, one who will end the serpent. The serpent-killing lamb ‘slain from the creation of the world’… the one who says no to the Serpent because he knows the goodness of God. The one who defeats evil not with the might of a sword, but with the obedience of the cross… that moment in history, at the centre of the story, where he both reveals God’s character and takes on the sin, and guilt, and shame, of those who write their own godless stories. Where a good king steps in to end our exile from God and to restore images captured by foreign enemies. Where the infinite becomes finite — to the point of spending three days dead — to give infinite life to us. This life is re-breathed into his people as the Holy Spirit; a divine spark setting fire to our hearts and minds, re-shaping us into what we were made to be; not just images of the infinite, invisible God, but of Jesus. Our king. Jesus invites you to rediscover the satisfaction of becoming who humans were always made to be. He invites you to be a character in the story that brings life, rather than write your own stories that bring death; to make things (family, friends, art, work) that are good and true and beautiful reflections of God’s goodness and character — the goodness and character we ultimately see revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — with others who are being re-shaped, re-forged, by that same Spirit. This creative community is a life-giving community, a community that lives out this new story and points people to the hero, while relying on God to give us life and breath and everything, and seeking to love our neighbours the way he loved us.

This is the true story we get to tell, and the story we get to live, as God’s people living in a world pulled in all sorts of directions by different types of worship. ‘Facts’ without this story are empty, that’s why the ‘post-truth’ thing isn’t ultimately a terrible thing for Christians, but perhaps it should be a ‘game-changer’ in that it should pull us back to a way of loving people and sharing the Gospel that we should never have walked away from (and in many cases, haven’t walked away from).

Church Du Soleil

On Saturday night Robyn and I went to the Cirque Du Soleil’s Kooza. On Sunday a few people came to church for the first time. It struck me that the experience is quite similar; or at least I hope it is. If you have ever wondered about trying out church there’s a guide that might de-mystify some (not all) of the experience here.

 

kooza-highwire_bicycle

At some point, minutes before our scheduled departure, I ask my wife, and my parents who’ve been to this thing before what I should be wearing. Is there a dress code? Is it explicit, or implicit? Will I get away with my normal uniform of t-shirt, shorts, and a pair of thongs?

I change. I put on a collared shirt. Better to be over-dressed than under-dressed I guess. And who knows who I’ll bump into at this thing. I figure I also want to dress within a few standard deviations of my wife, so that she doesn’t feel awkward. Better to be awkward with others. Definitely.

I’ve been to something like this before. Once or twice. But I’m not a regular, and those were in very different contexts, once was for a professional thing, the other was when I was a kid. The etiquette feels different now that I’m choosing to go.

We’re ushered in to a park. The crowd is gathering in the carpark. Some people clearly know more about what is going on than others. Some stare intently at the screen of their phones, perhaps checking last minute details.

Someone in a black shirt at the door greets us, and gives us directions to where we can be seated; we’ve arrived with enough time to not be interrupting any of the ‘show’… We awkwardly file past people already seated in the row of seats and sit. Uncomfortably, because the seats in these places are almost always uncomfortable; perhaps to stop us falling asleep.

We’ve been seated for a while when the music starts. I’m not really sure what to do at this point. I look around a bit awkwardly to see what other people are doing. They’re staring quite intently at the stage; some rapturously, some blankly, some like me are looking around.

The band is tight. The music is amazing; it’s not something I’d listen to, let alone sing along to, during the week. But something about it captures my spirits and lifts them, and it seems to be doing the same for the people around me.

Then this clown starts to talk. I listen. He’s obviously done something like this before. He has the patter sorted. He’s engaging. It seems like it’s his job to have the crowd transfixed so that the spirit of the show might do its work and have us leaving changed, then coming back for more. Sometimes he’s joined by others; sometimes he invites audience participation. I shuffle down in my seat so he doesn’t make eye contact with me and invite me to take part in the show; I’m not ready for that. Yet.

There’s plenty of stuff happening on stage that leaves me feeling things. A sense of awe; a sense of our shared humanity being pushed to its limits in a way that teaches us all something about what it means to be human; in a way that makes me believe that something more is possible in my own humanity. For a moment I consider signing up to this weird colourful tribe.

There’s an interval. A chance to stretch my legs. I listen to the voices of people around me reflecting on what they’ve been inspired or challenged by so far; there’s an insider language being spoken by some, clearly more familiar with this sort of event than I am; but others, like me, are perplexed by what they’ve been experiencing. People seem really into this. Those performers on the stage must have devoted a significant amount of their life to mastering this thing that to me just seems other-worldly. How does one even begin to discover this way of life? If I was going to be part of this what would I contribute? What could I do? How could my humanity be stretched in such a way that it seems to defy both the human defaults and the laws of science?

There’s something mystical happening here. Mostly I’m just amazed. I’m a bit challenged. I can’t tell if I’m challenged by the oddness; the sense that I can’t, or wouldn’t, do that stuff, or if I’m challenged to think about how I might be more like this in the real world. These people just seem like a whole different category of human to me; they defy every thing I think I know about humanity and its limits. I’m a little scared. At some points it becomes too much and I look away; I tune out. But never for long.

There’s also something dangerous going on. You can tell that the people up the front have been changed; transformed; by this life, this ‘magic’… they’re enchanted. There’s something not quite normal about them; the way they do this stuff that defies my ‘normal’ like it’s not just second nature but totally natural. They’re invested there’s a hint of trance like focus where muscle memory has simply taken over as they go through their paces. I wonder what life is like for them off stage whether this preternatural way of being infuses everything they do; does this way of seeing the world only operate in this space, or is every aspect of their humanity, are all their relationships, transformed? I suspect they must be. This is a new way of being human. It must also profoundly change the community they belong to; there’s a tightness and trust on display as they interact. There’s also risk implicitly involved in what they’re doing… it’s just so… different. It seems that if they fall from that height it’ll hurt more than if I fall as I just bumble around in risk-mitigated normality. But there’s something beautiful about the human more fully alive. Something compelling. Inviting even.

Maybe I could be part of this? I’m just not sure I could leave the comfort of my way of life behind to follow a bunch of clowns.

But there’s beauty here. Something different. Something intangible. But something that invites me to have my senses changed and my expectations about humanity expanded.

It just looks like hard work though. And I’m struggling to get over just how weird this stuff is. How counter-cultural.

There’s something about the atmosphere; the hint of enchantment in the air; that leaves me more likely to become a true believer than before. Perhaps I’m even converted. I’m definitely intrigued enough to consider coming back again, and maybe to making this a regular part of my life. Maybe even to seeing the capability of the humans I mix and mingle with in the workaday world somewhat differently; as people with potential to be something more, if only they would discover and tap into this ancient embodied magic.

Maybe I’ll go back. I’ve start thinking about it, and reliving it, as soon as we’re filing out of that space with a bunch of others who’d lived through the same experience; our shared vocabularies expand; I imagine we’re all leaving with the same questions, the same moments sticking out and challenging our preconceptions. As my wife and I de-brief in the carpark I can’t help thinking “maybe we will do this again… she seems to have enjoyed it too.” It was all just so weird, so different. I’m still haunted by that music. The words of the clown ring in my ears. I climb into my car and drive back to my normal. But I can’t help wondering:

What is it to be human?

Why does my normal seem so limited when what I’ve just seen defies those limits?

What’s normal anymore?

 

Worried about how Christianity gets treated in the political realm? Join a party for God’s sake (and your neighbour’s).

Do you ever feel like Christianity is profoundly misunderstood by those outside the fold? Do you feel maligned by the way the church is spoken about by the ‘left-wing media’ and by those with ‘progressive’ political agendas?

Are you worried about religious freedom, or that Australian culture is falling apart, in part because it is ignoring the Christian framework and heritage underpinning many of the good things and institutions that keep our society together?

Are you a Victorian Christian feeling like the state Labor government has some pernicious agenda to wipe you out of public life?

Are you at the point of wondering whether the approach of ‘lobbying’ is actually working, or even an approach to worldly power that Christians should be adopting?

Are you perhaps frustrated by the fruit borne by the approach to the political sphere that looks like starting a ‘Christian’ party, or ‘Christian lobbying’ that seems to get its agenda from the ‘political right’ or some sort of moralistic framework that seems far too interested in sex or Christian self-interest?

Are you a total Mike Baird fan boy, or fan girl?

It’s possible you answered yes to one or more of these questions; if so, might I humbly submit a solution.

Join a political party, for God’s sake, and the sake of your neighbour. 

Get involved. Not because political solutions are solutions for every problem of modern life. Not to build some sort of Christian empire or the kingdom of God via the political process, but because some political problems actually require political solutions.

You know the thing about political parties in Australia… they’re democratic. They’re also, by lots of reports, struggling for numbers; and perhaps a chance for you to have a disproportionate influence on policy for the sake of your neighbours. You might even get to run for office; and so stand in the tradition of a long line of Christians who have been actively involved in government as a way to love and serve both God and country.

Perhaps the way to no longer be misunderstood is to make ourselves known by being part of the process (maybe we need Christians who pursue journalistic excellence in the mainstream press, so take their place in newsrooms and editorial meetings around the country too). Perhaps our tendency to build Christian cultural ghettos is coming back to roost; ironically as the state steps in to make those ghettos ‘less Christian’ (via legislation about employment discrimination); maybe the ironic and irenic response would be for Christians to stop blasting our politicians with screeds and lobbying campaigns, and rather, to go to where they are.

If regular church attendance in Victoria is in line with the national average (8%) then there are 456,800 church goers in Victoria. In the midst of a membership push and a reworking of the party’s framework a couple of years ago designed to give members more power, Kevin Rudd revealed the Labor Party has about 40,000 members nationally… Makes you wonder, doesn’t it… what it would look like if some of those 456,800 church attendees signed up and just started faithfully turning up to branch meetings?

The church needs both clean hands and dirty hands when it comes to politics

 

I’d like to propose three ways for us to think about being political citizens of God’s kingdom in the modern world. Three ways that don’t necessarily overlap, but that we need to make space for in our conversations about politics within, and outside, the church.

  1. Clean hands: There’s certainly a role for Christians to have a prophetic voice from outside the political system; where we keep our hands ‘clean’ (and non-partisan) in order to call our leaders (and public) to an idealised vision of life together as global citizens. This voice might call for ‘political’ solutions via government, but it might also invite imaginative solutions from the ‘public’ (and Christians in the public) apart from professional politics. This is the sort of approach that recent posts on voting as a Christian and letter writing as a Christian have explored (though they’ve also worked on the assumption that the following two options are legitimate and important).
  2. Busy hands: Which leads to the second sort of ‘political’ work; the work that involves creating institutions that work for ‘political’ change in the broadest sense — ie meaningful change for the good of citizens of the ‘polis’ (be that local, state, national, or global). Christians have a great track record in starting these ‘institutions’ (including schools, charities, welfare agencies, hospitals, and more recently social enterprises that tackle particular problems. I believe we’ve dropped this from our thinking a little recently because we’ve been conditioned to see this third model as the way to make ‘real change’ happen.
  3. Dirty hands: The assumption in the modern west is that real change happens through policy-making. This is the trend that gave birth to the religious right, but that also underpins the progressive movement and its attempt to create a secular utopia via legislation. There’s also a need for other Christians to take up the challenge of getting our hands ‘dirty’ through involvement in the political process, in established political institutions (our political parties) in a manner that will ultimately involve the ‘suffering’ of compromise. The ‘dirty hands’ label comes from a talk I heard from Julia Gillard’s speechwriter/advisor Michael Cooney (mentioned here) on being a partisan political actor with an active faith; it draws on a political ethics essay by Michael Walzer that compares partisan actors who are willing to compromise in hard and messy political situations (and so dirty their hands) to achieve slightly more righteous ends to the ‘suffering servant’ from Isaiah.

Here’s some interesting analysis from a McCrindle Research post on some National Church Life Survey data (it is a few years old now).

The NCLS data (2011) shows that most Christians believe that Christians should be active in public policy through making public comment on policy issues (80% support this), advocating and lobbying governments (75%), and almost two-thirds (63%) believe that the church should publically advocate on policy issues, and more than two-thirds (68.5%) believe that church goers should campaign for global poverty and injustice issues.

It’s interesting that the questioning behind these results assumes the role of the church (institutionally) looks like the ‘clean hands’ option. It’s hard to make a distinction between the institution of ‘church’ and what members of the church do in the world if you’re a fan of the ‘priesthood of all believers’… and these categories obviously overlap a little because I’d expect politicians who are Christians to be politicians driven by convictions that their primary citizenship is in God’s kingdom, but an awareness that their role will involve some compromise, and I’d also expect them to be more open to hearing the voices of those with ‘clean hands’ (even if sometimes those idealised voices might be frustratingly detached from the real world of politics).

Personally I’ve figured out that I have a strong preference towards 2, with some parts of my job meaning that 1 (particularly being non-partisan) is important… But I would be incredibly supportive of people in my congregation joining (almost) any political party; from the Greens to the Libs, with a vision for being a faithful Christian voice in the policy discussions of those parties. I’m not suggesting engaging in the democratic party by stealth or takeover; but rather becoming part of established community institutions in order to offer a faithful presentation of what Christians believe, and policy solutions that come from a Christian imagination about what a good life in secular community might look like. We Christians have something to offer when it comes to inter-faith relations because the very nature of the history of the church is that we’ve emerged from other faiths and defined ourselves against those faiths while also being called to love our neighbours who disagree with us. Christians have long thought of themselves as ‘exiles’ living amongst people we’re called to love as part of our ‘citizenship’; and that has led Christians, historically, to all three positions outlined above.

… Hands shaped by the cross of our King

If you want a precedent for getting involved in the political process (apart from Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, who managed to work in two of the Bible’s most anti-God regimes while being commended as ‘righteous’); look no further than Erastus, who Paul mentions in Romans 16. Erastus managed to rise to a form of political prominence in the Roman imperial regime in Corinth (then, of course, there’s Constantine).

Part of the more recent secularistion or ‘church in exile’ narrative acknowledges how hard it is to be a Christian in a post-Christian age; but lots of our collective handwringing seems to forget that we’ve still got small bits of social capital to spend on the way out, and also that we were part of setting up lots of these institutions and still have some ability to ‘game the system’… we’ve just been too focused on other stuff. The nature of the sort of democratic approach to politics born out of Christian convictions about the inherent dignity of all people is that politics is still fundamentally (as much as it is influenced by other forces like lobbyists) a ‘numbers game’… and it’s the people who are in the meetings who get to set the policy agenda. This isn’t an invitation to grab power and to use it to beat up our enemies; that would be to make the mistake of the Christian right. It’s an invitation to consider what faithful presence in our civic institutions looks like in a way that makes space for different views and communities in our polis. It’s not about taking up the ‘sword’ of Government (as Romans describes civic rule), but figuring out how the cross of Jesus shapes an approach to the ‘sword’… The cross-shaped approach to politics isn’t about domination or wielding power and influence, but serving; it’s about knowing the limits of human political power, but also about offering oneself as a sacrifice, in this way, for the sake of our neighbours. That, incidentally, is the approach we see modelled in the Old Testament by exiles-in-political office.

I’d love to see Christians joining all our parties; from personal conviction, not simply to win a legislative bunfight out of self-interest (or group-interest). There’s not a policy platform out there that wouldn’t benefit from a Christian imagination being incorporated via the presence of more Christians. A Christian imagination shaped by the message of the Gospel and the understanding that Jesus is both true king and example; this sort of transformed imagination brings both:

a) a particular sort of altruism born from the recognition of the inherent, created, dignity and value of the marginalised or ‘less productive’ person, and
b) a particular vision of what a flourishing secular human society could be, where space is made to see individuals and communities with different convictions about life as neighbours to be loved, rather than enemies to be defeated (and even if people are ‘enemies’ we’re called to love them too).

These would be of benefit to the Liberal/National Coalition, to the Labor Party, to the Greens, to the Nick Xenophon Team, and you know, to One Nation as well. While I don’t want to totally outsource solutions to public life in Australia to the political realm, I’d love to see more Christians join these parties; rather than just sniping from the sidelines, or seeing our democratic participation exhausted at the ballot box or via a few letters here and there. I love the idea too, that Christians in partisan politics might model a better way of operating across the partisan divide (and this is where I think model 2 from the 3 above has real benefit in that it might create the sort of spaces that can unify people across this divide).

There are those writing about the situation for Christians in Victoria who seem to assume that ‘progressive politics’ (or the left) is, in itself, the enemy. I’d want to suggest that we all, as Christians, want some sort of ‘progress’ as a civilisation; we all want to be always reforming, or always transforming; and as Christians we have a particular kingdom shaped view of what progress looks like (and sometimes people in the past got it right, so real ‘progress’ for humanity might lie in conserving certain things). All our parties have ‘messy’ platforms and ideologies that are ‘anti-Christian’ or ‘anti-Christian-values’; so to do the broader ‘right’ and the ‘left’…  but there are also opportunities to bring goodness and truth to our neighbours within the parameters of each platform/ideology. The left tends to see the world ‘systematically’; where problems (like systemic injustice) need systemic solutions (like big government, and legislation that impacts ‘institutions’ or systems); and this does fit with a Christian understanding of sin (when sinful people get together it shouldn’t surprise us that they build systems marred by sin); the right tends to see problems and solutions resting with individuals. There’s a paradox here where the problems in our world are both… Perhaps it is to our detriment that reformedish or evangelical Christians have been so fixated on the individual nature of humanity (and salvation and stuff), that we’ve become suspicious of the progressive left and considered it part of the problem.

Some words of caution from James Davison Hunter

A lot of this ‘faithful presence’ thinking comes as I work my way through James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World; and I’m a bit worried that this proposal runs the risk of reinforcing a problem he’s diagnosed in how we westerners think of public, civic or political life. There are, as option 2 above suggests, other ways to tackle social problems that also benefit from the presence of Christians.

It’s important not to buy into the modern view of politics, and to recognise the limits of political solutions, which, as he puts it:

Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them…

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics… Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… It is difficult to even imagine much less accept the idea that there should be public space occupied by activities or organizations that are completely independent of the political realm. The realm of politics has become, in our imagination, the dominant — and for some the only adequate — expression of our collective life. In this turn, we have come to ascribe impossibly high expectations to politics and the political process…

This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.

Hunter warns Christians in politics (on the right or left) against using the state as a vehicle for a ‘Christian’ agenda; or to ‘aspire to a righteous empire’  (he uses this common criticism of the Christian right to critique the Christian left), and he also wants us to avoid political participation being the ‘easy way out’… he sees a role for the church as an alternative, autonomous, political framework (our first citizenship even), suggesting that Christian engagement in politics needs to avoid reducing the role of the church to just another political party.

“… in the Christian faith, one has the possibility of relatively autonomous institutions and practices that could—in both judgment and affirmation—be a source of ideals and values capable of elevating politics to more than the quest for power. But the consequence of the whole-hearted and uncritical embrace of politics by Christians has been, in effect, to reduce Christian faith to a political ideology and various Christian denominations and para-church organizations to special interest groups.”

And here’s two specific warnings on the particular advice at the heart of this post… first, for us not to avoid the difficulty of costly non-political solutions, and second, to work to undo the common view that politics is the solution to all our social problems (it is, however, a solution to political problems), and it would be amazing to have more politicians buying in to a view of the world that doesn’t see politics as where all the action is.

“Christians are urged to vote and become involved in politics as an expression of their civic duty and public responsibility. This is a credible argument and good advice up to a point. Yet in our day, given the size of the state and the expectations that people place on it to solve so many problems, politics can also be a way of saying, in effect, that the problems should be solved by others besides myself and by institutions other than the church. It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for a referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirmed parent, and to rally for racial harmony than to get to know someone of a different race than yours. True responsibility invariably costs. Political participation, then, can and often does amount to an avoidance of responsibility.”

“Politics is always a crude simplification of public life and the common good is always more than its political expression… Far more grave is the way politicization has delimited the imaginative horizon through which the church and Christian believers think about engaging the world and the range of possibilities within which they actually act. Politics is just one way to engage the world and, arguably, not the highest, best, most effective, nor most humane way to do so. This does not mean that Christians shouldn’t “vote their values” or be active in political affairs. It is essential, however, to demythologize politics, to see politics for what it is and what it can and cannot do and not place on it unrealistic expectations… To decouple the public from the political will open up other options for engaging the world and addressing its problems in ways that do not require the state, the law, or a political party. There are innumerable opportunities not only in art, education, the care for the environment, and the provision of relief for the widow, orphaned, and sick, but in the market itself to engage the world for the better.”

I’ve reached out to a few friends who are members of various political parties to share their thoughts in a follow up post; and if you are a Christian, and a member of a party, I’d love to hear from you about your experience.

The Worship Wars (6): A place for ‘Liturgy’ in our shared liturgies

Flannery O’Connor once told a young friend to “push as hard as the age that pushes against you.” The church is to be a radically alternative people, marked by the love of the triune God in each area of life. — Tish Harrison Wells, Liturgy Of The Ordinary

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This is the final (probably) post in this series contemplating what it looks like to see the church as being a worshipping community at war with the ‘gods’ who compete with God for our love and worship. It suggests winning that war is about sharing practices that orient us towards the love of God we find in the Gospel; so that our love for God prevents us loving other gods; both by pushing them from our hearts, and then by occupying them.

In my last post I suggested these practices should be built from Romans 12’s description of worship, and the sort of shared life we find in Acts 2 (and the early church); and that somehow this is perhaps descriptively liturgical rather than prescriptively Liturgical. I’m wanting to take on board much of the recent work of James K.A Smith (in his Cultural Liturgies series), and more recently Tish Harrison Wells in Liturgy Of The Ordinary, without totally swallowing their suggestion that the answer to the worship wars is capital-L ‘liturgy’; the ‘traditional forms’ of the church’s worship (which to me feel like the medieval forms of the church’s worship, or perhaps the forms of the church’s worship detached from the 24/7 rhythms that supported those forms in Acts 2). I think the 24/7 rhythms of the church in Acts 2 were the ‘ethos’ that gave life and plausibility to the ‘liturgy’ of the early Sunday service, not the other way around (but that’s probably a false dichotomy); whereas I feel like Smith and Wells see it the other way; where the Liturgy on a Sunday feeds into the rhythms of the week.

I suggested the picture of the church community who held everything in common and met every day is the sort of ‘worship’ that I see helping win the worship war; that that’s the sort of context in which we can be formed and forged into people who will love God and hate idols. Or love God, and so have our love for the good things he made properly ordered… That picture excites me.

The sort of Liturgical life Smith and Wells invite me to pursue doesn’t.

This is all meant to be about shaping our loves; but I just don’t love that way. This is where I suspect some of my discomfort with Smith and Wells and their push for a liturgical life kicks in. Personally I find the whole liturgy thing a bit boring; it doesn’t mesh with who I am, it doesn’t float my boat or fire my heart, or stoke my imagination. I know it should, and it’s a discipline, and that discipline might actually help me relate to people not like me. But when I read Smith (and to a lesser extent Wells) I love the system of thinking but loathe the application…

But here’s the thing; this vision of the Romans 12/early church picture sounds ideal and refreshing to me; but it sounds like something that would exhaust my introverted wife. If this is how the ‘worship wars’ must be fought, then I’ll be an early casualty; but, if they’ve totally got to be fought on my terms, in a shared life, open home, messy hospitality, constant-presence-in-the-ups-and-downs-of-life, reflecting-the-gospel ‘sacrifice,’ then my wife will be an early casualty; and either way we (our family) lose.

So here’s my thesis…

Worship needs to be all of life in a way that takes me as I am and uses the ‘gift’ I am in my renewed-createdness for the sake of others, in service of the gift-giver.

And part of that means acknowledging that my createdness; and the best of me; looks different to the createdness of others. This means the liturgy will look and feel a little different for all of us; while being geared towards the same ends (the benefit of the body, the demonstration of the Gospel, and the cultivation of our love for Jesus). In pushing for a single ‘form’ of liturgy, Smith advocates a one-size-fits-all for all time liturgy. I think that runs the risk of de-humanising those who don’t love like he loves. Wells is a useful additional voice on this because she’s exploring how Smith’s stuff, and a love for Liturgy, shapes the every day.

I do love the way she does this; she takes the structure of a Liturgical service and reframes everyday activities like making the bed, showering and cleaning your teeth, fighting with your family, losing your keys, being stuck in traffic, drinking tea, and sleeping as things that can teach us our story.I really like the way Wells writes; and the way she breaks down the secular/sacred divide by taking up this ‘worship-is-love-shaped-by-habit’ framework… but often it’s just not corporate enough for little extroverted me. It’s fantastic. I love her stuff on Romans 12 that reflects on how it’s all about embodiment; and I think this is powerful when paired with the plural your in the verse she’s writing about:

I needed to be trained to offer my body as a living sacrifice through my body. We learn how our bodies are sites of worship, not as an abstract idea, but through the practice of worshiping with our bodies. Each day our bodies are aimed toward a particular end, a telos. The way we use our bodies teaches us what our bodies are for. There are plenty of messages in our culture about this. The proliferation of pornography and sexually driven advertising trains us to understand bodies (ours and other people’s) primarily as a means of conquest or pleasure. We are told that our bodies are meant to be used and abused or, on the other hand, that our bodies are meant to be worshiped. If the church does not teach us what our bodies are for, our culture certainly will. If we don’t learn to live the Christian life as embodied beings, worshiping God and stewarding the good gift of our bodies, we will learn a false gospel, an alternative liturgy of the body. Instead of temples of the Holy Spirit, we will come to see our bodies primarily as a tool for meeting our needs and desires. The scandal of misusing our bodies through, for instance, sexual sin is not that God doesn’t want us to enjoy our bodies or our sexuality. Instead, it is that our bodies—sacred objects intended for worship of the living God—can become a place of sacrilege. When we use our bodies to rebel against God or to worship the false gods of sex, youth, or personal autonomy, we are not simply breaking an archaic and arbitrary commandment. We are using a sacred object—in fact, the most sacred object on earth—in a way that denigrates its beautiful and high purpose…

But when we use our bodies for their intended purpose—in gathered worship, raising our hands or singing or kneeling, or, in our average day, sleeping or savoring a meal or jumping or hiking or running or having sex with our spouse or kneeling in prayer or nursing a baby or digging a garden—it is glorious, as glorious as a great cathedral being used just as its architect had dreamt it would be.

This is terrific stuff; I just want to say “yes… and”… and this ‘and’ is part of me trying to articulate where I feel both Smith and Wells sell us a little short in their conclusions about worship (and I want to stress this is perhaps as an extrovert with, as Myers Briggs puts it, an emphasis on ‘intuitive’ processing of the world). It all feels a little bit introspective, or seeing worship predominantly in a vertical ‘God-Me’ frame; where it could be more horizontal and vertical in a ‘God-Us’ frame…

So this stuff about the body from Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 6-10 is great, but Paul’s logic about the body in 1 Corinthians isn’t just that our bodies belong to God; though they do; it’s that via our union with Christ our bodies belong to each other; not in a way that totally does away with bodily autonomy so that I have to give me to anyone who wants me, however they want, but in a way that stops me using my body for idol worship/sexual immorality (and in a way that my body does belong sexually to my spouse and me). This fits with the plural in Romans 12 too…

And here’s an itch I just can’t scratch when it comes to both Wells and Smith; something that just doesn’t sit quite comfortably on my creaturely shoulders; though I’m sure their push for Liturgy and liturgical calendars, and tradition, and imagery, and structure, works for others. But for me — and this is largely ‘personal preference’ and intuitive pushback, I’d really like a book on imagining the kingdom to leave more room for the imagination (while acknowledging that our imaginations will be fired in helpful directions by totally different sorts of stimulus). I feel like Paul is pretty descriptive when it comes to what embodied corporate worship should look like (in both Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14); but the jump to big-L Liturgy feels a bit prescriptive to me. There’s lots from You Are What You Love and Liturgy Of The Ordinary that I’ll take on board; some of it because the idea of incorporating the ideas into the rhythms of my life with my family and church seems usefully formative, and some of it precisely because it grates, and in grating, it might push me to a different sort of formation that will be more beneficial to others (especially my family). But not all of it… where Smith seems to give permission for some innovation around his insights about worship, while making the case for most of our ‘rhythms’ to be set Liturgically, I want to say Liturgy might play some part in our worship, but I don’t think I can rely on it in quite the same way he does; and I suspect this is true for a host of people like me. It’s ironic how much what follows is built around ‘I want’… but we’re talking about what it takes to calibrate our hearts in a particular direction, so there’s something intensely personal about this. I want to take the descriptive stuff on corporate worship and ‘formation’ in Romans 12, Colossians 3, and 1 Corinthians 12-14 and play with it using my imagination; not just for my sake, but for the sake of being a rich and diverse community that accommodates people in their difference.

I want worship that feels like it is reinforcing our corporate reality; not just my own relationship with God, but ours; that acknowledges the horizontal as well as the vertical, that isn’t just corporate by virtue of me going to the spiritual gym next to a bunch of other ‘worshippers’ on Liturgical-treadmills (and we can’t escape the corporateness of the sacraments or ‘Liturgy’ anyway), but that is corporate because the essence of worship-as-ritual is corporate. Again, it’s hard to say Smith and Wells don’t want exactly the same thing; there’s always a corporateness to what they write. What I suspect I’m reacting against is an approach to a paradox that doesn’t quite emphasise what I most naturally do… Perhaps because I’m extroverted, though perhaps simply because I lean this way as a corrective to a society that has gone too far in the other direction; I want to emphasise our ‘corporateness’ above our individualness when thinking about worship. I want my practices to be corporate much more than individual. I want ‘noisy time’ not ‘quiet time’… the paradox of our existence is that we’re both individual and individuals-in-relationship.

I’m human; and that necessarily means there’s a corporate element to my creatureliness. I want to do all this stuff she imbues and enchants with sacred, Gospel, truth, but start with the default assumption that I’m a person-in-relationshipsnot a person-then-relationships. I’m a son before I’m even conscious of my existence, a husband in a ‘one-flesh’ relationship by vow and practice, and a father before my kids know it… not to mention a child of God. I’m defined by my relationships as much as by my individuality be that the way my body, mind and soul work, or the products of those pieces of me: my personal narrative, loves, habits, desires and imagination. My relationships shape those things too — whether by nature or nurture. My habits are caught, mostly, and they infect… or they’re things I do with others (things ‘we do’). As I read these great books I feel like they’re telling me to work on getting new habits, and while the solution is corporate it’s about participating in shared capital-L liturgy with others; when the small-l liturgies are where 97% of the week is lived.

That’s where the Acts 2 picture of worship as sharing ‘everything in common’ ‘every day’ has so much power. There is, of course, a corporate element to everything both Smith and Wells talk about, it’s really just a vibe thing; one little example is this epiphany I had as I read Wells talk about thankfulness; thankfulness is a thing we’re encouraged to do in Colossians 3 (amongst other places), and it’s a discipline I’ve been practicing on social media this year. It has been helpful. But it occurred to me that the thankfulness in Colossians 3 is corporate; it’s celebration; it’s thankfulness not just about the good in my life, but ‘rejoicing with those who rejoice’ even if I feel more like mourning.

I’d been scratching this itch for quite a while before I went through this document called ‘personality and type’ with my mentor; he was challenging me to cultivate spiritual disciplines that don’t just fit with my personality type, and gave me a document called Looking at Type and Spirituality that suggests (based on the Myers-Briggs types) that different types of ‘habit’ or different ways of seeing the world will come more naturally to different people. I’m pretty sure the document is one he’s paid for, and is under copyright, but here’s a snapshot of one comparison between two different types… Notice “values well written liturgies or patterns of worship” and “enjoys writing or putting together new processes or patterns of worship”… I’m an “F”… My guess is that Smith and Wells might both be Ss.

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I don’t know how much weight to put on Myers-Briggs personality stuff; but what I do know is that people are different, and we get excited about different things, and God created and accommodates those differences (and sin/idolatry works differently for different sorts of people); and what we really need if we’re going to be an Acts 2 type community is not to mandate types of worship that fit our particular personality and experience; but find ways to be a community that is rich because it provides ‘rituals’ that help different people cultivate their love for Jesus.

It’d be a real shame to take this sort of insight and say ‘Liturgical churches will reach S-types while non-Liturgical churches will cater to the N-types”… if everybody worshipped the same, we’d get tired of worshipping with each other; and we wouldn’t be doing the Romans 12 thing of learning to live together as a diverse body.

I know there are quite a few people in our church community who are much more Liturgical than I am and that my wife and children operate differently to me… When it comes to our church community; some enjoy Advent, others love old church architecture, some pray through the Prayer Book, others want our sacraments to be more beautiful. It’s not loving for me to set rhythms that don’t help them love Jesus. And if I choose to be ‘not loving’ then I’m actually not ‘worshipping’ in the Romans 12 sense…  Because worship is ultimately about love it’s also about understanding and listening; first listening to and understanding God, but in turn, because God calls us to sacrificially love others, it’s about listening to and understanding others and how they tick and sacrificing on their terms, not my own. That’s why I’ll heartily endorse Smith and Wells and try to get everyone I can to read their books (especially Liturgy Of The Ordinary and You Are What You Love). They have given me some insight into the value of those practices I am inclined to toss because they do ‘nothing for me’… but because I see the benefit to others, and have perhaps even been convinced of the beauty of some structure (especially by Wells), there are Liturgical practices in those books that I hope to take up. I’ll do so both to push myself beyond my comfort zone, but also in order to love others better so they might love Jesus more (which in turn will shape my love for Jesus). There are also liturgical practices that I hope will shape our community in such a way that it makes loving Jesus more plausible for people who are wired to be like me…

That’s how I live out the truth that I am both ‘me’ and ‘me-in-relationships’ — that my body is God’s, but also belongs to others…

The challenge for those of us who have a hand in shaping the culture and rhythms of church, and family, life is to do it in a way that caters for the other; and that might involve participating in ‘Liturgy’ or ‘ritual’ that doesn’t float your boat, because that, in itself, is an act of sacrificial love for the other, and so, whether you like it or not, it’s worship.

The Worship Wars (5): Fighting to win in a worshipping community

Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves… Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts. When we realize that worship is also about formation, we will begin to appreciate why form matters. The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves toward the kingdom, so we need to be intentional about the Story that is carried in those practices. — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

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It has been a while since the last official post in this series, but there have been two more recent posts that really should make this a seven part series (it’s just that in part 4 I promised one more to tie things up; turns out I was wrong, and this is now the penultimate post because I split it in two).

So here’s a quick re-cap with tl:dr; summaries of each post so far.

  1. Part one argued that the fundamental truth about our humanity is that ‘you are what you worship’ and so suggested that the real worship wars aren’t so much about what style of music or liturgy your church employs on a Sunday, but about the war for our hearts, desires, and imaginations that goes on 24/7. Real worship happens as the habitual/liturgical living out of a story that shapes us by capturing our love so that we sacrifice.
  2. Part two argued that the fights about music in church got one thing right; how we worship really matters. It suggests that one implication of the battle for our worship between God and our idolatrous hearts is that gathering as the church on a Sunday is important, but won’t be enough to win the war.
  3. Part three explored this ‘worship as habits living out a story of the flourishing life’ (thanks James K.A Smith, Augustine, and the Bible) and the power of idolatrous worship by considering pornography use as a form of defective and deadly worship that conscripts the hands, hearts, and imagination such that a person (and culture) is shaped by this ‘shared’ worship.
  4. Part four started to chart a way forward in the worship wars; which involved: a) seeing ourselves as living in a world where lots of things vie for our worship because the evil one loves us to worship idols, b) knowing our enemies, c) seeing that winning the war requires real worship of the real God, d) seeing that attack is the best form of defence; that we beat idols via ‘the expulsive power of a new affection’ and donning the ‘armour of God’ (Ephesians 6) not just by guarding our hearts.
  5. As a bonus I considered how my weight loss program was a form of idolatrous worship built on these building blocks, and examined some unexpected consequences of adopting new habits.
  6. Then how going to Westfield to do my Christmas shopping was joining a bunch of worshippers in a modern temple.

It’ll be clear to anyone who reads the snippets of different books quoted in these posts that much of what I’ve written is simply articulating the framework James K.A Smith has been developing in his books Imagining The Kingdom, Desiring The Kingdom, and You Are What You Love. Smith loves Augustine and David Foster Wallace too, so I’ve very much enjoyed these works from the series because they are, in many ways, articulating a framework I’m deeply convinced of too… I’ve also just finished reading the most excellent and provocative Liturgy Of The Ordinary: Sacred Practices In Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Wells, which is a companion piece, of sorts, to Smith’s ‘Cultural Liturgies’ series. These books are a great resource when it comes to seeing the problem posed by our heart’s desire to be pointed at something (or claimed by something), but I’m not entirely convinced their answers (in sum: a return to ancient, tried and true ‘liturgy’) are for everybody. Smith’s emphasis is largely placed on Sunday-as-worship (and especially the liturgical shaping of a worship experience around word and sacrament), Wells expands Smith’s insight to consider how the shape of a classic liturgical service might be reflected in the shape of the everyday. I’m unpersuaded by this, at least so far as what worship that keeps my own heart pointed and ordered by the Gospel might look like, though I should say I’m thoroughly persuaded of their critique of a tendency for churches to respond to the way things outside the church are capturing our hearts by making church feel more like a cafe or the shopping centre… I also totally share their conception about what the ends, or telos, of worship and ‘church’ are, and how worship relates to the God we meet in the Gospel… I love this selection of quotes from You Are What You Love:

The practices of the church are also a spiritual workout, inviting us into routines that train our heart muscles, our fundamental desires that govern how we move and act in the world…

Our sanctification—the process of becoming holy and Christlike—is more like a Weight Watchers program than listening to a book on tape. If sanctification is tantamount to closing the gap between what I know and what I do (no longer reading Wendell Berry in Costco, essentially), it means changing what I want. And that requires submitting ourselves to disciplines and regimens that reach down into our deepest habits. The Spirit of God meets us in that space—in that gap—not with lightning bolts of magic but with the concrete practices of the body of Christ that conscript our bodily habits.

Christian worship is the heart of discipleship just to the extent that it is a repertoire of practices shaped by the biblical story. Only worship that is oriented by the biblical story and suffused with the Spirit will be a counterformative practice that can undo the habituations of rival, secular liturgies.

The Scriptures seep into us in a unique way in the intentional, communal rituals of worship. If we want to be a people oriented by a biblical worldview and guided by biblical wisdom, one of the best spiritual investments we can make is to mine the riches of historic Christian worship, which is rooted in the conviction that the Word is caught more than it is taught.

While worship is entirely embodied, it is not only material; and though worship is wholly natural, it is never only natural. Christian worship is nothing less than an invitation to participate in the life of the Triune God.

Those of us who inhabit postmodernity have so much to learn from ancient Christians… the rituals and liturgies of their surrounding culture were much more overt—for example, their civic political spaces were unabashedly temples, whereas ours traffic under euphemisms (stadiums, capitols, universities)—early Christians were more intentional about and conscious of the practices they adopted for worship. The heart and soul of their liturgical life hearkened back to Israel, but they didn’t simply “Jesufy” the synagogue. There was faithful innovation as the disciples sought to discern the rhythms and practices that would constitute the community of Christ. This included responding specifically to Jesus’s commands (giving us baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for example), but it also included careful selection, reappropriation, and reorientation of formative cultural practices into the repertoire of kingdom-indexed liturgy. Thus, over time, the body of Christ continued to discern the scripts that should characterize a worshiping community centered on the ascended Christ who prayed for kingdom come.

To be conformed to the image of his Son is not only to think God’s thoughts after him but to desire what God desires. That requires the recalibration of our heart-habits and the recapturing of our imagination, which happens when God’s Word becomes the orienting center of our social imaginary, shaping our very perception of things before we even think about them. So, like the secular liturgies of the mall or the stadium or the frat house, Christian liturgies can’t just target the intellect: they also work on the body, conscripting our desires through the senses.

All these are fantastic; but where he goes (and where Wells goes with him) will not, I suspect, work for us all; though I’d suggest they (and the others they draw on through church history and in the Bible) do provide the scaffolding for us.

Forming (or de-forming) worship in a gods-saturated age

Like Athens when Paul visited, gods are on every corner in our so-called ‘secular’ age; and this ‘habit-shaping,’ ‘ritual,’ worship takes many forms

Smith has quite a bit to say about how important the forms of our worship are, within the life of the church, not simply the content (which is pretty much taking Marshall McLuhan’s insights that ‘the medium is the message’ and applying them to the life of the church…here’s his critique of churches that have tended to simply imitate the ‘forms’ found in rival ‘worship’ (like the gym, or the shopping centre) by creating church services that are ‘hip’, consumer-driven things where worship is ‘expressive’ rather than enacted, habitual, ritual with a vision of the image of the ‘good life’ (Jesus), and a ‘narrative’ (the Gospel)  shaping these habitually repeated actions (so that the form is important).

With the best of intentions, this “expressive” paradigm is then allied to a questionable distinction between the form of worship and the content of the gospel. The concrete shape and practices of Christian worship, passed down through the centuries, are considered merely optional forms—or even whited sepulchers of dead ritual—that can and should be discarded in order to communicate the gospel “message” in ways that are contemporary, attractive, and relevant. In our desire to embed the gospel content in forms that are attractional, accessible, and not off-putting, we look around for contemporary cultural forms that are more familiar. Instead of asking contemporary seekers and Christians to inhabit old, stodgy medieval practices that are foreign and strange, we retool worship by adopting contemporary practices that can be easily entered precisely because they are so familiar.

“Rather than the daunting, spooky ambience of the Gothic cathedral, we invite people to worship in the ethos of the coffee shop, the concert, or the mall. Confident in the form/content distinction, we believe we can distill the gospel content and embed it in these new forms, since the various practices are effectively neutral: just temporal containers for an eternal message. We distill “Jesus” out of the inherited, ancient forms of historic worship (which we’ll discard as “traditional”) in order to present Jesus in forms that are both fresh and familiar: come meet Jesus in the sanctified experience of a coffee shop; come hear the gospel in a place that should feel familiar since we’ve modeled it after the mall. The problem, of course, is that these “forms” are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message. As we’ve seen already, what are embraced as merely fresh forms are, in fact, practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life…

So when we distill the gospel message and embed it in the form of the mall, while we might think we are finding a fresh way for people to encounter Christ, in fact the very form of the practice is already loaded with a way of construing the world. The liturgy of the mall is a heart-level education in consumerism that construes everything as a commodity available to make me happy. When I encounter “Jesus” in such a liturgy, rather than encountering the living Lord of history, I am implicitly being taught that Jesus is one more commodity available to make me happy. And while I might eagerly want to add him to my shelf of stuff, we shouldn’t confuse this appropriation with discipleship.”

Then he talks specifically about how these ‘forms’ work in the context of Christian worship, of the sort he believes offers a genuine solution…

“By the “form” of worship I mean two things: (1) the overall narrative arc of a service of Christian worship and (2) the concrete, received practices that constitute elements of that enacted narrative.”

Here’s one little bit of pushback on this stuff on ‘forms’ before we move on; as I was bombarded with preachy emails from The Commando during my 12 week fitness challenge, I couldn’t help but feel that he’d actually flogged his approach from the church, and there might be times when we’re actually just taking our forms back, as well as times when we might ‘plunder gold from Egypt’; if we pay attention to the ‘forms’ that form people it’s not totally beyond a robust doctrine of creation to spoil Egypt to preach Christ (that’s totally Augustinian, too, in On Christian Teaching). A ‘true form’ can be used by those peddling falsehood to achieve deformation; and we need to be careful that those ‘forms of historic worship’ weren’t simply the ‘mall’ of their day (so, for example, the Roman household, or association, or the ‘sacred’ practices designed by the culture of the church through the ages.

I’m with Smith on forms being as important as content; especially because I think there’s two more elements at play in how we do church/worship together (and how church works) that fit with this Augustinian paradigm (or indeed, with us being made as people who bear the image of whatever we worship, and people who are made to relate to others in cultures built around common objects of worship):

  1. The church and its worship is the plausibility structure for the Gospel; and the way we love and worship reflecting the Gospel helps us to believe, and non-believers to come to belief when they see us worship (see 1 Corinthians 14, and 1 John).
  2. Any persuasion to change is driven more by what we do (ethos) and imitation than by what we say; the quickest way to undermine what we say is to do differently.

The form of our community and its life and love together expressed in our shared practices has to line up with the message we preach about a crucified and resurrected Lord who loves us by laying down his life in our place to forgive our sins and restore our relationship with God. Our worship is our ‘shared practice’ of living out this message, and following the example of Jesus, of whom Marshall McLuhan said:

“In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same”

The shape of our worship matters, and I’m not so sure its enough simply for our worship to be reflecting on the Gospel story via historic liturgies, but also participating in re-telling the Gospel story via deliberate acts of sacrificial love that consciously reflect the message we believe and so shape us. That’s fundamentally what the sacraments do, of course. I’m sure that these ancient forms of worship that Smith is speaking about, and the applications of the elements of a liturgical service to daily life Wells puts forward do that; but they don’t exclusively do that (ie there are other ways to skin this cat), and I’d argue there’s a slightly more ancient form. I suspect the apostle Paul and the early church knew a thing or two about idolatry and worship and what it does to us, it’s pretty rudimentary Judaism and he was not a rudimentary Jew…

Forming practices that go beyond Sundays

In You Are What You Love Smith writes about what it looks like for a family to take the liturgical calendar and incorporate it into the rhythms of family life, and to build new ‘rhythms’ that spring from this shape, and that’s nice and has some appeal to me as I think about what sort of rhythms family life should take in the Campbell family, and what forms I want forming my kids (and us as a family). Both Smith and Wells see worship and liturgy going beyond Sunday, but because of their emphasis on capital-L Liturgy they put huge significance on Sundays-as-worship. Sundays most definitely are worship; and an especially important part of worship because they incorporate the gathered body of believers-in-community; and let’s not understate this as an important distinctive that comes with the Gospel. Lots of idolatrous worship is individualistic and so consumer-driven that you end up consuming others as objects, not sacrificing for them. Christian worship is distinctively corporate, and other-serving. This is why Sundays are important; but it’s also why the Sunday-experience of life together is limiting. I don’t think our consumer driven approach to worship as Christians is limited to the way Sundays happen; I think the way we think of ‘church’ as ‘event’ or even ‘church’ as ‘where I go to be fed/worship God’ rather than thinking of ‘church’ as synonymous with ‘people of God’ is just as damaging. There’s a danger some who might be more inclined towards Liturgy and tradition might bring the wrong expectations to those ancient forms; just as there’s a danger that this same attitude might lead some to create new forms. Here’s where I think the Bible pushes back at this… this is a contender for most quoted verse on my blog I reckon…

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. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Notice Paul doesn’t say:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters… view of God’s mercy… holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Worship is something we do, but it’s not just a thing we direct vertically; towards God; worship has a dimension that includes what we do with our bodies in this world and somehow doing what Paul goes on to talk about in the rest of chapter 12 (which is directed to other people) is proper worship of God.

Also, notice he doesn’t say:

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— on Sundays — this is your true and proper worship.

This worship is an attitude; a deliberate, formative, direction of our bodies that is caught up with not being conformed (or deformed) by the world (powerful when read in the context of Romans 1), which is somehow caught up with the transforming and renewing of our minds.

Also notice what he’s actually saying is:

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

This is something the ‘brothers and sisters’ he writes to are to do together. Worship is caught up in the life of the church being lived as a living sacrifice. And he gets quite specific… Here’s a list of practices that have the capacity to be rituals just as powerful as capital-L liturgy if they’re caught up in living out our ‘view of God’s mercy’…

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. — Romans 12:3-16

What if we took this; not just the liturgical calendar (which might help us to view God’s mercy); and made it the blueprint of ‘church’ and of ‘worship’ that went a long way beyond Sundays.

Sounds nice; doesn’t it? What if our ‘worship’ was built on providing a community where the church could bless one another (and the world) by sacrificially offering our ‘gifts’; this list can’t just cover Sundays; it’s about what life together looks like. Shared life. Sharing the ups and downs of life.

Ideal even?

But perhaps it sounds too idealistic in our busy modern life. Perhaps though our busyness it actually a ritual, a liturgy, or a habit that reflects our worship of some other gods — career, success, money, our identity being caught up in our ‘job’…

Here’s the thing this is actually what the early church did. This is the ‘tradition’ of the church as it is established:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” — Acts 2:42-47

This is the sort of community life that made the Gospel plausible in the first century that attracted and cultivated disciples…

This is the Romans 12 ‘worshipping community’…

This is the ‘ethos’ that reflects the Gospel, and these are the habits of life together that reinforces the Gospel message that has just been preached in Acts 2… and

We’re not really told much about their Liturgy; but we can imagine their ‘liturgy’ from these verses; we know the sacraments were part of the life of the church from Acts and the other NT letters, but they seem to be incorporated into meals and the life of the ‘family’… not just on Sundays, but meeting together ‘every day’…

This is how to win a worship war; this is what helped the early church flourish in a world soaked with idols vying for their hearts; not least of which was the Roman Emperor via the Imperial Cult. This is the sort of thick community that was both present in the world such that they ‘enjoyed the favour of all of the people’ but also capable of keeping the church standing in the face of persecution from the empire; in fact, a little later, when the empire is just figuring out how to get Christians to recant and worship the emperor, in the governor Pliny’s correspondence with the emperor Trajan, this is how the official records describe the practices of the church:

“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.”

This ‘fixed day’ was Sunday; we know from Justyn Martyr, who wrote a substantial amount about how Sunday gatherings worked in 150AD, that Sundays were important and had a ‘Liturgy’ from pretty early on; but somehow this Liturgy was not a replacement of the Acts 2 liturgy, but part of the rhythms of church life. Sundays seem to be an expression of the community of worshippers that exists throughout the week.

“…the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.” — Justin Martyr, First Apology

This approach to life; and Sunday; which is very much God-centred, and so, other-centred, is what worship looks like; worship isn’t just a me-and-God thing, but an us-and-God thing, and that’s a powerful antidote to the worship of the fitness program or the shopping centre (and why, for example, the Get Commando Fit program works so hard at building an online community of people who are ‘in the program’ with you).

The practices that are going to fight the counter-forming practices of the idols of our world; our technology (be it social media or pornography), our relationships, our diets, our exercise program… all these come with an embedded vision of the ‘image of the life we want’… living together ‘in view of God’s mercy’ won’t always feel totally different, because it will still involve sacrifice, and a relationship via ‘habitual action’ with the things of our world (people, food, exercise, and sex are all good things God made)… but it has to be consciously shaped by a different story in the context of a living, breathing, community shaped by the Gospel story, united in Christ, given the Spirit, and working out what it looks like to pray, learn, suffer, struggle, rejoice, mourn, serve, give, eat, sin, and forgive together. I want to build the rhythms of life in our family around the activities listed in Romans 12 (and in Acts 2, and in Colossians 3, and Ephesians 6…); but I also want them to shape how I approach being part of the family of God, so that catching up for a coffee or sharing a meal is both a habit, and an opportunity to relate in the sort of way Paul describes here; to share life-in-Christ. I want this sort of generous service of others to shape the way I encourage people in our church community to spend their time (and energy, and money).

Worship can’t be a thing we do alone; it works best in relationships where we’re conscious that this is the human task; that discipleship starts with these ancient practices that reflect our shared story. It’s these practices throughout the week, not just the ‘Liturgy’ of traditional churches as practiced on Sundays, that will form us, and our loves, in a way that destroys the idols that would take our hearts captive. In the final, or ultimate, post I’ll consider what place the big-L Liturgy Smith and Wells advocate can have in this worship war.

 

14 (not easy) ‘new years resolutions’ for Christians who want to live more radically in 2017

I’ve been reading lots about how our habits are a sort of liturgy (repetitive practice/ritual) that shapes us as people as they shape what we desire. I’m terrible at habits but the times ‘habit starting’ has worked for me have involved ‘new financial year resolutions’ like giving up soft drink for a year and diets like the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation and more recently the Commando’s equivalent. Changing at the level of the ‘habitual’ is important for any ‘big’ change in who you are or how you live; and while we’re inclined to think we ‘educate’ ourselves towards change starting with the head; it’s quite possible that we actually ‘worship’ our way to change; and that this involves our desires, our imaginations, and the sort of ‘ritual’ or habitual actions we adopt as we pursue the desired and imagined image of the ideal us. As Christians our starting point should be the image of us that God desires; and for many of us that ‘image’ might feel ‘radically’ different to the images of the ‘good life’ we see in advertising, ‘fitness program’ material, and on the screens of our TVs and phones.

We have this particular sort of ‘image’ our worship shapes us into…

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. — Colossians 3:9-10

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:18

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. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Getting there, making the shift from old creation to new; taking off vice and putting on virtue, is fundamentally a work of God recreating us; but inasmuch as we’re involved it’s a process that might start small, at the level of new habits kicking in so that we’re taking part in our new story, rather than being a thing where we flick a switch having learned some new idea and have that change overnight.

Habits matter. It’s a good thing to make resolutions to change small things.

Because change starts with the relationship between our desires and our actions (and in our ‘sacrifice’ of our selves as an act of ‘worship’ where we bear the image of the object of those desires) each and every unit of time we divvy up; whether its the ‘year’, the month, the week, the day, the hour, the minute, or the second, is an opportunity to worship, and thus to be transformed. Whether we’re being formed, or malformed; transformed or conformed…

Radical revolutions can start small if they’re applied for a lifetime — it can be a bit like a pilot at the start of a long haul flight, where one degree of difference in the direction you fly in makes a huge amount of difference on where you end up… but changing your habits can also involve big structural change; so here are some resolutions I’d love to see more Christians taking up (that I’d like to take up for myself too). A radical revolution might involve small changes, but it might also have a very different end point that you’re shooting for, and I fear some of our resolve, as Christians, as expressed in our resolutions and the ‘steps’ we’re prepared to take, is too small.

These are the things I’m aiming to do in 2017.  Some of these suggestions are ‘small’ habits; some are abstract; some are ‘measurable and concrete’; but they’re all attempts to think about what ‘offering your bodies as a living sacrifice’ might look like in the year 2017, and it’s worth noting that the ‘your’ in Romans 12:1 is plural; this worshipping is something we’re called to do together. Some of them are drawing together stuff I’ve been pondering, preaching, or writing about in 2016. Some of them are ‘heady’; like ‘read’, some are aimed at shaping the way we love, and some are more concrete ‘repeated actions’… but these are my ‘resolutions’; coupled with some that you might do to join me in this ‘worship’…

Work at seeing the world differently through ‘media’, especially stories, and find ways to discuss what you’re reading and watching with others

Real virtue starts with seeing the world as it really is, and people as they really are; which requires getting out of the confines of your own head and its imaginings and desires, and our tendency to see other people as objects for us to do things to, or with, rather than subjects. For the Christian, real virtue comes from seeing the world the way God sees it.

1. Find ways for the Bible’s story, centred on Jesus, to ‘seep into your bones,not just be a technical book of rules and propositions about God you break into arbitrary chunks. I’ve found that I read the Bible lots for work, and for writing stuff, and that this dampens my enthusiasm for the ‘story’ the Bible tells. I’ve found reading the kids their Jesus Storybook Bible is helpful, but this year I’m planning to try something a bit different. We’re actually doing this in our first series at church this year. I’m going to get a good audio Bible and practice listening to God’s word as a ‘story’ rather than trying to pull it apart via a chapter and verse approach, or doing word studies and stuff.

2. Read good Christian books; including one that is more than 200 years old for every two or three modern ones. You can find some ideas for new stuff to read here. I’ve flogged the ‘read old books’ from C.S Lewis’ intro to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation.

3. Read a book (or essays, or subscribe to some podcasts) from outside your tradition (even non-Christian ones) that’ll challenge you, maybe as often as you read an old Christian book; this will  also help you to understand, be sympathetic to, and challenge the ‘worship’ of those around you). Read some old ones of these too so you know where good and bad ideas come from… This is how we start being dangerous to the world, rather than having the world be dangerous to us. I gave a talk along these lines to a bunch of first year uni students at the University of Queensland this year.

4. Read, watch, or play some fiction that will help you understand other people more empathetically and to pay attention to why people live the way they do; but that might also help you understand the formative power of story (as you experience it). I was struck this year by how powerful video games can be for cultivating empathy; as I played games as varied as Fallout 4 and That Dragon, Cancer, The Last Of Us, and more recently a game called This War Of Mine; but novels will do this for you, so will TV shows, any good ‘story’ really…

5. Because people are ‘image bearers’ of whatever they worship; people are media, find some ways to hear the stories of people in your life; in your workplace, in your street, in your family… especially people who are different to you. I’m aiming to spend more time hearing the stories of the asylum seekers in our church community (stories like my friend Masoud’s), the stories of people I connect with through volunteering with the Micah Project, and hopefully the story of more indigenous Australians through hanging out with a local indigenous missionary. I’ve spent time doing all sorts of things with these groups already, I just haven’t been great at having my perspective pushed beyond my own reasons for wanting to love and help these local communities.

6. I also want to make good stories for my kids. While I’ve been thinking about how powerful stories are for cultivating virtue by helping us see the world, I’ve been thinking about how terrible Christian kids books are. Whether they’re little character studies of Old Testament characters, or just moral fables, they are bad; until you hit Narnia age. I love reading to my kids because it’s an important way to be present for them, but also to shape their imaginations, and I’m quite happy to read them great stories that aren’t ‘Christian’… but it’d be nice if there were more good stories out there that helped us shape our kids, stories that ‘catechise’. I’ve been thinking about what it would look like to write good stories that teach some of the concepts at the heart of the old catechisms to go alongside our Bible stories that teach Biblical Theology (I’ve enjoyed Kevin DeYoung’s The Biggest Story: How The Snake Crusher Brings Us Back To The Garden). So one of my resolutions is to try to make and tell good stories for my kiddoes, that may or may not be beneficial to other people’s kiddoes. I turned the photos from a recent holiday to Rainbow Beach into a picture book for my kids that aimed to show how rest, fun, ‘holy days’ and the beauty of God’s world tell us something about God, it’s not well written, but it is on high rotation, so I aim to do a couple more of these this year. If you’re the creative type maybe you could find ways to solve the problem of the world’s lack of good stories being told that shape our desires and imaginations in good ways (there could always be more of these), whether it’s for kids or adults.

Be mindful that your media practices (including the tools and platforms you use) are shaping you, whether you know it or not; so take control.

There’s a video that has gone viral this week featuring technologist Simon Sinek explaining why it’s not the fault of the poor ‘millenial’ that we’re so entitled and relationally bereft; it’s parenting and social media that are to blame. It’s an annoying video, but that doesn’t mean what he says isn’t true or worth heeding; there are three disciplines a sort of theology of worship/idolatry/who we are as people from Christian thinking, neuroplasticity, and a thing called ‘media ecology’ that all operate on the premise that you ‘become what you behold’… it’s true. And it’s not just the stories that shape us; Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’; which is actually the theory that our tools and platforms are just as likely to form us as the information they relay; only we’re less likely to notice. This means I’m re-thinking some of my ‘media practices’.

One of McLuhan’s major things is that our tools aren’t neutral; they’re forming us; but this doesn’t mean we should not use them, simply that we should be aware of this power and try to make sure we’re being transformed for good, not deformed. You can read plenty of stuff I’ve written on this stuff in the past, including a long series on how Facebook messes with your brain, but also some stuff on how we might harness this truth for good, including how to think about social media as Christians drawing on the insights of theology, neuroscience, and media ecology, some practical tips that apply this ‘approach’, and if you’re super keen you can check out the slides from a couple of talks I’ve given on this stuff (that mostly have good quotes from books and research).

7. Make space for silence. I was challenged by a New York Mag article ‘Technology Almost Killed Me‘ by Andrew Sullivan, one of the world’s biggest and most famous bloggers, who in many ways sounds a bit like me; his piece is worth reading, it has me convinced that silence and non-stimulation needs to be part of my regular rhythms. I like to convince myself that I wouldn’t go crazy if I was left in a room by myself with no wifi and no phone for two hours (I’d probably just fall asleep); but I’m not so sure, though I’d like to find out, so I’m aiming to not use my phone to pass time.

To ‘kickstart’ my new approach to my phone, I’ve deleted most of the apps that aren’t useful for particular tasks, or things I use for my job (so Facebook made the cut). My phone is for communication (including social media), for creativity (photos and making things like the picture book I made for my kids, and documenting events like Christmas carols and chicken wing cook offs), and for ‘utility’ stuff like managing my finances (and automating my house just a little bit). It’s not for gaming, for reading, or for killing time. I am one of those cliched types who look at my phone just before I go to sleep, and first thing in the morning… I’d like to change that, and part of what I’m resolving to do here is to start charging my phone outside our bedroom, and to not check it until I’ve ticked off a few important ‘to do’ items in the morning.

8. Make space for presence. This is a second ‘phone’ related resolution; and again, it’s pretty cliched. One of the things I did like about the Sinek video was what he said about phone use in meetings, at the table, and just generally when there’s another person in front of you. I find parenting quite difficult, but a lot of the time that’s because my kids are distracting me from my ‘distractions’… If you see me pull out my phone when I’m around you (unless it’s to find something online specifically related to improving the experience for both of us), call me out on it (don’t call me on it).

9. Move from ‘black glass’ to tactile ‘old media’ (or technology that has the ‘feel’ of old media) where that’s feasible. I was pretty convinced by Enchanted Objects, a book where the writer, David Rose, makes the case that our technology promises to do something about our lack of enchantment, but argues that glass screens are terrible substitutes for other types of ‘magic’… I think real re-enchantment lies elsewhere (and that technology over promises) but his critique of screens is powerful. I also want my kids to love books and reading; not being screen dependent, so I want them to see daddy reading books, not daddy staring at the iPad. I think this means I’m going to buy a kindle with e-ink, and use paper books as much as I can.

10. Use technology more intentionally to ‘offer myself as a living sacrifice’ — not some curated more appealing version of me, but perhaps the version of me that is inclined to love others not just serve myself. Technology can be harmful. Porn drives innovation in the tech space, and is also incredibly destructive, perhaps your resolution could be tackling that habit (which is a defective and damaging form of false worship). Social media does do odd stuff to our brains that leaves people more anxious and less deeply connected than previous generations. But technology isn’t all bad; making it, innovating, and creating with it is part of us fulfilling God’s design for us; where we are ‘creators’ who spread order throughout the world using the stuff he put in it. I love what technology can do for us; I’ve been blogging for more than 10 years, and that’s an integral part of how I process my thinking (and it turns out it has been good for other people too, or so they say). I love that I can skype my missionary friends in Tanzania, and we can keep tabs with our missionary family in Asia (though I’m slack at both of these). I love that my phone can be an asset for forming habits — via reminders (so long as I don’t just ignore them). I love that social media confronts me with the faces and stories of my friends and acquaintances from around the globe (and connects me with more people) and that this provides opportunities for me to communicate with more people, and to share in their stories, and to pray for and encourage others. For most of this year I’ve had a reminder in my phone to pray for and text encouragement to my Growth Group. Every day. At 7:30am. I’ve dropped the ball a bit on that, but need to pick it up, and perhaps cast it wider.

Technology isn’t neutral; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good. It is powerful. In my series on the impact of social media on the brain my conclusion was that an ‘incarnate’ model of mission involves deliberate change, cost, and sacrifice in order to be with other people, suggesting this also works virtually. I still think this is true. So I’m resolving to pray more for things I read on social media, to be more deliberately encouraging (and to build that into how I spend my time online), to continue being #thankful and sharing stories via Instagram, and to move thankfulness beyond just what is going on in my life to celebrating what is going on in the life of others. There’s also tools I’m hoping to use to ‘give’ more effectively; I’m going to more deliberately track my spending using this app called PocketBook, and this one called Tithe.ly to track my giving to church, and give small amounts as I make small sacrifices (like not getting a second coffee at a cafe). I’m hoping this makes giving (and saying no) a habit.

Pick some sort of change you’d like to see in the world and work towards it (with small or big steps).

Sometimes we’re pretty small when it comes to our sense of what can be achieved through making these seemingly small habitual changes. Sometimes our focus is just on what we can change about ourselves. And that’s boring and inward looking; and perhaps it’s also ineffective if, perhaps, the best way to change ourselves is actually to look outwards and ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice’… What was on your list? Eating healthy (yeah, that’s on mine too). Exercising more. Sleeping more. Doing bits and pieces from the lists above when it comes to how you fill your head… that’s all good stuff. But it’s a bit lame, and probably much the same as everyone else. What should our list look like if we’re becoming a ‘new self’? What does it look like not to focus on ‘self-improvement’ but ‘self sacrifice’ that’s both ‘in view of God’s mercy’ and in some sense a ‘view of God’s mercy’; a demonstration of what it looks like to be transformed into the image of Christ. The new you, as a Christian, is a pretty big deal…  but it’s not a thing you build by yourself, it’s an act of God that happens in us as our ‘worship’ changes. The way we see and live in the world changes…

 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What would it look like for us to take these words from Paul, and these ones from C.S Lewis in ‘The Weight of Glory‘, and apply them to our resolutions.

“…If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

In this most excellent sermon, Lewis wanted us to wrap our heads around who we are, and where we’re going, and to have that shape the way we live here and now. Where better to have that shaping take place than in our resolutions. Maybe read it before coming up with your ‘ambitions’ for the year. It’s bracing.

“A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.”

I’d love to be more adventurous in both my resolutions and what I think Christians can achieve (hey, maybe I’m a typical millennial with far too great a desire to make an impact). I’m convinced by James Davison Hunter’s stuff on how Christians are too bought into the idea that social change comes via politics in a way that might prevent us creating a presence in our community that brings real change; I’m also convinced that this sort of change is primarily driven by having an imagination for what things might look like if there was a little bit more of the kingdom of God in the world, and pursuing it. This shaped the way I wrote about voting last year, and about how to write to a politician about an issue.

I’ve spent the last few years volunteering with this group in my area called The Micah Project, who started as a social justice ministry of our local Catholic Church, and employ hundreds of people, who do stuff like getting a $40 million housing development off the ground to provide permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people, or, more recently kicking off a social enterprise cafe in two locations in our part of Brisbane to provide training and a workplace for their clients. This all started pretty small; now it is big. Micah Project’s CEO Karyn Walsh gave a pretty cool TEDx Talk on this this year.

Taking big steps can seem daunting, but when I think back to the last few years, we’ve made some pretty big ones as a family (from double income no kids, to both being students, to having kids, to ministry) and none of these seemed all that big in the moment.

These are some bigger steps I think it would be cool for people to take in order to be ‘radical’… I don’t know why resolutions always seem so small…

11. Consider how you’re investing your time, energy, talents and money into the mission of Jesus; and the growth of God’s eternal kingdom. Ask if you’re investing more into the lives of those you love via Gospel ministry or into other counterfeit ‘gospels’. Consider what you are an ‘ambassador’ for… Audit your bank statement, your calendar, and the stuff you’ve posted about on social media and ask not just what you’re seen to be living for in these bits of data, but what each purchase, appointment, and post, reveals you’re doing with these things you are able to ‘offer’ in sacrifice as your worship.

Your time, energy, talents, and money are the bits of you that get ‘offered in sacrifice’ to something, potentially to your ‘object of worship.’ The giving of these bits of yourself, and what you receive in return — whether it’s time at the gym exchanged for health and fitness, the luxurious holiday exchanged for experience, or the decadent meal exchanged for pleasure (and calories) — will form you into some ‘image’ of yourself and allow you to present that image. Being a Christian isn’t about not having nice things; it’s about not sacrificing yourself for them in a way that stops you sacrificing for God and loving others. Imagine ways you could give those things that would deliver satisfaction and joy to you (and others), and try doing that.

12. Pick a ‘social’ issue to own; some people to love, the sort of issue where you might previously have thought about writing to a politician asking for a law change, or maybe just a way you can love the people around you, your church, your family, your community) better… and dream big about how the world might be made better in this area.

13. Find some people who are already pursuing that dream and join them as a volunteer, or, start something new. Start talking to your friends who care about the same stuff. I’ve been inspired in the last few years by the people who care about asylum seekers, like those behind First Home Project, or Enough Room, or the geniuses behind the Thankyou range of products, or, locally, the people who decided the best way to do something about abortion was to start the Priceless Life Centre, which cares for women with unexpected pregnancies. All these endeavours, like Micah Projects, started with a few people with an idea.

It’s not just boring to limit your activism to writing letters or changing your Facebook profile picture or signing a petition, it’s ineffective and props up the assumption that politicians can and should solve all our problems; they may well be part of the solution, but why not resolve to transform something a bit beyond yourself.

14. Quit your job, or drop a day or two a week, and pursue that thing, or just do it to free up time to love the people around you. This sort of big change cascades down to all sorts of habits; it totally, by definition, changes the rhythm of your day, week, month, or year. I guess this is a thing we already did when we enrolled to go to Bible college; though I’m still far too ‘busy’… The first two sets of resolutions were geared around how to use ‘spare time’ and energy, and what to do to free some more spare time and energy, but perhaps big structural change is actually what’s needed to shift your habits in ways that’ll get you somewhere more helpful in the long run (or eternally).

Some of our society’s biggest idols are caught up with career success; money, identity, all that stuff… and this often goes hand in hand with ‘busyness’… worship of anything requires sacrifice. If you’re too ‘busy’ to pursue the stuff that excites you, and especially to pursue the kingdom of God via both the proclamation and living of the Gospel, then maybe you’re doing life wrong, and maybe the best way to get rid of those ‘idols’ is to kick them to the kerb by working at loving and serving Jesus instead, not just conforming to the default patterns of the world.

Just how much are you prepared to resolve to change this year? And where are you hoping your resolutions will get you? Stuck in the mud, or to the seaside?

 

The Book of Strange New Things and our hunt for Utopia in the face of death

“… he used often to say, that the way to heaven was the same from all places, and he that had no grave had the heavens still over him..” ― Thomas More, Utopia

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The first strategy computer game I ever played was a relatively obscure Amiga game called Utopia. It introduced me to Pachabel’s Canon in D, to real time strategy games, to the idea of space colonisation and at least conceptually to the concept of utopia. Utopia comes from Thomas More’s book of the same name; it literally means (from the Greek) ‘no place’ (there’s a bit of a play on ‘eutopia’ which is pronounced the same and means ‘good place’; but it’s a sort of ideal place that one either hopes to create, or that we use as the sort of vision of what could be that we compare all other places against; it’s like the platonic ideal of what any community, city, or nation could be. In some sense when we try to make the world a better place; or to create some sort of new place, be it in our homes or communities, we’re working towards some sort of utopian vision.

Its opposite is dystopia, or in the Greek ‘bad place’; and so much of our modern angsty teen fiction is dystopian; taking places in the sorts of worlds pictured by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell; where everything is falling apart, but most especially human civilisation.

Most of us, more or less, as we get older, feel like the world we live in is more dystopian than eutopian; that’s why the ‘2016 sucks’ thing is a meme, but it’s also true in our personal lives the more we confront death, illness, disease, and human corruption and evil.

Most of us like the idea of striving towards a (e)utopia; so dystopian stories have protaganists who are challenging the status quo to inspire us while offering a sort of resonance with the world we live in, or some explanatory power for why life is what it is, utopian stories invite us to imagine the world as it could be, but they feel so other-worldly and distant.

In Utopia (the game) you play a commander tasked with establishing a colony on a series of planets inhabited by alien races; these races are always hostile, and so your Utopian vision is eutopian only for your own colonists; and it is achieved by military might and conquest, while the island of Utopia in Thomas More’s Utopia was created via conquest; Utopia’s Hythloday, returning to England, suggests that utopias built by princes committed to war are no eutopia at all, and this is part of the problem a true utopia must address.

“In the first place, most princes apply themselves to the arts of war, in which I have neither ability nor interest, instead of to the good arts of peace. They are generally more set on acquiring new kingdoms by hook or by crook than on governing well those that they already have.” — Thomas More, Utopia

 

Michel Faber’s The Book Of Strange New Things is both a utopian story and dystopian story; and brings both the space colonisation of Utopia (the game) together with More’s utopian vision. It is a story straddling two world and telling two simultaneous inter-woven stories about a married couple living ‘places’ apart; Peter, the husband, in a potential eutopia, a new space-colony where he’s sent as a Christian missionary to evangelise the indigenous residents (the humans are the aliens here) at their own request, Bea, the wife, stays at home as the world falls apart in an cataclysm that looks much like John’s apocalyptic vision in Revelation.

Faber wrote this story, what he says will be his final novel, as his wife fought terminal cancer; apparently composing, and reading her, six lines of the novel a day towards the end before sending off the completed manuscript as she died. This real-world dystopian story adds a degree of poignancy to the novel where the strain of being galaxies apart with very different missions in very different places proves costly to Peter and Bea’s marriage.

The Book Of Strange New Things is a deeply religious book, in that it’s not just about the difference between eutopia and dystopia, but where God is in both, and where he is in the gap between our hope for reality and reality itself (or perhaps even how God bridges, or doesn’t, certain gaps). It’s a powerful and challenging story; there’s some theological stuff in there that is thought-provoking, and some that I found grating.

Faber is not a Christian, but he grew up in a Christian family and he’s certainly trying to salvage some of the more beautiful and hope-giving parts of his upbringing as he processes the real world of pain and death through the lens of a corporation working towards its utopian vision on a new planet, and his dystopian earth. His Christian protaganists embody the very best things about liberal-evangelical Christianity; there is much to Peter and Bea’s approach to God, church, faith, and mission in the book that I love, but some stuff in how they approach the Bible, humanity, prayer, and God that might have made Christianity more comforting, not less, for the protaganists and for Faber and his wife, Eva.

It’s hard to write about just how profound The Book Of Strange New Things is without talking about the story in a way that might involve spoilers.

Peter is selected to travel to this far away planet, dubbed ‘Oasis’ to be a missionary to the native Oasans; hominoid creatures with faces that look like walnuts. The colonisation program is run by a corporation dubbed USIC; it is dependent on the support of the Oasans who provide food, but USIC’s utopian vision (largely true to More’s) requires the colonisation be peaceful and non-imperialistic (how else can the corporation sell its vision to the sort of ‘good’ people it requires to build a new eutopian society?). The Oasans have previously had contact with another missionary, originally supplied as a chaplain to the colonising team of engineers and construction workers to help with their displacement from life back home. They’ve heard bits of the Bible, which they call The Book Of Strange New Things, but the first missionary has gone AWOL and, in protest, the Oasans cut off supply of food. Peter is very important, pivotal, to the Utopian vision; but he doesn’t know it. Bea, his wife, is not selected to go with Peter on the journey, so the novel opens with their goodbyes, and establishes just how difficult a move to communication-in-absence will be for them; Peter highly values intimate face-to-face contact, and is suspicious of technology; the deep intimacy their marriage is built and thrives on will be supplanted, for a time, with communicating via a text-only tool called ‘the shoot’. Both Peter and Bea came to Christianity from messed up ‘origin stories’ — Peter was a drug dealing, drug stealing, addict, while Bea was abused by her family, and then, it seems, by others. They are very real; and their descriptions of life in their church and community are quite beautiful reflections on what it means to be Christ to others.

Once he makes the ‘jump’ to Oasis, Peter grapples with life in the USIC compound, and its utopian vision, while finding something like a sense of a eutopian vision as he lives amidst the Oasans. The Oasans have largely learned english through Bible studies, and trade with USIC (for medical drugs); they’re particularly excited about Jesus (and not at all excited about Old Testament stories of war and victory); they re-dub themselves, by order of conversion, as “Jesus Lover Number X”. Peter concludes that these aliens are largely without sin; but that their fervour for Christianity is driven by the hope of avoiding death. They are genetically frail, with no capacity to heal themselves so that any wound is fatal. These are bodies that need escaping… While Peter is coming to terms with his mission to the Oasans (which is flourishing) and the USIC colony (which is struggling), and the different utopian visions he’s encountering on Oasis; Bea’s world, earth, is falling apart. There are deadly storms, volcanoes, and wars. There’s economic collapse which sees the system in the home city in England totally collapse (starting with the banks and supermarkets). Crime is rampant. Peter and Bea’s church falls apart when the pastor who replaced Peter embezzles money and has an affair. Their pet cat which is something like a child to them is tortured by local teens and put down. Rubbish piles up. People turn to alcohol and the street smells like vomit. Wild storms break their windows and fill the house with mould. Everything is ‘not good’… it’s dystopian. It’s armageddon. It’s exactly the sort of thing USIC is relying on to drive demand for their Utopia.

The gap between Peter and Bea widens not just because of the physical chasm between them, but because their experience, their communication, their realities are so different; and it’s not just a question of whether their love can survive, but whether faith and hope can survive too across this gap. There’s also a real question being asked about where real hope is found for humanity; because death continues in the utopia of Oasis; and communities built without friction, conflict, intimacy, or love, don’t seem to offer much hope to anyone. Everyone in USIC compound operates as the sort of ‘buffered self’ described in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. They don’t share their stories with one another; in fact, to do so is discouraged. They just do their jobs; they’re homo economicus; humans whose sole purpose is to produce results that will create USIC’s utopia. Peter needles away at their buffering layers of protection; always on the look out to bring the barriers down, to learn something of the more porous, more dependent, humans within these artificial shells. But at the same time he’s buffering himself when it comes to communicating with Bea; she is porously leaning on him for support in processing dystopian earth, while he can’t, or won’t, put words to what’s going on for him, or in his mission and he struggles to care about anything that isn’t totally proximate to his day-to-day reality, and his pursuit of his own personal utopia; a community of Oasan Jesus Lovers. His buffers are down in the Oasan community; where he sub-consciously ‘goes native’ such that he achieves a certain amount of clarity about USIC’s vision.


As a brief aside, I’m not sure aliens can be ‘preached to’; nor are they necessarily in need of ‘redemption’… redemption, in the real book of strange new things, the Bible, is for the whole frustrated creation but it comes via the redemption of God’s fallen image bearers (Romans 8). Sin, ultimately, is about humans deliberately choosing not to bear God’s image; to represent him. It’s a human thing caught up with our telos; our created purpose. It’s quite possible that if alien life is found those aliens will be ‘without sin’ (I tend towards thinking this won’t happen, because I think because the universe is centred on Jesus, it’s also geared towards being ‘centred on humanity’). This, to me, undermined the premise of the story a little, though the story is fiction and does at least imply they aren’t sinful…


Bea, who’d led Peter into Christianity, ultimately tosses in her faith, or seems to; the dystopian reality becomes too much, especially in Peter’s absence. The story ends with Peter handing the Oasans his Bible, tearing down his ‘buffers’, and making a hasty return to earth; because he realises his place is by Bea’s side. He’d rather be in a dystopia offering hope through intimate love, than removed from the face of suffering in a ‘Utopia’ still confronted with the reality of death. But we’re left hanging on the question of what he finds when he gets there; and even whether this was the right thing to do.

Death looms large in this story. One of its defining and haunting messages is perhaps that no eutopia can be found in a world where death happens, only dystopia. Real hope has to confront death head-on. It can’t just sanitise the information we receive and hide us from messy and sick people so that we pretend it’s not there. People on Oasis still die; sometimes suddenly, and death still hurts and haunts even in a culture where attachment is discouraged (USIC selects its workers largely on the basis of having no attachments at home, and a likelihood that they won’t forge them on Oasis).

The tension in the narrative hangs on what a good life looks like in the face of death; and whether this goodness is best expressed pursuing a potential utopian future, or amidst the suffering in the dystopian reality; a tension no doubt supplied by Faber’s own life. Questions within this frame are raised about where God is in proximity to death, and what hope looks like amidst death with or without God. This is also where protaganist Peter’s Christian faith, and mine, significantly diverge, and where, perhaps, some real hopeful answers to Faber’s questions; human questions can be found. One thing I love about The Book Of Strange New Things is that there’s enough ambiguity in the ending, and Peter’s journey, that I’m not totally sure where he ends up on this particular question. Peter is essentially a neo-gnostic; his belief is that we’re a soul in a sack of meat; where, in a recent post, the secular neo-gnosticism believes we’re a sack of meat driven by our ‘mind’ and our ‘feelings’, Peter still believes there’s a transcendent part of us waiting to escape to a truly Utopian future (the last bit of The Book Of Strange New Things he translates for the Oasans is Revelation 21-22). Peter’s hope is not in the resurrection of our bodies; bodies destroyed by our dystopian existence and ravaged by sin, disease, and death; but in our soul’s return to God. And this hope is not enough.

Not for Peter. Not for Faber.

Peter loses his faith; or at least embraces doubt. In part because he is confronted with the miracle of embodied existence, but also because he consciously decides that real treasure; real ‘utopia’ is embodied, and is about being with the one you love in the midst of dystopian circumstances. His closing words are extra poignant given what was happening in his life are a powerful account of where Faber may or may not have found some sort of utopia in the midst of his suffering. After his wife sends him a message urging him to stay on Oasis and not return, Peter says:

“Safe or unsafe, happy or unhappy, my place is by your side. Don’t give up. I will find you.”

And as he prepares to board the ship back to earth, he ponders the words of Matthew 6, and 28, that he has committed to memory.

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ He thought of Matthew’s last words, and the meaning they could have for two people who loved each other: I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

He’s turned those words in on themselves; made their focus embodied life here and now, but this is a product of Peter’s emaciated Gospel; his neo-gnostic gospel offers no real hope in the face of death, and it’s that Gospel Peter was leaving; the idea that hope in the face of death is about escape from this existence, and the miraculous reality of our bodies, left Peter running towards embracing this embodied existence. I don’t feel like either of these options offer real hope in the face of death and dystopia; certainly not the sort of hope that makes our hearts sing, and our bodies strive. It’s not the stuff dreams can be made of; because our dreams, and the singing hearts that inspire us towards anything are the product of our embodied existence.

Faber is right that real hope in the face of death must be embodied. I’m just not sure this means we need to toss the Christian God out of the picture. Because the Christian story is the story of God’s embodiment; that a divine person, Jesus, fully becomes a human person.

Real hope in the face of death isn’t about changing Jesus’ promise “I am with you always” to be about your presence with the person you love (though it might shape your presence with the one you love); it is found seeing ‘God with us’ as a fundamental promise that begins now, and stretches into eternity, beyond death; a promise that creates a utopia.

Real hope doesn’t just confront death head-on, it confronts it fully acknowledging that we are embodied creatures; and this is what perhaps is satisfying in a secular sense for Faber, and readers who’ve moved beyond belief, with the ending of the story. Peter acknowledges death as an embodied person by heading back into dystopia to love with his presence amidst suffering; there’s a sort of immanent hope in this, that our momentary experiences of suffering might be relieved or shared in the context of love… but this is also where Peter’s Christianity is ill-equipped to help him serve either the Oasans, Bea, or the USIC utopia.

Peter’s Christianity is described, sympathetically, throughout the book, but what he does with death is on display when he’s invited to speak at the funeral of a USIC employee, Art Severin. He breaks with convention by bringing Art’s buffers down; sharing much of his life story (from his files) with the assortment of colleagues who made it along for the ceremony. His message of hope in the face of death is a message of dis-embodied hope; of the release of Art’s soul:

Art Severin isn’t here anymore; he’s somewhere else, somewhere where we can’t be. We’re standing here, breathing air into those funny spongy bladders we call lungs, our torsos shaking slightly from the pump action of that muscle we call a heart, our legs getting uncomfortable from balancing on our foot-bones too long. We are souls shut inside a cage of bones; souls squeezed into a parcel of flesh. We get to hang around in there for a certain number of years, and then we go where souls go. I believe that’s into the bosom of God. You may believe it’s somewhere different… ow you’re in the next life, where your body won’t let you down anymore, and you don’t need insulin and you don’t crave nicotine, and nobody betrays your trust, and every mystery you racked your brains about is clear as day now, and every hurt you ever suffered is OK now, and you’re feeling pity for us down here, still dragging our heavy bodies around.’

This is a demonstration of the neo-gnostic anthropology he spells out as informing his approach to the physical differences he encounters in the Oasans.

“In the eyes of God, all men and women are naked. Clothes are nothing more than a fig leaf. And the bodies beneath are just another layer of clothing, an outfit of flesh with an impractically thin leather exterior, in various shades of pink, yellow and brown. The souls alone are real. Seen in this way, there can never be any such thing as social unease or shyness or embarrassment. All you need do is greet your fellow soul.”

Much like the secular neo-gnostic advocate of a non-binary approach to gender, Peter believes the body is a meat sack and the real us lies somewhere within (or beyond) that physical reality. As he brings the Gospel to the Oasans he starts to realise that the death of the body really matters to them (it’s later that he realises they can’t heal themselves, and that ‘our bodies are miraculous’); this exchange comes as he tries to help them understand that God’s people are the church (ฐurฐ in Oasan, because they can’t say ‘s’ or ‘ch’ or a bunch of other sounds). Kurtzberg is the chaplain who went AWOL…

Jesus Lover Five, in the front row as always, swayed to and fro in disagreement. ‘ฐurฐ iสี ฐurฐ,’ she stated. ‘We are we. God iสี God.’ ‘When we are filled with the Holy Spirit,’ said Peter, ‘we can be more than ourselves: we can be God in action.’ Jesus Lover Five was unconvinced. ‘God never die,’ she said. ‘We die.’ ‘Our bodies die,’ said Peter. ‘Our souls live for ever.’ Jesus Lover Five pointed a gloved finger straight at Peter’s torso. ‘Your body noรี่ die,’ she said. ‘Of course it will die,’ said Peter. ‘I’m just flesh and blood like anyone else.’

Jesus Lover Five had fallen silent. Peter couldn’t tell if she was persuaded, reassured, sulking or what. What had she meant, anyway? Was Kurtzberg one of those Lutheran-flavoured fundamentalists who believed that dead Christians would one day be resurrected into their old bodies – magically freshened up and incorruptible, with no capacity to feel pain, hunger or pleasure – and go on to use those bodies for the rest of eternity? Peter had no time for that doctrine himself. Death was death, decay was decay, only the spirit endured.

Peter’s new gnosticism is hopeless; it’d only be a real comfort to us if our experience of existence — our humanity even — was not so thoroughly linked to our bodies. It’s a promise of no longer being human; which is not good news at all, and which undermines the very good news at the heart of the Gospel; that Jesus became human, not just as he walked the earth, but eternally. The Oasans challenge him to reconcile his view with Corinthians; Peter realises they’re talking about 1 Corinthians 15, which in a hint of Faber’s own dissatisfaction with Peter’s answer, Peter realises he hasn’t memorised because he has never preached it. His Gospel is, at this point, only half a Gospel. He flicks his Book Of Strange New Things open and reads:

“So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption,’ he recited, ‘and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ Reading the words aloud, Peter reconnected with why he hadn’t ever used them in his sermons. The sentiments were sound enough but the rhetoric was a bit more bombastic than he felt comfortable with. To do those words justice, you’d need a highly dramatic delivery, a touch of thespian pomp, and he just wasn’t that kind of orator. Low-key sincerity was more his style. ‘What Paul is saying here,’ he explained, ‘is that when we give our souls to Christ, the part of us that dies and decays – the body – is clothed with something that cannot die or decay – the eternal spirit. So we have nothing to fear from death.’ ‘Nothing,’ echoed several of the Oasans. ‘

That’s not at all what Paul is saying. But this view, this negative view of the body-as-temporary-meat-sack, underpins Peter’s faith, his sense of human dignity and his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus itself; what’s a little odd is that his approach to ministry, his ‘missiology’ is very embodied and ‘incarnate’ and this is so thoroughly inconsistent with his actual beliefs.

He only wished he’d had the chance to explain more fully how prayer worked. That it wasn’t a matter of asking for things and being accepted or rejected, it was a matter of adding one’s energy – insignificant in itself – to the vastly greater energy that was God’s love. In fact, it was an affirmation of being part of God, an aspect of His spirit temporarily housed inside a body. A miracle similar, in principle, to the one that had given human form to Jesus.

Peter’s Jesus is only ‘temporarily’ human, as we are, and so the hope his Jesus offers beyond death is something like being reconnected to the source of the ‘energy of God’s love’… which is so ephemeral as to be almost totally meaningless. Before he realises how death is a looming and distressing reality for the Oasans; driving them to Jesus; Peter kicks off his mission and his delivery of the Book of Strange New Things with his translation of Psalm 23.

And, from the first page, he read Psalm 23. ‘The Lord be He who care for me. I will need no more . . . ’ and so on, until he reached ‘I will dwell in the home of the Lord for ever.’ Then he read it again. And again. Each time he read it, more of the Oasans read it aloud with him. Were they reading or reciting? It didn’t matter. Their communal voice was swelling, and it sounded melodious and clear, almost entirely free of vocal impairments. ‘He bid me lie in green land down. He lead me by river where no one can drown. He make my สีoul like new again. He lead me in the path of Good. He do all thiสี, for He be God.

Psalm 23 is not simply a promise that our souls will depart an coagulate in some sort of nebulous divine life; it is a promise of re-creation; that the image God breathed into; the human body he formed will be raised and restored to its former glory. The Psalm is full of references to Eden; to the creation of man; but also to the ancient ceremonies of restoring an exiled ‘image’ of God (a statue) to its function of serving and representing God in his temple. The promise of a restoration of the soul is not some empty ‘you’ll depart and that longing will be quenched’ but rather ‘you’ll be made new and given divine life’; embodied life, as one of God’s creatures made in his image. It’s the promise of Romans 8; which the redemption of the cosmos (God’s grand temple) depends on. It’s a promise — a hope — that hinges on the rest of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, the hope of real full-bodied resurrection free from the scourge of death and disease; and of our dystopian inclinations; where our humanity contributes to the ongoing sense of eutopia, rather than bringing ruin. This isn’t just about some sort of releasing of our soul… if only Peter had been more inclined to hang on to the truth at the heart of this passage; if only Faber himself found comfort in these words… because this is the real hope that drives us towards utopia…

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man. — 1 Corinthians 15:42-49

It’s a promise — a hope — God guarantees by the now-permanent humanity of his son; the one whose body exists beyond death, who offers a true Utopian vision; who bridges the gap and provides the way ‘to heaven out of all places’; a path from dystopia, and a vision of hope beyond pain, suffering, and death, a eutopian vision that Peter ultimately couldn’t bring himself to give to the Oasans in translated form (except that he hands them his own complete Book Of Strange New Things).

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” — Revelation 21:1-4

Both the novel The Book Of Strange New Things and the real Book Of Strange New Things are worth reading; both offer Utopian visions. Both know that our human intuition that real hope is embodied is real. The novel takes that intuition and invites us to ground our response to death to being with those we love in our dystopian here and now; the other is profoundly good news; eutopian news; that both invites us to see that the here and now matters, and that love helps, but also offers us hope through and beyond death when we taste the love of the infinite God who made the world utopian, and who, rather than standing distant from our suffering and death, entered into the dystopian frustration our sin causes to do something about it.

 

 

18 things you might not know about being born on Christmas Day

Today is my birthday; yes I share a birthday with Jesus and no, that doesn’t make me the messiah; I’m just a very naughty boy.

You may have wondered what it is like being a Christmas baby; you may not have. If you haven’t, then you’re part of the problem. If you have, then here’s some insight, totally from my own experience…

1. The more you know about the history of Christmas the more you might want to point out that Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born on Christmas Day but you really were.
2. Everyone remembers your birthday… except maybe on the day.
3. You’ll get ‘combined’ presents sometimes; sometimes worth 150% of the value of a birthday or Christmas present… but if you organise it ahead of time you can put the purchasing power to good use. Just don’t get a tent when you’re 12ish and never use it.
4. You wonder whether it might be nice to have a whole day devoted to your birthday on the actual day.
5. When you have kids and one is born on the 22nd of December you’ll be thankful for small mercies.
6. People will often make jokes about you sharing a birthday with Jesus; suggesting you must be just like him, there’s a payoff if you get a job telling people how great Jesus is.
7. As a kid you’ll think it sucks that you don’t get school birthday parties and everyone is on holidays for your actual birthday. The 25th of November is a reasonable idea.
8. You’ll believe the ideal birthday is somewhere around June-July, and after your eldest, that’s when you’ll aim to have your kids. You’ll notice that your siblings are born between May and August.
9. You’ll think it’s an advantage that when someone says happy birthday to you, you have the ready made reply ‘merry Christmas’.
10. You’ll appreciate that every Christmas after your birth you can claim to be ‘the best Christmas present’ your parents ever received; and you’ll know it’s true; even if your dad gets a great gadget (or Sonos speaker).
11. You’ll realise there’s some mileage to be had in everyone feeling sorry for you.
12. When you meet another Christmas baby you’ll bond instantly. You’ll also be thankful you’re not born on February 29.
13. Whenever you give your date of birth anywhere public, a penny will drop about 3 seconds later, and you’ll have to have ‘that’ conversation. It’s worth making bingo cards.
14. You will, at some point, realise that pity parties are no fun and Christmas is less self-interested (and less given to disappointment and anti-climax) than a birthday, with a much more powerful story, and so, of much more value to the people in your life. Birthdays eventually become a scary reminder that you’re getting closer to death; Christmas is a reminder you no longer need to fear death.
15. It is kinda fun that everyone gets presents on your birthday, but that your haul is twice as big. So long as you forget that everyone gets a birthday; but only you have to wait exactly 12 months for one installment of presents (other December babies get it just as bad… aim for July).
16. You’ll always have Boxing Day the day after your birthday; and it is the best day of the year.

17. Everyone will ask you what it is like to have your birthday on Christmas Day; that question will puzzle you because you have not experienced the alternative and you can’t really tell how much your unique birthday has made you the person you are.

18. You’ll wonder of getting a job that makes Christmas one of the more important dates on the calendar was a great idea; but then you’ll remember point 14.

On Christmas and Temples: how the coming of Jesus challenges us to see ourselves as givers not consumers

I went to temple today. A modern, secular, temple where I was surrounded by hindus, and sikhs, and buddhists, and muslims, and atheists… A temple that today was extra glittery, and sparkly, filled with magic, and crowded; oh so crowded. It was packed with worshippers.


Image: A snapshot from my trip to the temple today where I scored a park in front of this sign…

Temples don’t have to be obviously religious, or even obviously connected to a god. Temples are places where we practice our worship together. They are places where our gods; and the image of our gods, is revealed; when we know where to look. They’re places we go for stories about what the good human life looks like. And Christmas is a time for worship. In his famous This Is Water speech, David Foster Wallace said:

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

In a passage in his novel Infinite Jest, Wallace writes a dialogue between two characters, Steeply and Marathe, about temples and worship and a third person’s ‘worship’ (Tine)… it builds on his fundamental insight about the way us humans work… we’re worshippers. Fanatics. Looking to give our love to something that we hope will love us back.

“Marathe had settled back on his bottom in the chair. ‘Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple.” ’

‘Oh Jesus now here we go again,’ Steeply said.

‘As, if you will give the permission, does this love you speak of, M. Tine’s grand love. It means only the attachment. Tine is attached, fanatically. Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.”

Steeply made motions of weary familiarity. ‘Herrrrrre we go.’

Marathe ignored this. ‘Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.’

‘How are your wife and kids doing, up there, by the way?

You U.S.A’s do not seem to believe that you may choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.’

Steeply laid a hand between his misdirected breasts: ‘Ohh… Canada….’

Marathe leaned again forward on his stumps. ‘Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice.’

So I went to the temple. The temple to probably the most popular god in Australia; the one that promises and promotes a vision of the good life that I even find myself subscribing to; a picture of humanity that teaches: I consume, therefore I am, or perhaps I am therefore I consume. My local Westfield shopping centre. As I walked through throngs of smiling happy people, ate food from the far flung reaches of the planet alongside families who may have come together from even further afield, as the artificial light bounced off tinsel and sequins and Christmas stars and bathed my fellow humans in its soft glow, as carols pumped through the sound system following us on our pilgrimage, and as I spent my dollars on trinkets and baubles designed to express my love for my family this Christmas season, I did feel like I was having something like a religious experience. There is something beautiful about the way the shopping centre can bring people from all walks of life together in a levelish playing field (I mean, I avoided Myer and the expensive looking jewellers today so it’s not totally level, but you don’t know unless you stare at the collection of shopping bags in someone’s trolley or pay close attention to the quality of their shoes and handbag if someone is your equal or not). The shopping centre aisles feel like an equaliser until you really pay attention; digging beneath the hypnosis the centre foists on you as you walk through the doors. But I wasn’t paying attention to this stuff. I was hypnotised. I was bought in; a sucker for the sales pitch put before me by the centre’s preachers. I spent more; gave more of myself; than I’d planned. I’m not sure if I was manipulated because I certainly feel like I did this willingly as an act of greater love for my family. I did, for a moment, wonder how much my experience echoes the experience of people who might wander into church with us tomorrow for Christmas; perhaps ticking off something else on the Christmas checklist.

James K.A Smith, working with the same fundamental picture of the human being as David Foster Wallace, that we’re, fundamentally, worshippers, talks about the shopping centre (or mall, because he’s American) as a modern temple. He describes how the mall-as-temple shapes us and orients us to see the world, and ourselves, in this particular way; as consumers.

This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires. It compels us to come, not through dire moralisms, but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life… The symbols and colors and images associated with their religious life are readily recognized the world over. The wide circulation of these icons through various mediums even outside the sanctuary invites us to make the pilgrimage in the first place. This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us.

This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life. (Yet one should note that it has its own modes of exclusivity too; because of its overwhelming success in converting the nations, it is increasingly difficult to be an infidel.) And it is a mode of evangelism buoyed by a transnational network of evangelists and outreach, all speaking a kind of unified message that puts other, fractured religions to shame. If unity is a testimony to a religion’s truth and power, it will be hard to find a more powerful religion than this catholic faith. And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season.

This isn’t just a metaphor for Wallace or Smith; they’re actually convinced that participating in life as worshippers shapes us, and what and where we choose to worship has the potential to be very good, or very bad, for us in terms of how we understand ourselves and the world around us. In Smith’s treatment of the ‘mall’ he points out that our experience as shoppers are liturgical; shopping centres work to form our habits in particular ways, forming us as we take part in their vision of the good life, as we participate in the story the marketers are telling us, and so have the rhythms of our lives slightly altered. He points out the shopping centre shapes us so that we think of ourselves as consumers and of consumption as the path to joy, or this good life. Only life as a consumer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It leads us to consume others; it only works if we’re able to be hypnotised to the point that we think the success of our relationships; our families; depends on buying them the right thing, or if we’re able to get past the fact that all the presents we buy at Christmas ultimately don’t deliver the lasting satisfaction we hope for; so we go back day after day, week after week, Christmas after Christmas, looking to scratch this itch. Smith talks about our vain attempts to buy redemption at the shopping centre; to consume our way to happiness; he says it should be evident (because we keep going back) that this is a path that doesn’t satisfy, that never actually delivers a good life and this sort of worship transforms us in harmful ways, but also has us pin our hopes on things we end up sending to landfill:

By our immersion in this liturgy of consumption, we are being trained to both overvalue and undervalue things: we’re being trained to invest them with a meaning and significance as objects of love and desire in which we place disproportionate hopes (Augustine would say we are hoping to enjoy them when we should only be using them) while at the same time treating them (as well as the labor and raw materials that go into them) as easily discarded.— James K.A Smith, Desiring The Kingdom

I know the truth of the ‘landfill’ thing too well, because today as I did my ‘Christmas shopping’ — as I participated in worship Westfield style — I was buying exactly the same present I bought Robyn a few years ago, from the same place, because our kids had destroyed the last one. This stuff is finite; and profoundly geared not to permanently satisfy. How anti-Christmas…

The problem with picking things we’re going to bin as the things we attach ourselves to, and seeing the place we buy them from as our ‘temple’ (whether we know it or not), and participating in Christmas shopping as the ultimate form of modern, consumerist worship, and ourselves as consumers whose happiness depends on our consumption, is that we end up being consumed.

Wallace was aware of the danger of worshipping something like this; things that make us consumers not givers in our sacrifice. In This Is Water he says:

“And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

And then he turns to his own little excursion to the shops, to challenge us to break the way they deform us into selfish people who consume rather than truly love others… he invites us to head into the shopping centre eyes wide open. Into the checkout line where our consumer frustration kicks into gear because in consumer world our fellow shoppers are people in our way, or in competition with us for resources… when you view life as a consumer you tend to view other people a little negatively or judgmentally, and so Wallace invites us to see people differently by paying a different sort of attention; by becoming a different sort of worshipper (this is a passage directly before the bit I quoted above).

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…”

The goal of this sort of worship; and seeing; for Wallace, wasn’t better consuming but a totally different sort of us; it’s about overturning our tendency to see ourselves as consumers, it’s an invitation to think differently about ourselves, the world, others, and perhaps most importantly what the ‘good life’ looks like as we live in the world with others. Wallace wanted his listeners to free themselves from destructive defaults that come from wrong worship, malforming temples, and harmful attachments. He saw the sort of worship cultivated by temples with an agenda to make us see ourselves as consumers as dangerous, and suggested we had to pay attention in order to escape and to relate to others as givers not consumers. That was his vision of the ‘good life,’ at least as he invited others to see it.

“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.

This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Seeing the good life; freedom; this way will transform the way you participate in life at your local Westfield; it’s enough to challenge you to think about what you’re doing and to break the hypnosis of the light, and architecture, and sensual bombardment you face when you walk through the doors. But I’m not sure it’s enough to really deliver an answer to that ‘gnawing sense’; that haunting feeling of there being something more out there than Westfield and its retailers can provide for you. The problem with Westfield-as-temple is that what worship there delivers for you are just trinkets and baubles; they’re finite, fleeting, breaking, and boring.

The answer to this problem is in a new sort of worship that changes our sense of who we humans were made to be, how we ideally relate to others, and what a good life really looks like. The answer to this problem is actually to rediscover Christmas not as a consuming holiday, but a giving holy day. When the Apostle Paul wrote about us being worshipping creatures he had a particular picture of the good human life in mind. He had a particular sense of what Christmas is all about in mind too.

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. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2. 

Consumption is a ‘pattern of this world’ and Paul’s answer to this pattern is to change the script; to not be consumers with our bodies, but givers, to be those who ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice’… It’s the Christmas story, and a new sense of what a ‘temple’ looks like, that allow us to truly love others, to in Wallace’s words ‘sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways’; to be ‘free’… We need a new temple, new attachments, a new story with a new vision of the good life, in order to become givers at Christmas, rather than destructive consumers. All this, for Paul, is caught up in what Christmas is actually about. It’s amazing how much it’s the anti-thesis of the Westfield ‘gospel’; or Westfield’s implicit and explicit account of what the good life is about; and what Christmas is about. Real worship; worship that doesn’t destroy us; is caught up in worshipping the giver of life. Real worship is caught up with recognising that Christmas is about the word that gave life and light to the world becoming flesh; becoming our temple. The temple isn’t just where we worship; it’s where we meet and see God and the image of the flourishing life; at Westfield that’s the mannequins and the posters and the glitz and glamour, at Christmas it’s the babe born in a stinking stable as a human who’d eventually be nailed to a cross. The Christmas story couldn’t be further from the tinsel and plastic prettiness of the modern Christmas shopping experience. The sacrifice Jesus makes begins in him taking on human form amongst dirty farm animals, first visited by stinking shepherds; it’s a form he still has now, a sacrifice he still makes, on behalf of the dirty and downtrodden who turn to him for hope.

The lie underneath Westfield’s ‘worship’ agenda is that finite things can satisfy the hunger for the infinite that only Christmas can. That Westfield so overtly harnesses and bastardises Christmas for its ends is truly shocking. If worship is, as Wallace puts it, trying to answer that gnawing sense of losing the infinite, Christmas is about us finding what was lost; or rather, it’s about the infinite making himself finite and knowable.

I walked through Westfield and felt empty and hopeless, hopefully people coming to church tomorrow to hear about God with us; who’ll be urged towards this new sort of worship; will walk in and out feeling filled with hope and pushed to love others because our gnawing sense of having lost touch with the infinite is answered when we look to the face of the baby in a manger; the infinite becoming finite as an act of sacrifice for us.

The Christmas story points us to true worship, and true worship is exemplified by those shepherds and later the wise guys from the East who recognised that Jesus really is ‘God With Us’… the real Christmas story stands in stark contrast Westfield’s Christmas; it overthrows Westfield-as-temple, and it points us to a sort of worship-driven ‘good life’ found in following the Christmas king. It makes us givers, not consumers; and involves God giving us life, rather than our false gods consuming us. This is perhaps one of the earliest Christmas Carols (after Mary’s at the birth of Jesus), from Paul in Philippians 2.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2. 

 

 

 

 

Meat and more: You are more, but not less than, your body… and Christmas shows why ‘meat’ matters

“People need to realise it doesn’t matter what living meat skeleton you’re born into; it’s what you feel that defines you.” — Victor (in the video below)

This is Victor. Victor identifies as non-binary, and this BBC video features Victor explaining a little bit of life from a non-binary perspective. It did the rounds on social media recently. It’s an interesting and increasingly common account for what it means to be human. Victor’s account of what it means to be human is this: you are a feeling mind with a meat skeleton; but the real you is the ‘feeling mind’ part — your consciousness — and your body might get in the way. If that happens then feelings (your choice) trump meat (an unchosen thing you’re born with).

It’s true that we are both mind and body, maybe even ‘soul’ and body… and our accounts of what it mean to be human need to reconcile these two realities in a way that helps us make sense of our experience of the world, and in a way that helps us figure out what to do when our bodies and minds seem to be in conflict.

One of the things I’ve spent this year reading about, thinking about, and writing about is how Christians can respond with love and understanding to the growing conversation about gender identity and gender fluidity. A paper our Gospel In Society Today committee (a thing I’m on for the Presbyterian Church of Queensland) has put together on this issue will be released soonish, but this video was one of the stranger and more worrying parts of what is a complicated issue where one’s gender identity is not necessarily as simple as a binary view of either physical sex and gender makes out. Being human is not quite as simple as Victor suggests. Extrapolating an understanding of humanity and what a flourishing human life looks like — what shape our identity takes — from the experience and feelings of particular individuals (or any individuals) is not a great way to do anything (this is also true from the direction of ‘cis-gendered’ people backwards too, where ‘cis’ is a pre-fix for those whose physical sex and gender identities line up). We often have a tendency when dealing with the complexity of human existence to assume our experience is both normal and should be ‘the norm’ and that’s dangerous.

The view of what it means to be human that Victor in this video puts forward is an unfortunate extrapolation from the real felt experience of the few to the many. Your body isn’t just a ‘meat skeleton’ with the real you somehow immaterially enshrined in this skeleton; you are your body. There’s something a bit appealing to this idea, not just as it applies to the gender conversation but because our bodies are limiting when it comes to what we imagine flourishing to look like. I want to be healthy and fit; but my body lets me down in that I get sick and injured. I want to be able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, but my body can only occupy one place at any given moment, and my moments are limited. I want to be immortal, but my body is on the timeline to decay. I do want to be able to escape the constraints of my body; humans yearn for that; particularly we want to escape from the bits of our bodies that are broken and dying. It’s nice to believe that our minds are somehow the real us; that the real us doesn’t decay, disappoint, or die; it’d be nice if our bodies were just meat skeletons that we could augment or change based simply on how we feel without that impacting ‘the real us’ (except as we bring them in line with the real us).

But this idea that we’re just our ‘feelings’… that our bodies don’t really matter… This is the gnostic heresy of the secular age. And it’s not necessarily a great ‘secular’ solution to issues like gender dysphoria or gender identity either (though solutions that don’t deal with us as ’embodied beings,’ the idea that our bodies are able to be ‘unbroken’ via our minds, or that someone can simply ‘think themselves’ into a solution aren’t very useful either, but that’s a rabbit hole for another time). Victor also assumes a radical disconnection between our bodily experience and our minds that doesn’t seem to stack up with modern neuroscience (which suggests what we do with our bodies impacts our minds) either, but again, that’s another rabbit hole.

The secular age is a label philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe our current western world’s grand organising narrative; its ‘myths’; its account for what human life is; and thus what a flourishing life looks like. The secular age involves the death of the soul as a concept, because it involves switching a view of the world where both the spiritual (or transcendent) and material (or immanent) are real and important for a world where only the material matters. This leaves us with an interesting account of our human experience and what it means to be really human. Our new post-soul way of understanding the world from this immanent viewpoint replaces the ‘soul’ with the mind. We now see ourselves as immanent creatures and any gap, or conflict, between mind and matter in our experience will be left for us to figure out as we come up with a story that explains how to be human.  In this video with Victor it seems this movement involves creating a new duality between mind and matter — or your feelings and your body (how you feel things apart from your senses and the chemical make-up of your brain (and how that might be influenced by the activities of your body) is something not totally fleshed out in Victor’s anthropology).  Victor’s story is a story like this; in Victor’s account human history has been oppressive because we’ve understood physical sex (matter) and gender (mind) as being things that are best held together; or understood as being a single thing when real enlightenment allows us to see them as they truly are — different — so that true freedom is somehow found in transcending our ‘matter’ so that our sense of ourselves is found in our mind. Only, because the transcendent no longer exists as a spiritual account of reality that overlapped the material so that both were true and held in tension;  this transcendence comes from making one part of us less meaningful as we make the other bit more meaningful. Victor sees the material and the mind being, at times, in competition, and as a result says “you are defined by what you feel.”

Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy built from Plato’s understanding of reality. Plato taught there is a ‘spiritual’ world of ‘ideals’ and a ‘material’ world of ‘forms’ and the truest reality is the spiritual one, and the physical stuff is broken, and non-ideal, and to be transcended. Gnostics applied this to Christianity and came up with the belief that our bodies are utterly broken and sinful and awful and dirty and to be transcended. It taught that you were a soul; and that you were lumped with a body. The soul trumped the body. The body was a meat skeleton to be escaped from.

It’s the same story Victor is telling; this idea that you’re much more than a meat skeleton, if you’re even a meat skeleton at all. This ‘meat skeleton’ phrase reminds me of a couple of passages from three of my favourite ‘secular’ stories by three secular age writers; William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer which explores what might happen if we rely on technology to replace the transcendent. In Neuromancer you can get a chip implanted in your head that allows you to jack-in to cyberspace so that your body exists in the physical world (meatspace) while your mind is in cyberspace. Prostitutes in this world can hire out their bodies while their minds are occupied in the cyber world; so they’re called ‘meat puppets’… which isn’t so different from Victor’s ‘meat-skeleton’ only in Victor’s account your mind is the puppeteer, in control of your meat, not someone else. Case, the protaganist, was a cyber-cowboy (a hacker) who lost his ability to be part of cyber-space but is given it back in order to complete a big hack; he’s torn between two worlds; two realities; the transcendent reality of cyber-space and the physicality of meat-space; without spoiling things too much this para is from near the end of the book:

“No,’ he said, and then it no longer mattered, what he knew, tasting the salt of her mouth where tears had dried. There was a strength that ran in her, something he’d known in Night City and held there, been held by it, held for a while away from time and death, from the relentless Street that hunted them all. It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew – he remembered – as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong and blind way, could ever read.” — Neuromancer

Somehow Gibson is convinced that the body matters. Kurt Vonnegut explores the idea that we’re both ‘meat’ and ‘soul’, and that the key to happiness (and to seeing others properly) is about understanding each, then aligning them, in his novel Bluebeard. The main character, artist Rabo Karabekian, moves from this almost gnostic belief that they’re separate and irreconcilable; but that the soul is the true self to something that sees them as working together. So there’s this dialogue, where :

“I can’t help it,” I said. “My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.”

“Your what and your what?” he said.

“My soul and my meat,” I said.

“They’re separate?” he said.

“I sure hope they are,” I said. I laughed. “I would hate to be responsible for what my meat does.”

I told him, only half joking, about how I imagined the soul of each person, myself included, as being a sort of flexible neon tube inside. All the tube could do was receive news about what was happening with the meat, over which it had no control.

‘”So when people I like do something terrible,” I said, “I just flense them and forgive them.”

“Flense?” he said. “What’s flense?”

“It’s what whalers used to do to whale carcasses when they got them on board,” I said. “They would strip off their skin and blubber and meat right down to the skeleton. I do that in my head to people—get rid of all the meat so I can see nothing but their souls. Then I forgive them.”

At this point Rabo is operating with the belief that the soul is the ‘true’ self and the meat gets in the way… but he’s brought back to reality (or to real reality) in the closing words of the book; when he’s forced to see that when he makes art it’s actually his soul and meat working together (in a passage where the critique of trying to hold body and soul apart is a bit similar to some stuff Irenaeus wrote against the Gnostics in the second century). His art studio is a potato barn.

”Your meat made the picture in the potato barn,” she said.

“Sounds right, “ I said. “My soul didn’t know what kind of picture to paint, but my meat sure did.”

“Well then,” she said, “isn’t it time for your soul, which has been ashamed of your meat for so long, to thank your meat for finally doing something wonderful?”

I thought that over. “That sounds right too,” I said.

“You have to actually do it,” she said.

“How?” I said.

“Hold your hand in front of your eye,” she said, “ and look at those strange and clever animals with love and gratitude, and tell them out loud: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

So I did.

I held my hands in front of my eyes, and I said out loud and with all my heart: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

Oh happy Meat. Oh happy Soul. Oh happy Rabo Karabekian.

David Foster Wallace explores the relationship between the body and something more than the body at the heart of our humanity through the lens of learning to play tennis in both his celebrated essay on Roger Federer published as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in the New York Times (but as the title essay Both Flesh and Not in that collection of his articles and essays), and in his novel Infinite Jest which features a tennis playing prodigy as one of the protaganists. Wallace was, himself, a competitive junior tennis player so you sense that some of his insights into what it means to be meat are autobiographical; what’s a bit different is that Wallace seems to assume that you are first your physical body; that meat matters, and even that anything more that is out there is fed and cultivated by what we do with our ‘meat’… what we give ourselves to. With tennis as a bit of a metaphor for the life well lived, he explores the idea that transcendence is found by pushing our well-trained muscle-memoried bodies to new heights via the imagination; our bodies somehow show our minds what is possible because they act as some sort of sub-conscious us. 

“Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place.” — Infinite Jest

Then when Hal, the tennis prodigy, is being coached. His coach says the key to a sort of ‘flourishing humanity’ starts with our ‘meat’; that we’re meat first:

“‘Boys, what it is is I’ll tell you it’s repetition. First last always. It’s hearing the same motivational stuff over and over till sheer repetitive weight makes it sink down into the gut. It’s making the same pivots and lunges and strokes over and over and over again, at you boys’s age it’s reps for their own sake, putting results on the back burner, why they never give anybody the boot for insufficient progress under fourteen, it’s repetitive movements and motions for their own sake, over and over until the accretive weight of the reps sinks the movements themselves down under your like consciousness into the more nether regions, through repetition they sink and soak into the hardware, the C.P.S. The machine-language. The autonomical part that makes you breathe and sweat. It’s no accident they say you Eat, Sleep, Breathe tennis here. These are autonomical. Accretive means accumulating, through sheer mindless repeated motions. The machine-language of the muscles. Until you can do it without thinking about it, play… The point of repetition is there is no point. Wait until it soaks into the hardware and then see the way this frees up your head. A whole shitload of head-space you don’t need for the mechanics anymore, after they’ve sunk in. Now the mechanics are wired in. Hardwired in. This frees the head in the remarkablest ways. Just wait. You start thinking a whole different way now, playing. The court might as well be inside you. The ball stops being a ball. The ball starts being something that you just know ought to be in the air, spinning. This is when they start getting on you about concentration. Right now of course you have to concentrate, there’s no choice, it’s not wired down into the language yet, you have to think about it every time you do it. But wait till fourteen or fifteen. Then they see you as being at one of the like crucial plateaus. Fifteen, tops. Then the concentration and character shit starts. Then they really come after you. This is the crucial plateau where character starts to matter. Focus, self-consciousness, the chattering head, the cackling voices, the choking-issue, fear versus whatever isn’t fear, self-image, doubts, reluctances, little tight-lipped cold-footed men inside your mind, cackling about fear and doubt, chinks in the mental armor. Now these start to matter. Thirteen at the earliest. Staff looks at a range of thirteen to fifteen. Also the age of manhood-rituals in various cultures. Think about it. Until then, repetition. Until then you might as well be machines, here, is their view. You’re just going through the motions. Think about the phrase: Going Through The Motions. Wiring them into the motherboard. You guys don’t know how good you’ve got it right now.” — Infinite Jest

One of the more powerful things about Infinite Jest is that it explores how the addictions that shape our bodies ultimately shape our humanity; and this sort of tennis training is a sort of ‘rightly directed’ addiction (or is it); it seems better than being addicted to drugs or entertainment… two of the other pictures of meat-shaping (or miss-shaping) habits in the novel.

Somehow, for Wallace, we are inextricably embodied; our meat matters because it shapes everything else about who we are and how we flourish; and when we’re ultimately flourishing it’s because our meat and our minds are meeting; intuitively. When everything comes together in this tennis-as-a-metaphor-for-life thing we no longer notice the ‘dual’ reality.

You’re barely aware you’re doing it. Your body’s doing it for you and the court and Game’s doing it for your body. You’re barely involved. It’s magic, boy. — Infinite Jest

And in a moment on the court where things go wrong; when one’s body betrays you and you slip and fall… that’s when we know that our meat matters; that it’s not something to be left behind when we achieve these magical, transcendent, moments, but part of those moments.

It was a religious moment. I learned what it means to be a body, Jim, just meat wrapped in a sort of flimsy nylon stocking, son, as I fell kneeling and slid toward the stretched net, myself seen by me, frame by frame, torn open. — Infinite Jest

For Wallace our bodies, our ‘meat skeletons’, are actually the key to transcendence; not in departure from them but in that they are the key to truly understanding ourselves. He returns to tennis as a lens for that in his Federer essay, where he explores the idea that watching a tennis player who has achieved the sort of bodily self-mastery described in the novel is actually a religious experience as much as the one that he describes in the injury-inducing slip above, but in the opposite direction. We touch something radically true about ourselves when our bodies are vehicles for something more than just ‘the physical’; when our bodies and souls are in sync.

“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” — Both Flesh and Not

In the footnotes he gives us this exploration of this embodied understanding of our humanity.

There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!,” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot. — Both Flesh and Not

This sort of ‘reconciliation’ he’s talking about is the realisation that we’re not simply minds who have meat attached; but rather that our bodies are inevitably part of our humanity (and part of the limits of our humanity in this secular age), and the best vision of human flourishing he can arrive at from that point is not that real flourishing is about detachment from the body, but rather the body and soul working together to make beautiful tennis. Even if those moments are only fleeting and finite.

Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled. — Both Flesh and Not

For Wallace, watching peak-Federer was a vision of the best that could be achieved in our material world; and hinted at something more. Wallace, more than any other secular age writer, was haunted by ‘the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as he put it in This Is Water). Somehow, in Federer and his embodiment (and go read the essay) he finds some sort of solace when it comes to questions of bodily malfunctions, like those we’re confronted with in a broken world filled with broken bodies, like the kid with cancer who tossed the coin in the match he’s writing about, somehow this glimpse of transcendence through the body working in sync with the ‘soul’ and flourishing, somehow that helps Wallace understand what being human; body, mind, and soul, looks like. And it doesn’t come from transcending your ‘meat’ but achieving some sort of transcendence ‘as meat’…  

“[Federer] looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.” — Both Flesh and Not

These writers offer a nice ‘secular’ critique of Victor’s belief that we’re minds who need to transcend our meat skeletons. But the Christmas story is an even better critique; and one that affirms the good and true things Gibson, Vonnegut and Wallace are grasping for as they affirm the importance of our ‘meatiness’.

Christmas (and Irenaeus) as the answer to this modern ‘gnostic’ dilemma

The Christmas story is fundamentally the story of God meeting us in our meatiness… in meatspace… to provide this sort of ‘reconciliation’ between body and soul, and between the transcendent and immanent; this isn’t just ‘reconciliation’ in the David Foster Wallace sense of those fleeting moments in this world where things feel right; but a permanent fix that means that feeling isn’t just fleeting. It’s the sort of change that brings the transcendent, supernatural, ‘soul’ reality and the immanent natural material world of our bodies back into harmony in a way that deals with both our impending meaty death, and the ‘gnawing sense’ of having lost the infinite.

The Christmas story was the answer to old fashioned gnosticism; and is the answer to the fears of the secular age and its searching for a way to make sense of our ‘meat’ and our feelings in some sort of ‘reconciled’ order.

The Christmas story, what Christians call ‘the incarnation’ — where the divine ‘word of God’, Jesus, a person of the Trinity, permanently takes on human flesh — has always been the answer to gnostic tendencies; to our desire to find some key to escape the limits of our dying bodies.

The Christmas story — the story at the heart of Christianity; and indeed the heart of what Christians believe it means to be human and to flourish is a radical critique of both gnosticism and this new ‘mind over matter’ vision of the human body as a ‘meat skeleton’ to transcend.

The Christmas story teaches us that to be truly human is to have a body, and a soul. In the Christmas story we meet the truest human. You’re not just a soul with a body either; despite that apocryphal quote reputedly from C.S Lewis. You’re both. Paradoxically. Always.

The Easter story promises us that one day all our Christmases will come at once and our bodies will be made new, reconciled, and paired perfectly, with our souls. We’ll be flesh and light. And we get a taste of that now as we live out, and live in, the story of Jesus. This is the promise of the Christian story, one Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 15.

The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven.  And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” — 1 Corinthians 15:46-49

This isn’t to disparage our human bodies and the reality of life where our souls and bodies feel conflicted; but to point us to where real reconciliation is found; it’s in the death of death and in our bodies and souls being joined in an imperishable and harmonious way that lines up with the ‘heavenly man’; the one born as a meaty human at Christmas, and raised as a meaty human at Easter.

Gnosticism is actually pretty terrible news for us as humans; it leads to all sorts of awful self-hatred because being ‘meat’ is actually fundamental to our experience of the world and our ability to know things. It’s soul crushing even in its attempt to free us to simply ‘be a soul’… it isn’t a particularly helpful or possible vision of human flourishing whether it’s being pushed by Plato, or the gnostics of the early church (who denied the incarnation because their vision of God wouldn’t be caught dead in a dirty human body), or a modern day ‘non-binary’ philosopher like Victor. We can’t simply escape our bodies or pretend we are something other than our flesh, because we are actually ‘both flesh and not’…

There are very good reasons that gnosticism was viewed as a heresy; it’s actually the same reason that for many years the pre-secular age western world has seen our physical reality and a more transcendent reality both being parts of being truly human. It’s a very good reason it hasn’t been understood as being ‘oppressive’ to link our physical sex with our gender (even if our physical sex is sometimes non-binary, and some individuals do experience gender as less binary than we might). To be human was to be both body and soul; not just a soul with a body. The answer to the experience of individuals with non-binary sex or gender is not to ‘reconcile’ this divide by simply dismissing our bodies as meat to be transcended (or ignored); but rather to hope for soul and body to be brought back together; for those Federer-like moments to be permanent. This was the hope Irenaeus, a guy who wrote Against Heresies as the most substantive critique of gnosticism relied on in countering the belief that the human task was for the soul to leave the dirty body behind.

Irenaeus understood the present human condition as being one where our souls and bodies are ‘separate’ and where our impending death (and constant decay) are part of what creates this divide. His hope was for ‘recapitulation’ or a ‘re-creation’ — an intervention by God to address this divide so that our souls eventually find their right home in a re-created immortal body (Against Heresies Book 2 Chapter 34). We don’t reconcile this separation by denying the reality of body, or soul (or feelings), but by hoping for this re-aligning of the two where the alignment has been affected in our broken world, and the key to this reconciliation is not our own self-mastery of our bodies ala Wallace’s Federer, but the master of body and soul, the maker of our bodies and souls, meeting us in meat space and providing a path to reconciliation with the divine life. That’s the Gospel story; the Christmas story; the story that speaks into what it means to be truly human (even if this all sounds like some weird wizardry or hocus-pocus in our secular age). This was a story the western world took very seriously in understanding what it means to be human for a very long time.

For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons? — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 3 Chapter 19

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God—all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 1

Irenaeus fairly boldly declared that the Gospel story properly understood was enough to ‘ruin’ the gnostic account of humanity; and I think the Christmas story, the story of God-becoming-meat, is enough to answer Victors idea that our meat skeletons are unimportant when it comes to who we really are. You are a body. You are a soul. That these two parts of you aren’t always working in harmony doesn’t mean you need to escape your meat; it might mean that your meat and your soul need some work to reconcile them in a way that allows you to ‘flourish’…

We all feel bereft and have that ‘gnawing sense’ that these dead bodies aren’t delivering for us whether we experience that in the form of our gender not lining up with our sex, or the myriad other things that make our bodies feel like less-than-home; but for Irenaeus the answer to the gnostic desire to escape our meat was the picture of God becoming meat to meet us in our humanity and chart a way forward to our ‘meat’ being redeemed and made immortal; his hope is for the time promised by that first Christmas, when our bodies and our souls would be brought in harmony by the one who made both. Our problem is that the human default after our rejection of God’s design for us is this dying brokenness, where our souls and our matter don’t line up. Christmas, the incarnation, is the first step towards the death of death and the reconciling of our bodies and souls… it’s not tennis that gets us there; though tennis might point us there and be a taste of what’s to come.

Hope for humanity, in Irenaeus response to ancient gnosticism, in the Gospel story, and in a response to Victor’s modern attempt to free us to be truly human by separating ‘meat’ and feelings, isn’t found in departing from our meatiness, but in both being ‘reconciled’ and made new without the presence of death, decay, and disappointment. Without the sense of us not being at home in our broken and dying bodies. That’s the hope of Christmas, where the God who made us takes the first step towards having a human body broken and dying for us…

Here’s a bit more Irenaeus to plough through…

“But if the Lord became incarnate for any other order of things, and took flesh of any other substance, He has not then summed up human nature in His own person, nor in that case can He be termed flesh. For flesh has been truly made [to consist in] a transmission of that thing moulded originally from the dust. But if it had been necessary for Him to draw the material [of His body] from another substance, the Father would at the beginning have moulded the material [of flesh] from a different substance [than from what He actually did]. But now the case stands thus, that the Word has saved that which really was [created, viz.,] humanity which had perished, effecting by means of Himself that communion which should be held with it, and seeking out its salvation. But the thing which had perished possessed flesh and blood. For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, moulded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation of the Lord’s advent took place. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished. And for this cause the apostle, in the Epistle to the Colossians, says, “And though ye were formerly alienated, and enemies to His knowledge by evil works, yet now ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, through His death, to present yourselves holy and chaste, and without fault in His sight.” He says, “Ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh,” because the righteous flesh has reconciled that flesh which was being kept under bondage in sin, and brought it into friendship with God.” — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 14

A spoken word for Christmas

There’s an irony to telling the Christmas story via ‘spoken word’ when it’s the story of the word made flesh, but this is some great stuff from my friend Nat. He’s allowed me to share it here, and I’m not sure you’ll find it anywhere else. Have a listen. This might be especially helpful if you’re looking for some thing to play at some point in your Christmas service this year.

Here’s a link to the file to download it

Here are the words.

This world paints a picture that joy comes in the form of proof
Proof that you’ve succeeded if your house has a ginormous roof
We’re often torn in two and forming views
about our own self worth based on the next thing we’re looking forward to

But see, the bible is full of recitals
of all kinds of people with all kinds of titles
from those with good stature to those who were broke
whose lives looked fractured and at the point of no hope
from women who served well … to hurt women in search of a well
from royal officials to tax collectors to crippled beggars in the street
who when they met Jesus and found so much more joy than just renewed strength in their feet

See the reason for such joy in the lives of many
was because before they met Jesus their lives seemed so empty.

God has entered the world and he wants to walk with us in it,
our saviour has been born thats why we celebrate Christmas
Jesus is the light that shines bright to where you’re at in life
And the good news is that goes out to everyone in sight
See this relationship with God doesn’t start with us.
It doesn’t start with what we’ve done.
See it starts with coming to know Jesus Christ, our saviour, God’s Son
So Merry Christmas one. And Merry Christmas all.
And praise God that his love has been shown to you and me
And that at his son Jesus Christ’s feet, we can fall.
A saviour’s been born…

The music is from Whitesand.