Nathan Campbell

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

Why we might all need conversion therapy

“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?” — Jesus, Matthew 10:24-26

The state of California is considering passing a law (Bill 2943) that makes the controversial practice of ‘conversion therapy’ or ‘reparative therapy’ illegal.

This bill would include, as an unlawful practice prohibited under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, advertising, offering to engage in, or engaging in sexual orientation change efforts with an individual.”

It’s worth pointing out that there’s a limited scope to this Bill, that it is specifically about consumer rights, not about the right of an individual to pursue treatment in private and without cost (it’s a law about the marketplace, not a law governing how people approach the bedroom). It’s not a law banning prayer, or private conversations where there’s an ‘equal standing’, but about transactions, and particularly in settings where there’s a power-dynamic (eg patient-doctor). The Bill ‘declares’:

“Contemporary science recognizes that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is part of the natural spectrum of human identity and is not a disease, disorder, or illness.”

It quotes an American Psychiatric Association finding that:

“In the last four decades, ‘reparative’ therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure. Until there is such research available, [the American Psychiatric Association] recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to first, do no harm.”

Which is curious; because it’s hard to see how such research might become available given this recommendation, if such therapy were possibly effective. But it also makes significant assumptions about the framework for assessing harm, and whether or not such ‘therapy’ should only be pursued on the basis that it will produce certain results, rather than simply being something an individual might freely pursue to live a life of their choosing (with the caveat that how reparative therapy for same sex attraction has been used by Christians with a particular view about the moral status of same sex attraction).

The question of whether reparative therapy is effective or damaging was the subject of a longitudinal study by Christian psychologists, Dr Mark Yarhouse and Stanton Jones. This study included non-therapy approaches (the sort you might offer as a free course, not just the sort you pay for) concluded:

“In conclusion, the findings of this study would appear to contradict the commonly expressed view of the mental health establishment that sexual orientation is not changeable and that the attempt to change is highly likely to produce harm for those who make such an attempt.”

The Yarhouse-Jones study did find that ‘orientation change’ from predominantly homo- to predominantly hetero- attraction was possible in some case (23%) and a reduction in homosexual attraction with an outcome of “a reduction in homosexual attraction and behavioral chastity” occurred for a further 30% of people involved in the study. The sample size for this study was small, and there are other studies more targetted at particular therapy practices, which may end up causing more harm (especially if unsuccessful).

That humans are able to change aspects of our identity, even if natural, seems to align with findings around how our brains work, and a whole heap of other clinical psychological practice.

There are much bigger issues on the table here for Christians — two in fact.  Bigger even than the freedom to practice our faith under law (though that’s a biggy).

First is whether an orientation change from same sex to opposite sex attraction is necessary for Christians (rather than desirable) — if 47% of cases in the longitudinal study remained same sex attracted, what does our theology say to their experience and their capacity to live in the world as followers of Jesus?

Does loving Jesus require a change in ‘sexual orientation as it occurs across a ‘natural spectrum’?

It doesn’t; but it does require a decision to love Jesus more than we love sex (and other ‘things of this world’) because we are, by nature disordered people who love things God made in the place of the God who made them (what the Bible says is at the heart of sin).

Some form of therapy to realign natural desires might, however, be useful to a Christian who doesn’t want to experience same sex attraction. It might be that they freely choose to investigate the possibility that sexuality occurs on a spectrum and involves factors that aren’t simply innate (even if attraction isn’t ‘chosen’), and so an individual might seek to change those desires and that orientation, and to take that option off the table, if it might work, just because sexual orientation is ‘natural’, seems cruel. We intervene to treat all sorts of natural things that are part of our identity. It’s perhaps more cruel to co-opt a person’s will and force them through such therapy, especially if the change in orientation isn’t necessary for somebody to faithfully love Jesus.

Second is whether part of our issue, as Christians, is that we’ve limited our approach to ‘therapeutic’ practices following conversion to the belief that Jesus is Lord to a particular area — sexuality — for a particular orientation — homosexual, where instead we should be providing mechanisms for ‘reparation’ or ‘conversion’ for the entire ‘natural spectrum of human identity’… whether that’s heterosexual orientation or, for example, our incredibly natural greed and selfishness (the ‘selfish gene’, anybody). We might also need some conversion therapy for our wallets and our self-image. That is; people working with us to change fundamental ‘natural’ things about ourselves  and our identities as we seek a particular unnatural outcome.

Part of the issue here is that we seem to have limited ‘conversion’ to an intellectual assent to some sort of belief in every area but the sexuality of our same sex attracted neighbours. Nobody talks about any sort of professional ‘conversion therapy’ for Christian people addicted to overseas travel, or career, for those who are lovers of money, not God (or money as God). An opposition to ‘conversion therapy’ — the idea that we might need to change and sacrifice happiness — comes as much out of this view of God as out of a view that God is irrelevant.

There’s a popular description of western spirituality as ‘moral therapeutic deism’ — where God steps back from the world and our lives (deism) but wants us to be good and moral people who chase happiness, and good people end up in heaven. There’s a ‘therapy’ at the heart of this because such a wishy-washy set of beliefs about God is inherently comforting and therapeutic. The problem is, of course, the total absence of ‘Christ‘ Jesus from Christianity.

We have as western Christians, bought into a picture of evangelism and the Christian life that equates to ‘tick a box’ decisionism, unless you happen to be a member of the LGBTIQ+ community. A huge percentage of Aussies ‘tick the box’ at census time, calling themselves ‘Christian’, and lots of our evangelistic efforts focus on helping people ‘make a decision’ and then leave out the question of ‘making a disciple’ — the hard work of discipline and formation… unless the person making the decision happens to be same sex attracted; then we want them to ‘discipline their bodies’ in order to change their orientation to the world.

It’s hypocrisy; costly hypocrisy as a result of cheap grace. The German churchman who fought against Hitler and the rise of his political vision, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, defined ‘cheap grace’ as:

“…The preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” — Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

The idea that ‘conversion therapy’ — a deliberate, habitual, reordering of our desires to conform to God’s design, drawing on insights into how people change — is something that we should limit to same sex attracted Christians and their sexuality, not a thing for all Christians to pursue, is a version of ‘cheap grace’… so to is the idea that we’re not all called to ‘die to self’ when it comes to our sexuality (and every other area of our life).

We seem to ask the average Aussie to tick a box, believe that Jesus died for them, and then largely live an unchanged life when it comes to their time, money, and vocation — we ask them to change nothing about their sexuality except to limit to one person in marriage; saying nothing about the way we in our ‘natural spectrum’ are geared up to turn other people, even our spouse, into objects of our self-fulfilment. Sexual immorality isn’t limited to same sex attraction; every person is called to ‘conversion’ and needs to be repaired by God’s spirit; working through our habits and practices — perhaps even with help (therapy).

Maybe we’d have less issues explaining ‘conversion therapy’ if it was a widespread practice in the pursuit of being like Jesus, living with him as king of every area; if we say ‘sanctification’ as having our naturally ‘disordered’ image — broken by sin — repaired so that we bear the image of Jesus. If we applied this to our use of our credit card, and the darkness of our hearts in all areas of life, not just to sex.

Grace is, of course, free. Life is a gift offered freely by Jesus, not earned… but the call to discipleship is a call to conversion, and the idea that this conversion shouldn’t involve thinking about how people are changed and formed by practices or ‘therapy’ that changes our hearts, and our ‘orientation’ to the world and its pleasures — is naive.

As Bonhoeffer said:

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our  lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” — Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.

It’s no good for anybody to pretend this process will happen without deliberate intervention in community; the New Testament, especially the letters, are attempts by a writer to convert and repair the actions of those who have taken up the call to discipleship. It’s costly; it’s intense; it requires a deliberate re-ordering of our practices in order to re-order our loves (including how we approach our sexuality). It’s a call to obey God’s word and submit our lives to him, with our love for Jesus at the centre of all our other loves. That’s true for all Christians.

The goal of ‘conversion therapy’ is not heterosexuality or ‘turning straight’; such a goal would suggest we straight people don’t need any intervention or help. The goal of the conversion therapy we all need — the repair we all need — is not ‘straightness’, but Jesus, a life moved from our natural state of ‘disorder’ to being ‘conformed into the image of the son’ (not our natural state or identity).

We all need conversion therapy — the idea that a government might call the possibility of being transformed into the image of Christ ‘fraud’ is laughable, but maybe it’s time we ask if we’re the joke?

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Broadchurch and the secular age: the limited value of Christianity without Christ

Broadchurch is the sort of show best watched in small doses — it doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of the human condition, and where seasons one and two were about a couple of seedy blokes who’d killed minors, season three was about toxic masculinity and there were only two blokes who emerged relatively unscathed — DI Alec Hardy (the lead), and the village vicar, Reverend Paul Coates.

The final series focuses on a serial rapist, and zeroes in on ‘rape culture,’ and its relationship to porn and the systemic objectification of women (right from the teenage years). It’s hard viewing because just about every male is a suspect (and rightly so, in terms of how they’re characterised), and every woman is either a potential victim of sexual assault, or victimised by the toxic masculinity of the small town’s culture. It’s challenging viewing as a bloke — but with news linking the Toronto incident this week with a ‘toxic’ movement of ‘involuntarily celibate’ (incel) men who believe they’re entitled to female affection (and sex), it’s worth grappling with some of the darker, causative, factors underpinning this cultural moment and what it means to be a man, or a woman, in a world where there’s an ever present threat of rape, and a growing saturated environment where blokes (and increasingly, women) are marinating their imaginations in pornography.

Though the village Rev is depicted sympathetically — and almost positively — throughout the series, I find his character fascinating, and his story arc a depressingly real picture of how the world sees the church, and where the church is failing the world.

There’s a scene early on in series three between the local newspaper editor, Maggie, who’s facing a ‘corporate rationalisation’ of her newspaper, and the Rev, where he reveals his despair at the lack of impact he’s having on the town.

Maggie: Just be glad you’ve got a job for life. People will always need a bit of God.

Paul: I wish you were right. On Sundays now, the church is emptier than before Danny was killed [season 1]. You don’t come. Beth and Mark don’t come, Ellie and half the people that were affected by what happened here. People look to God when they want something and then Well, now they’ve just deserted him.

Maggie: No, Paul, no. People love you. You pulled so many of us through these past few years.

Paul: Exactly. I’m the priest that people look to when they’re hurting and then desert when everything’s OK. I’ve got more to offer than that.

The reverend is having an identity crisis; he’s not ‘reaching people’ or helping people — and he’s less interested in people finding God than in people seeing him as a bit of a hero in a time of crisis. While he’s not ‘toxic’ in the ‘rape culture’ sense of toxic masculinity, this insecurity — when he has much more to offer — is another form of broken masculinity. He wants to be the white knight, to save the town and be there for its victims — for him to be there, not for Jesus to be present in any meaningful way. He wants to be the model man, rather than point people to the model man; Jesus. More of this is revealed in his dialogue with Beth Latimer, the mother of Danny (the boy killed in season 1), who has become a crisis counsellor for a sexual assault support service, and is helping season 3’s victim — Trish.

Beth: I spoke to Trish Winterman, – about you going to speak to her.

Paul: Great, thanks.

Beth: She didn’t want that.

Paul: Oh. Right. OK.

Beth: She’s not religious and didn’t know how much help it would be.

Paul: But you did say it didn’t have to be about that? It’s support.

Beth: I did, I really talked to her about it. She’s not up for seeing you. I’m sorry.

Paul: Right.

Beth: You say that like I’ve let you down.

Paul: No. Not at all. I am so admiring of you. It’s brilliant, the way you’ve turned all of this into a way to help people. People really respond to you.(Sighs) If I’m really honest with you, I’m a bit envious.

If he can’t help people with generic, non-religious, support — then what can he do? Envy the mum of a dead boy because she is able to help people? It’s like he can’t imagine a contribution he might make to the town, or the writers can’t… somewhere between this moment and the end of the series, the Rev decides to call it quits — to leave town.

Paul: How did you know I’d be here this early?

Maggie: Last service in a few hours. I thought, if I was you, I’d be wallowing.

Paul: Hm.

Maggie: Have you got your sermon worked out?

Paul: To all seven who’ll be there.

Maggie: I’m hoping you’ll reconsider.

Paul: (Snorts) No. No. It’s time. To everything a season.

And here’s what we see of his ‘stellar’ last sermon…

There’s a line from Hebrews echoing through my head.
Let us all consider how we may spur one another on, toward love and good deeds.
Not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.
But encouraging one another.
Now, I hope that even without me here, you will go on encouraging one another.
All any of us really want are love and good deeds.

It’s a hit with Alec, who picks at the barely closed wound…

Alec: If I’d known you were that good, I might have come more often.

Paul: Oh, thanks very much.

There’s something sympathetic in the way the writers of Broadchurch realise this character; as though this is the ‘ideal’ modern churchman, He was essential in the earlier seasons, offering real comfort to the Latimer family in their grief, but also offering prayerful support to the murderer in prison. He helped Mark (Danny’s dad) not pursue vengeance — a decision still haunting Mark in season 3, but one he remains proud of… but there is no place, no future, for the Reverend, or his church, in this town… and yet, there seems to be something like the passing of judgment on him (and the church) in the way his story arc finishes and how useless he ends up being in the face of systemic toxicity.  When it boils down to it, it’s pretty clear the citizens of Broadchurch (the town) are an irreligious bunch, barely interested in his counsel, and certainly not interested in his religious belief… except maybe if it boils down to ‘love and good deeds’ — they can stomach that, and there’s a reluctant sense that he might have something, a nagging sense that maybe he does offer some sort of traditional wisdom (bereft of any super natural substance, ground he has already ceded).

“We have moved from a world in which the place of fullness was understood as unproblematically outside of or “beyond” human life, to a conflicted age in which this construal is challenged by others which place it (in a wide range of different ways) “within” human life.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

The town, and its reverend, are a living, breathing, example of Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age’ thesis; and the ‘good’ reverend in his existential crisis is the archetypal image of Taylor’s ‘buffered self’ dealing with the ‘malaise of immanence’ while trying to pursue an authentic sense of self… and that’s no place for a churchman to be… if that’s all we’ve got to offer then we may as well shut up shop and leave town. Taylor describes a world where religious belief is less possible, and where the default way of seeing and being in the world is to not register anything ‘supernatural’; to be concerned with ‘immanent’ things (the things around us) not ‘transcendent’ things (the ‘divine’/supernatural things beyond us), he says this leaves us bereft and cut off from bigger things (and from community built around something beyond us). He suggests this creates a dilemma — we’ve lost something (for good or for ill) with a move to seeing the world in material terms, and we’re left searching for a replacement; he sees “a wide sense of malaise at the disenchanted world” where instead of rich and supernaturally meaningful we have “a sense of it as flat, empty” and instead of purpose coming from God or ‘the gods’ we’re left with “a multiform search for something within, or beyond” the world and our lives that “could compensate for the meaning lost with transcendence.”

If that’s the world of most people then what’s the point of church? What place can it occupy in the village? And what’s the point of being a churchman?

This is Reverend Paul Coates’ dilemma. He’s living and breathing in the secular world and trying to authentically take part in that world, rather than challenging the ‘haunting’ Taylor sees as left behind when we encase ourselves in this way of seeing ‘reality’. Taylor says this view of the world creates that ‘malaise,’ but also this pursuit of authenticity on these terms. Again, terrible circumstances for a member of the clergy. Taylor says the pursuit of ‘authentic’ fulfilment, flourishing, or ‘fullness’ on these terms look like a life where:

“we strive to live happily with spouse and children, while practising a vocation which we find fulfilling, and also which constitutes an obvious contribution to human welfare.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

He says this can only work if our daily practices keep our haunting sense of loss at bay, and that they provide a sense of growing fullness — a movement towards something substantial. This is exactly the Rev’s dilemma — he’s lost his sense that he is contributing to human welfare, and so his job is no longer ‘fulfilling’ or inching him towards ‘fulness’ — instead, he feels empty. Haunted perhaps, though he doesn’t realise it.

And I’d like to make the case that this is precisely how a clergyman who has taken his path should feel… that his job, instead, is to point his town to a different picture of fulness and flourishing — and that he has failed the job (and the town), rather than the job failing him.

There’s more to Christianity (and to Hebrews 10, the part of the Bible his last sermon comes from) than ‘meeting together’ and ‘love and good deeds’. I can’t help but wonder if the writers of Broadchurch were being advised by some clergy cut from the same cloth as this character; but the verses immediately around this final sermon are the core truth claims of Christianity that might present a sort of ‘truth beyond ourselves’ that challenges the issues underpinning toxic masculinity and without these claims Christianity is useless, toothless, and should be run out of town. Here’s what Hebrews 10 says is the reason to meet together and encourage each other towards love and good deeds.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. — Hebrews 10:20-23

The church meets together to hold on to the truth that we have been restored to living God’s way by Jesus, there’s a ‘new and living way opened for us’ to be in relationship with God, washed pure… we meet together to ‘hold unswervingly to the hope we profess’ — resurrection from death and total liberation from our own toxic humanity and a world messed up by our shared toxic humanity. Our ‘love and good deeds’ aren’t just random, amorphous, acts of ‘good will’ or ‘neighbourliness’, they’re a response to the hope that we have that Jesus will return to right wrongs and judge evil.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. — Hebrews 10:24-27

A Christianity with nothing to say about Jesus and life in him, and in the hope of his return, is a Christianity with nothing to say in the face of sin — no hope to offer victims, no condemnation and mercy to offer perpetrators, and no new way of life to offer to anybody. A Christianity with no hope, or no ‘day approaching’ is a Christianity with nothing to live for — a dead, truncated, Christianity.

A truncated Christianity is no Christianity at all; and rightly has no place in the village.

Taylor says that one of the problems created by the flattening of reality, for everybody, is that when we pursue fulness in ‘this worldly terms’, when we adopt the ‘secular age’ and its modernist, materialist, ‘immanent’, vision, we end up where the wise writer of Ecclesiastes ended up — with a sense that everything is meaningless. This is, along with the utter sinfulness of the human heart, is the root problem in Broadchurch, and what it depicts so effectively. Even in the ‘best communal moments’ in the series — a walk where the female residents unite to ‘light the night’, and the Rev’s farewell service, there’s an emptiness to what is on offer in the face of the dark reality they’re standing against.

“Running through all these attacks [on the modernist rejection of spiritual realities] is the spectre of meaninglessness; that as a result of the denial of transcendence, of heroism, of deep feeling, we are left with a view of human life which is empty, cannot inspire commitment, offers nothing really worth while, cannot answer the craving for goals we can dedicate ourselves to. Human happiness can only inspire us when we have to fight against the forces which are destroying it; but once realised, it will inspire nothing but ennui, a cosmic yawn.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

Broadchurch needs Jesus; any ‘church’ has to be built on something beyond itself… on him, and the hope that he will return.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.” — Hebrews 10:36-37

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What the Hell?

Look. There are plenty of issues that should be occupying your attention as a global citizen, but the question of the eternal destiny of people is a big one and worth probing a bit; especially as it relates to how Christians operate in the here and now.

“People’s lives are not for me to judge. Only God can do that.

I have sinned many times in my life. I take responsibility for those sins and ask for forgiveness through repentance daily.” — Israel Folau

In the fallout to his controversial answer to the question ‘what is God’s plan for gay people,’ Israel published a long piece titled ‘I’m a sinner too,’ and it’s good, but it has also revealed some issues facing Christians in Australia that are much bigger than religious freedom or freedom of speech. The issue seems to me to be that people in Australia expect us Christians to be trying to ‘play God’ when it comes to how they live, while simultaneously believing that the idea of any god is harmful nonsense, when the function of God’s judgment isn’t to have us reaching for the pitchfork and forming angry mobs, but taking up our cross and laying down our lives in sacrificial love in the hope others might experience God’s merciful love, and the gift of life.

There are two very public responses to Folau’s two pieces that I’ve found particularly provocative… this one, from University of Queensland Political Science professor, Katharine Gelber, and this tweet (and resulting media storm) from one-test All Black Brad Weber. Weber tweeted:

“Kinda sick of us players staying quiet on some of this stuff. I can’t stand that I have to play this game that I love with people, like Folau, who say what he’s saying My cousin and her partner, and my Aunty and her partner are some of the most kind, caring & loving people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. To think that I play against someone that says they’ll go to Hell for being gay disgusts me.”

There’s been a whole lot of hatred, outrage, and ‘disgust’ from people who don’t believe in the God Israel believes in, or the Hell he speaks of… and a lot of this outrage is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of how belief in hell is meant to work in the life of a Christian towards those who are facing it.

Hell isn’t meant to motivate us to hate others; but to love them. 

There are plenty of good reasons to be outraged at God and the prospect of Hell if you do believe in God; but there’s only two reasons I can see to be disgusted about the idea of Hell if you’re Brad Weber; one is the reason given by Peter FitzSimons in his piece on Folau — the mental and emotional wellbeing of gay people in Christian communities who believe there’s a destination just for them just because of their sexuality (which is part of why I didn’t like Folau’s first post, and love his second), two is if belief in Hell as the appropriate destination for ‘those people’ caused Christians to act judgmentally or with hatred towards ‘those people’ (in this case, gay people, but the ‘those’ can be just about any group because all groups of people, all people, are heading towards God’s judgment without Jesus, if the Bible is true).

And here’s the rub — I can see why people would believe that Christians take the judgment of God and use it to make moral judgments of others and to cause harm rather than using God’s judgment as motivation the same way Jesus did — to sacrificially love those who are God’s enemies in the hope that in laying down your life for them in myriad ways they might be confronted and arrested by the great sacrificial love God has for them…

Hell — or God’s judgment — isn’t meant to motivate us to sit in judgment over others, but to love them.

We aren’t God. To put ourselves in God’s position is the very definition of sin, the ‘original’ sin.

If Israel’s answer to the question ‘what is God’s plan for gay people’ is the same as his answer to ‘where would you like gay people to end up’, then there’s a real problem. If he puts himself in God’s place and acts as though he is God — or if we do — then there’s a problem… which is why his follow up is so important.

The problem in the other direction is a whole bunch of secular people who aren’t conversant with Christian teaching (but perhaps are with Christian practice) assuming that you can infer an ‘ought’ from this ‘is’ — that saying someone is destined for Hell is a personal expression of judgment and an assumption that ‘you’ are worse than ‘me’… to say judgment exists is not to say someone is more deserving of it than we are (even if it often comes across that way), nor is it to say we should treat a person differently to how we expect to be treated — two of the fundamental moral teachings of Jesus are ‘love your enemies’ and ‘treat others as you would have them treat you.’

Watching people who don’t share these categories try to understand and respond to what they think they mean is as painful as the meme pointing out that homosexuality is ruled out in Leviticus, but so are tattoos and Israel proudly has those — it’s just a poor understanding of how the Bible works from cover to cover (in case you’re wondering: there are several references to homosexuality in the New Testament letters to churches, and the idea that Old Testament Jewish laws should apply directly to non-Jewish converts was the subject of debates recorded in the Bible, in Acts 15, the Old Testament pointed to and is fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 5, Luke 24)).

Hell and judgment are meant to motivate us to say ‘there but for the grace of God go I…’; to have us put ourselves in the shoes of the other.

God’s plan for his people is that we be like Jesus, inviting people to know the reconciling love of God, as his ambassadors, so that we no longer face eternal death and judgment, but eternal life. Here are a couple of quotes from the Bible (from the apostle Paul, about how he lived, and how Christians should live, if the stuff about death and judgment, and Jesus, is real). He says:

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” — 2 Corinthians 5:10

This judgment thing is fundamental to Christian belief. It’s not an added extra (and it’s not us sitting in the judgment seat, but Jesus, it’s not ‘our plan’ but God’s plan). And this reality motivates Paul’s way of life with people who are facing judgment.

He says:

“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.” — 2 Corinthians 5:11

And then, that this persuasion isn’t motivated by earning bonus points with God, or to persuade people that they deserve judgment, but instead to love, and to invite people to experience the love of God.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 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” — 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

If there’s no sin, and no judgment, then there’s no need for this reconciliation stuff — but Paul’s profound motivation for speaking about sin, death, judgment, and Jesus is God’s love; it’s taking that loving invitation to the world that needs it.

The thought of people facing death and judgment is so troubling for God that he sent Jesus to die on a cross as an act of reconciliation; he took the first step. This stuff only makes sense if you’re prepared to believe there’s a God who has a standard, and that we fall short of that standard (what we call ‘sin’ — literally, etymologically, an archery term for ‘falling short of the target’), and that this falling short is total (not just about our sexuality or particular ‘transgressions’), a deliberate departure from God’s will, and destructive for ourselves, others, and the world, and means we don’t get heaven but face judgment. Without these categories anything a Christian says about God, hell, Jesus, reconciliation or judgment will sound like nonsense.

But for people who do operate with those categories, one needs to consider how they operate to produce a coherent way of life rather than just picking one bit to get offended at in isolation.

Paul also says, elsewhere:

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

The ‘in view of God’s mercy’ bit; if you were going to unpack that, is basically ‘because you are meant to face God’s anger and judgment as his enemy, and instead, through Jesus, are his child’ — the reality of God’s judgment and our place as Christians is that we’re meant to lay down our lives just like Jesus, in response to God’s love for us.

There’s lots of good reasons to probe around Christian beliefs and teachings around Hell (and lots of how we picture Hell that comes more from Dante’s fiction than from the Bible, and a reasonable theological case to be made for conditional immortality as an alternative to eternal death-as-death); but the idea that Christians believing or speaking about Hell is inherently evil or harmful, is only really true if either ‘being told things we disagree with and don’t like to hear’ is evil, or if somehow we’re acting not just as messenger but judge, jury, and executioner and sending people there ourselves, when we deserve exactly the same fate. It’s really God that Weber should take umbrage with, not Folau.

In his follow up, Folau said:

I think of it this way: you see someone who is about to walk into a hole and have the chance to save him. He might be determined to maintain his course and doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. But if you don’t tell him the truth, as unpopular as it might be, he is going to fall into that hole. What do you do?

In this case, we are talking about sin as the Bible describes it, not just homosexuality, which I think has been lost on a lot of people.

This is good stuff — though that last line troubles me because I think it was Folau’s initial answer that created what was ‘lost on a lot of people’… and it presents a dilemma for Christians if views like Weber’s or Professor Gelber’s start to shape the way public conversations about the afterlife happen.

Professor Gelber raises the spectre of Folau being brought the courts on vilification charges; it’s a fascinating thought experiment revealing the default assumptions in the secular frame our academy, political and legal spheres have adopted — which will be utterly incompetent for assessing issues around religious freedoms if allowed to sit unchallenged, and if they can’t make room for the assumptions of religious participants in a truly secular (no official state religion), pluralist (many religious groupings), society.

My view is that it is unlikely the comment would reach the threshold of vilification, by which is meant that the comment was capable of inciting hatred in its audience against a member of the targeted group.

Well. What a relief. But given his comments were, by (theological) definition designed to be both an act of love in themselves, and are reflective of a theological belief that should motivate love for the member of a targeted group either our society has problems in how it perceives Christians and understands this stuff, or the way we Christians take this teaching and run with it is problematic.

Professor Gelber, like many in a post-enchanted secular world where there is no transcendent or divine foundation for morality or ethics has adopted an ethical framework based on harm, our apparent right not to be harmed, and our responsibility not to cause it.

“The responsibility that attaches to freedom of speech is the responsibility not to use one’s words, or one’s position, to hurt others. And despite the nursery rhymes, we know now that words can hurt, and hurt badly.”

Words about hell, judgment, or death, certainly describe something harmful and a prospect that is meant to motivate us to consider how we then live; but if hell is real, and Israel believes that it is, then the harm based ethic becomes a paradox. Who gets to define or choose which harm Israel should perpetrate on his neighbour — the harm potentially caused by speaking what he believes to be true, or the harm potentially caused by not speaking what he believes to be true? Gelber wants Folau to be a ‘role model’ and use his platform carefully, and responsibly, to minimise harm — but that is precisely what he was attempting to do.

“Folau has failed to appreciate the special responsibilities he carries as a role model for young people everywhere.

He is entitled to his religiously influenced view. But as a role model and national sporting star he should not have chosen to air a view so imbued with prejudice on the stage that is social media.

The best take-home from all of this should be a greater appreciation of the fact that words matter, and that the more powerful the speaker, the more aware of this they should be.”

What’s really going on here is a value judgment, from Weber and Gelber, that Christian beliefs are nonsense, ‘imbued with prejudice’ and so airing them is, essentially, always harmful (and again, a caveat, Folau’s answer would have been much less controversial if he’d broadened it immediately to include himself as a sinner, as he did in his follow up, rather than answering the question as framed).

Perhaps we’ve given them the ammunition for this belief by assuming we can operate in a secular world with totalising ‘natural’ arguments, rather than asking for our religious ones to be accommodated (like in the marriage debate), and by not denouncing those who do attempt to respond to sin with judgment (and exclusion) rather than with costly, sacrificial, love.

Love isn’t love; that’s a fluffy logical nonsense… but.

The cross is love. 

A loving response to God’s judgment, and God’s own invitation to be reconciled to him, by grace, not because we’re more deserving than anybody else but because we accept the invitation.

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Dizzy about Izzy: Why ‘religious freedom’ is much less important to our society than being able to discuss questions of substance

The fallout from Israel Folau’s un-nuanced (both theologically and pastorally) comment on social media last week continues. Lines have been drawn. On the one hand, he’s become a champion for free speech and religious freedom, amongst pastors, political conservatives, and Libertarians… on the other, he’s become a homophobic ‘demon’ in the eyes of atheist commentators (and former Wallabies), sponsors, and the LGBTIQ+ community.

Sydney Anglican Archbishop, Glenn Davies, said:

“Israel Folau should be free to hold and express traditional, biblical views on marriage and sexuality without being penalised, just as other players have spoken out with their differing views…”

Peter FitzSimons weighed in on why ‘religious freedom’ shouldn’t cut it (along with this, he asks some legitimate pastoral questions about the way Folau’s un-nuanced answer might cause damage, that are worth hearing and heeding):

“…the greatest of all rugby values is inclusion. We want everyone on board: white, black, tall, small, fat, thin, abled, disabled, straight, gay, men, women, young, old, etc. Saying gays will burn in hell really is anathema to that. What has shielded Folau from a stronger reaction, so far, of course, is the ‘‘freedom of religion’’ line.

See, if any other famous sportsperson had said: ‘‘I think people who are gay should be roasted on a fire forever more, because, well, that’s just what I think,’’ their own lives would be hell in an instant. It would be classic homophobia, and we just don’t do that shit any more, and certainly not in the public domain.

But, if you say: ‘‘I seriously believe, as a grown adult, that there is a really good supernatural being, called ‘God’, in a paradise above the clouds called ‘heaven’, and a really bad one beneath us, called the ‘Devil’, living in ‘hell’, and though God must have created some beings as being attracted to their own gender, because he created everything, he still so hates his children for having that same-sex attraction, he will send them to hell …’’ we’re all meant to back off.”

MP Tim Wilson, a gay man with a particular expertise in human rights (and the way they bump against each other), and some strong opinions on the necessity of religious freedom came out in defence of Folau’s right to say things he disagrees with

“Respecting diversity includes diversity of opinion, including on questions of morality… Targeting Folau falsely feeds a mindset that he is persecuted for his opinions. Everyone needs to take a chill pill, respect Folau’s authority on the rugby field, and also recognise that he is employed in a profession that values brawn over brains… It is ridiculous for sponsors to walk away from Rugby Australia because of Folau’s opinions,” he says. “Companies have the freedom to sponsor organisations that share their values, but it would be absurd to make a collective sponsorship decision based on an individual player who isn’t hired based on his opinions. If Qantas and other sponsors punish Rugby Australia they’d be saying Australians can’t associate with them if they have religious or moral views.”

Folau, himself, has tweeted since the scandal, suggesting that he is being persecuted for righteousness. I see his point, in that he has attempted to speak truth about the eternal destiny of a segment of the community, and what could be more loving and righteous than that… and yet, I don’t think he answered the question well — and my problems with his answer are largely aligned with the pastoral objections FitzSimons raised:

“But whatever happens, you must reflect on the effect your words have most particularly on troubled teens – many of them, undoubtedly in your own community – struggling with their sexuality.

Do you have the first clue of the agonies they go through? Do you know how those agonies must be compounded by a respected figure like yourself saying they deserve to burn for all eternity? Most of us can laugh off such nonsense. But what of the kids who are 14, raised in it, and born gay? What of them right now, Israel? How can you visit such pain upon them?”

This is exactly why I think Folau should’ve been much more careful not to create (or legitimise) a separate category of person called ‘gay people’ — while sticking with his truth claim that those who reject God face death and judgment, while those who turn to God (repent) are given eternal life through the loving sacrifice of Jesus. It would’ve been nice for his response to be about good news — that we are all sinners who face a shared future without Jesus, but God loves all people enough to offer us a way out… Jesus’ love is for gay people, straight people, and “white, black, tall, small, fat, thin, abled, disabled, straight, gay, men, women, young, old, etc” — he’s much more inclusive than the Australian Rugby community (who only want you if you love Rugby).

If there’s one thing you can bet on in the current political climate it’s that haters are gonna hate; or polarisers are gonna polarise. On any issue. The collective ‘righteous mind’ kicks into overdrive on any issue that can be turned into a political football that can serve a cause.

We’ve lost the ability, as a community (and as individuals) to talk about things that matter — rather than how we feel about things that matter.

But here’s the thing… Debates about free speech, freedom of religion, and the polarised nature of any public conversation in the current environment are getting in the way of our ability to exercise free speech, and religious freedom, and to actually have conversations about things that matter… and maybe what we should do is just model those conversations, rather than speaking about why they’re important. Obviously all these issues are like a scrambled egg; and they’re very difficult to unscramble… but we perpetuate the scrambledness by scrambling to talk about those secondary issues and how this is an exemplary case, rather than dealing with this as a legitimate public conversation that needs having.

We shouldn’t really get bogged down into the conversation about whether or not Folau should be allowed to say what he says (clearly he should), our time would be better spent on whether or not what he says is true or helpful. The best way to honour his speech and legitimise it, is to engage with it.

If we make religious freedom, or the freedom to not be offended, or popular community held beliefs the issue we discuss in the fallout of Folau’s comments, and not their substance, we’ve already lost. The conversation about what sort of speech we should allow is a ‘secondary’ matter; and it fills almost all the airtime that we should be given to the primary matter; if we had public conversations well (and if we’d stewarded our place in public conversations better in the past) we wouldn’t have to spend all this time talking about what is or isn’t acceptable. If Folau is being ‘persecuted’ because people are trying to exclude him from the public conversation, then the LGBTIQ+ community has been, historically, persecuted in exactly this way in Australia for years; excluded from conversations about what is good, true, and beautiful, when it comes to life in this world…

What’s really at stake here is a conversation about whether there’s any legitimacy to religious belief, or any possible truth at the heart of Folau’s view of the world, and the default assumption from people like FitzSimons is that there isn’t — and that such speech has no place in the hard secular world we now live in, by making the case for free speech, or religious freedom, rather than for religious truth (or even the legitimate place potential religious truth has at the table in a pluralistic society), we’ve allowed FitzSimons and others to move the goalposts from a world that may include a transcendent reality, to a world where only matter matters — a material world.

The tragedy here, is that whatever truth, or untruth, or lack of nuance there might be at the heart of the substance of Israel Folau’s comment on the eternal future of ‘gay people’ gets lost in the noise. And I’d have thought the possible eternal destiny of anybody was maybe worth pondering before we jumped in to temporal tribes and started beating the stuffing out of this football in order to score as many points against the dreaded ‘other’ as possible.

It’s one thing to talk about what Folau got right, or wrong, it’s another thing entirely to argue about whether he was right or wrong to say it; and whether such speech should be allowed; I fear that we Christians have jumped into the second conversation, rather than showing why the first type is actually profoundly good and valuable to our society.

This isn’t about religious freedom; or it shouldn’t be. It should be about whether or not Folau’s statement is true.

We’ve jumped to asserting that Folau should’ve been able to say what he believes, rather than trying to establish the goodness, truth, or beauty of what the Bible actually teaches about life, death, and judgment — about the potential eternal destination of all people.

We’ve, by default, slipped into discussions of a temporal, or immanent, nature — political or secular concerns — rather than talking about things that are transcendent or spiritual. Which is to play the game on the wrong terms; to adopt a ‘limited end’ or a truncated, flattened, vision of the world.

How will we then pull back the curtains of reality and try to talk about the substance, and the legitimacy of ‘transcendence’, if first we’ve adopted a posture to this conversation that makes the important bit ‘should Folau be allowed to speak’ rather than ‘was Folau right in what he said’?

Isn’t the latter of much more importance to everyone?

Isn’t that importance what actually legitimises the offence his free speech may have caused?

I’ve always loved the way atheist magician Penn Jillette (who often reminds me of Peter FitzSimons) responded to being given a Bible by a man who believed he was going to Hell

“It was really wonderful. I believe he knew that I am an atheist. But he was not defensive, and he looked me right in the eyes and he was truly complimentary, it didn’t seem like empty flattery… and then he gave me this Bible. And I’ve always said, I don’t respect people who don’t proselytise. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell and not getting eternal life, or whatever, and you think, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward, and atheists who think that people shouldn’t proselytise ‘just leave me alone and keep your religion to yourself’ — how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytise? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them? I mean, if I believed, without a shadow of a doubt that a truck was about to hit you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point when I tackle you… and this is more important than that… this guy was a really good guy… he was a very, very, very good man… and with that kind of goodness, it’s ok to have that deep of a disagreement, I still think that religion does a lot of bad stuff, but in the end, that was a good man.”

I’ll be banging on about Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for some time, I reckon, but his work on moral psychology and the way we polarise and how dangerous that is, should be a must-read for anybody interested in public conversations and civility. Here’s a quote that I reckon cuts both ways in the fallout around Folau — the public conversation is full of blind people with different views of what is sacred, and so different participants who see the ‘other’ as deluded.

I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds. The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality, and at some point somebody comes along to knock the idol off its pedestal. — The Righteous Mind, page 33-34

When he says this he’s not talking about religious delusions, but the common Western myth that the rational mind is a bigger deal than ‘the passions’; the “worship” of reason in western philosophy, it’s not a long bow to draw to make a connection between the worship of reason and the modern western blindness to the possibility of transcendence, or supernatural or religious truth (though Haidt, himself, is not religious). He talks about this tendency we humans have to hold things as sacred, and what that means for our ability to demonise the other in a way that explains the zealous and religious nature of the fallout around Folau’s comments, from FitzSimons, Qantas, and the rest, as much as it explains Folau’s comments.

Whatever its origins, the psychology of sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities. When someone in a moral community desecrates one of the sacred pillars supporting the community, the reaction is sure to be swift, emotional, collective, and punitive. — page 174

Haidt makes the point that rich, robust, committed disagreement — deep disagreement like Jillette talks about — is actually vital for the pursuit of truth and goodness; but this requires people speaking from conviction in conversation together with people who hold different convictions, not speaking about civility, or pursuing some sort of uniformity of opinion and declaring that civil. He says we need to listen to people who don’t think like us if we genuinely want good outcomes.

“… each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).” — Pages 104-105

When it comes to middle aged white atheists and their concerns about people talking about Hell, we need a public conversation shaped more by Jillette than FitzSimons. The only way for us religious types to get there is to be more like that bloke with the Bible.

Image Credit: Flickr user Tim Snell, under Creative Commons license

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What I’d say to Israel Folau (and those who read his comments about God’s plan for gay people)

God’s plan for gay people is the same as his plan for everyone else; and his offer for gay people is the same as it is for everyone else: Jesus; forgiveness and eternal life in and through Jesus. If a gay person rejects God’s plan — and this offer — then their destiny is the same as the destiny of every person who rejects God. Death and judgment.

Israel Folau found himself in a little bit of hot water during the same sex marriage plebiscite; earning some anger from the wider community, and some comparisons to the prophet Daniel (who refused to bend the knee to an idolatrous regime in the Bible and ended up facing lions who were meant to eat him for his troubles) in the Christian community.

The temperature of that water is heating up a little more after a tweetstorm this week, following this instagram post.

If the image quality isn’t up to scratch on your device; a commenter asked ‘what was God’s plan for gay people?’

And Folau, perhaps still inspired by the Daniel story, courageously answered (emphasis his):

“HELL… Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

Now; the Aussie equivalent of Nebuchadnezzar’s royal guard (King Neb was the king who reluctantly threw Daniel to the lions), Rugby Australia will be ‘speaking’ to Folau about his tweet — and perhaps the corporate danger presented to Australian sporting bodies when sporting superstars cause community outrage… this story ominously mention’s Qantas’ sponsorship of the Wallabies, Rugby AU CEO Raelene Castle said:

“We are aligned in our view that rugby is a game for all, regardless of sexuality, race, religion or gender, which is clearly articulated in Rugby’s inclusion policy.

“We understand that Israel’s comment has upset a number of people and we will discuss the matter with him as soon as possible.”

So. What’s wrong with Israel speaking out to articulate his religious convictions? Nothing. Really. The marketplace will decide what views are and aren’t acceptable — and how to accommodate difference; and it might be lions for Israel (just not the British variety), though ultimately his on field talent will probably protect him (in ways that it might not your Joe average, with similar views).

But, just as Rugby AU would like to talk to Israel about how he uses social media, I’d have a few tips for him from Team Jesus. These are offered humbly from my experience in Public Relations, and as a pastor who cares about how Christians engage with the LGBTI+ community

The first is: don’t make the mistake of reducing a person’s identity, or standing before God, to their sexuality.

Israel should’ve rejected the premise of the question — if he was going to answer at all. By answering he turned ‘gay people’ into something other than ‘people’ — and singled them out in a way that makes it seem like God has a special plan just for their lives; just for being gay, when he says ‘their sins,’ it’s hard not to see it directly connected to just the sins he is being asked about.

Not reducing people to their sexuality (or not accepting the premise of the question — which was obviously a trap) might’ve avoided a bunch of controversy — because it’s not being gay that earns judgment from God… it’s the very sin that Daniel refused to commit that earns judgment — idolatry — turning from God to worship anything else. Because that idolatry leads to death and earns us the death penalty. It’s ultimately rejecting Jesus, and so joining in with the world as it crucified him that makes God’s punishment just — it wasn’t Jesus on trial before Pilate on that first Easter; Jesus is the judge of the universe; it was humanity — us — on trial.

In Romans 1 which is a text in the Bible that talks about homosexuality and God’s design for life, the root cause of God’s judgment is, essentially that we humans “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Now; sex is a created thing, so our desire as modern western types to find our satisfaction and identity in sex, and pursue life — or ‘worship’ — on those terms rather than pursuing God above all, and having him shape our lives (including how we deal with sex and our sexual attraction) is what earns us judgment. To buy into the idea that being gay earns you God’s judgment is to somehow treat a particular group of people as worse than all the rest of humanity; it’s not a thing the Bible does (you won’t find a verse that isolates gay sex from any other sin — including straight sex outside of marriage, nor will you find it outside an explicit reference to idolatry). Gay, straight, or bi — we earn God’s judgment because we reject him; and, because none of us meet his standards for eternal life — absolute perfection (sinlessness).

Sexuality is complicated too — inasmuch as sexuality is part of a person’s identity, there are plenty of same sex attracted Christians around who have chosen to put Jesus first, so they are ‘gay Christians’ — their attraction and identity are part of what they bring to Jesus, and part of what they sacrifice when they turn from worshipping other stuff to worshipping him. Their sexuality is not what condemns or saves them, what they do with Jesus is. Gayness isn’t what earns people judgment; what someone does with the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is an indicator of who occupies their hearts and shapes their desires.

The second thing Israel should’ve done was to be really careful to make it clear that all have sinned. Including him — there’s less distance between me and my gay friends (or him, and his) than this tweet suggests. 

To sin is to fall short (that’s literally what the English word means)… it’s also to transgress God’s law — and the first commandment in Israel’s ten commandments (the nation, not the footballer) is to have no God before God (Exodus 20:3), and to worship him only. Sure. Many gay Aussies put many things (not just sex) before God in their lives… but so do many not-gay Aussies. God’s plan for all people who reject him is judgment; death, even… but that’s not just for gay people (and, it’s not even because of someone’s sexuality). Here’s a couple more things Paul says in that same letter to the church in Rome.

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
    there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.” — Romans 3:10-12

… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. — Romans 3:23-24

It might seem tricky to capture this in an instagram comment or tweet — but I’ll put a suggested response at the bottom…

It’s not that Israel was totally wrong about the destiny for people who sin (had he broadened the category of people he was talking about to ‘all sinners’ — well, Romans says:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 6:23

Here’s my third suggestion; and it’s probably the biggest.

Make a bigger deal about the goodness of Jesus so that repentance is about the positive step of turning to him because he is better than alternative gods, and the turn involves good news not just escaping punishment. 

Israel’s tweet holds out a little bit of the good news of life following repentance, but it’s kinda buried under his leading words. There’s a good case to be made that Israel has the order of operations a bit wrong in his picture of what God wants for people — the idea that we repent of our sin and then turn to God rather than turning to God and away from our sins (because of the goodness of God revealed in Jesus) is an interesting one; especially if God actually calls us to him, so that coming to life (away from death) is at God’s invitation while we’re still sinners. Here’s a couple of things Israel might consider.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. — Romans 5:8

It’s unlikely (though possible) that fear is going to motivate people who’ve rejected God to switch worshipping pleasure, sex, and self-determination — which seems to be the strategy in Israel’s comment — what’s perhaps more likely is understanding exactly who it is they’ve rejected — the God who gives life and love, and sent Jesus to reconcile us to himself. The truth that should set people free is that Jesus is better than sex, or any alternative ‘created thing’ we put in the driver’s seat of our life; the other truth is that it takes a work of God’s Spirit to make this change possible. Because when it comes to God’s plan for people, ideally, Paul has a bit more to say:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. — Romans 8:1

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. — Romans 8:28-30

So. How would I have answered the question: what was God’s plan for gay people? If I was Israel…

“That’s an interesting question — because it assumes somehow that God’s plan for gay people is different to his plan for anybody else just because they’re gay. It’s not. God’s best offer for all people is Jesus who came so we might ‘have life to the full’ forever — his plan for people who trust him is good and loving. Turning to Jesus changed how I think about life, including sex — but what we Christians believe about sex doesn’t make much sense without him. My hope is that all my friends — whatever their sexuality — might have a look at the life and teachings of Jesus. I’d be happy to help you find out more.”

My fourth piece of advice, as an added bonus, is the suggestion that with great social media power, comes great responsibility — and Israel, as a public Christian, should be stewarding his platform (and his talents) with wisdom and boldness for God’s kingdom. He’s got the boldness bit right; and we should applaud him for that. It’s clear he’s more worried about God than man… but his words have the power to do more than just turn off some sponsors, or have his contract torn up… It’s interesting to read the rest of James in that light. It has wisdom for how to use social media, like:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” — James 1:19, 26-27

Something strange is happening at the ACL…

If you’ve been around these parts for a while, then you know that I’ve been vociferous in my criticism of the Australian Christian Lobby — not so much for its politics (though it should be reasonably clear by now that I think their platform is too narrow when it comes to issues that Christians should be politically engaged on, and that some of the positions they take are more identifiably ‘conservative’ than ‘Christian’), but for its co-opting of the word ‘Christian’ and its inability to connect the positions it advocates with the Lordship and way of Jesus. I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of lobbying if it represents a sort of use of the power of numbers and claims some sort of Christian constituency who should have our way in politics, rather than advocacy where we make a case for what is right for all (and especially if it is at our expense, and for the sake those at the margins of our community)…

But.

It’d feel a little remiss not to acknowledge that this change is happening.

There’s been a regime change at the ACL, with longtime director Lyle Shelton taking a step that I think had a particular sort of integrity — making it clear that his platform and concerns align with conservatism, not just Christianity — by jumping to the Australian Conservatives. A new director, Martyn Iles, has emerged in his place and there has been a subtle, but significant, tone change in his approach to politics and Christianity… he keeps writing about Jesus.

For years it felt like Jesus was ‘he who should not be named’ in ACL publications, but in blog after blog, Iles is grappling with how the Gospel shapes his politics. Now, I’m not sure I land on the same positions on most things having done that grappling, and doing this runs the risk of co-opting Jesus to a political agenda rather than having Jesus set the political agenda… but it is refreshing (and the Christian Left in Australia could learn something from this).

Here’s a paragraph from a recent post on identity politics in our universities:

The problem is resolved through character, especially the kind of character that Christ gives us.

Indeed, we are called to follow Christ’s example who, although He was omnipotent (all powerful), He “made Himself nothing” (Phil 2:6-8) for the sake of others. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” says the Apostle Paul (Phil 2:4-5).

All people, regardless of privilege, status, or tribe are capable in Christ of individually growing in character. The uniqueness of Christ-like character is its deeply others-centred, self-sacrificing quality. It places the real interests of God and neighbour at the very core and kernel of our being…

… The great tragedy of the postmodern world is that the call to character is rejected. People are exponents of their tribe and the only real way to improve your moral standing falls to the powerful to change their political beliefs and acknowledge the culpability of their tribe. This is infantilising. It denies the truth about human beings. It denies the possibility of real character. It denies the gospel.

How refreshing — the example of Jesus, on the cross, being held up as an example for us to consider, and a call to others-interest above self-interest; which does have to be the foundational principle for how we approach the fraught territory of identity politics, and current conversations about gender and sexuality. Here’s more from the follow up post (it’s not just a one off).

Flag-wavers from the various movements that spring from a postmodern base claim that their end goal is equality.

If only they knew that the greatest equality in the world is found in Christ, who is Himself the Logos who they reject.

All are made in the image and likeness of God, born into one human family (Gen 1:27). That is equality.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). That is equality.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God for salvation to all who believe (Rom 1:16). That is equality.

For those believers, all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28). That is equality.

The utopia the postmodernists seek is found in the Logos, not outside of it. John saw a vision of His coming kingdom and it was a mish-mash of minorities “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9).

Again, I’m not endorsing the position they adopt (or not not endorsing it — I would point out that the ‘mish-mash’ of identities represented in Revelation don’t lose their tribe, language, ‘people’ or nation, but rather bring those to the table in something bigger), I’m simply pointing to a refreshing change in modus operandi for a peak lobby group seeking to operate in our political sphere as Christians. Christian politics is bigger than deciding if you’re from the Christian right, the Christian left, or the Christian centre — though our theological positions will often land us more naturally in one of those camps… it’s about the pursuit, for anyone who follows king Jesus, of a politics that is Jesus-centred (not just ‘centrist’ politics). It’ll mean we bounce to different positions on the political compass, or spectrum, on different issues, and if you’re predictably right or predictably left on every issue then there’s probably some work for you to do in assessing how much that is a product of a political ideology that isn’t the ideology of the Gospel. It’d be nice for the ACL to be less predictable… and this seems a step in the right direction.

It also seems to represent a movement away from playing the game of secular politics on hard secular terms that exclude religious ideas from being discussed, and I welcome that, and the idea that being shaped by Jesus should impact the way we Christians participate in the world (and in politics). It also makes the grounds for dialogue between Christians much more fruitful because we’re being asked to work from our shared assumptions about Jesus to develop a Christian position (whether we agree with where Iles and the ACL land or not, at least we can engage from some shared presuppositions). What it does for dialogue between Christians and non-Christians remains to be seen, but the next step might be to work out how to do the ‘Righteous Mind’ thing from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who points out that having some empathy for the other is vital to effective persuasion (but it might require that you, yourself, be persuaded):

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

Seven habits for highly affective Christians: 1. The habits of story (telling, listening, and playing)

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” — Colossians 3:16

I quoted Alisdair MacIntyre in the intro to this series; and though he’s a ‘great one’ I’m going to render his idea slightly differently in this post. He says, in After Virtue:

“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”

I think we can understand that last question slightly differently by tweaking it:

‘Of what story or stories do I inhabit?’

There’s a link between inhabiting a story (or an identity) and our habits (just as there is between our environment, or habitat, and our habits). To know how we should feel and act rightly, or coherently, requires us to have some sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going; to have a story.

So, when it comes to habit forming the habit of reflecting on our story, and potential other stories we might inhabit seems to be ground zero. What might this look like?

We could spend a significant amount of time deliberately immersed and engaged in quality stories — most significantly, but not exclusively, the Bible.

We could try our hands (or minds) at telling or crafting stories as a spiritual discipline geared towards fostering our redeemed imaginations. 

The message of Christ is a story; a compelling one. The ultimate ‘true myth’ or fairy tale that turns life into a comedy, rather than a tragedy. Understanding stories, the shape and power of stories, is pretty important if living in a story with some sense of what heroism looks like, the enemy looks like, and where we’re going, is what helps us develop character… but this means not only should we immerse ourselves in the Bible’s story by reading it, and finding ways to appreciate it (like a good kids story book Bible), but we should get better at understanding and appreciating good and beautiful stories. The more I get my head into mythology and its importance in shaping cultures and communities the more I’m sure the story of the Bible, centred on the death and resurrection of Jesus, has been so effective in shaping the world we live in because it really is the greatest story; and the more conversant we are with stories the better.

Also, the more we see our lives in storied terms as part of this grander story, the more we might be able to bring about change in our own spheres… if we’re able to imagine (or conceive) of a different ending for each little episode in our lives because of this big one, it might help set a course for us. Stories —whether history or biography or fiction expand our horizons and allow us to see the world differently. I think Tolkien’s masterful essay On Fairy Stories should be almost compulsory reading for anybody enrolled at Bible college, but probably for all of us.

The way this plays out for me is in a commitment to reading good fiction and watching popular television (it’s fascinating to watch how basic narrative plot lines are used to over-produce or over-engineer even terrible reality TV), but also to be wary of the power of story for setting our desires towards things other than God (and the desires of our kids and congregations). Stories where the protagonist (or author) is not just like us also teach us empathy as we immerse ourselves in them.

Because stories are powerful I want to curate them for our kids and engage in them with them (and engage well with them with other adults). We read lots to our kids and want to encourage all of them to be readers; but I also tell an episodic, serialised, adventure story a few nights a week featuring the three of them bravely and imaginatively facing down monsters or baddies that they invent (mostly giant animals); I also turned our last big family holiday into a picture book using a couple of apps, and I’m keen to do that again.

Video games are a powerful medium for stories and imagination, whether they’re linear adventures or open world. Our son loves them (like I do), so my plan is to indulge that love, but to always join him in it, and to build and journey through different worlds with him, and as they get more complex using the games and their stories as a chance to talk about decision making and his imagination. It’s probably not a terrible thing to normalise the idea that he uses screens in my presence not tucked away in his room.

The best stories are the ones we imagine and then inhabit in an embodied way — not just a digital one (one of the things I love about the kindy we send our kids to), so, like many parents, we’ve got a full dress up box and a yard full of different bits and pieces the kids can improvise with (especially when they’re playing together)… I’m much more concerned that they do this as they grow up than that they do ‘homework’.

The way this plays out — though I’m wanting to get better at this — in my preaching is that I don’t want to devalue the arts or culture, or demonise it, but engage with it well (and sympathetically) as legitimate expressions of our humanity and our desires; and to recognise the way these stories shape the purpose of people around us because they connect with the stories our communities, cultures, and nation lives by. My rarely updated Like But Better, my review essays of the Marvel/Netflix universe (like this one), and my reviews of stories like NoahMoana, and Wonder Woman are examples of me trying to do this… but my favourite place in all the virtual world for modelling this is Christ and Pop Culture… being a better reader, viewer, or audience member for stories helps us become better readers of the Bible’s grand story, and better participants in God’s unfolding story in history.

This means I want my talks to feel more like a narrative to live in than a set of propositions that I’m inviting people to agree to. When it comes to our embodied participation in stories, this has helped me recapture a sense of the providence and goodness of the sacraments, and to want to sacramentalise (or re-enhant) lots of physical objects and practices (not in an idolatrous way, just in a way that helps everything that has been made reveal the divine nature and character of God). C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image was useful on that front for helping me see just how much we’ve evacuated any ‘enchantment’ from mundane things (a concrete example of this is the way we preached about Hot Cross Buns over Easter; my hope is that people will buy them between Christmas and Easter next year, while they’re on the shelves of the supermarkets, and ponder their significance.

Christians could join — or host — book clubs — or even TV show clubs — in the community beyond the church (though even in the church is better than devaluing stories or seeing them as trivial distractions from the real deal of following Jesus). Failing that we should talk enthusiastically about stories with our friends online.

These could involve picking challenging and compelling (even just popular) stories that cultivate empathy and the imagination, or that pay attention to the world and invite you to do so in new ways; trusting that because of the storied quality of the Bible this is useful time even if it doesn’t produce conversations where you can draw out the parallels between a story and truths revealed about the world in God’s story. Also, in terms of cultivating the affections, instead of asking ‘what did you think about that story’ and breaking down its mechanics or execution, we should ask each other ‘how did that story make you feel’.

Seven habits for highly affective Christians: Introduction

I’ve been thinking about formation lately — how I might become more like the person, specifically the Christian person, I believe I should be, but more importantly, how I might pass that on in an exemplary fashion to my kids (especially if the world wants to form them into something quite different), and to those I teach and pastor.

One of the challenges I face simultaneously as a parent and a pastor — and for myself in terms of my own life in the world — is, I think, not just convincing my kids (or people at church) to believe the story of Jesus is true but to feel like it is true. Not simply to have Christian beliefs but Christian affections. I haven’t found a huge library of resources in my own church tradition for this distinction, and I’m still stumbling my way around; it seems to me that we assume feelings have to be generated from belief, and if it comes the other way around we are suspicious that it’s manipulative.

At the same time, one of the challenges we face in the west — both in the church, and the world we live in — is that belief and feeling are almost subsumed into second place behind ‘working’ — being effective. Again, this is a challenge I personally face too — the benefits of having archives for my blog is you can dig back into past me and find a little pragmatist/utilitarian and watch the wheels fall off as my values shifted. It’s not that I’m anti-effectiveness, or excellence, or results. I’ve largely just changed metrics so that what I’m interested in is the cultivation of both belief and feeling alongside the cultivation of character. Character is the result — not success or productivity. Back when I was a ‘utilitarian’; I was calling myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’; suggesting that the right thing to do was the thing that produced the most converts to true belief… the more I thought about ethics (and how hollow it was to make results the ‘end’ or purpose of action rather than goodness) the more I became interested in virtue ethics and the place of character; and the role of a ‘story’ in shaping character, but also of habitual action.

One of the things that shifted me from utilitarianism to a more character focused ethic was reading Augustine, and because of Augustine, reading Aristotle, who split intellectual virtue (reason) and moral virtue (ethics):

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II

I’ve largely been shaped by a culture (both in and outside the church) that emphasises teaching rather than practices as the way we are formed as people. I say this because I’m not claiming to speak beyond my own experience here, yours might be different. It’s not that I haven’t also learned through practices; learning via practice is inevitable. It’s simply that I haven’t thought about my habits as the pathway to moral formation or the pursuit of what is good; I’ve thought of that as something to be pursued on the basis of what we believe to be right (and of helping other people believe right things). Interestingly, Aristotle doesn’t say that the habitual formation of virtue is in competition with being effective; he saw goodness in terms of being connected with the ‘end’ or ‘telos’ — a purpose fundamentally connected to the nature of an object.

We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy. Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II

The question is who, or what, sets the parameters or definition of ‘what makes a (hu)man good’ and what work we should be doing. There’s a fundamental view of these questions at play in our education system; but when it comes to Christians we have a clear sense of what makes us good, and what defines our work. Our ‘end’; in terms of our ‘purpose’ is to image God — to glorify him in relationship with him, by reflecting the character of God as we live — we have a specific picture of what that looks like in the person of Jesus, and so Paul talks about us being ‘transformed into the image’ of Jesus. That’s what our fundamental purpose is (or our ‘chief end’); we do this by being ‘united with Christ’ or ‘in Christ’ as ‘the body of Christ’ and our work, then, becomes to be like Jesus, in partnership with other Christians. Or, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12:

There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work… Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. — 1 Corinthians 12:6, 12-13

We’re to do ‘God’s work’ in co-operation with the body God has put us in (the church) — that’s ‘our own work’ — or as Paul says a little later in the letter (having discussed the ‘way of love’ as a habitual practice (1 Cor 12:31-14:1), imitating Paul as he imitates Jesus (1 Cor 11:1), “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

If we’re going to cultivate virtue our habits have to be aligned with becoming like Jesus and doing God’s work in the world. I suspect a pretty nice ‘proof text’ for this, if you wanted one, is Matthew 28:18-20, the ‘great commission’ — I’m struck by how much I’d read this in my utilitarian days as basically being about converting as many people as possible to an intellectual idea, rather than being about the harder work of re-forming re-created people so they don’t bear the image, or imprint, of whatever character their habits have formed as they’ve worshipped something other than Jesus, but instead are ‘disciples’ of Jesus; those disciplined towards practicing his teaching.

It’d be easy to turn this discipline thing into following a bunch of rules — and then being judgmental of ourselves and others when we inevitably fall short of the standard of perfection; but the Romans  8 picture of the Christian life is one where our transformation is an ongoing process that doesn’t seem to finish until the story finishes and we are ‘glorified’ (Romans 8:28-30). But in the meantime, rather than rules shaping our lives, I’m interested in the idea that we are more shaped by story.

Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue was really helpful for me both in how it framed the alternative worldly ethical system to virtue, particularly a sense that we’re all part of some big system which has to be managed via bureaucratic processes (or economic ones — so that, for example, we don’t form children as people but as economic cogs), and more than that, in making this connection between virtue and story:

“Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” — MacIntyre, After Virtue

I’m also convinced (in part due to James K.A Smith) that we are affectionate creatures before we are intellectual creatures, and that we cultivate our affections by habitual actions directed towards an ‘end’ by a story that we participate in; and by philosopher Iris Murdoch who suggested that a fundamental ‘virtuous’ habit is to give ‘loving attention’ to others and the world as a habitual orientation.

“The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking. The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed on the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy, and despair…  Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is.” — Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

There are a few convictions underpinning the following habits… I’m convinced that my formation as a person, the formation of my children and my pastoring of a church, should involve helping people habitually live in the story of Jesus, so that we are shaped by our telos to do the work God has called us to do (and that by habitually living in this story we are doing the Great Commission work, which involves our purpose; namely, to ‘glorify God’). I’m convinced this is about forming people who love God and believe we are loved by God; that it isn’t just about intellectual virtue but about our affections (and that the contest in this world is a contest about who or what we worship and the end we are living for). I want my kids to love God more than they love sex, money, or the pleasures of this world — I want to love God more than I love sex and money and the pleasures of this world. I’m convinced that one of the things that has happened as our view of world has become ‘disenchanted’ is that our imaginations have been stunted; that when Paul says ‘do not be conformed to the patterns of this world’ but ‘transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:2) part of this is about idolatry, but part of it too, is about what idolatry does to our thinking and imagining (Romans 1), and that Colossians 3 (where many of these habits are derived from) encourages us to re-imagine the world by changing how we see it, and our place in it, and this is part of what Paul is saying when he says “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).

I’ve been reading a bunch of books around practices and habits (largely because though I love Smith’s You Are What You Love, I found the practices, which I’d describe as ‘medieval’, left me wanting something else, see my series on ‘the Worship Wars’ for more on this). I particularly enjoyed Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, Mike Cosper’s Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World, and David Fitch’s Faithful Presence: Seven Practices That Shape The Church For Mission. These books are chock full of habits and practices and ideas for cultivating a new way of seeing and being in the world. I’d like to do lots of them, but I felt like some of them required some sort of ‘ground clearing’ exercise first — that I couldn’t jump from zero to 100… and some of them seem, frankly, beyond my modernist-influenced-propositional-logic shaped rational brain; I feel like I have to become a more affective person before I could effectively adopt them.

The next seven posts will explore some of how I’m thinking about these in the categories of myself, parenting, and pastoring. It might take me a while to unpack them, so here’s the list.

1. The habit of story (telling, listening, and playing)
2. The habit of singing, reading and listening to poetry (starting with the Bible)
3. The habit of silence and space (including digital silence, and working less)
4. The habit of giving
5. The habit of ‘gathering’ with the body (including feasting together)
6. The habit of presence and encouragement
7. The habit of prayer

If you’ve thought about practices/habits, and especially about cultivating your affections — I’d love ideas for what could bump any of these off the list.

,

Steve Smith: A Barabbas in need of a Jesus this Easter

“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” — Jesus (Matthew 7:2)

What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!” — Matthew 27:23

Picture this.

There’s an unjust empire; an enemy. There’s been a promise of a level playing field, a fairer approach to life. But the promise is trodden into the dirt, and you and your comrades are left to take matters into your own hands. You reach for the sandpaper to hone your weapon so it swings more sharply. Then, before you know it… before you’ve achieved anything… the empire comes down on you. Crushing you. The crowd, who moments before were on your side — cheering on your insurrection; seeing in you the courage and conviction of a champion — sniff the wind and they turn on you. Baying for blood. Your blood. Waiting for you to be made a spectacle; calling for your execution. You walk a lonely path, surrounded by guards, people hurling abuse at you…

Your friends are going to be publicly humiliated; shamed; destroyed; beside you.

It’s curtains.

This is the story of Barabbas. The ‘every man’ — the ‘son of the father’ (literally)… just as the captain of the Australian cricket team is our ‘every man’ — our chief ‘representative’ (or so we sometimes speak); how appropriate that his name is also the ‘every-name’: Smith… Because it’s also his story. Steve Smith’s story.

Barabbas the ‘every man’ was a first century insurrectionist who counts Good Friday as his luckiest day… because instead of the crowd calling for his blood, another stood in his place. Maybe this Good Friday could be Steve Smith’s lucky day?

For Barabbas, there was another ‘every man’ earned the attention — the outrage — of the crowd, and took the death Barabbas deserved, lives exchanged… He’s there for Smith too. Same deal.

So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him… 

“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.

“Barabbas,” they answered.

“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!”

“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” — Matthew 27:17-18, 21-23

Without Jesus entering the scene you can imagine the crowd directing its outrage, and anger, the sheer tonnage of pent up bloodlust, at Barabbas. Crucifixions were the most popular show in town. They still are. They were designed not just to punish guilt, but to bring shame on the offender. To humiliate and destroy a reputation. To bring a person into disrepute.

Steve Smith is walking in the footsteps of Barabbas this Easter.

He led a motley crew into enemy territory. The hostility in this test series is seemingly unprecedented. Smith carried a Rabada sized chip on his shoulder into Cape Town — the ICC deciding to clear South Africa’s champion for strong and aggressive contact made with Smith in the previous test (overturning a two match ban in what seemed to many to be a miscarriage of justice). Smith’s team mate (and comrade) Warner carried the anger of not just an angry clash with South African Quinton De Kock over offensive remarks made about his wife, but of a couple of South African administrators joining in the ‘fun’ in a photo that exacerbated the offence. I can understand their anger. Their desire to swing their weapon. To wreak havok on their enemies. To overthrow a tyrant… to carve out space for themselves. To right wrongs. But of course, two wrongs don’t make a right. Their guilt in these situations is reasonably clear; what happened in the first three tests was actually South Africa playing the ‘mental disintegration’ game better than the Australian team who previously claimed mastery… most insurrections are an attempt to overthrow a tyrant but end up looking a lot like tyranny… or worse than the tyranny they replace.

Smith and co wanted justice. They felt the need to hone their weapons. They roped in a comrade and attempted an insurrection. They were caught. They faced justice… leaving Smith a dead man walking; to be crucified beside his two friends.

The best piece of commentary on this fiasco I’ve read thus far was this piece titled “Disgraced ‘New Bradman’ left to search for salvation” — it rightly draws implicit parallels to the shame culture and the public spectacle at the heart of Rome’s crucifixion strategy.

Wrapped inside Smith’s cheating in South Africa is personal disgrace, a public crucifixion and a mystery about human psychology…

And then:

The cycle we are in is: detection, punishment, fallout. And it is the fallout that is most complex, because it places Smith (and others, but mainly Smith) at the old crossroads between ignominy and salvation.

And:

“Many will not care, but he must be in turmoil. Hell must be raging through his soul.”

Smith is a guilty man. He did the crime. He’s caught in the fallout. And it’s a terrible crossroads to be caught at with only your own cross to carry… if you’ve got to save yourself.

Enter the baying, outraged, crowd. Whose job, it seems, is to amplify the fallout and decide whether redemption happens, based on some sort of fickle whims and where they (we) are most likely to get out taste of blood. The crowd which operates not on guilt, but on shame… and whose hunger is fuelled by outrage, which is like a drug. It’s like when a dog gets its first taste of blood and then can’t get enough.

And this is where things get messy for Smith and co. The International Cricket Council punished their transgression for breaking the rule, a punishment was meted out appropriate to their guilt. A one match ban and a fine for Smith and a fine for Bancroft… the sort of punishment handed down for similar (though less ‘three stooges’ performances around the world, following a certain precedent). The crowd bayed for more blood, and the ACB did a Pilate; it decided to give the crowd what they wanted, and to punish the trio not for their guilt, but in order to shame them; to punish not for a rule being broken, but a standard being breached. For ‘bringing the game into disrepute’, Smith and co had to be made disreputable. It had to be clear they didn’t represent the game, or represent us.

We’re increasingly living in a shame based rather than a guilt based culture here in Australia. Social media is a big part of that where we all get to play the angry mob. In a shame based culture it becomes necessary not just to punish a wrongdoer for guilt proportionate to their crime, but for shame, proportionate to the response. The punishment for shame is to ostracise or cut off a wrongdoer from their community. Guilt is about a transgression being wrong, shame is about a person being wrong. Shame is met with dishonour and disendorsment. With humiliation. It’s the ugly side of our outrage culture. It’s particularly ugly for the victim… but it’s also ugly for us when we find ourselves in angry lynch mobs baying for blood and then realising that it is on our hands.

When Jesus said ‘judge not’ (one of the most commonly quoted verses in the New Testament) he followed it up with the words “for in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” This is scary… because when it comes to the words of the crowd later in Matthew’s Gospel it’s clear they’re, by their own standards, earning judgment for themselves. If an innocent man is worthy of death — how much more the guilty, and how much more those who were guilty of calling for blood simply to satisfy their own self-interest.

Character matters; as I argued in my last #ballgate post… but these sorts of public situations — our outrageous clamouring for blood — reveal something about our own character. Something deficient.

We are the crowd.

And so we set a certain standard; a measure; and it will be given to us. At the end of Jesus’ trial (and Barabbas’ great escape), Pilate tries to wash his hands of the blood of Jesus by pointing out that his blood, instead, is on the hands of the crowd.

“I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. — Matthew 27:24-26

Barabbas goes free; Jesus gets flogged then crucified… but the crowd… they’re stuffed.  The measure they use will be used against them.

Smith, in the depth of his own personal hell… facing his own crucifixion, could do with finding Jesus.

But the crowd could do with the same…

Because without him, the fallout continues… what goes around comes around, our measure will be used against us… in the trial of Jesus it’s very quickly the outraged crowd in the firing line — blood on their hands. Blood on our hands… If we decide we want to play the shame game, not just the guilt game, and so mete out disproportionate punishments for ‘disrepute’ or totally subjective charges built around ‘measures’ of the community, we too become subject to those measures, it’s us in the firing line too.

And that’s a scary thought.

To be stuck in that cycle of detection, punishment, fallout — but to move from detective to detected… from crowed to punished…

It means that like Smith is in need of a Jesus to take his guilt and shame, we too are waiting for a Jesus. How sweet, might it be, for Smith-as-Barabbas to find Jesus this Easter; to see himself in the story as a dead man walking who is miraculously saved — offered mercy, a stay of sentence, at the 11th hour with an innocent one to take his place.

We, in the crowd, we need Jesus too. Because the measure we use will be used against us, and we will all be found wanting — and if all our conduct was made public there’d be plenty of fodder not just for guilt, but for its more nebulous counterpart, shame, with its arbitrary punishments dished out only in proportion to scale of a crowd’s anger determined largely by a dark and unpredictable whimsy, and just how much the media needs a story.

The thing about Jesus is that he adds a couple of stages to the cycle…

Detection. Punishment. Fallout. Redemption. Forgiveness.

He stands in our place — he dies in our place — the place of Barabbas, the place of Smith, the place of the crowd… and offers to take the guilt and shame we each deserve… to change the ‘measure’ from ‘judgment’ to ‘mercy’…

We, as the baying crowd, could do with a little bit of a measure change this Easter; and the best way to do that is to weigh up Jesus. As I’ve been following the Smith story I’ve had this song, Gracious Redeemer, by Austin Stone bouncing around in my head, especially the ‘no guilt, no shame… new life, you gave’ refrain. What good news it would be for Smith, the every man, to find Jesus in his place this Easter. And for us.

I was lost in sin, held captive by my fear
’til your mercy showed your hand was reaching near
My God, you came and made a way for me
You made a way for me

My Jesus, gracious Redeemer and friend
There’s nothing like Your love without end
My hope was purchased by the blood of the Lamb
My Jesus, Redeemer

You defeated death, You trampled over sin
You’re the Risen King, You’re coming back again
Oh God, You came and made a way for us
You made a way for us

No guilt, no shame
no curse, no chains
new life, You gave
Redeemer

My debt is paid
my soul now saved
oh God, You came
Redeemer

Image source.

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True grit: A tale of two Aussie teams in Cape Town (and how we get the teams we deserve)

If you haven’t heard about the Aussie team’s capitulation in Cape Town over the weekend, then you might be hiding under a rock. Though they lost, they lost with grit and with character, and their coach was able to praise them for having a go… in previous years they’d have simply folded under the pressure and the opposition would’ve mounted a cricket score against them. They had no backbone. No go-forward. No character.

And character counts.

Character counts for everything.

In previous years the team’s reputation relied on a couple of superstars who it seemed believed they transcended the game — they thought, it seemed, that they could behave with impunity, that they could get away with anything on and off the field, so long as their performances occasionally justified the massive dollars thrown their way… but those superstars have been shunted in the name of ‘cultural change’ — an attempt to play the game ‘hard but fair,’ and a coach firmly committed to a famous Aussie ‘no dickhead policy’, and the nurturing and development of backbone, grit, and character. Because character counts.

By now it’s clear I’m not talking about that other Aussie team who capitulated in Cape Town.

There were two sporting contests pitting the best of Australia against the best of South Africa in Cape Town over the weekend. One involved a ‘national disgrace’ and displayed the cost of a winner-takes-all approach to sport, that in many ways is emblematic of an Australian ideology, the other displayed the counter-culture that perhaps should regain the ascendency in the Australian psyche.

While the Aussie Cricket team got down and dirty, using ‘grit’ to take the shine off both the ball and our reputation, the Queensland Reds, a rugby team who until this year were the epitome of flakiness won praise for going toe-to-toe with a vastly superior (and more experienced) Stormers, even though they lost 25-19.

The two teams, and their culture, are interesting pictures of what sport can be, and what it represents, and in some ways they’re a picture of a contest to define the Australian soul; our psyche… and it’s on us, the populace, to help define what we’re on about as a nation, and what sporting teams (and cultures) truly represent us.

We get the sporting superstars we deserve; because we get what we celebrate… and what we celebrate, in a cyclical way, comes back to shape who we are.

And this is a vicious cycle. It can literally, if we aren’t careful, be a cycle of vice.

For a long time the Queensland Reds were terrible representatives. Not only were they terrible on the field, they were led by enfant terribles Quade Cooper, and Karmichael Hunt. Cooper, whose early off field misdemeanours included charges for breaking and entering while on sleeping pills, and Hunt, a ‘three-code superstar’ whose on-field talent saw many prepared to turn a blind eye to his off field proclivity for party drugs and partying. But not this year. Not in this team culture. Not under this coach.

Enter Brad Thorn.

The new Reds coach, who has surprised many with both his approach to team culture — and these two superstars — and with how he has, in a short time, started stamping something of himself into this outfit. Now, disclosure, I’ve had the privilege of being part of a church with Brad, and having him stamp some of that character into me (not on the sports field, but there was a time when he took it on himself to train me and give me some vision for masculinity that came at a particularly formative time — which involved long runs, hard chats, and spewing up after gym sessions), but I have no particular insight outside knowing his character and reading his comments, into how he is approaching his job as coach. I’m totally unsurprised that it turns out the man can coach, and I’m not surprised by his response to his team’s gritty loss over the weekend (it was a performance unironically described as gritty in a match review that happened pretty much next door to the controversial cricket test at the same time).

Here’s what Brad said about the performance:

“I’ve seen games when 18-0 down easily blow out but these guys just kept on competing… They’ve had a round-the-world trip this week, a lot that wasn’t rosy out there and with all the challenges to get within that range of winning is a great effort.”

Can you imagine an Aussie cricket coach or captain describing a loss in those terms? Not in recent years. I can’t remember the last time an Aussie cricket team displayed non-literal grit.

What Brad champions is character over talent. It’s why Cooper and (probably) Hunt won’t feature prominently in his team, his his description of his hard-but-fair ethos:

“I’m big on caring about, the team caring about each other, caring about the cause they’re trying to achieve and they’re striving for and big on caring about who you’re representing, be it the family or the fans and stuff like that.”

And elsewhere:

“I take defence personally. It’s a reflection of character … what you want to do for the mate beside you… Physicality is something I’ve always enjoyed. It’s a contact sport we’re playing and that’s got to come with a competitive mind-set.”

Defence (and so character) was the reason Brad gave for Cooper dropping to club rugby. Because character is everything. It’s bigger than winning — but it’s pretty clear that for Brad winning flows from character (and he is, from first hand experience, remarkably competitive, even at chess, table tennis, and Golden Eye on the Nintendo 64). It’s no surprise to read story after story about how Brad leads by example — how he’s still putting up gym numbers that inspire his charges, and leading the weights session after a win to keep his team humble.

The Australian cricket team — needs a culture change — especially if they play an important role in modelling the Australian character back to Australians and so reinforcing it, modelling it, developing it… and character change is possible through leadership, modelling, and the will. They need someone like Brad to stamp themselves — their character — on this team.

But the jump to condemn the Aussie team, and to demand their heads — and Smith’s weird apology, which felt like an apology for being caught — reveal some things about a deep issue in the Aussie psyche. It’s not just the national team that needs a culture change — and maybe a sweep through with the broom, from the top of the administration through to the players on the field… or at least a thorough recalibration of our metrics and our culture. It’s all of us.

Character is everything. It’s not a bonus. And character is forged, it is stamped, it is hard won. This, from my favourite piece of summer reading:

The word “character” comes from a Greek word that means “stamp.” Character, in the original view, is something that is stamped upon you by experience, and your history of responding to various kinds of experience, not the welling up of an innate quality. Character is a kind of jig that is built up through habit, becoming a reliable pattern of responses to a variety of situations. There are limits, of course. Character is “tested,” and may fail. In some circumstances, a person’s behavior may be “out of character.” But still, there is something we call character. Habit seems to work from the outside in; from behavior to personality. — Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head

Character is stamped upon you by repeated actions — but it is also revealed in our actions.

The character flaws revealed in the ball tampering episode reflect poorly on Australia because they hold a mirror up to an Australian culture that makes winning more important than character. We allow all sorts of on field practices (and all sorts of people on field) because winning is so important to us; it’s our ‘virtue’ — we drop players for a dip in performance and replace them with people of questionable character, we let sledging slide, we adopt a win at all costs attitude when it comes to our metrics, and we are so slow to forgive poor performance from our ‘representative’ athletes while being quick to forgive character flaws.

This is what we get — it’s not just reflective of poor team culture within the sport (as fast bowler turned commentator Brett Geeves suggests, and Fairfax columnist Malcolm Knox argues), but poor national culture.

I’m struggling to muster the same sort of outrage, or desire for retribution against Steve Smith and his cohort that so much of the Australian public is presently voicing on Facebook (and talkback radio). Am I disappointed? Sure. Do I think they should be punished? Absolutely. But is this a large scale national disgrace that has brought shame on our collective, corporate, Aussie identity? Perhaps. But it’s not entirely on those 11 men in the middle (or 12, because Peter Handscomb was involved in the cover-up, or 13 if you include coach Darren Lehman who must surely have been aware, and who radioed Handscomb to involve him in the cover up…), there’s an ever expanding circle of culpability…

The actions of a team reveal the character forged in a team by its repeated practices, and those practices are shaped by what the team prizes, and what the team prizes is shaped by those they represent. Now, there’s certainly a sense that these players only represent themselves, but I’m not so sure. I think they prize what we prize, and maybe Smith’s apology for being caught is on the money.

It is bizarre to me how quickly we’ve jumped to judge, jury, and would-be executioner on social media — calling for the heads of those involved — without questioning our own culpability, and our own buy-in to the idea that results are more important than character; that winning is everything. How many of us, away from high definition cameras capturing our every move, are creating competitive advantages by cutting corners or breaking rules? How many of us look to examples or champions based on the results they produce not the lives they live and the character they display? How many of us put results above grit in our own metrics? How many of us celebrate a team because of its results rather than its ethos? How many of us want to split, for example, the moral lives of our politicians from the results they deliver for us (hint, see Joyce and Trump)?

Our cricket team, like our nation, prizes winning above virtue; performance above character… it has put the cart before the horse, and until we re-align our priorities as a nation, and they re-align their priorities as a team, we’ll get what we saw in Cape Town over the weekend. The solution wasn’t far away, you just had to look in the stadium next door at a bloke who takes his marching orders from someone who defined character and grit differently. Brad Thorn, the coach, who gets his game plan from Jesus, the king. Here’s an interview (with my old man) where Brad shares how his values come from somebody who redefines the win, who was big on character, and who models exemplary true grit by shouldering a cross and marching towards a victory built from character.

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Why, as a Christian, I’m more worried about STEM than Safe Schools

My kids go to a fantastic kindergarten. It’s play based, and it really means it. It has an incredible playground where kids interacting with each other, and with nature, prompt learning opportunities spontaneously and driven by curiousity. It has toys and costumes designed to encourage learning through role play. It fuels the imagination. It sees education as being about forming inquisitive, curious, lifelong learners but also fostering a sense of community and belonging. I love it. I’m convinced about its pedagogy — and convinced this approach to education should extend well and truly into adulthood.

My oldest daughter is enrolled at the public school in our area that we felt was the closest match to this kindy in terms of ethos (the one that cared least about NAPLAN as far as we could gauge from talking to teachers at school open days). It was ‘play based’ (in a different sense to kindy) in grade 1, but that pedagogical method is rapidly disappearing into the rear view mirror, and the parent groups we’re in online are now filled with people handwringing over the school’s (not great) NAPLAN results…

At the same time there’s a nationwide push for standardisation in our education system, a national curriculum in schools and the national ‘Early Years Learning Framework’ setting standards for kindergarten/pre-school, it aims to ensure “all children experience learning that is engaging and builds success for life.” Which sounds like a terrific aim. Education is really important, but how we approach education as a nation (and as parents) reveals lots about what we value, and from a Christian framework, what we value as a nation reveals what we worship.

Our education systems are formative, they operate with a vision of what a person is, how a person functions, and what good people do, and they use practices to get there. These streams come together (especially the practices) to form ‘pedagogies’ — the ‘methods and practices’ of teaching, pedagogies are oriented to outcomes and matched with ‘curriculums’ (what is taught). ‘Play based’ is a pedagogy, so is ‘ROTE learning’…  The push for education based on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is a ‘curriculum’ push. The combination of ‘pedagogy’ and ‘curriculum’ adopted and assessed in a national approach to education reveals how we see the ‘good life’ for our nation’s citizens, but it also profoundly shapes what we value, because, as Christian philosopher James K.A Smith puts it — we become what we love, and what we love is formed by practices and a vision of the good human life, and the combination of ‘practices oriented to a vision’ embedded in a story is the very essence of worship. I went to a lecture he gave on educational practices (within the context of Christian education) a couple of years ago where he said (these are my notes):

“Every pedagogy implicitly assumes an anthropology.

Every philosophy of education/strategy assumes implicitly/tacitly some model of what human beings are, and therefore what learners are.

The university has assumed an anthropology that is a lot newer than we might realize, that is contingent and challengable. Christian teaching and learning should work from a different model.

The water in which higher education swims is largely, now, a German production. The assumptions about what a university should be are post-enlightenment, 18th-19th German education, which became a model exported into the US, UK, and probably Australia. As an enlightenment institution the assumed model of the human person is the “thinking thing” model — the university model assumes humans are primarily brains on a stick. The task of education and the university is the depositing of beliefs into the intellectual recepticles of thinking things in order to equip them for a particular task. You get the prioritizing of the brain that is then wedded to a utilitarian/pragmatic view of what education is for. Universities become credentialing facilities for brains on a stick.”

It’s not just universities. This happens pretty early on — a utilitarian view of education — that we’re being trained for a vocation in our schools, to participate as economic units within a ‘machine’ is what is driving the push for STEM based education in the early years of primary school, right through to university. If education is ‘jobs focused’ not ‘human focused’ we lose, because we shrink our sense of what it means to be human to how a human contributes to and in an economy. This will have implications for decisions about who we value and what ‘humanity’ is (and about, for example, aged care, euthanasia, abortion), there’s a vicious cycle where education assumes an anthropology, and then it works to reinforce that anthropology.

The ‘culture war’ Christians seem to want to fight often tilts at the sexual revolution and how it has taken its place in our schools via Safe Schools, now, I have some reservations about Safe Schools (both in terms of its pedagogy and curriculum), but I am not worried that my kids are going to come home from school able to empathise with any of their peers who have different sexuality or gender stuff going on (I wrote an article about Safe Schools for Eternity News a while back. Read that). Education should form kids and adults who are able to live together with people who are different to them, and part of living together will is listening carefully and seeking understanding. In many ways Safe Schools offers a much better ‘pedagogical’ framework, a much more appropriate ‘practice’ and imagination driven way of forming kids, than the rest of the curriculum, and perhaps in a world that worships sex, that is what makes it more dangerous than other things on the table presently…

But I don’t think sex is the big alternative god of the west, it’s ‘a big god of the west’, certainly, but the sexual revolution still divides both conservatives and progressives, and Christians and the rest of the world. I think the most sinister ‘alternative god of the west’ doesn’t divide anybody. Conservatives and progressives and Christians and non-Christians are all on the same page… and it’s the god behind STEM. The real ‘god’ of the Babylon of the West.

It’s money. It’s Mammon. It’s the anthropology that measures a person by the contribution they make to digging stuff out of the ground, turning it into technology, and selling it to make our lives more comfortable. It’s the ‘jobs of the future’. It’s that which distracts our kids from thinking about the aspects of education previously known as ‘humanities’ and instead, has us thinking about how we don’t just make machines, but become little cogs in an economy built on the back of making machines. What is the difference in STEM’s anthropology between a human and the widgets the human creates that slot into a smaller piece of technology? Not much.

What’s new about this vision of people? That we are cogs in an economic machine designed to produce goods? Not much. It’s precisely how the Egyptians viewed the Hebrews before they were rescued from slavery and became a nation, and it’s what still leads people to enslave other people. You can only make somebody a slave if your view of humanity is on economic terms… our education system, with its emphasis on jobs, and particularly ‘machine like’ jobs isn’t hugely different, the pay and conditions are just better (mostly, at least here in the west).

STEM without humanities (and the arts) is part of the abiding myth of the western world, the catechism (the process of educating up worshippers) associated with this particular god. It’s part of what Brian Walsh called Christians to eject from in his book Subversive Christianity in 1994, when he wrote about the dominant story of the west, a story that hasn’t become less dominant just because we now fixate more on sex… it’s just we don’t see that this narrative captured the imaginations of Christians as well, to our detriment:

This story, this Western cultural myth, proclaims that progress is inevitable, if we only allow human reason freely and scientifically to investigate our world so that we can acquire the technological power to control that world in order to realise the ultimate human good, that is, an abundance of consumer goods and the leisure time in which to consume them.

This myth of progress is engraved in our high-school textbooks, proclaimed in corporate advertising, phallically erected in our downtown bank and corporation towers, propagated in our universities, assumed by our political parties, and portrayed in the situation comedies, dramas, and news broadcasts on the popular media. This myth idolatrously reduces human labour to the efficient exercise of power to produce maximum economic good.

Serving the three gods of scientism, technicism, and economism, our work lives (in both the shop and the office) are subjected to scientific analysis by industrial engineers and a whole army of consultants, to determine the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand using the best and quickest techniques to attain the highest possible economic good… More foundationally this is the worldview that captivates the imagination of our society…Looking at life with this worldview is as natural as breathing for us. Because, after all, it is in the air everywhere, and the church provides no gas mask.

Why is it that when Safe Schools drops into schools we Christians panic, we jump up and down about the corruption of our children? We reach for the proverbial ‘gas mask’ or pull the eject cord and home school, or withdraw into the Christian bubble… but when there’s a push for a STEM driven national curriculum we’re silent?

I was horrified recently when I heard a new set of early school readers Suzie The Scientist were being produced with a STEM focus so that even literacy could be taught with the goal of checking off the STEM box. ‘School Readers’ have a long history (documented here), and the first ones, instead of being produced to serve an economic agenda, featured:

  • classic stories from English literature
  • adventure stories
  • accounts from British, Australian and Queensland history
  • biographies of significant figures in history
  • traditional fairy tales
  • poems
  • health lessons
  • stories encouraging the development of good character.

Now. I don’t want to pretend to claim that these would’ve been perfect… education has long been a tool for social engineering and the culture wars, but the goals of these readers, included “instilling in pupils a lifelong love of literature” and “encourage virtues such as honesty, obedience, bravery and courage,” there were other educational aims in the mix, but the new

  • provide information about a range of subjects including nature study, early Australian history, significant figures in history
  • encourage children to read and enjoy traditional tales such as Jack and the beanstalk, Cinderella
  • inform children of heroic deeds in short biographical stories including one on Grace Darling

The ‘Suzie the Scientist‘ series, instead:

  • Each book aligns to learning outcome statements (i.e. Descriptors) from the Australian Curriculum: Science
  • Unlike other science-based home readers, equal emphasis is placed across all four sub-strands (Biological Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences and Physical Sciences) – 6 books for each sub-strand!
  • In addition, all three strands of the Australian Curriculum Science are also addressed – i.e. Science Understanding, Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills

They are include information to “empower parents to engage children in exploratory conversations about science… linked to classroom learning via the Australian Curriculum: Science” and are built around “consistent sentence structure and use of high frequency words appropriate to each reading level to help children develop fluency, comprehension and vocabulary” introducing “key scientific words introduced for discussion prior to reading and in context within the book to help children extend their reading vocabulary.”

Spot the difference.

Imagine the difference this produces in terms of people of character rather than people of knowledge.

This is why I was so greatly encouraged by the words of the New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes this week (quotes from the SMH).

“From government ministers to journalists – from industry CEO’s to senior public servants – people of influence are piling in to denounce the value of philosophy, the arts, and the social sciences – insisting that only by bowing before the altar of STEM will today’s students be adequately equipped to thrive in the 21st century.”

And then:

“Education is not simply about getting a job. Our educational institutions exist primarily to help educate the next generation to build a more just and more engaged society,” Mr Stokes said.

“They exist to provide students with higher-order skills that are flexible and adaptable to a changing world.”

He said the key to a robust 21st century education system was “not the overt preferencing of STEM” but the championing of a true multidisciplinary system.

“Ultimately, STEM seeks to dehumanise education – reducing it to an equation of inputs and outputs. Yet excellence has always been most evident when education is at its most personal.”

Yes and amen. It’s interesting that he uses religious terminology; the ‘altar of STEM’… because STEM is about worship. It’s about claiming the hearts and minds of our children in service of a particular god.

One of my parenting wins this year was watching the Falcon Heavy launch with Xavi. It’s inspired the building of countless Lego rockets. It’s not that I hate science, technology, engineering, or math — it’s that these disciplines and ways of discovering wondrous and true things about the world need to be paired with education, or formation, about what is good for humanity. Who is going to decide what technology it is good or virtuous to develop? Or how it should be deployed? Or what impact that technology might have on our brains and culture? Technology isn’t neutral, when it enters an ecosystem it reshapes it, and it reshapes us, our habitats shape our habits and our habits shape us, which means we need to be pretty thoughtful about what sort of technological changes we introduce. Which means good education in the technological age won’t just focus on the technique — the engineering — but on the telos, to what end we want to develop different types of technology, which ties into the broader question of to what end we humans live for.

Education should absolutely focus on these questions, on what a good citizen of our nation looks like, and what future we are educating towards… but STEM alone can’t save us, unless all that matters is that the Australia of the future is economically prosperous and good at digging stuff up to turn into other more expensive hardware, or at turning our time and effort into software that people want to use. The best STEM work comes from an ability to imagine, and from the curiousity that drives innovation, which requires a pedagogy that is driven by something other than the regurgitation of the status quo in order to answer standardised tests… it requires, as our kindy director says “being able to deal with problems where we don’t know the answer” so that kids start coming up with new solutions now, so that we normalise that experience, not just maintain some status quo.

Our education systems are organised towards a view of what people are, and what a good life looks like. They reinforce both through pedagogy and curriculum. At the moment our pedagogy is driven by the curriculum — by achieving certain outcomes, particularly knowledge in these fields.

What would happen if our education system was built on the anthropology that we become what we love, and with the goal of forming virtuous citizens who have the character and ingenuity capable not just of creating new technology but of assessing what it’s going to do to us?

It’s pretty clear from stories in the news recently about Facebook that there’s a questionable amount of moral philosophy behind the scenes there that has little concern about the impact of social media on neural pathways or mental health, and on what should be done with the data of its products (their view of the people who use the technology)… but I don’t want to single Facebook out, because similar things could be said about just about any (if not all) technological behemoths — the sort of companies crying out for STEM graduates. In Australia we’re increasingly enslaved by the gaming industry; what sort of qualifications are required to build and maintain pokie machines, online gambling, or sports odds?

What in our national curriculum is helping kids identify and avoid parasitic industries that destroy others rather than building them up (and so building our nation)?

What would education look like if we operated with a different anthropology, and so a different pedagogy (and curriculum)?

I have some guesses.

We’d see the STEM-driven curriculum as an ideological danger more compelling than Safe Schools (in part because we as parents are already exemplars of being more bought in to this dangerous system), not a neutral or good thing for our kids.

We’d see kids as more than ‘brains on a stick’ (or mini computers) who need to be aimed at particular careers so that they contribute to our economy, instead we’d aim their hearts towards virtue and the flourishing of themselves and others in more than just economic or material terms… and so we’d see our teachers as something more than programmers or information delivery systems.

We’d have a broader focus in terms of ‘standardisation’ — something more like the classical or liberal arts curriculums of old, but we’d encourage kids to play and explore and learn what they love and what they’re good at more intuitively. We’d have lots more problem based learning where we don’t have pre-conceived answers and where we reward innovation and imagination not just repetition.

We’d celebrate the schools (and kindys) and teachers who get this and we’d champion them and their ideas to grow their reach (and their enrolments). We’d advocate for a better way on P&Cs and other committees, and we’d write to MPs and education ministers (especially when good teaching gets threatened by standardisation or red tape).

We’d be careful about where we enrol our kids, not just to secure the best financial outcome for them job wise, but to be part of providing the best education for their peers.

We’d pay teachers better to be exemplary leaders who emphasise character and who see children both as future citizens and as individuals whose flourishing is best secured not by pumping them into some sausage machine, but by fostering their individual capacity to be curious, to imagine, and to use their gifts and abilities to serve others.

We’d work to free our schools, teachers, and children from slavery to a results driven national curriculum and see the human capital of our graduate-citizens as the product of an education, not test results (we’d have to substantially change our metrics).

We’d take responsibility for educating and forming our kids with the school as partners in that, rather than outsourcing this to schools, and so we’d take a stand against practices that are dumb (like homework).

We’d see that education, or formation, (like virtue) is about habit building and the shaping of loves through a ‘grand story’ not content delivery of disconnected facts.

We’d have teachers who both model and teach that work is a good and rewarding thing not simply because it helps us buy better technology (that we don’t need) but because it helps us build better communities and better homes. We wouldn’t have kids in math lessons asking ‘when will I ever use this’, but have them using math to solve problems or describe interesting reality (like rocket launches, though probably not rocket launchers (though that thing where youth groups used to make potato cannons would make for a good math or physics lesson)).

As Christians we’d be teaching that work is a form of worship, and that the economy isn’t neutral (or naively, that it’s a pure ‘good’), and we’d be valuing, supporting, encouraging, and becoming teachers like this.

We’d pursue real flourishing, which, as Smith put it in his lecture:

Human flourishing is found when we find our flourishing and end in the one who made us and is calling us. To be human is to become creatures whose hearts find rest in the one who has made us and is calling us; finding what you are made for.

The task of a Christian education is to help people find what they are made for.

At present, we wouldn’t necessarily be pulling our kids out of schools where the curriculum is at odds with our beliefs but putting ourselves (and our kids) in and articulating a need for change, and if we did pull our kids out into Christian education institutions it would be because they’re committed to an alternative vision of education for all, not just for enforcing some Christian bubble. What many of our church owned schools currently do, in adopting the national curriculum uncritically and pursuing exclusive excellence on its terms, or in being insular doctrinally-driven schools suspicious about the world won’t really serve anybody. In our homes and churches we’d be helping people not just aim their hearts towards virtue, but towards Jesus, and our own pedagogy wouldn’t be a head-on-stick driven exercise aimed at helping kids know about Jesus, but instead a practice driven, play based, problem solving approach to helping kids live like Jesus and love Jesus.

That’d be a revolution.

Is Jordan Peterson the antichrist?

No. But it’s possible he’s ‘an’ antichrist. It’s also possible that you are… so don’t jump up and down at me for being too judgmental… yet.

There’s a bit of a conversation happening about how useful or not useful Jordan Peterson is for Christians; how much we should be learning from what he says, versus how much we should be learning about his appeal to his audience (an audience we struggle to reach), versus should we simply be condemning him for certain things he says that we interpret in particular ways that often seem removed from his intent. That last one depends on how post-modern literary criticism flies for you, and I’ve got mixed feelings on that one. I think there’s value in ‘feminist readings of Jordan Peterson’ or criticisms from women, and hearing them very carefully and incorporating them into how we might use or apply a text, but I’m less convinced they’re useful in working out how to judge a person behind a text, especially if that person is on the record disputing positions such a reading suggests he holds… the use of ‘reader-response’ critiques is in the context of a conversation, and hopefully such conversations bring about change because people, including the writer, are listening carefully to one another… that’s the ideal. This is why I keep referring to how many women are hearing Jordan Peterson as valid data and as relevant to what I’ve written about his work thus far.

There are many people who believe Jordan Peterson is on a journey towards Christian belief (perhaps himself included), and that would be a good thing, there’d be a party in heaven — just like there is when anybody turns to Jesus. I can’t know his heart, or where his journey might end, but I can wonder if he does reach that point, what he’ll then say about some of his writing thus far… and I can comment on that writing in terms of how I perceive its usefulness for Christians; it’s one thing to read a writer to understand his popularity with an audience (especially if it’s an audience that feels disenfranchised by the church), it’s another thing to read a writer critically (to figure out what gold we might plunder, see my second post on Peterson), this piece is for those who might be tempted to uncritically accept Peterson’s writing not so much as Gospel (because I think most Christian readers will recognise that what he says about Jesus isn’t quite right), but as helpful without substantial re-framing.

Asking if someone is the antichrist might seem provocative and sensationalist… especially someone who seems to love the word of God so much and to be seriously grappling with who Jesus is, but I want to suggest that’s precisely the type of person the Bible calls an antichrist. In my last post on Peterson I mentioned his ‘subtraction story’ — that he left the church in his youth, and that he now finds himself trying to figure out what to do with the ‘archetypal’ mythic quality of the Jesus story (which he sees as the grand narrative of the Bible). He wants Jesus to be a form of truth, but at this point, since he’s not yet calling himself a Christian, and since he demonstrates a flawed understanding of the Gospel in terms of the death of Jesus being the central act in history that is applied to all of us rather than an archetypal act that we should all participate in by taking up our cross. Here’s Peterson on the other half of the Easter story, the Resurrection… which again he predominantly reads symbolically or archetypally.

Here’s a quote from the video.

“At minimum, the idea of the resurrected Christ is the idea that you should identify not with that part of yourself that is stagnant and dead, and that already knows, but is prone to error. You should identify with that part of yourself that is always stretching beyond what you currently know, and has the faith to let go of such certainties so that new patterns of being can be brought into place. And so, now, that’s a purely psychological explanation and I think I’ve made the case in my Biblical lectures that I’m striving towards a psychological explanation at the moment. My experience of the Biblical stories is that there are layers of depth in them that are sufficiently profound, perhaps because of the staggering hyperlinking of the text and because of its association with the entire corpus of western literature that as you keep digging you find more and more, and so, I don’t know what to make of the more metaphysical claims… so I’m going to leave it as that. Because I don’t know…”

He seems so close. Just jump into faith Dr Peterson. If you watch Peterson, and read Peterson, and find yourself similarly profoundly struck by the Bible’s story and haunted by the metaphysical, then Try Jesus. Today.

But if he’s so close, how could this ‘antichrist’ thing possibly be sustained? Isn’t that a jerk move? Maybe. But bear with me for a moment while I flesh something out…

There aren’t many references to the antichrist in the Bible… you’ll find one in the letter 1 John. John writes:

Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.

As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us—eternal life. — 1 John 2:18-25

A little later, John also says:

“This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” — 1 John 4:2-3

Now, I mentioned Peterson’s ‘subtraction story’ because it’s a picture of ‘going out from’ the church because of doubts about the core teachings about Christianity (he describes leaving the faith of his youth as seeing the church’s teachings as ‘wishful thinking’, and whether he’s on a trajectory back or not, there are some things in his ‘psychological’ take on Jesus that are essentially explicit denials that Jesus is ‘the‘ Christ; in his system he becomes something like ‘a’ Christ, and we all have to become Christs too.

We don’t have to become Christs, but rather, Christ’s. That’s the difference between Jesus and Jordan. Jesus says ‘be mine take my life as yours’, Jordan says ‘be Jesus, make your life like his.’

In many ways I think Peterson would be more helpful if he didn’t push a ‘psychological’ or ‘symbolic’ reading of the Gospel… because doing that is dangerous and potentially incredibly destructive and misleading if Jesus really did ‘come in the flesh’ … if he really is ‘the Christ’. That it’s a danger of the type John writes about in pretty strong terms. That it’s ‘the spirit of the antichrist’ to want to re-bake the story of Jesus into something compellingly natural, or merely ‘mythical’ or ‘symbolic’ rather than a case of the supernatural entering and redefining the natural. I want to suggest that a psychological reading, like Peterson posits, without a metaphysical or spiritual reality that Jesus came, died, and was raised, is a teaching that doesn’t ‘acknowledge Jesus has come in the flesh’ that he ‘is from God’ and that he is ‘the Christ’ and so, like anybody who denies that the resurrected Jesus is both human and divine, Peterson, at this point, is an antichrist.

It’s clear from this bit of 1 John that the antichrist isn’t one scary mini-Satan with horns and a tail, or one worldly power who sets himself up in opposition to Christ (though John does some fun stuff with ‘beasts’ and Caesar in Revelation). Indeed, anybody who isn’t ‘pro-Christ’, recognising all these categories that John presents, is ‘anti-Christ’… and people who then teach people about Jesus, as antichrists, are particularly dangerous.

There’s a hot debate in 1 John scholarship about exactly who John has in mind here… lots of people have suggested it’s people from an early stream of gnosticism, people who believed the physical world was dirty and terrible and God would never have moved from the ‘ideal’ disembodied, spiritual, forms into fleshy reality — that it’s about people denying the incarnation of God (and Peterson’s ‘psychological/mythological’ take of the Jesus story stands in that tradition a little), but I’m more convinced by a thesis advanced by Matthew Jensen. You can read a journal article summarising it here, that John isn’t immediately writing about those who deny the incarnation was real (though his argument would include that), but specifically those who denied the incarnation was followed by a resurrection in the flesh. People happy enough with a human Jesus, who were not convinced that the resurrection was a real one. In the flesh. Not just a symbolic one. Or a spiritual one. But that Jesus remains human and divine, and both a pattern for our resurrection, and the one who secures it.

John basically says you can’t just have a psychological or mythical reading of Jesus. You have to take all of it, or it’s better to take none of it. Which serves as both a warning and an invitation to Jordan Peterson and those who find his understanding of Jesus so compelling. It’s clear Jordan Peterson finds Jesus compelling. In another video he says Jesus isn’t just ‘a grounding symbol, but ‘the’ grounding symbol of transcendent good’, he feels a bit like Nicodemus, who I mentioned in yesterday’s post — Nicodemus is someone who in John’s Gospel sees something in Jesus, in his life and teaching… but who Jesus invites to see him more fully, to see what is required to not be an ‘antichrist’…

Nicodemus says something that you find traces of in Peterson’s enthusiasm for Jesus:

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” — John 3:2

Nicodemus sees signs in what Jesus is doing that show he is from God. Jesus is pointing to something ‘great’ or ‘true’… and Nicodemus wants to figure out more of what’s going on — Jesus invites Nicodemus to see him through ‘the Spirit of God’ rather than ‘the spirit of the antichrist’… he tells him he must be ‘born from above’ (John 3:3) and ‘born by the Spirit’ (John 3:5). This is the invitation Jesus extends to Nicodemus, to Jordan Peterson, and to you. Rebirth in the Spirit of God. Resurrection. These can’t just be symbols or they are utterly meaningless. Without the symbols pointing to something true — without them pointing to God — like all Jesus’ signs do… they are rubbish. Jesus is a lunatic if there’s no actual spiritual reality to his solutions they are not solutions at all. If you talk about Jesus as a good teacher, or a moral example, or ‘the ultimate symbol’ — you’re just like the pharisees, or those who went back to Judaism who John was writing to in his letter… you’re an antichrist. There’s a precursor to John’s strong judgmental claims about ‘antichrists’ in what Jesus says to Nicodemus…

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. — John 3:16-18

Belief in Jesus according to Jesus, and according to John, is belief in both the physical reality, the mythological or symbolic reality, and the spiritual reality of his life, death, and resurrection. To believe that is to have the Spirit of God. Without this, you’re an antichrist. Any ‘rebirth’ you get through Jesus’ teachings ‘psychologically’ is a finite shadow of an infinitely better reality. You get that rebirth and more when you accept Jesus on his terms.

Whoever doesn’t believe in Jesus, on Jesus’ own terms, is an antichrist who is condemned. Strong words. Judgmental words. But belief secures life on God’s terms, re-birth, resurrection, and eternal life through Jesus. Make the jump Jordan. I really hope you’ll get there because you’ve already got such a rich understanding of Jesus — but it can be richer. Cross into belief and then see what that does for life now if there’s something more to Jesus than just the psychological, symbolical, or mythological beauty. You get a better myth, a fuller wisdom, and a richer masculinity. Do it.

Don’t be an antichrist.

Redeeming masculinity: Peterson, Winton and Jesus

In my last two posts interacting with Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos I’ve suggested there are some areas where his misunderstanding of Jesus — and how the Jesus myth works —  that produce less than optimal results when it comes to charting a path for an appropriate ‘masculinity’, and then that his treatment of both Egyptian and Biblical wisdom requires some careful and significant re-framing, or re-casting, through the cross of Jesus for Christians in particular to adopt his rules as wise axioms for life… but all the while I’ve acknowledged (I hope clearly) that there are things about both the substance of his work and the popularity of his work that should invite us, as Christians, to think carefully about how the Gospel might better scratch the social itch he’s honed in on. If you’re sick of long things about Peterson, I’m hoping that these three posts will be a sort of background for two short things that follow.

Un-re-cast Peterson offers a view of God, the Jesus-story, and humanity that is false and yet he sees it revealing incredible truth about our humanity (and he reads the text of the Bible with an appreciation and sensitivity that gives many people hope that he is on a journey towards a fuller picture of Jesus). Without that altering, and without the completion of that journey, what 12 Rules offers is an idolatry similar to the idolatry of the Athenians (though because he engages so deeply with Jesus and appears to deny central parts of the Bible’s claims about Jesus there’s something more pernicious about his framework if it doesn’t ultimately represent such a journey towards truth). When Paul is in Athens he listens carefully to what the wise people of the culture are saying, he notices how their ‘worship’ and the culture’s narratives are seeking to answer deep questions about the human experience, and he responds by showing the Athenians how the true, fully realised, story of Jesus does offer a more complete picture of humanity. This, for me, is the ultimate example of plundering the gold of Egypt (or Athens) in the Bible — and it represents both an affirmation and a radical subversion of what the Athenians think a good human life looks like, and what part they see religious belief and ‘the gods’ playing in that life. Peterson does the opposite, he’s listened carefully to Christians (and the Bible) and found in them some universal truths apart from the real person and work of Jesus. He’s plundering Jesus to preach Adam.

Peterson does a reasonable job diagnosing some of the bad things in our culture, particularly for men (which is why he’s resonating so deeply with men). There’s something in his diagnosis about the problems of masculinity and a sense of disenfranchisement or disillusionment lots of blokes in the west feel simply because they’re blokes. Now. I’m not denying there are lots of things men also do as individuals and systemically that make life bad for women in the west. Lots of the feminist critique of western life is accurate — terms like ‘the patriarchy’ and ‘rape culture’ describe things that are true about how men abuse power (including the biological reality that men are typically bigger and stronger, and the psychological reality that men are (whether by conditioning or innately) more aggressive and have other psychometric traits identified as ‘masculine’). The problem of toxic masculinity hurts both men and women; but I also think much of the pushback against toxic masculinity from certain branches of the feminist movement is crippling for men. The solution to toxic masculinity is not denying differences between men and women (a sort of radical egalitarianism that tackles gender norms), but instead looks like men and women elevating, celebrating, and making space for difference and for one another.

Peterson is also right to suggest that part of the issue for men in the west is the loss of a ‘metanarrative’ because of some aggressive, over-reaching, forms of post-modernity (and again, I say this as somebody much more enthusiastic about post-modernity than Peterson, or your average Presbyterian minister).

It’s important to listen to the voices of women who have alarm bells set off not just by Peterson’s following amongst the Alt-Right, or the ‘Men’s Rights Movement’, but by the ambiguity or lack of clarity around some things he says, especially when it’s clear that his work is being appropriated to prop up some of the very things he opposes. What seems to be especially concerning, I think, is his use of technical terminology for masculine and feminine and the way these create naturalistic ‘oughts’ from what ‘is’ when it comes to how to be male or female, and the way this is propped up by his use of archetypes that also have ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ elements, and then what he does when applying these to what a good ‘male’ or ‘female’ life ought to look like (his coda where he writes about his desires for his children being an example — he wants his son to be like Jesus and his daughter to be like Mary (a mother) — and I’ll unpack the problems with this gendered archetype thing from a Christian perspective below).

Part of Peterson’s popularity with the harder-right man is analogous to Trump’s popularity with the same demographic; capturing the disillusionment of a collapse of masculinity (arguably because of a collapse of Christianity and its story in the west) and offering something to fill that void. It’s like a reverse Athens in some ways; Peterson has seen the itch created by the known God becoming unknown in our world, and he’s attempted to replace it with something like a synthesised version of Nietzsche, Jung, and Dostoyevsky’s Jesus. A Jesus who shows us what it looks like to save ourselves, to lift our own gaze to godlikeness, and seize the day in order to re-create and transform the world according to our individual vision and power.

When it comes to masculinity in Australia; we’ve got problems.

Tim Winton and Australia’s toxic masculinity problem

There was a stunning interview with Aussie novelist Tim Winton in the Fairfax press recently, outlining his sense that there is a crisis of masculinity; and some sense of where he thinks the solution to a toxic sort of masculinity might be found. He makes a useful conversation partner with Peterson’s 12 Rules. Here’s an extended part of the conversation he had about the crisis of masculinity as he sees it manifest itself in Australia.

It was in the surf, for example, that he first began noticing something “less than lovely” about the local boys: a spiky nihilism, a contempt for gentleness and decency, and, most worryingly, a reflexive misogyny. It was mainly the things they said to one another. About women, and girls. About other races, too, and even about nature. “Some of these guys were the full Dickhead Package,” he says. “They were rednecks. But there was also a script there. It was almost as if they were rehearsing what they thought a real man should be like.”

That “script”, the abiding notion of men as invulnerable, flinty, emotionally distant, is as destructive as it is resilient, a kind of prison where the best parts of boys – the sensitive parts, the nurturing parts – go to die. “It’s so impoverishing,” Winton says, wincing. “It stops men from growing. They become emotional infants, little man-boys who despise women and lean on them in equal measure.”

He pauses. Nods. “Wow,” I say. “So how did we get here?”

“I dunno,” says Winton. He wriggles in his chair, stares out the window. It’s a murky area, this gender and culture stuff, and I get the feeling he’s thinking his way through it as we sit here. “Maybe it was the ’60s, you know? The whole Aquarius thing, everyone being encouraged to ‘follow their own bliss’. They were given this dud message that they were somehow absolved of responsibility.”

All the “self-actualising” was good news for women, since they had for so long been denied any “self”. But the benefits for men were less clear. Sure, all those tired old models, the traditional pathways to manhood, were swept away, but they weren’t replaced with anything, or at least nothing especially solid or coherent. “It’s a little bit like what has happened with the modern economy,” he adds. “Like neo-liberalism. It has reduced us all to players in the market. What is ‘the market’ anyway? Like, what the hell?

“These days nothing is expected of you, and nothing is given to you. But your journey to maturity is wrapped up in a sense of deeper culture, of spirituality even. Without that, all that’s left is sex, money and alcohol.”

Winton identifies our loss of compelling ‘grand narrative’; the reduction of our humanity to being pieces of an economic machine, and a corresponding loss of sense of meaning or direction; that’s what comes from having a ‘myth’ — a story that organises your life and tells you what you are living for. But the modern, or post-modern, Australia has no compelling centralised myth, and if all we’re left to do is write our own little individual stories, they become about small-minded stuff; the ‘things of this world’ — sex, money, and alcohol. And pursuing those things — worshipping those things — as the source of ultimate meaning has a tendency to turn a bloke into what Winton calls ‘the full Dickhead package’… there’s a nice echo of David Foster Wallace’s ‘everybody worships something, the only choice you get is what to worship’ here — in that he specifically talks about what the worship of sex and money will do to you.

Masculinity and the heart

The question is: what resources does Peterson offer to pull people out of ‘full Dickhead’ — out of the worship of sex, money, and alcohol — and into something more constructive. Like Winton, and Wallace, Peterson sees our lives (and so for men, our masculinity) shaped by the question of what we worship — what we hold as ultimate. This observation isn’t terribly new; it’s there in the Old Testament when the Psalms and prophets write about us ‘becoming what we worship’ and the deadly impact of worshipping something other than the living God. We’re ‘very religious’ as Paul put it in Athens. Peterson is the ‘reverse Paul’ at this point — or the Egyptian plundering gold from Israel. He talks about worship in terms of a ‘moral hierarchy’ and our ‘god’ as whatever we place on top.

“Jung observed that the construction of such a moral hierarchy was inevitable — although it could remain poorly arranged and internally self-contradictory. For Jung, whatever was at the top of an individual’s moral hierarchy was, for all intents and purposes, that person’s ultimate value, that person’s god. It was what that person acted out. It was what that person believed most deeply.” — page 198

And the start of the book (and what he does with the idea of the ‘divine logos’ later in the book) reveals that his moral hierarchy places the ‘responsibility bearing’ individual as the ultimate value. We become our own gods. We become the ‘hero’ who might change the world and bring heaven on earth (starting with our own rooms — there’s, I think, a problem with an emphasis on the individual that doesn’t also equally factor in the way that we are utterly dependent on the people around us both in what we think and ‘know’ and in how we live; our habitats (including our communities) shape our habits — our liturgies (the practice of worship) which shape us… surely we have to work on both ‘our patch’ and the broader environments we belong to (and to be fair to Peterson, there’s some of this in Rule 3 ‘Make friends with people who want the best for you’). Anyway. Here’s what’s on top of Peterson’s moral hierarchy:

“I came to a more complete personal realisation of what the great stories of the past continually insist upon: the centre is occupied by the individual. The centre is marked by the cross, as X marks the spot… How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of being and to take the heroic path. We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society, and the world”… — Page XXXIII

“Thousands of years ago, the aware ‘I’ was the all-seeing Horus… before that it was the creator-God Marduk… during the Christian epoch, the “I” transformed into the Logos, the word that speaks order into being at the beginning of time. It might be said that Descartes merely secularised the Logos, turning it, more explicitly, into “that which is aware and thinks.” That’s the modern self, simply put.” — Page 194

Until he puts Jesus on the cross at the centre of being, rather than the heroic individual archetypally following Jesus, I think it’s fair to say he’s not really understanding the Christian story… but more on that below.

Peterson is great and clear and fantastic when it comes to identifying the heart problem behind toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. Sin. The darkness in our hearts. He sees us playing out a pattern of curse — the dominance hierarchy thing is pretty much Genesis 3:16 — and rather than seeing this as something wrong with the world where the answer is to look at both Genesis 2 and Revelation 21-22 (the start and end of the story), he sees this as something like the natural rules of the game and seeks to help people play that game (whether men or women… I want to be clear that it seems clear to me that Peterson thinks that if success is going to be defined in these terms, if it is ‘a man’s world’ that women are able to adopt masculine traits, and should be encouraged to if that’s what they want). The really important bit isn’t at the start, but at the end of the Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn quote we both love:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Who indeed? (hint: it’s kinda what Jesus did).

Peterson readily acknowledges the darkness in each and every human heart. The question is, does his narrative — particularly his archetypal, G0d-haunted, but almost entirely natural rendering of the Jesus narrative — actually give us enough reason to put that bit to death and to atone for our own sins, and to embrace (for men) a masculinity that isn’t patterned on the dominance world  (like many of the evil regimes Peterson explicitly hates and repudiates) but on something else? Does he equip us with not just the power to change, but enough motivation to sacrifice darkness? He seems to think just knowing our capacity for darkness scares us into positive action.

“When the wakening occurs—when once-naïve people recognise in themselves the seeds of evil and monstrosity, and see themselves as dangerous (at least potentially) their fear decreases. They develop more self-respect. Then, perhaps, they begin to resist oppression. They see that they have the ability to withstand, because they are terrible too. They see they can and must stand up, because they begin to understand how genuinely monstrous they will become, otherwise, feeding on their resentment, transforming it into the most destructive of wishes. To say it again: There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.” — 12 Rules, page 25

Is recognising our capacity for evil enough to stop us being evil? It certainly restrains us. Sometimes. But I’m not sure that this capacity for evil doesn’t also explain toxic masculinity and why it is so hard to reconfigure what a virtuous man looks like; so Peterson couples the pursuit of the ‘good’ side of our heart; the light, not just with altruism (though that’s there), but with the sense that life will be better for us if we stand up straight and grasp power… first because it sucks if we don’t:

“If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterises a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status, and the old counter that you share with crustaceans, sitting at the very base of your brain, will assign you a low dominance number. Then your brain will not produce as much serotonin. This will make you less happy, and more anxious and sad, and more likely to back down when you should stand up for yourself. It will also decrease the probability that you will get to live in a good neighbourhood, have access to the highest quality resources, and obtain a healthy, desirable mate.” — 12 Rules, Page 25

And it’s better for us if we do…

“You see the gold the dragon hoards, instead of shrinking in terror from the all-too-real fact of the dragon. You step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy, and occupy your territory, manifesting your willingness to defend, expand and transform it. That can all occur practically or symbolically, as a physical or as a conceptual restructuring.” — 12 Rules, Page 27

Peterson wants an altruism; the ‘light’ to triumph, he wants us to participate in bringing heaven on earth by aiming up. He wants us to sacrifice a part of ourselves for the greater good…

“You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. You need to determine how to act toward yourself so that you are most likely to become and to stay a good person. It would be good to make the world a better place. Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance.” — 12 Rules, page 63

What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice. Things get better, as the successful practise their sacrifices. The questions become increasingly precise and, simultaneously, broader: What is the greatest possible sacrifice? For the greatest possible good? — Page 169

Man up. Basically. Choose to be your best self — and reward and discipline yourself to make that happen…  And the rest of his 12 Rules expand on what that might look like (with, it must be said, some reasonably subversive ideas about responsibility).

Now. There’s a lot there that’s good for broken men, but I wouldn’t say there’s a great corrective for the dark hearted part of broken men, or the ‘toxic masculinity’ thing. It doesn’t deal with sin; though as I mentioned in post one, Peterson’s solution is that we make atonement for ourselves as we ‘take up our cross’ and ‘bear the weight of being’ — but why would I want to do that if I can pass on part of that weight to others by dominating them. Discipline. Self-denial. Sacrifice… and again, there’s lots of David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water echoing here — where he describes freedom as “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.” As an aside, reading Peterson and watching his popularity soar well beyond the strength of his writing makes me shed tears at the loss of Wallace’s voice in our society as we stare into the void left by the collapse of Christianity’s influence and try to figure out how to be people together.

Discipline. Sacrifice.

Why would I do that if it’s such hard work?

I think this advice will be effective for some — because there’s a certain part of us that just wants rules… but if I’m told that the way to get ahead in life, naturally, is to be ‘top lobster’, that this will make me get even more of what I want… that success starts with the individual taking responsibility for themselves and claiming what is ours by right, but I’m then encouraged not to do claim what isn’t mine even if I can… then why would I stop?

If the monster lies within, why not embrace it? Feed it? Relish in it?

What is there to restrain my becoming the chaotic monster Peterson is so keen to keep me from? The spectre of Hitler looms large in Peterson’s work as an example of totalitarian ‘order’ (of the sort that should be hurled back into chaos); but what does he really offer that stops my dark heart going that way given the tools to ‘stand up straight’ and be powerful? Why shouldn’t I harness his insights as some form of ‘self-help’ (the genre the book is categorised in) and simply help myself? What is it that will cause me to pick light over dark? Why not just embrace my desires to be strong enough to claim any woman I desire as my mate.

What if Winton is right about today’s ‘full dickhead package’ masculinity? That because we’ve lost a bigger journey or something spiritual we’re left worshiping, or idolising, sex, money, and alcohol? If our hearts are shot through with evil and we see those things as the ultimate ‘good’, what hope do we have? By some accounts, David Foster Wallace spoke about the danger of worshipping the wrong stuff from personal experience — there are people who’ve claimed that he was both the embodiment of toxic masculinity and a particular prescient critic of the dynamics that got him there… awareness of the destructive potential of these objects of worship isn’t enough if they stay there and we’re just told to pursue them from the ‘light’ part of our hearts not the dark bits.

Here’s where Peterson is right that we actually need a story, not just rules.

But I suspect even that is naive and limited. Self discipline, sacrifice, and a grand narrative might be enough to keep some of the darkness in our hearts at bay… we might even put some of that darkness to death as we restrain it… but not even being God’s chosen king stopped David claiming Bathsheba for himself, with an army (and no opportunity for consent). Give even the best man power, and opportunity, and what stops him giving in to temptation for darkness (it’s worth noting that the Bathsheba scene echoes Eve in the garden — they both ‘see’, ‘desire’ and ‘take’ what they know to be wrong, this dynamic is not just ‘toxic masculinity’ but ‘toxic humanity’ — it does seem that both Genesis 3:16 and our observations of life in the world since — mean that men are typically more able to exert physical power, and society conditions us men to do that cursed ways (which some call ‘the patriarchy’, or Winton calls ‘toxic masculinity’) that are bad for both women and men.  Would these 12 Rules have been enough to limit that form of toxic masculinity? Or might they simply have spoken to the darker bits of his heart and enabled them? David certainly still had a grand narrative he was living in and by…

Embodied masculinity: Peterson, Winton, ‘subtraction stories’, and a ‘Christianity with its sleeves rolled up’

There’s lots in the life of Jesus that is exemplary for humanity, not just for masculinity. Peterson seems to think women should be getting their marching orders from the archetype of Mary, not Jesus, which loses something of the Christian idea that Jesus is the image of the invisible God in a way that fulfils the Genesis 1 dynamic of ‘male and female’ being made in the image of God together (more on Christlikeness as a pattern for Christian femininity here, and here). But if we’re going to talk about antidotes for the sort of toxic masculinity identified by Tim Winton, and how Peterson might or might not be a helpful nod in this direction with his exaltation of the Jesus story and application of it to the self, then let’s talk about how Jesus provides a better guide to masculinity not just humanity (caveat, again, I think Jesus sees himself as an example for everybody when he calls all his followers to take up their cross and follow him (Luke 9:23), and Luke is explicit that Jesus’ followers include women (Luke 8:1-3), I think Paul sees Jesus’ crucifixion as an ethical example for everybody, see Philippians 2, but also that he applies it particularly to how men are to use their strength as they relate to women in the particular context of church (1 Corinthians 11), and marriage (Ephesians 5:21ff). I don’t think it is wrong to address a crisis in masculinity with particular implications for men with the particular (typical) reality that men are physically stronger and biologically predisposed to certain traits we might call masculine (for more on this see my ‘third way on gender’ post from a while back). I’m suggesting that in a world where toxic masculinity exists, where ‘neutral masculinity’ might not actually exist (because of our evil hearts) might actually need redeemed masculinity to exist, and that Peterson’s picture of redemption, his use of the cross, is a useful critique of the church, but half baked. I want to suggest that Tim Winton’s picture of a Jesus-shaped masculinity is also a critique of the church… and that both of them look to Jesus in an exemplary way that we probably should too (but that particularly in the case of Peterson, we need to re-cast the Jesus story substantially back towards its own terms).

Both Peterson and Winton have personal versions of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’ when it comes to their view of Jesus, while simultaneously calling out the ‘secularism’ of the west for having a bigger ‘subtraction story’. In A Secular Age, Taylor describes these subtraction stories as stories of ‘modernity’ and our sense, or narrative, that we don’t need ‘big stories’ to explain the world, and certainly not stories that require something ‘divine’ or ‘supernatural’:

I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process–modernity or secularity–is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life. — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

This is something Winton recognised in those boys at the beach… whose lives are now seen in terms of an economic story, or personal pursuit of sex, money, or alcohol when instead we should have our masculinity shaped and defined in narrative terms, or a “journey to maturity”  that is “wrapped up in a sense of deeper culture, of spirituality”… but at the same time Winton’s subtraction story is one of leaving the hardline evangelical faith of his parents, because:

“At one point I reached the limits of the educational and cultural experience of the people around me,” he says. “I just wasn’t getting any answers, no real feedback. And sometimes the feedback was negative because they felt threatened.” — Winton interview, Less than Lovely, SMH

In an interview about this ‘subtraction’ with Simon Smart from the Centre for Public Christianity he said:

TIM WINTON: I was part of that tradition, and part of the weakness of our tradition is the obsession with orthodoxy, thinking the right thing. And I was probably only liberated from that in my late 20s, when I just realised that thinking the right thing was just kind of nice if you had the energy for it, but it wasn’t the game; it was allowing yourself the space and the danger to perhaps do the right thing, or at least do something. What you did was essentially an expression of who you were and what you believed.

SIMON SMART: I once interviewed a Salvation Army woman who was a saint, spent her life caring for people, and she talked about her dad getting some help from the Salvos when he was really sick, and he described it as Christianity with its sleeves rolled up, and he said the only kind that’s worth anything. That sort of resonates a little bit with what you’re describing.

TIM WINTON: Yes, totally. I mean if you’re not interested in someone’s body and their health, you’re just not interested in them. The rest of their person somehow is supposed to be…we’ve almost got this idea that people’s bodies or their…or their, their health, their levels of poverty their…

SIMON SMART: Sort of a side issue?

TIM WINTON: Their physical… Yes, we are these disembodied spirits first and foremost and our bodies are just some sort of inconvenience. Yes, if it’s not Christianity with your sleeves rolled up, then what species of faith is it? What is that? And I’m not interested in that.

Subtraction stories often carry with them an air of ‘liberation’ or enlightenment… but in Winton’s case it was more a pursuit of authentic embodiment… it was, perhaps, the evangelical church he departed that was living out a secularised, modernist, ‘subtraction story’… a story that saw us not as embodied spiritual creatures but simply as spiritual creatures. What’s interesting here, I think, if we throw David Foster Wallace into the mix, is that Wallace recognises the culture’s subtraction story (“the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing”) and seemed to spend his life trying to escape it by trying to add the right thing.

Peterson’s is more dramatically secularised (though still ‘haunted’ in Taylor’s terms), while Winton still seems enchanted. Part of my optimism about Peterson’s journey is that I think he’s really zeroed in on a type of hopefulness caught up in the Jesus story… Both Winton and Peterson zero in on a lack of embodiment of the life of Jesus, in the evangelical church, as part of their dissatisfaction with the church; as part of their ‘subtraction’ story. Peterson had his own ‘subtraction’ story which he saw in parallel terms with the subtraction story of the West — the death of the Christian God (as conceived by an institutional church more interested in doctrine or spiritual salvation than the embodied reality of imitating Jesus. Here’s his account of both his own ‘subtraction story’ and the ‘subtraction story’ of the west:

I was truly plagued with doubt. I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking…

I was plagued with doubt. I searched for one thing—anything—I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. It was doubt that led me to it.— Page 196, 197

Carl Jung hypothesized that the European mind found itself motivated to develop the cognitive technologies of science—to investigate the material world—after implicitly concluding that Christianity, with its laser-like emphasis on spiritual salvation, had failed to sufficiently address the problem of suffering in the here-and-now. This realization became unbearably acute in the three or four centuries before the Renaissance. In consequence, a strange, profound, compensatory fantasy began to emerge, deep in the collective Western psyche, manifesting itself first in the strange musings of alchemy, and developing only after many centuries into the fully articulated form of science. It was the alchemists who first seriously began to examine the transformations of matter, hoping to discover the secrets of health, wealth and longevity. These great dreamers (Newton foremost among them) intuited and then imagined that the material world, damned by the Church, held secrets the revelation of which could free humanity from its earthly pain and limitations. It was that vision, driven by doubt, that provided the tremendous collective and individual motivational power necessary for the development of science, with its extreme demands on individual thinkers for concentration and delay of gratification. This is not to say that Christianity, even in its incompletely realized form, was a failure. Quite the contrary: Christianity achieved the well-nigh impossible. The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law. Christianity insisted that even the king was only one among many. For something so contrary to all apparent evidence to find its footing, the idea that that worldly power and prominence were indicators of God’s particular favor had to be radically de-emphasized. This was partly accomplished through the strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through effort or worth—through “works”… — Pages 185-186

Here we see Peterson’s appreciation for Christianity, his sense that science or natural accounts of reality made belief implausible, but also how he begins to start over-correcting against the flattening of a paradox by the church. Our own Christian subtraction story. His subtraction story is not simply that science killed God, but that Christianity’s insistence on a spiritual reality instead of a material or embodied reality let that happen. The subtraction story that allowed this is a Christian one — it was the subtraction of the body and what we do with it from being an important part of Christian belief and practice. The theological reality is that we’re both spiritual and embodied creatures who live as part of God’s kingdom in this world when we are saved by Jesus, but saved by the embodied actions of Jesus, not our embodied actions imitating him. Peterson is correcting something wrong with how the church has imagined faithfulness to Jesus too — the same thing that saw Winton leave his particular tradition. ‘The strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through works’ is actually the Christian insistence that only Jesus is able to triumph over sin and Satan — that only Jesus was prepared to put sin to death, to refuse temptation, and to be righteous enough to be saved by works. We rely on that; and the new hearts the Bible promises to those who trust in Jesus; the supernatural reality of the Holy Spirit rewiring our hearts (Romans 7-8). But. These new hearts should produce new lives in the body… they should produce a new masculinity. That they don’t or we haven’t demonstrated this enough is a failing of the church that is part of the subtraction story of the west and the way our culture produces toxic masculinity. A world without the church carving out the kingdom of God is going to be a world where the cursed pattern of male-female relationships, or patterns of life shaped by the worship of sex, money, alcohol, and other idols, are more prevalent. The kingdom of God is the antidote to the curse; even if it will only be fully realised when Jesus returns. Peterson reads the Bible better than Nietzsche, but his understanding of how Christians should read the Bible is shaped by how a particular tradition demolished by Nietzsche did read the Bible… and in doing so he misunderstands the tradition of Paul, Luther, and the Protestant church and offers his own reading (shaped by Jung, Dostoyevsky, and Solzenhitsyn, and an archetypal, secularised, ‘myth-alone’ approach to the Christian story) as a corrective:

The central dogmas of the Western faith were no longer credible, according to Nietzsche, given what the Western mind now considered truth. But it was his second attack—on the removal of the true moral burden of Christianity during the development of the Church—that was most devastating. The hammer-wielding philosopher mounted an assault on an early-established and then highly influential line of Christian thinking: that Christianity meant accepting the proposition that Christ’s sacrifice, and only that sacrifice, had redeemed humanity. This did not mean, absolutely, that a Christian who believed that Christ died on the cross for the salvation of mankind was thereby freed from any and all personal moral obligation. But it did strongly imply that the primary responsibility for redemption had already been borne by the Saviour, and that nothing too important to do remained for all-too-fallen human individuals. Nietzsche believed that Paul, and later the Protestants following Luther, had removed moral responsibility from Christ’s followers. They had watered down the idea of the imitation of Christ. This imitation was the sacred duty of the believer not to adhere (or merely to mouth) a set of statements about abstract belief but instead to actually manifest the spirit of the Saviour in the particular, specific conditions of his or her life—to realize or incarnate the archetype, as Jung had it; to clothe the eternal pattern in flesh.

Nietzsche writes, “The Christians have never practiced the actions Jesus prescribed them; and the impudent garrulous talk about the ‘justification by faith’ and its supreme and sole significance is only the consequence of the Church’s lack of courage and will to profess the works Jesus demanded.” Nietzsche was, indeed, a critic without parallel. Dogmatic belief in the central axioms of Christianity (that Christ’s crucifixion redeemed the world; that salvation was reserved for the hereafter; that salvation could not be achieved through works) had three mutually reinforcing consequences: First, devaluation of the significance of earthly life, as only the hereafter mattered. This also meant that it had become acceptable to overlook and shirk responsibility for the suffering that existed in the here-and-now; Second, passive acceptance of the status quo, because salvation could not be earned in any case through effort in this life (a consequence that Marx also derided, with his proposition that religion was the opiate of the masses); and, finally, third, the right of the believer to reject any real moral burden (outside of the stated belief in salvation through Christ), because the Son of God had already done all the important work.

Peterson left a Christianity that looked a lot like it was practicing these three consequences… he left searching for meaning and plagued with doubt. But he thinks he has found a better story with the recipe for a better life, and better masculinity. This is where Peterson draws his moral conclusions — the ‘rock on which he builds his house’ — this is where he derives his picture of humanity and masculinity from…that we should be imitating Jesus in standing against suffering, but we should ‘build our house’ on the idea of being heroic individuals… This is his critique of the church. This is his object of worship… and his life aims to flesh out these beliefs:

“What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil.

It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world.”— page 196-198

For Peterson, the meaning of the Christian story, of Jesus ‘taking the sins upon the world of himself’ is that we’re meant to be Jesus. We’re meant to be ‘the rock’ on which we build our own lives, the ‘cornerstone’ we’re meant to build our lives on is the realisation that we are capable of bringing suffering on others… we’re meant to create heaven on our own steam. To choose light over dark.

The Bible is not optimistic about our ability to do this without re-birth from above. Consider John’s Gospel, which uses light and darkness as interesting themes to talk about how our hearts respond to God as the ‘source of light and life’.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:9-11

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3:19-21

The problem is not that ‘God is dead’ metaphorically because of science, or some sort of modern subtraction story where we no longer need superstition or the supernatural… the problem is that God died because our hearts are dark and when we had the opportunity, we humans killed him because our hearts are dark and we like it better that way. This same passage, John 3, where Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark of night, is where Jesus says that in order to live in the light we need to be born from above. We need the new hearts promised in the Old Testament. We need the Spirit to re-birth our bodies… and this isn’t just a metaphor but a spiritual reality (of the sort our western subtraction story struggles to grasp).

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again [literally ‘born from above’]…
Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” — John 3:3, 6

The claim of the Christian story — the claims of Jesus himself — are that if we’re going to deal with our hearts, and the world and what we inflict on the world — we can’t build our lives on our messed up hearts. We have to build them on him. He is the rock. He is the cornerstone. You can’t just take that language or symbolism and then try to imitate Jesus. You have to build your life in and on Jesus. We can’t build ‘heaven’ on earth without rebirth. We can’t move from hearts of darkness into the light without this.

Both Peterson and the sort of church he rejected (and the one that Winton rejected, and the one Nietzsche rejected, and the Christianity that the west rejected) are wrong about the imitation of Jesus in the Christian life; and the picture of masculinity we get from Jesus. He’s wrong about the theology behind ‘justification by faith’ because he is wrong about what Christians call sanctification. Sanctification is about ‘being transformed into the image of Jesus’ — it’s an embodied reality — it happens not because we decide to kill the dark parts of our heart apart from faith, to save ourselves, but because God gives us the means to kill those parts — to ‘put to death our sinful nature’ by giving us the Spirit. By performing heart surgery on us.

Because the church has its own ‘subtraction story’, where we’ve subtracted embodiment and life in the world from our rendering of the Gospel (our own ‘myth’) we’ve both enabled the subtraction story of the west, and of Peterson (and Winton is a helpful example of diagnosing this problem, and identifying that what has been removed needs to be re-added). Peterson replaces that subtraction story with a mythic take on Christianity which somehow places the individual in the place that should be occupied by Jesus — and in the theology of Paul and Luther — Jesus occupying this place at the centre of existence, as the hero, is part of how we are united with him, and given the Spirit in a way that enables the transformation of our embodied lives. Paul’s guide to Christian living can be summed up as “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), his witness to the Gospel required his taking up his cross and suffering for it so that his body was shaped by it (2 Corinthians 4-5, 10-11, Galatians 6), the Christian life for Paul is one of embodied transformation  as we live the story of Jesus because it is now our story (eg Colossians 3, Romans 6, 8, 12).

Redeemed masculinity of the sort that is going to both overcome our dark hearts and start to provide a better ‘journey’ and spirituality than bad churches or Jordan Peterson is masculinity patterned on Jesus but also relying on Jesus and his death and resurrection being more than just a nice picture of heroism. They have to have a spiritual reality that is capable of re-wiring our hearts so that the choice to not be evil is not just one we make for ourselves as we follow Jesus, but one that God makes possible.

Redeemed masculinity is the masculinity of Paul, who didn’t keep climbing the ‘dominance hierarchy’ of the Pharisees when he met Jesus, but started imitating Jesus, seeing himself as the scum of the earth or a spectacle in the arena (images of someone gladly being dominated for the sake of others). His vision of masculinity, imitating Jesus is:

To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:11-13

And this is because he understands how God’s power works in the world through those imitating Jesus in weakness… in not taking up one’s strength and power for one’s self, but in laying it down or using it for others.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Corinthians 10:9-10

This is redeemed masculinity. Before Paul met Jesus he was a murderer — bent on making life on earth hellish for Christians, he was a pharisee caught up in darkness, displaying a pretty toxic masculinity while dominating others… his conversion was literally a case of being ‘blinded by the light,’ he wasn’t just confronted with the darkness of his heart but with the light of the world; Jesus.

Redeemed masculinity is a Christianity with its sleeves rolled up. A Christianity imitating Jesus because God is re-casting us in the image of Jesus; transforming us away from the pattern of this world as we practice and live in the story of Jesus. It requires the sort of life marinated in the Gospel story depicted in Colossians 3… but it has to be embodied, deliberately and counter-culturally.

That ‘sleeves rolled up’ picture is extra powerful when paired with the example of Len Thomas, the guy who taught Tim Winton (and his dad) something about Jesus-shaped masculinity. Winton’s dad had an awful bike accident…

 “When he returned home, he was a physical and emotional wreck. He’d gone from being the family’s sole breadwinner to being bedridden, unable to move or shower himself. It was up to his wife, Bev, to manage the house and cope with the kids: Tim and his three younger siblings, Andrew, Michael and Sharyn.

A week or so after John came home, a stranger showed up on the doorstep. His name was Len Thomas. Thomas said he’d heard about the accident, and that Bev was having a tough time, and that he wanted to help. “It was so weird,” Winton says, when we meet in Fremantle, Perth’s port city. “We had never met this guy before, and here he was, turning up, unannounced and uninvited, offering to give us a hand.”

Almost every day for the next few weeks, Thomas came to the house, where he carried Winton’s father from his bedroom to the bathroom and gently washed him. Tim didn’t know what to make of it: a stranger, in the bathroom, with his father? Now all he could do was sit outside the door, listening to the tap water running, and the two men talking in low, soft voices. As it soon became apparent, Thomas was an evangelical Christian: apart from washing John, he’d been laying hands on him, and anointing him with olive oil.

Thomas’s intercession, what Winton now calls “an act of grace”, changed the family forever. Soon after his father’s recovery, Winton’s parents became devout and lifelong Christians. Every Sunday morning, and in the evening too, the family went to church, where they would listen to sermons on degradation and redemption…

“Len showed me that there is another way of being a man, that you didn’t have to get a double century at the MCG or mow down a machine-gun post and get a Victoria Cross. You could be just decent and gentle and kind. For me, that was incredibly revelatory.”

Len Thomas was, in this story, a Christian with his sleeves rolled up. Maybe Jordan Peterson needs to meet him too. Maybe the guys in the surf and others who are the ‘full dickhead package’ need to meet Len Thomas too… because in doing so they’re seeing something of the face of Jesus. Maybe if more Aussies met more Len Thomas types we wouldn’t have subtraction stories for individuals, or our culture, but addition stories. People might start to get an inkling that the supernatural stuff we Christians claim are true — about salvation and eternal kingdoms and the ‘Spirit’ reshaping us — are more than just inspirational myths that help us ‘worship our way’ to a better world by enabling our sacrifice… but that they’re true and inspirational myths that help us worship our way to a better world now and into the future, enabled by Jesus’ sacrifice.

Crossing the Jordan, finding Jesus: redeeming wisdom and re-casting masculinity in conversation with Jordan Peterson

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction. — Proverbs 1:7

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. — Proverbs 9:10

Jordan Peterson is a wise man. But just how wise he is depends on how much the these claims about wisdom are real. And if they are real; just how much one is prepared to acknowledge that not being as wise as you can be — articulating a wisdom apart from the real ‘fear’ of the Lord — is actually a form of folly. And if it’s folly, then such that if we were to doggedly follow him as a wise man, when some truer wisdom is out there is to adopt an incomplete picture of how to live. And so here, humbly (mostly pointing to the wisdom of others), I’d like to offer some suggestions to those who find the sort of wisdom Peterson offers in his videos, and his books, including his just 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote For Chaos appealing.

Peterson’s 12 Rules are strongly built on a foundation that reality occurs along a spectrum of chaos and order; the ‘ying and yang’ of Taoism; that in fact, these ‘forces’ or orientations, held in balance, are at the heart of the cosmos and the human psyche. He personifies chaos as feminine, which he argues is ‘archetypal’ but has rightly frustrated many women (especially because he has so caught the imagination of young men). The first chapter, on lobsters and dominance hierarchies, almost got its own post such is its suggestion that for men to get women to swoon over them, and date them, they need to capture some sort of ‘will to power’ and stand up straight… there was some stuff in that chapter that I felt had the tendency to leave ‘upstanding’, or ‘dominant’ men feeling entitled to be loved, and thus righteously angry at their advances being rejected.

In many ways his insights are a bit like some of the Proverbs we find in the Bible; axioms we can live by as we pursue an understanding of the ordering of the cosmos and what a ‘good life’ in that cosmos looks like. One thing the book of Proverbs teaches us is that a certain form of wisdom isn’t limited to Christians; but absolute truth about the world; a sort of ‘realer’ wisdom involves connecting truths about creation with the creator. Proverbs is structured as a series of bits of advice from a father to a son about how to be a man; it’s really a set of reflections for the nation of Israel about how to be the ‘son of God’; living well in God’s world; but scholars have long noticed that not only does Proverbs borrow large chunks from ancient wisdom (including not just content, but this form — advice to a son), it engages with a fundamental idea common in the ancient world… that the world is ultimately a balance between order and chaos. There’s an Egyptian goddess — Ma’at — and belief in Ma’at underpinned much Egyptian wisdom, including the Wisdom of Amenemope (that Proverbs quotes extensively). Here’s a bit of detail about Ma’at

“The central concept of Egyptian wisdom literature lies in its understanding of the goddess Ma’at. The daughter of the primordial creator god Amon-Re (although in later times she came to be associated with the Memphite god Ptah), Ma’at symbolizes both cosmic order and social harmony. Thus, Ma’at is not only that force which ensures the regularity of the sun god’s path across the sky each day (surely the most visible sign of an orderly universe!), but she is also order, justice, and truth in the human sphere. These two aspects of Ma’at should not be viewed as mutually exclusive, however: for the ancient Egyptian, cosmic order and moral order were inextricably bound up with one another. This may best be seen in the office of the king—the king ruled by making the concept of Ma’at the fundamental moral basis of his reign, and by doing so, reestablished order on the cosmic plane, as it was during “the first time” of creation.” — Carole Fontaine, ‘A Modern Look At Ancient Wisdom — The Instruction of Ptohhotep Revisited,’ Biblical Archeologist, 1981

More recently Michael Fox wrote ‘World Order and Ma’at: A Crooked Parallel,’ (published in the Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society in 1995), where he said:

“Ma’at, whose etymological sense is straightness, is not order as such. It is, rather, the force that creates and maintains order, namely justice/truth, a concept that we subdivide, perhaps artificially, in English…  Ma’at is order: the just and true working of society maintained or restored by the efforts of God and man. On a cosmic scale, Ma’at does displace or “drive out” evil or “disorder” at creation and thereafter especially at each coronation [of a king], but it does so by divine or royal agency.”

Fox makes an interesting subsequent point when it comes to Ma’at’s intricate relationship with Egyptian mythology; that you can’t generalise principles from one mythic theology and generalise across theologies; which is pretty much Peterson’s schtick.

“The idea of Ma’at did not and could not exist in Israel. Ma’at… was the foundation myth of the Pharaonic state and was inextricable from the Egyptian religion and hierarchy. The most important and frequent statements about Ma’at, such as that Re lives on Ma’at, or that Ma’at is the daughter of Re, or rites such as the daily offering of Ma’at to Re, or images such as Ma’at in the prow of Re’s boat, can have no meaning outside an Egyptian context. Only by stripping Ma’at of its distinctive character can one even claim to find a parallel in Israel.”

I’m not sure I totally buy this, I’m more inclined to be with Lewis in Myth Became Fact (see part one of this series), that all ‘myths’ are in some sense an attempt to articulate an intrinsic ‘mythic’ quality of the human spirit. But what’s interesting is how Ma’at is both the sort of order Peterson speaks about as ‘archetypally’ male, as opposed to the feminine chaotic, that Ma’at is said to be similar to the Hebrew Hokma (wisdom, and a feminine noun), and Greek Sophia (wisdom, and a feminine noun); in Proverbs, wisdom is personified as female (symbolised as a wife to be pursued). All three ancient traditions that have some sort of archetypal ‘order’ personify that order as female. His statements about order and chaos being masculine and feminine almost universally and then his frequent dipping in to Egyptian mythology are a weird and obvious contradiction. In Egypt the personification and deification of Chaos is also a serpent — Apep, and Apep is male. He’s considered the opposite of the female Ma’at.

Ma’at, or wisdom, was the antidote to chaos — a properly ordered life — for the faithful reader of the Old Testament, who might dabble in the wisdom of the world, and find truth in a collection of axiomatic statements about reality from foreign sources, this wisdom must be built on the platform of Israel’s knowledge of the creator of that order. While Fox suggests Ma’at didn’t directly influence Hebrew wisdom — specifically the understanding that ‘ma’at’ was the fundamental order of all things — it’s impossible to deny that Egyptian wisdom influences Proverbs when Proverbs explicitly features Egyptian proverbs from the Wisdom of Amenemope. The bits where Proverbs explicitly borrows from — or quotes — foreign wisdom are bracketed with statements like those quoted from Proverbs above — the fear of Yahweh, Israel’s God, the creator of the cosmos, is the beginning of wisdom. Yahweh trumps Ma’at; both in the wisdom stakes and the mythic stakes. But in this borrowing there’s also a model for us thinking about how we might approach Peterson and his (and Jung and Nietzsche’s) mythological approach to wise living.

To understand this model one has to think about the narrative, or mythic, content the Proverbs are delivered in (in the form of the Bible, and Israel’s unfolding history); and to some extent the relationship between wisdom and gold… and Israel and Egypt. Israel, as a nation, is birthed out of Egypt; they are formed or ‘cast’ as God’s image-bearing son; his people. They are released from Egypt after God steps into history to rescue and claim them. He has Moses confront Pharaoh to say of the Israelites:

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’” — Exodus 4:22-23

Israel, corporately, both men and women, are God’s ‘son’. Part of the point of the exodus  — where Israel crossed the Jordan  — was them being declared as God’s children; to be a pattern for, or example of, wise living who were meant to bless their neighbours in part by being wise, so that the nations would see their wise lives and glorify God. In the early chapters of Deuteronomy — another guide to wise living for a ‘son of God’, Israel’s wisdom is to be part of its witness (reading Solomon’s reign, and the Proverbs, against these words is interesting, isn’t it).

Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? — Deuteronomy 4:6-8

This is in the same chapter that Moses talks about Israel crossing the Jordan as them entering their inheritance; entering ‘sonship’ so to speak, and there’s a pretty big warning about making idols or images of God because they are his images; and his nation of priests (Exodus 19); they are meant to represent him in the world.

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.

The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. — Deuteronomy 4:15-24

To ‘cross the Jordan’ is to become a son of God; whether you’re male or female (there’s an interesting implication of the command not to represent God as a man or a woman, which fascinates me because of how in Genesis 1 God (plural) makes humanity in his image as ‘male and female’… and yet dynamically personifies all his people as his ‘son’; now, Jordan Peterson would see this as supporting his archetypal view of chaos and order being masculine and feminine, but I’m going to suggest Biblical archetypes work in a different way (and sometimes Peterson seems to get this, he does have a nice ‘narrative’ reading of the whole Bible going for him).

Here’s a little interlude; a short tangent if you will, about why playing genders off against each other (though with an acknowledged mutual need for one another mostly for some biological imperative) is a common worldly idea but something the Bible fundamentally undermines. I like that Jordan Peterson acknowledges some fundamental differences, biologically, physically, and in how those differences might shape different behaviour, but I don’t like how his ‘dominance hierarchy’ stuff essentially justifies a certain sort of ‘noble patriarchy’ rather than a radical co-operation-in-difference. It seems to me that his basic rendering of the biological universe and its application to human behaviour basically doesn’t just leave men as lobsters competing for status so they can claim the best mate (and be attracted to them), but also leaves us men like peacocks in a perpetual game of charming our mate — or making our desires and demands that we believe might be ‘dark’ and so hesitate to raise them, clear and open, with the expectation that our significant other will embrace them (that was perhaps the creepiest bit in the book) rather than operating in partnership with a radical sort of commitment to elevating and celebrating the other. The heart of Peterson’s model for relationships in his order/chaos paradigm is the ‘masculine’ quality of assertiveness; of making one’s will known, standing up straight, and claiming it (or at least living as though you are entitled to your will), this is pictured as a proud and dominant lobster rising as high up a ‘dominance hierarchy’ as you can. It’s a terrible model for relationships between men and women — and it runs counter to the Biblical picture of wisdom as a woman, and the advice both to Israel (as God’s son) and Israelite sons, to pursue (and presumably listen to and value) a wise partner. The problem in Genesis 3 wasn’t that Adam listened to his wife, but that she gave foolish advice (and so the ‘harlot’ or foolish woman in Proverbs is also a woman, so too the nations whose gods and women pull Israel away from Yahweh. Individualism and this sort of ‘will to power’ doesn’t work in marriage if it’s true that ‘the two become one flesh’. I’d say what gets extrapolated from how men and women relate together from Peterson’s biological account against the Biblical account is a fundamentally different ordering of society. One of the best articles I read last year was by Brendon Benz, titled ‘The Ethics of the Fall: Restoring the Divine Image through the Pursuit of Biblical Wisdom’, he makes a fantastic case for us to reconsider how we understand the dynamic of the image of God being ‘male and female’ such that a purely individualistic view of being human doesn’t work theologically. Here’s a long quote because it provides a thoroughly different ‘archetypal lens’ for reading the Bible as an organising ‘myth’ to the Jungian individualism Peterson advocates (a Jungian ‘plurality’ would be extra fun though).

Thus, wisdom demands a partner—one who is willng to speak, and at the same time, one who is willing to give ear. The result of this corporate engagement is the ability to discern between good and evil, and thereby administer justice. This identification comes as a surprise when it is juxtaposed with Genesis 1–3. In chapter 3, God judges the man and the woman unfavourably for seeking the knowledge of good and evil, suggesting that their decision to do so was not motivated by wisdom. This apparent tension is resolved, however, when it is read in light of a relational interpretation of the divine image, and according to the nature of social power advanced by such scholars as Anthony Giddens. The result is an alternative reading of the so-called fall in Genesis 3 that provides a more concrete understanding of the part humanity must play in successfully responding to the injustices that result from it. In Genesis 2:16–17, God warns the man, who is “alone” in the garden (Gen 1:18), of the negative consequences that will befall him if he violates his individual limit. This indicates that the fall narrative does not depict humanity’s transgression of a divine boundary that was intended to curb human understanding. Instead, it illustrates that the attempt to take possession of the knowledge of good and evil—an important social resource—in isolation and on one’s own terms results in the collapse of the divine image, which, according to Genesis 1:27 and Matthew 18:20, is manifest only in the encounter between the I and the Other who listen. When one understands that the events in Genesis 3 undermine the divine image as it is depicted in Genesis 1 and embodied in Genesis 2, a potent statement emerges regarding the urgency of constructing power-sharing relationships in the context of diverse communities whose members listen. As is reflected in the vulnerability of God’s own interactions with humanity in texts like Genesis 18 and John 20, such relationships are necessary if individuals are to image God, and thereby wisely administer justice…”

God’s image necessarily consists of, and therefore requires, a plurality—in this case, male (zāḵār) and female (nĕqēḇâ). This plurality of personhood is echoed at the beginning of the chapter, wherethe masculine “God” (ʾĕlōhîm; v 1) and the feminine “Spirit of God” (rûaḥ ʾĕlōhîm; v 2) are named as two of the entities involved in creation. When it comes to humanity as the image of God, therefore, Buber rightly observes that “In the beginning is the relation—as the category of being … as a model of the soul; the a priori of relation; the innate Thou” (78). In sum, Genesis 1 indicates that God is imaged only when two or more are gathered in the freely self-limiting relational character of God (cf. Murphy: 173–77). This corresponds to the words of Jesus, whom the authors of the New Testament regard as the image of God (John 1:1–3; Heb 1:1–3; Phil 2:5–8). In Matthew 18:20, he states, “where two or three are gathered in my name,” or my character (Wright 1998: 116), “I am there among them.” The implication of this requirement is that an individual neither posses the divine image as a substance of his or her own being, nor images God in isolation. Rather, the imago Dei is manifest only in relation.”

I won’t drag this out but there’s long been a connection drawn between the idea of the image of God (in the Ancient Near East) being a claim to sonship, usually by kings, so in Israel you get this broadened to include men and women (Genesis 1) and then every Israelite (Exodus 4).

When Israel crossed the Jordan on their way into the promised land they plundered Egypt; stealing its literal gold. This gold was then used to create both the golden calf (idolatrous and destructive folly) and the furnishings of the tabernacle (part of Israel’s worship of God as creator and provider of the good and abundantly fruitful life in the land). Crossing the Jordan was Israel’s path into nationhood — sonship even — and what they did with gold ultimately revealed what sort of child they were; at certain points they were wise and they flourished (and the nations flocked in to hear Solomon’s wisdom), but at other points they borrowed not just the gold of Egypt, but their gods as well. They were more likely to jump on board with the idea of Ma’at, than fear Yahweh. Which is exactly what we learn in the figure of Solomon. Solomon has an interesting relationship with Egypt, with Proverbs, and with gold. In the account of his reign in 1 Kings we get the sense that he has a fraught relationship with Egypt; that it’s a significant country in terms of his life.

“Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt and married his daughter. He brought her to the City of David until he finished building his palaceand the temple of the Lord, and the wall around Jerusalem.” — 1 Kings 3:1

“And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomon’s subjects all his life.” — 1 Kings 4:21

Then…

God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songsnumbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.” — 1 Kings 4:29-34

When Solomon prays to dedicate the temple he specifically remembers that Israel were brought out of Egypt and cast as his people like a statue from a fire, he says

And forgive your people, who have sinned against you; forgive all the offenses they have committed against you, and cause their captors to show them mercy; for they are your people and your inheritance, whom you brought out of Egypt, out of that iron-smelting furnace.” — 1 Kings 8:50-51

In the law for the future king of Israel in Deuteronomy there’s a specific command not to take horses from Egypt; and as things turn for Solomon, the first real sign that things have gone wrong (apart from marrying the daughter of Pharaoh which was also a Deuteronomic no-no) is:

“Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and from Kue[j]—the royal merchants purchased them from Kue at the current price.” — 1 Kings 10:28

1 Kings wants to make real sure we know Solomon doesn’t end well; he doesn’t pursue the sort of wisdom he started out asking for; and so Proverbs becomes a sort of deeply ironic book attributed to him.

As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been… So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done.  — 1 Kings 11:4, 6

Solomon is a pretty interesting picture of the fully realised ‘man’ or, more broadly, a representative picture of flourishing Israel… a true son of God who asks for, rather than takes hold of, wisdom from God. Here’s how Benz describes his request for wisdom:

“1 Kings 3, Solomon asks for “a listening heart (lēḇ šōmēaʿ) in order to judge your people and to discern between good and evil” (v 9). After expressing pleasure with this request, God identifies Solomon’s “listening heart” as a “wise heart” (lēḇ ḥāḵām; v 12). Read in parallel, these two statements indicate that wisdom is predicated on the capacity to listen.”

It’s interesting that the example given of Solomon’s wise listening is a court case between two women — mothers — prostitutes — one with a dead son, one with a living son; if you want to talk about archetypes there’s a strong sense that choosing the foolish prostitute who killed her son would’ve been a really bad idea for Israel’s king… and yet ultimately he symbolically (when it comes to the symbolism of Proverbs and the Old Testament picture of the nations around Israel being ‘prostitutes’ makes the unwise and morally wrong choice. He doesn’t find a wise conversation partner — a wife, a co-image bearer (or community of them) who will help him make wise decisions as he listens (David and Abigail are an interesting counter-point to this, where David does pursue a wise wife). I want to stress that this isn’t a suggestion that everybody needs marriage to be completed — but we do, in our shared life, need men and women speaking and listening in order to live the fullest vision for humanity — the ‘image bearing’ vision of faithful sonship as men and women. And this pushes back on Jordan Peterson’s archetypal framework pretty strongly…

Solomon is this positive figure for about ten minutes; and then he’s a picture of disorder and folly; and somehow the Proverbs reflect that high point before his fall. Solomon is described as being somebody in command of the natural world such that he is able to understand and document its order — and you get a sense from the narrative he was also engaging with the sages and wise men of the nations… he was also quick to have his head turned by women he should not have been pursuing, and because he was at the top of the ‘dominance hierarchy’ taking what he should not have taken; the picture in Proverbs of the wise advice from the king (Solomon) to his son to pursue a wife of noble character; the personification of wisdom, is deeply ironic against Solomon’s life and approach — but even more so against Israel’s approach to wisdom.

What’s also archetypal here, against Peterson’s system, and as mentioned above is that wisdom or order is feminine, and perhaps the brashness of masculinity needs to be tempered by a listening partnership with wisdom rather than embracing destructive folly; the gendered stuff Peterson does is inverted in the Proverbs… but the warning from Solomon’s life, and Proverbs, in history is that if you’re going to plunder gold from Egypt you better be sure not to use it to build idols, or have it pull you away from the truth about the God you should be fearing. Incidentally, later, and probably without having discovered the strong links between Proverbs and Egyptian wisdom, Augustine took the idea of plundering gold and explicitly applied it to what the Proverbs implicitly practiced — the idea that truths expressed by people in the world about the fundamental order of creation should be taken and used to their proper ‘ordering’ — their telos — which he saw as ‘to preach Christ’ (if all this stuff fascinates you, it is what I wrote my thesis on; the (short version of the) title is Plundering Gold from Egypt to Contextually Communicate the Gospel of Jesus, and it includes a big chunk on Proverbs and wisdom, and how to ‘plunder Gold’ appropriately.

The book of Proverbs, like Jordan Peterson, appears to teach men to be men, but is really a guide for all people to re-order or re-cast their lives against a background of chaos. There’s lots of ‘truth’ in what Peterson writes. But here’s the thing — the ‘mythic frame’ — the ‘story’ that wisdom is delivered in matters. Especially when that wisdom is a sort of axiomatic description of an ‘ordered life’ and where it explicitly speaks as though myth matters. It’s much harder to purely plunder Egypt, without straight up importing idols, if we’re careless about the mythic frame and the vision of masculinity (in this case) being put around those ideas, and that’s where Jordan Peterson is perhaps more dangerous than we think.

Sometimes Peterson is golden, but there are lots of places where we need to be careful that we’re not importing a wrong picture of God from his work, and carelessly popping it in our homes and lives when really it’s a Trojan calf that will pull us away from truths about God… that he seems to be on a journey himself, and taking the Bible pretty seriously as a source of truth, makes him both exciting and dangerous. Because while real wisdom begins with the fear of Yahweh; and while this was framed as an instruction manual for sonship in the book of Proverbs; we get a true picture of what it means for all Christians (men and women) to be both sons of God and brides of Christ (talk about confusing gender categories) in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and what it means to truly follow him

There have been some worthwhile reflections on Peterson’s picture of masculinity offering Jesus as a corrective to his vision; or rather a corrected vision of Jesus (and the cosmos) as a better antidote to chaos. But I’m not sure how possible it is just to tweak his picture around the edges. Plundering Peterson might require an almost total meltdown of his rendering of Jesus and the cross and a total recasting of his vision for humanity.

It’s interesting to consider how ‘crossing the Jordan’ works as a Biblical archetype ultimately found in Jesus, and how this might invite us to cross Jordan Peterson, and understand the Cross as something more than taking responsibility and trying to save both yourself and the world… what if our real humanity is actually found in the mystery of union with Christ; that somehow our sonship is about dynamically being ‘one with him’ though still many.

Matthew takes a line from the prophet Hosea about Israel, God’s son, coming out of Egypt and applies it to Jesus own ‘crossing the Jordan’ moment as an infant — where he fled to Egypt to avoid the toxic, patriarchal, masculinity of Herod (who tried to dominate the threat posed by an infant by wiping out every infant he could find — as one worse than Pharaoh). Matthew says this ‘crossing the Jordan’ moment was so that the Old Testament archetype could be fulfilled; for ‘out of Egypt God calls his son’ — this is both a geographic call, and a spiritual one — a call to leave Egyptian dominance hierarchies and archetypes behind, and to embrace something new built on the fear of the Lord. A new picture of wisdom. Jesus has another ‘Jordan’ sonship moment when he is baptised in the Jordan. John the Baptist is baptising people in the Jordan — a picture of the exodus where Israel was created, birthed, through those waters, and Jesus arrives to be baptised. When this happens:

Jesus was baptised too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened  and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” — Luke 3:21-22

Jesus is recognised as God’s son, our image of humanity, our image of image bearing, is recast in him (a theme picked up throughout the New Testament).

Jesus was ‘one greater than Solomon’ (Luke 11:31); he also drew implications for living from careful observations of the natural world (Luke 12:27 — where he invites us to consider how nature is more gloriously arrayed than Solomon, and asked how much more God might love his children); and yet his picture of the good life was not an expression of the will to power; not a case of ‘standing up straight with your shoulders back’… and when he calls us to take up our cross it is not simply an invitation to bear on our shoulders the reality of suffering; but to carry around in our lives a living breathing picture of living with a sense that death is dead. Instead of being like Solomon and taking, Jesus says those who follow in his pattern of sonship will:

But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. — Luke 12:31-34

In Jesus God becomes our father. We become his sons — whether we’re male or female, but this ‘sonship’ requires a dynamic, image bearing relationship of listening to the other and not simply being individuals with a will to power — because real wisdom is not found in dominance, but submission. Our crossing the Jordan — our exodus — our baptism — is a baptism ‘into Jesus’; a receiving of God’s Spirit to make us one with him (so individualism is tricky to maintain as a sort of exclusive picture for flourishing humanity).

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:26-29

Jordan Peterson is a wise man offering a reasonable version of Egyptian wisdom (except he should invert the genders of order and chaos). He offers a reasonable ‘Egyptian’ attempt to plunder the gold of true Israel. But until he understands the world inverting foolishness of the cross, until he fears God, I’m not sure it’s wisdom at all, and I’m pretty skeptical of claims about his usefulness for the church without some serious re-framing and melting down of whatever gold it is he offers so that it can be used in service of the creator.

Real wisdom is not found in power but the fear of the Lord and the subversive wisdom of the Cross. You want to see how the crucified Jesus is archetypal? Look at Paul. His teachings and his life. I’ll flesh this out (in an almost literal sense) in the next post, but here’s what he says about the wisdom of the world and how it is confounded by the cross not just subtly tweaked… this is what really ‘fearing God’ looks like — seeing human strength and dominance as foolishness in the face of God’s power and his operations in the world.

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” — 1 Corinthians 1:20-31 

Jordan Peterson and the mythical search for redeemed masculinity

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote For Chaos is going gangbusters in Australia; and he’s speaking to a sold-out auditorium here in Brisbane tomorrow evening, so I’ve been ploughing through his work (including the book) and trying to figure out what makes him resonate so strongly with Aussie blokes (perhaps especially with Christians). This is the first of (at least two) posts interacting with Peterson’s book.

One thing I’ve appreciated about Peterson is that because he’s into Jungian psychology he stresses the importance of story, and particularly because he’s a champion of the west (and western individualism) the particular formative importance of the Christian story; or at least his version of the Christian story as the ultimate human archetypal narrative that teaches us most of what we need to know to live a good (western individualistic) life. He’s been particularly popular among western blokes and his no-nonsense appeal to take responsibility stands in a certain sort of tradition of addressing wisdom to blokes — one we find in the Bible; only, there are some problems with the scope of his ‘wisdom’ (and where it begins) that mean there’s a strong possibility his advice will end up being bad for anybody other than the ‘strong’ — who end up being those the western world privileges — which, already, by most measures of ‘success’ or ‘goodness’ are people just like him (and me), the very people lapping up his vision for the good life, the ‘winners’ in the western world. White blokes. Particularly educated and able white blokes. I’ll dig into this in the subsequent post on his treatment of order and chaos as masculine and feminine, but it’s worth reading this review from Megan Powell Du Toit to hear how he is heard by wise women.

There’s something to him and his serious engagement with the story of the Bible that makes you wonder if maybe we’re witnessing a long and public conversion; perhaps if YouTube had been around while C.S Lewis was writing and publishing in the lead-up to his conversion it might have felt the same. What is particularly interesting is what Peterson does with Christianity — with the story of the Bible.

Peterson and the mythic redemption of masculinity

Part of Peterson’s appeal is that he offers some pushback to a (secular) movement in the west that is aiming to level the playing field for non-white-men, that some blokes feel dehumanised or demonised by; part of his pushback is the idea that the good things about the west are a product of its Christian heritage, that not all white men are terrible, and in many ways the way the story of Christianity changed the way the white blokes from the pre-western world slowly started to include others in their thinking about how the world should be won (we’ve got to remember that Julius Caesar was an ‘archetypal’ white bloke, and the world would look very different now if it was shaped more profoundly by Caesar than by Jesus (who was a bloke, but not white)).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a bloke; with being white; or with being born into privilege historically, globally, and economically. The question is what to do with privilege or power… and here’s where Peterson dallies with some dangerous ideas, and where his incomplete picture of the Bible might cause us to come unstuck.

It’s also worth remembering that while there’s a bunch of white blokes — perhaps especially in America, and perhaps those whose imaginations were most captured by the Trump campaign — who feel like victims in a bold new world. These blokes also often sense that the main people causing their victimhood — the oppressors — are the ‘left’, those seeking systemic change to elevate women, people of colour, and other minorities to the positions in society often held by white blokes in a way that sometimes feels demonising in the rhetoric around the role white blokes have played in shaping this world; and sometimes, frankly, is demonising… And, amidst this remembering, it’s perhaps worth reminding these white blokes (and all of us) that it’s not really the left taking away jobs and keeping the white man feeling down, and angry, it’s the powerful and the wealthy who sit atop what Peterson would call a dominance hierarchy. You want to talk about job losses for the working class? Talk about the people behind the tech companies that are innovating and automatic manual labour; talk about the people taking the lion’s share of company profits through bonuses and off the back of the work of others… talk about these eight blokes whose combined wealth is greater than the combined wealth of 50% of the planet. That’s obscene; and how can it not be oppressive?

To the extent that Peterson does offer a solution for men emasculated by a culture of dominance — by dominance hierarchies that we, as individuals rather than a class, are not on top of —  is to invite the individual to redefine the parameters they measure success by; and to take responsibility for their own lives — to commit to making the world more like heaven than hell — which isn’t, in itself, terrible advice.

His antidote to the chaotic dissolution of community life is for individuals to take responsibility for themselves; which seems counter-intuitive, but is advice I’ve found a particular balancing corrective to my growing frustration with our whole-scale adoption of western individualism in the church, as Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, Christianity is a collection of furious opposites; a robust Christianity “got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious”; paradox is at the heart of wise negotiation of the world we live in, and it is certainly true that we are both individually responsible creatures, and social creatures who are embedded in identity-defining communities built on shared stories (be it the family, the tribe, the nation, the workplace, the church, etc). Peterson is big on the power of stories, but he emphasises the idea that to be fully realised as a person, one must embrace the ‘heroic path’. There’s a strong hint of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey under the hood here — Campbell was an expert on ‘myths’ and the way we organise our lives, and sense of the good life, through stories rather than facts; and especially through archetypal heroes, or ‘super men’.

“How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path. We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world.” — Page XXXIII (prologue)

This message — and some of Peterson’s schtick — has resonated particularly with men. And you can see why a bit; but it is a message of only limited use. The “burden of being” is the fundamental reality of suffering; it was this reality, Peterson said, that caused him to leave the faith of his childhood (though it seems he has returned to the mythic stories of his childhood to continue making sense of the world).

But I was truly plagued with doubt. I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking. The socialism that soon afterward became so attractive to me as an alternative proved equally insubstantial; with time, I came to understand, through the great George Orwell, that much of such thinking found its motivation in hatred of the rich and successful, instead of true regard for the poor. Besides, the socialists were more intrinsically capitalist than the capitalists. They believed just as strongly in money. They just thought that if different people had the money, the problems plaguing humanity would vanish. This is simply untrue. There are many problems that money does not solve, and others that it makes worse. Rich people still divorce each other, and alienate themselves from their children, and suffer from existential angst, and develop cancer and dementia, and die alone and unloved. Recovering addicts cursed with money blow it all in a frenzy of snorting and drunkenness. And boredom weighs heavily on people who have nothing to do. — Page 196

Peterson is a moral philosopher for the secular age, in Charles Taylor’s use of the term; though haunted by the possibility that there might be something to all the Christian stuff he find so compelling, he starts with the assumption that it is a human response (as sophisticated as it might be) presenting human truth (because he would say the Bible is definitely a true account of our humanity) to human problems. There is no external agency promoting evil; evil dwells in all of us — the serpent in Genesis is a manifestation of the human psyche, it represents the hostility of the world we live in (serpents being the ancient archetypal enemies of evolving humanity) but the real serpent for us to conquer is within us; the real hell is a hell where we inflict that evil on others, and heaven is a world where people imitate the archetypal life of Jesus. In short; Peterson wants Christianity to be true, but for him it’s truth without transcendence about a self caught up in internal (and eternally) conflict with itself. His work on the burden of being is an extended treatment of the idea expressed in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous quote: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

This is chaos. This is what must be mastered. This is the issue he tackles. While he might doubt God, he is sure of one thing… the reality of suffering and the particular capacity for evil lurking in every human heart and emerging at various points in history, and the lives of individuals.

What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. — Page 197

Peterson’s view of the human condition is — in Taylor’s diagnosis — ‘buffered’ — there is no cosmic problem external to ourselves; so we can save ourselves. Evil is not ‘out there’ but in here.  The problem with the world is, as Chesterton put it, the individual. It’s you. It’s me. Or, as he says when unpacking the Bible’s account of evil as an archetypal story, from Genesis 3… there’s no external, supernatural force, no Satan; the serpent is, for him, a projection from within the self (echoed by many selves).

And even if we had defeated all the snakes that beset us from without, reptilian and human alike, we would still not have been safe. Nor are we now. We have seen the enemy, after all, and he is us. The snake inhabits each of our souls. This is the reason, as far as I can tell, for the strange Christian insistence, made most explicit by John Milton, that the snake in the Garden of Eden was also Satan, the Spirit of Evil itself. The importance of this symbolic identification—its staggering brilliance—can hardly be overstated. It is through such millennia-long exercise of the imagination that the idea of abstracted moral concepts themselves, with all they entail, developed. Work beyond comprehension was invested into the idea of Good and Evil, and its surrounding, dream-like metaphor. The worst of all possible snakes is the eternal human proclivity for evil. The worst of all possible snakes is psychological, spiritual, personal, internal…— Page 46

A quibbling detail — that the serpent is Satan was made pretty explicit in John’s apocalypse, the book of the Bible we call Revelation; and one that suggests that actually, behind all human evil there is a puppeteer — a serpent; tempting and pulling us towards evil. John invites us to see reality as something more like a cosmic, supernatural, battle ground than our secular age ‘buffered selves’ can envisage… You can’t simply hold on to the words of the Bible as secular myth. It evades such neat categorisation. Yes, there is darkness in every human heart, but to view the human heart as ‘buffered’ — to see us simply as individuals locked in a battle with the self, rather than as people picking sides in a cosmic battle between good and evil misses the mythic heart of the Bible’s claims about the world and us. The mythos of the Bible; it’s organising principle, is that Jesus came to triumph over the darkness of sin, death, and Satan.

But if the problem is just us, if the world is closed to the supernatural, and the natural is all there is, these stories might work the way Peterson suggests, and, in a limited sense, we can start fixing and redeeming the world bit by bit, life by life, as we set our gaze just a little bit higher. His 12 Rules are aimed at addressing this problem. They’re derived from a particular moral outlook, a particular picture of how the individual might bring order out of the chaos in the individual heart; there’s a reason his book is categorised as ‘self-help’, because it is that in the most fundamental and literal sense of the genre. His solution is help yourself.

The problem is, if we individualise and internalise the problem of the burden of being, and if the Bible is the sort of source of truth Peterson insists, and if we individualise the solution to that problem, then we doom ourselves. We can’t help ourselves escape from ourselves. Even if we know what good looks like; our hearts are shot through with evil. The Biblical account of human behaviour Peterson loves so much goes a bit further than Solzhenitsyn in its diagnosis of the heart:

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. — Genesis 6:5

For Peterson the cross is an archetype of the sort of life that might produce this change… it’s strangely, for him, the ultimate natural heroic story. It gives us a pattern for making atonement for ourselves and the evil within; for a wise life; for fighting back against chaos and darkness. Peterson calls people to take up their cross to make atonement for your own contribution to the problems of the world. He wants Jesus to be our archetype for the good human life; not our saviour or the one who makes atonement for us. He offers a certain sort of salvation by works… but a salvation not so much looking to an afterlife; but designed to bring ‘heaven on earth’.

To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language). To stand up straight with your shoulders back means building the ark that protects the world from the flood, guiding your people through the desert after they have escaped tyranny, making your way away from comfortable home and country, and speaking the prophetic word to those who ignore the widows and children. It means shouldering the cross that marks the X, the place where you and Being intersect so terribly. It means casting dead, rigid and too tyrannical order back into the chaos in which it was generated; it means withstanding the ensuing uncertainty, and establishing, in consequence, a better, more meaningful and more productive order. — Page 27

Once having understood Hell, researched it, so to speak—particularly your own individual Hell—you could decide against going there or creating that. You could aim elsewhere. You could, in fact, devote your life to this. That would give you a Meaning, with a capital M… That would atone for your sinful nature, and replace your shame and self-consciousness with the natural pride and forthright confidence of someone who has learned once again to walk with God in the Garden. — Page 64

It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world…

Consider then that the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering is a good. Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering. You have now placed at the pinnacle of your moral hierarchy a set of presuppositions and actions aimed at the betterment of Being. Why? Because we know the alternative. The alternative was the twentieth century. The alternative was so close to Hell that the difference is not worth discussing. And the opposite of Hell is Heaven. — Page 198

This is Peterson’s picture of how to be a man. A human. But is it possible? Does it change anything substantial about the world we live in where very strong men rule by dominating and perpetrating evil? What change would it bring to any of those eight men and how they use or view their wealth and their work (which they’d all describe as bringing a certain sort of order)? Does it actually work to deal with the darkness in our hearts this way?

Can Peterson’s mythic Jesus save us from ourselves?

Peterson champions individual responsibility in the face of suffering, and something very much like Nietsche’s will to power and he really, really, tries to understand the cross of Jesus and its place in the ‘archetypal story’ of the ‘archetypal’ hero of the west; the one man, or character, who truly carried the burden of the being. I want to be as positive and charitable to him though, because I think he’s genuinely searching for a way of life in this world that makes the best sense; of the data, and of how we’re wired (and the stories — myths — we tell generation after generation to encode a certain sort of participation in the world). He quotes Romans ‘you’ve fallen short of the glory of God’, but misses the mark on the solution Romans offers for this… The problem is, without supernatural intervention, or something shining light into our hearts of darkness, we can’t make the changes Peterson calls us to. Sure, our hearts still know what light looks like, but the Bible says we’re slaves to darkness, not just capable of it. In Romans 7, the apostle Paul describes the human life – the human heart — the life following Adam and Eve — in ways Solzhenitsyn and Peterson might recognise from their experiences of reality, but is more pessimistic about our ability to make atonement for ourselves.

“For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” —Romans 7:18-21

What liberates his heart is not self-help; not an axiomatic pursuit of heaven on earth, but God’s intervention, by the Spirit, delivered as a result of turning to Jesus and sharing in his death and resurrection.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!… through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh — Romans 7:24-25, 8:2-3

When he wrote to the Corinthians, Paul does talk about imitating Jesus, especially the death of Jesus, both in his first letter where he tells the Corinthians to ‘imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor 11:1), and in his second letter where he says:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body... Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. — 2 Corinthians 4:8-11, 16-18

This is Paul bearing the ‘weight of being’ — suffering, taking up his cross, not just to improve life in some temporary sense, but because our lives have eternal significance. You can’t extract a temporally significant ‘mythos’ from Paul’s writings without making him a crazy man.

His life — suffering as he carries his cross — is built on the hope not just of some sort of ‘heaven on earth’ — but because any taste of heaven on earth is a picture of the real and supernatural future won by Jesus. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, Paul says we should eat, drink, and be merry (1 Corinthians 15:32)— there’s no point not inflicting suffering on others if there is no supernatural judgment for that evil. And any decision to suffer, to ‘bear the weight of being’ by imitating Jesus is only really possible and meaningful if Jesus’ victory over death and satan is for reals.

“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” — 1 Corinthians 15:56-58

John, who also wrote Revelation with its cosmic picture of reality, talks about the atonement of Jesus, and the example of Jesus (a big theme in his writing) this way:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us… 

This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. — 1 John 4:9-12, 17-19

For John, and for Paul, the writers of chunks of the Biblical text that Jordan Peterson appreciates so much — the imitation of Jesus actually has to be based on the real victory of Jesus over the burden of being — the defeat of evil, Satan, and death. But John and Paul both offer a picture of masculinity redeemed by the example of Jesus — a life of sacrificial love; bearing one’s cross to improve the lot of others and to fight against Satan by imitating Jesus… it’s just there’s something more on offer than a good or meaningful life now.

In Peterson’s mythic take on the Bible and its account for life in this world, we’re either archetypally on team Satan, or team Jesus; there’s no middle ground. The heroic life is the life imitating Jesus; and making atonement by sorting ourselves out. As we live we’re either bringing heaven or hell.  The Bible’s mythic idea that helps us understand the stories we participate in as people is also that you’re either team Serpent or team Jesus But fundamental to any victorious or heroic life in the Bible — and the reason to take up one’s cross — is that Jesus destroyed the serpent so we don’t have to, and our nature is liberated by participating in the life of God as his Spirit dwells in us — because we have been atoned, or literally ‘made at-one’ with God such that our lives reflect the lives we were made to live in the world; to be able to begin putting the world right our hearts must first be changed from above. There’s nothing more mythic in the Bible than the vision of life in this world offered by John in the book of Revelation; there be dragons.

And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time. — Revelation 20:1-3

The same bit of John’s ‘apocalypse’ — literally his revelation about how the world really is — tells the story of the end for Satan, and those humans who follow his archetypal way of life (and so become beastly rather than human).

“They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown.” — Revelation 20:9-10

We don’t defeat evil; God does. To try to extract some mythic ideals from the Bible that somehow we must take responsibility for our own redemption, atonement, and restoration, apart from divine intervention just doesn’t work; you can’t secularise the message of the Bible without turning it into superstitious nonsense.

A buffered — but haunted — view of the Bible or an ‘enchanted’ true myth?

Peterson treats the Bible seriously as a human text; a naturally emergent document that offers, in his mind, the best account of life in this world. As we read Peterson’s often brilliant engagement with the feelings and desires under the surface of the Biblical text — and he’s a keen observer of the human condition — it pays to remember he says, of the story:

“The Biblical narrative of Paradise and the Fall is one such story, fabricated by our collective imagination, working over the centuries. It provides a profound account of the nature of Being, and points the way to a mode of conceptualization and action well-matched to that nature.” — Page 163

But what if is more than just a human product?

What if there’s more to the world than just natural accounts for the nature of being?

It seems the jury might actually still be out on this question for Peterson, and we might be getting, in 12 Rules something more like provisional findings on the basis of how he currently understands the richness of the text. He is truly blown away by the richness of the Biblical story; it’s wonderful to see him treat the Bible with seriousness and a certain sort of respect; though it’s ultimately a respect for a sophisticated human reflection on human nature (though haunted by the idea there might be something more to it). In this video he says some pretty profound things about the nature of the Bible.

“I’m going to walk you through the series of stories that make up this library of books known as the Bible. Because it presents a theory of redemption that in a sense is emergent. It’s a consequence of this insanely complicated cross-generational meditation on the nature of being. It’s not designed by any one person. It’s designed by processes we don’t really understand. Because we don’t know how books are written over thousands of years, or what forces cause them to be compiled in a certain way, or what narrative direction they tend to take… now one of the things that is strange about the Bible, given it is a collection of books, is that it actually has a narrative structure. It has a story. And that story has been cobbled together. It’s like it has emerged out of the depths. It’s not a top down story, it’s a bottom up story. And I suppose that’s why many of the world’s major religions regard the Bible as a book that was revealed, rather than one that was written. It’s a perfectly reasonable set of presuppositions that it’s revealed; because it’s not the consequence of any one author. It’s not written according to a plan, or not a plan that we can understand, but nonetheless it has a structure. It also has a strange structure in that it is full of stories that nobody can forget, but also that nobody can understand, and the combination of incomprehensible and unforgettable is a very strange combination, and of course that combination is basically mythological.”

There is a sense, I suspect, that he might be haunted by the hope that the story of the Bible is as C.S Lewis described it ‘true myth’. In Lewis’ essay Myth Became Fact, he makes an interesting observation that I think explains why Peterson resonates so deeply with so many Christians; it’s because he appreciates the mythic quality of Christian belief, he sees it as ‘mythically’ true. Peterson is just the latest in the tradition of Lewis’ friend Corineus, addressed in this essay, who believe (like Nietzsche):

“historic Christianity is something so barbarous that no modern man can really believe it: the moderns who claim to do so are in fact believing a modern system of thought which retains the vocabulary of Christianity and exploits the emotions inherited from it while quietly dropping its essential doctrines.”

He wants to keep the mythic power of Christian archetypes, without the substance. Lewis, is seems, was also a fan of Jung, for what it’s worth. Lewis points out that by keeping the myths of Christianity and ‘aiming up’, Peterson is asking people to take the hard road, one that goes against much of our nature:

“Everything would be much easier if you would free your thought from this vestigial mythology.” To be sure: far easier. Life would be far easier for the mother of an invalid child if she put it into an institution and adopted someone else’s healthy baby instead. Life would be far easier to many a man if he abandoned the woman he has actually fallen in love with and married someone else because she is more suitable.

For Lewis it was the mythic quality of Christianity that gave it its appeal and its power. He’d, I suspect, be optimistic about the trajectory Peterson is on in wanting to affirm the mythic value of Christianity:

“Even assuming (which I most constantly deny) that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern… It is the myth that gives life.”

Part of the appeal of Peterson, and his helpfulness (where it can be found) is that he is someone who truly believes that the mythic aspects of Christianity are truth (even if they are purely human creations). Lewis said:

A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.

And this, I think, explains the phenomenon that for me, at least, Peterson (who sees a unifying narrative of redemption in the Bible centred on the cross) is a much more compelling (and useful) reader and commentator on Genesis than people who want to make Genesis do science.

But he’s missing something vital.

The key for Lewis, as it was for Chesterton, is embracing truths that appear to be furious opposites — embracing the truth that Christianity is both myth and fact. For Christianity to work mythically to offer redemption it has to be true. For it to give us a pattern of life not just for masculinity but our humanity, a pattern that would change and challenge even the wealthiest, most dominant, man (and the patriarchy) in such a way that it could truly bring a taste of heaven on earth, Jesus has to not simply be an archetype, but a real figure; a case where the supernatural world broke in to the natural, to deal with a real cosmic enemy and to substantially change our hearts, bringing light into darkness. Which is exactly how C.S Lewis came to understand the story — from a deep appreciation of myth, and here’s hoping this happens to Peterson and his fans too.

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.