How to vote as a Christian in 2016 in 11 (not-easy) steps

howtovote

There are plenty of ‘Christian’ how to vote guides floating around the internet this week. Ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, I’m aiming for somewhere in the moderate middle. I’m also writing this purely as an individual, not on behalf of anything or anyone. Consider these thoughts appropriately disclaimed, and take from them what you will.  I’ve written my own guides and checklists in the past. Whatever happens next weekend, Australia faces stability that second world countries like England and the US can only dream of. We’re not staring down a #brexit or a Trump. Our major parties agree on most things, and they’re even pretending to disagree about certain policy ideas but promising to ‘check the costings’ after the election and adopt them if they stack up. There are good ‘Christian’ reasons for voting for just about every party on the spectrum from Family First, through the Liberal/Nationals, the Nick Xenophon Team, Labor, and the Greens.

I won’t vote 1 for at least four of those parties (because that would be an invalid vote), but I’ll understand why others would, and I think our country would do better to hear voices from each of these perspectives as we figure out how government should provide a common legislative threshold for a bunch of groups who increasingly disagree with each other on what is ‘good’ for people.

This is really what a liberal democracy is all about; allowing competing interests and minorities to be equally heard and catered for in our shared life as citizens. When we disenfranchise a particular minority in our community because the majority disagrees with them — when we remove some of their liberty to pursue a particular vision of the good life — we run the risk of not being a liberal democracy, but a populist democracy. A populist democracy is not built on the idea of all of us, in our various communities-within-the-community having equal freedom to work out how to live, but on the idea that the majority rules and in the majority ruling, the majority dictates what vision of human flourishing or goodness everyone else has to sign up for.

As Christians we’re told to respect our governments, pray for them, to live such good lives in our world that people know we’re citizens of heaven; and at least one New Testament Christian, Erastus, who Paul commends is a part of the Roman political system an ‘aedile of the city of Corinth’. The important thing is don’t waste your vote just voting for a plebiscite. That’s dumb. And I’ll explain why in parts 2-4 of this series. In fact, I think it’s important that we don’t make our free vote a cheap vote, but that we see voting as something that flows from certain obligations we bear as citizens, and creates new ones.

How to vote as a Christian in 11 steps.

Step 1. Decide what issues are important to you, particularly because they affect your neighbours (and I’d say especially your neighbours in marginalized communities — the poor, the refugees, the widow, the oppressed, children). The Eternity Election Guide is a good one to know what issues are in play.

Step 2. Spend some time familiarising yourself with the platforms of the parties who are fielding representatives in your electorate.

Step 3. Find out about the candidates in your electorate — figure out who displays the most wisdom and character. Who will act virtuously when complex issues outside those of the campaign arise? Who listens? Who do you want representing you? Who do you feel you might be able to speak to about significant issues in your electorate and our country over the next three years? All our parties need people of wisdom and virtue.

Step 4. Pray for wisdom. Pray that when crunch time comes you’ll cast your vote for the good of others, not just for yourself, and not for the leader you like best.

Step 5. Walk into a polling booth with valid ID. Line up. Get your ballot papers for the Lower and Upper Houses. Do this without fear, and do it knowing that whatever the outcome you face relative social stability; which is an amazing privilege that you should thank God for.

Step 6. Vote. Mark your ballot papers appropriately — don’t spoil your vote. Voting is a privilege, and is a thing you do as part of a wider network of relationships. Your vote isn’t free — it brings a bunch of responsibilities with it.

Step 7. Buy a sausage on bread to support the school or church you just voted in. Celebrate the relative global and historical rarity it is to vote so freely.

Step 8. Pray for the person you voted for. Pray for the people you didn’t vote for. Pray for the person who wins your electorate. Give thanks for their commitment to sacrificing their interests for the interests of others. Pray for wisdom.

Step 9. Your participation in a democracy does not start and finish in an election. Spend the next three years working to build relationships with your local member and community; join a political party, speak up on issues that affect your community with wisdom and grace, and write letters (find out the difference between local, state, and federal governments and the issues they govern).

Step 10. You know that issue you care deeply about — that social cause that keeps you up at night. Maybe it’s refugees, or homelessness, or something equally important. Invest in it yourself. Don’t outsource that issue to pollies. If you’re not giving your time or money to this cause — owning it and investing in it, why should they? Your criticism is meaningless, and unethical. If you’re a politician, by nature, you have skin in the game. You’re making big and complex decisions as an adult, at your own cost — at the cost of your family, and increasingly in a stupidly adversarial media, your reputation. Get some skin in the game. Get out there and seek to change the polis as a concerned citizen. That’s political. That’s democratic. Make your vote actually count by putting your time or money where your mouth is. Arrange meetings. Do what your vote obliges you to do. Keep praying for our politicians that they would act with wisdom and sacrificial love. Respect their decisions even when they go against you and your interests. The people you’re criticising from behind your screen have. They’re not perfect. But they’re getting their hands dirty. Maybe you should too…

Step 11. If you’re a person with some wisdom, and a desire to serve, why not get in the political business. Don’t just join a party. Seek pre-selection. Run for office? Or get a job as a public servant? Become part of the process and speak into the process from within. You’ll, of course, have to be prepared to compromise your own personal views for the sake of those who disagree with you whose job it will be for you to represent, serve, or govern for. But be like Erastus — the guy Paul mentions in Romans 16, who’s high up in the government of Corinth and a Christian.

21 Questions for those advocating Presbyterian withdrawal from civil marriage

The Presbyterian Church has been getting itself in the news lately.

Darren Middleton is the convener of a committee I’m on called Church & Nation, which has been tasked by the denomination to respond to potential changes to the Australian Marriage Act 1961 which would recognise same sex marriage. He appeared in The Australian recently, championing our committee’s position.

The committee has now issued its proposed ‘solution’ to a potential change for public scrutiny within the church; it’s a recommendation that the General Assembly of Australia declare that no Presbyterian marriage celebrant should solemnise a marriage under the amended Act. Here’s some detail:

“Once the Committee formed an opinion we should no longer conduct marriages under a redefined Marriage Act (1961) our mind then turned on how best that is achieved. Two options were considered.

The first option was to withdraw as a ‘recognised religious denomination’. If the GAA made a decision not to solemnise marriages as a celebrant of the state, it would need to give a written request (to no longer be a recognised denomination for the purpose of marriage) with an appropriate minute to either the Attorney General or his department. As a consequence, the Attorney General would prepare the papers for the Governor General’s consideration at the next Federal Executive Council.

The second option is for the GAA to make a declaration that no minister should solemnise marriage under a redefined Marriage Act (1961). Such a decision is provided for under the existing provisions of Section 47(a) of the Marriage Act (1961) which states nothing in the Marriage Act “…imposes an obligation on an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnise any marriage…”

This Committee considered the latter approach as the preferred option as it is simple, clear and avoids any unintended consequences of giving up our status as a ‘recognised religious denomination’. ” — Church and Nation, Marriage Redefinition Proposal

As a flow on from that, the committee is proposing that we establish our own ‘ecclesiastical’ version of Presbyterian Marriage, where we would issue marriage (and divorce) certificates because if our logic is that civil marriage has departed from God’s design we need to provide for those whose conscience would not allow them to enter a civil relationship. The proposal is then, that we would recognise only two types of marriage: those conducted by the Presbyterian Church, and those conducted by a civil celebrant under the Act.

Perhaps the strangest part of this proposal is the form the deliverances put forward by the committee take (to read more on the proposed form of ‘church marriage services’ read the report in full):

Proposed Deliverance:
(6) Declare, if the Marriage Act (1961) is redefined to allow for homosexual unions to be recognised as marriages under the Marriage Act (1961) that no PCA Minister should solemnise marriage under a redefined Marriage Act (1961).
(7) Declare, that only two forms of marriage are recognised as valid Christian marriage — marriage under the Marriage Act (or the equivalent in another country) and marriage under the forms of the Presbyterian Church of Australia apart from the Marriage Act (or marriage by some other church with a similar arrangement approved by the GAA).
(8) Adopt the following as the regulations which Ministers and Sessions shall follow in conducting a church marriage service.

It won’t be a surprise given the post I wrote when this proposal surfaced that I still think it is a bad idea. There were 8 reasons I thought it was a bad idea then.  But here are the questions that need to be answered by those moving these deliverances at the General Assembly of Australia.
1. Does the GAA actually have jurisdiction in this area if this is, as the proponents say, a “wisdom issue” not a “doctrine issue”?

The GAA has already resolved that the Presbyterian position on marriage, doctrinally driven, is that it is the “lifelong union of one man with one woman, voluntarily entered into, excluding all others…” This doctrinal position provides the boundaries for ministers, elders, churches, presbyteries and state assemblies to exercise freedom and liberty of conscience within the Presbyterian Church of Australia. To my knowledge no minister disagreeing with the C&N proposal is suggesting we change this doctrinal position.

So this isn’t a doctrine issue so much as a ‘deciding how we might respond to the world outside the church’ issue. The proponents of this cause are offering no official Scriptural support for the position (with the exception of Campbell Markham, a member of the Church & Nation committee but in papers published outside the Church & Nation report). It is being presented as a ‘wise’ move; with an added sense from the committee that our response to this issue must be to put forward a united voice to our community.

In the Basis of Union the GAA has jurisdiction (‘powers legislative, administrative, and judicial, which powers shall be supreme with respect to’) these three areas which might be relevant for this decision:

(a) doctrine of the Church;
(b) worship of the Church;
(c) discipline of the Church;

The proponents are adamant this is not a doctrine issue; and if it is not a doctrine issue, I would argue the GAA has no authority to make a decision like this on a wisdom issue. When the initial proposal was to withdraw as a recognised denomination under the Marriage Act 1961, there was a legal rationale for the GAA to make the decision because the Federal Act recognised the Federal church, but the new proposal is different and reaches well beyond that scope, especially in the attempt to establish eccles

2. Does this proposal, which to date has been officially rejected by one whole state, and been strongly debated in other states, not represent a restriction on the liberty of Assemblies, Presbyteries, Sessions, and Office bearers — liberty protected by the Declaratory Statement that forms part of the Scheme of Union?

Given the opposition already expressed from several Assemblies, Presbyteries, Sessions, and ordained ministers and elders of the Presbyterian Church, and given that this is a ‘wisdom issue’ not a doctrine issue, does it not fail to meet the spirit of the following parts of the Declaratory Statement?

That liberty of opinion is allowed on matters in the subordinate standard not essential to the doctrine therein taught, the Church guarding against the abuse of this liberty to the injury of its unity and peace.

Isn’t it possible that this proposal, given a whole state has almost unanimously indicated at its assembly that it will not be taking this step, or wishes not to, will actually injure the unity and peace of the denomination created by allowing liberty of opinion on non-doctrine matters. From what I gather, a minister who refused to act according to this edict on the basis that they believe it to be outside the scope of the Declaratory Statement would face church discipline.

3. Further to this point, the Declaratory Statement also provides office bearers with a particular understanding of the ‘civil magistrate’ which means we already ‘disclaim… intolerant or persecuting principles’ and frees us from being considered as committed to principles we disagree with as made by the civil magistrate because God is Lord of the conscience. Why does this not render the ‘association with evil’ or the ‘agents of the state’ arguments invalid?

This paragraph seems to me to undo any sense that we should be worried about ‘association with evil’ if we ever act in partnership with the magistrate while they also do things we disagree with (which is the Markham position).

That with regard to the doctrine of the civil magistrate and his authority and duty in the sphere of religion, as taught in the subordinate standard the church holds that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only King and Head of the Church, “and Head over all things to the Church, which is His body.” It disclaims, accordingly, intolerant or persecuting principles and does not consider its office-bearers, in subscribing the Confession, as committed to any principles inconsistent with the liberty of conscience and the right of private judgement, declaring in the words of the Confession that “God alone is Lord of the conscience”.

4. Is this seriously the best way forward, given the strong disagreement expressed, and these principles?

Is there not a way we can handle this better by simply providing ways for ministers to exercise freedoms (wisdom freedoms, not doctrine freedoms), and act according to their conscience (in not celebrating marriages, or celebrating marriages), rather than making freedom-restricting declarations as a church?

5. When pressed on the GAA’s jurisdiction on this matter, the Convener of Church & Nation, Darren Middleton, suggested this matter falls in the ‘worship’ category of the GAA’s authority. Does this not represent a significant change to ‘worship’ as we understand it in the Presbyterian Church?

If this is a significant redefinition of the scope of our worship, particularly via the introduction of ‘Ecclesiastical Marriage’ and a set order of service for such a marriage, then does this not change the formula that Ministers have sworn to uphold upon ordination, especially:

“I further own the purity of worship practised in this Church, and the Presbyterian government thereof to be founded on the Word of God”

Personally, and because this is not a doctrinal decision, but a wisdom decision, I’m not sure I understand this expansion of the ‘worship’ of the church as the same expression of the ‘purity of worship’ I signed up for, nor do I believe this shift, in particular, is founded on the word of God.

6. Are we recognising the authority of the state when we act as celebrants recognised by the Marriage Act (and acting as agents of the state), or is the state recognising that we act as agents of the church, and recognising our forms of marriage as containing all the legal elements their definition of marriage requires?

The C&N proposal rests strongly on the assumption that being a minister within a recognised denomination involves us acting as agents of the state. We are, under the current Act (which at this point seems unlikely to change beyond the expansion of the relationships the government will recognise), free to marry people according to our rites, and to add whatever requirements we deem fit in our capacity as religious celebrants. We’re also free to refuse any marriage we deem fit, for whatever reason we deem appropriate. That we are ‘agents’ of the state is a contested interpretation of the Act that goes well beyond a relationship built on ‘recognition’ and the church’s historic involvement in marriage.

7. The Church & Nation report specifically downplays the value of contact with the community as a rationale for maintaining a connection with the state. How many marriages per year are being conducted by the people putting forward this proposal — from within the church community or from outside? What sort of geographic or demographic contexts do these views come from? Is this the universal testimony and experience of ministers within our denomination?

“If the church were to withdraw from the Act, no doubt there would be fewer non-Christian couples who sought a church wedding. It should be remembered that the number of couples seeking church weddings is declining quickly. Between 1990 and 2010 the marriage rate dropped by about 20% but the number of couples having a religious wedding dropped by almost 60%.”

This, frankly, is a sloppy argument and disconnected enough from the experience of many ministers, some of whom are arguing most strenuously against the proposal. I’d be interested to know how different proponents of this proposal see the role of the church in evangelism, and how they prioritise any engagement with people in the community.

8. Why are we completely unworried about the perception that our communities are not places that gay couples might come to investigate Jesus? Do we really not care how this stance is perceived by the gay community? Do they not need the Gospel too?

Do we expect any gay-married couples to repent before they come into our gatherings? We’re asking totally the wrong questions in the light of massive social changes. Perception matters. What we should be asking is what we ask a gay-married couple with children who have been living as a family unit to do if one or both of the parents start to follow Jesus.

9. If we believe marriage is a creation ordinance created by promises before witnesses, and that we can create our own version of marriage, why will we only recognise Presbyterian (or other ‘like minded’ Christian marriage), and civil marriage, but not other forms of marriage entered into voluntarily between one man and one woman?

Why limit it? Why one rule for us and the state, and another for others?

What do we do if the local mosque decides to create their own version of marriage, and a couple married in the mosque enter our church community. Do we treat them as married? If not, what does this say about marriage as a ‘creation ordinance’?

10. How does no longer conducting socially recognised marriages for our people, or for people in our community, help us better advocate for God’s good design of marriage, and male and female, in the public square — especially given it is likely to be interpreted as us walking away from a shared social institution (a creation ordinance) no matter how we might like to argue that it is the government walking away from true marriage?

What do we gain in terms of our witness to the world by losing an opportunity to speak into the political process as parties to the process? How are we standing in line with the examples of Esther, Daniel and friends, or Erastus (Romans 16) who were people who worked with truly ‘evil’ regimes in order to bring good outcomes for God’s people, and for others?

11. If we stay recognised under the act, but then ‘declare that no minister, elder, or home missionary in the Presbyterian Church may conduct a marriage under the Act’ are we not still recognised under the Act?

Does this actually achieve any purpose beyond limiting the freedom of our ministers, elders or home missionaries? Does this option actually achieve the stated goal of the Assemblies who asked Church & Nation to make recommendations? Aren’t we, in this option, still operating under the Marriage Act that we’ve decided is so deficient we must not be associated with it? Does this actually go far enough for those who don’t want to be associated with evil?

12, Have we really understood the implications and complications of establishing a ‘form of marriage under the Presbyterian Church of Australia apart from the Marriage Act’?

A friend who is a Presbyterian Minister and a former family law lawyer has suggested this move is not as clear cut, pastorally, as those advocating it suggests. Having a second definition of marriage in operation outside the law, creates confusion that people will abuse. I can think of multiple scenarios where this confusion might be abused. Let’s not be naive. Jesus says the reason God allows divorce is that people are hard hearted.

Our society is addicted to pornography, there’s a plague of domestic violence going on behind closed doors, do we really want to introduce shades of grey for hard hearts to abuse? Do we really want the uncertainty created by a new construct operating outside the social, common good, creation ordinance of marriage. The proponents may argue that we’re not creating our own version of marriage, but I’m not sure this stacks up. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the law won’t provide the same protection from domestic violence if we do that, but we will, I think, create some uncertainty for those not aware of the law (or whose husbands make them believe they’re under God’s law). Since I’ve posted these questions, another family lawyer who practices in this area has asked me to make it clear that I’m not talking about legal uncertainty in the area of Domestic Violence. I’m worried more about how unhelpful headship theology and wrong views of submission might come together in an institution that is not the social/legal institution shared by those outside the church.

Do we not want people to feel their promises bring immediate obligation both under God and within the parameters of the Family Law Act. Perception and certainty matter. Unregistered de facto relationships are not recognised by law until certain milestones are reached — 2 years of relationship, a child, or a wronged partner having made a ‘substantial contribution’ that requires recognition by the courts. Do we not think people might find opportunities for abuse within that two year period?

13. Do we really, really, want to turn our sessions into marriage and divorce courts and have them tell ministers who they can and can’t marry? 

From the deliverances proposed by C&N:

“The determination that a couple may be married is to be made by the Session of the congregation. Where a minister has a non-congregational ministry, he shall submit the matter to the Session, which has jurisdiction over him, or to a Session related to the couple or his field of ministry. No minister shall proceed with a church marriage which has not been approved by a Session.”

And:

“A person who has been married in a church marriage by a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia may approach any Session for a certificate of divorce. The person must provide a copy of the marriage certificate and the Session shall verify the certificate with the Session under whose jurisdiction the marriage was conducted or with the Clerk of Assembly. The Session shall, in the first place, determine if there is any possibility of a reconciliation. In doing so, it must seek to contact the other party to the marriage. If it is satisfied that the marriage has dissolved and that there is no possibility of a reconciliation, or that there are grounds to end the marriage, it shall provide a Certificate of Divorce.”

14. How does any of this even come close to working for our military chaplains?

15. Do we really want to restrict the ‘form’ a wedding takes to following a script from the Public Worship  and Aids to Devotion committee?

From the deliverance again:

“A church marriage service shall be conducted by a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia according to the service provided by the Public Worship and Aids to Devotion Committee.”

Is this an expression of trust in ministers to uphold the Formula they’ve signed up to? Or is it changing the nature of the ‘worship’ we’ve signed on to uphold?

16. Given the media reports about this proposal, from the time of the NSW Assembly decision, have framed this as either us running from sinners (not us personally fleeing sexual immorality in the church), or have misunderstood us in the case of the story in the Aus, do we really want to be taking steps that communicate very different things to what we intend, rather than clearly using every wedding to very clearly communicate our own understanding of marriage to those getting married and those witnessing the marriage?

The C&N report says:

“It is important to stress that we are not proposing to withdraw from an amended Marriage Act as a political protest nor for self-protection. If we decide to withdraw, we will do so with sorrow since we will be losing a connection with the wider community which we have valued. We should not imagine the making such a decision will have any impact on the view of Federal Parliament or Australian society…The primary reason for the church to withdraw is that what the Act would call marriage would no longer be identifiable with the institution established by God in creation and described in the Bible.”

The SBS report on the proposal at the NSW assembly says:
“Church seeks to stop performing legal ceremonies to avoid ‘evil’ gay marriage”

The Aus report, featuring Darren Middleton, is not only unclear in that it appears to suggest the decision has already been taken, but seems to make legal persecution an issue, so infers that this is ultimately an act of self-protection:

“Mr Middleton ­believes it is only a matter of time before anti-discrimination laws are wielded as a blunt club against ­religious freedom. “Those who seek to redefine marriage will seek to redefine freedom of speech and freedom of religion, as surely as night follows day,” he said.”

If our very nuanced position is so nuanced that nobody seems to understand it, are we really sure it’s the clearest way to say things that are distinctive and true about marriage?

17. What are we modelling to those in our church communities about how to engage with the world, particularly in response to a changed Marriage Act, but more broadly in response to social change?

If leadership is something we exercise by example is this the example we wish to demonstrate? Are we following the example of Jesus, or did he engage with the laws of Rome to such an extent that he was put to death after going on trial before Pilate and not bending the knee to Caesar?

18. Gold, like marriage, exists before the Fall, and Genesis 2 seems to establish that it has some beauty and value. All nations use it, or money. Our banks use it but are built on greed, which is idolatry. When will we be starting a Presbyterian Bank so that we are not complicit with our banks and their harmful narratives about this created good, which was made, like marriage, to reveal things about the divine nature and character of God (Romans 1:20)? 

19. Why are we not pursuing the European option?

If we must withdraw, why not ask couples to get a civil marriage and then conduct a religious blessing service? Why open up the idea that not having a civil marriage is wise or somehow more pure? Creating our own version of Presbyterian Marriage, and inviting other churches to do something similar so that we might also recognise their forms of marriage, is confusing and stupid. Should the Baptists adopt a similar model, do we ask transferring members to bring their marriage certificate with them in order to prove their marital status?

20. Does the status quo not already allow all Presbyterian ministers, elders, and home missionaries to act according to the doctrinal position outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith 24.1, which was reaffirmed at the 2013 GAA, and to act according to the principles of freedom of conscience articulated in the Declaratory Statement

Those making this case have argued that unity is important, but seem to fail to realise that what they are advocating for is a limiting of the freedom that makes unity possible (within our doctrinal framework). This is a wisdom issue; we do not create unity by forcing ministers to do things they believe are unwise, or doctrinally problematic, or that come at the cost of Gospel ministry. We do it by encouraging ministers whose consciences do not allow them to act in a particular way to not act that way. Ministers are already, under the Marriage Act, free to not conduct marriages. State Assemblies already have the responsibility for registering ministers as members of the recognised denomination, it is possible, already, for individual ministers to withdraw from the Act.

21. If the status quo does already allow for freedom, and does already prevent the binding of an individual’s conscience, and this is not a doctrine issue, then why pursue unneccessary change that will be misinterpreted by those we are trying to reach with the Gospel and will restrict the freedom of our ministers, thus undermining the Basis of Union?

Ok. So this may be the same as question 4. But apart from the question of whether the GAA actually has jurisdiction in this area, this one is the big one for me. It seems unprecedented to bind the denomination to act in lock step on a wisdom issue.

Overthinking Noah: The Movie

Back when Noah came out on the silver screen I wrote a review for our church website called 13 Things to know about Noah, a little known fact is that before I wrote that piece, I wrote a 7,000 word ‘review’ that never saw the light of day. It’s on TV tonight. It just started. So here, if you want to read 7,000 words, is the unreleased, uncut, extended edition of that post.


There are lots of reviews of Darren Aronofsky’s take on the story of Noah floating around the vast oceans of the Internet. Lots of these reviews, especially those from Christians, aren’t particularly enamoured with the latest Hollywood treatment of a Biblical epic.

Noah is a challenging movie that will make you think about the depth of human sin, how we should relate to each other and our planet, the emotional cost of judgment and justice, the need for salvation, and ultimately it will make you ask questions about who God is, and if the God presented by the movie Noah is the God who steps into the muck of creation, in Jesus, to save us.

The God of Noah is not the God of the Bible, but Noah is a powerful cultural text for us to engage with to shape our thinking.

The God of the Bible is fundamentally interested in the human race, in relationship with humanity – and invests himself into transforming our dark and broken hearts.

This review will consider how we, as Christians, should respond to movies like Noah, and then explore some of the theologically rich themes that Noah prompts us to think about.

It won’t contain much hand wringing – and, spoiler alert, it’s main ‘criticism’ will be that my own worldview leads me to interpret the source material differently and to engage with the worldview presented in the movie critically. Engaged criticism is a perfectly appropriate response to art – provided we’re doing our best to understand the art and engage on its terms – and you can simultaneously appreciate a text and criticise its message.

Art exists to be critiqued and talked about – not to be swallowed as some sort of dogmatic didactic text that tells you what you most certainly think and do.

Noah provides a platform not just for fruitful discussion between Christians and the movie going public, but most importantly for us to reflect on what we believe and why it is important that our God is different to Noah’s. There are a few points where Noah’s theology is particularly interesting discussed in the second half of the post.

This is a long review, but it’s made to be skimmed as much as pored over – because everybody responds to art differently so different parts of this engaging with Noah as a text will appeal to different people.

Note – It’s going to be complicated talking about the four different Noahs here – there’s Noah the movie, the Noah narrative in The Bible, and the two characters – Aronofsky’s Noah, and the Biblical Noah. The movie will be italicised, and those other distinctions will be made as we go, or apparent as a result of context…

NOAH AS ART. NOAH AS TEXT. NOAH AS STORY

I had incredibly low expectations going into the cinema on Monday night – I’ve been strongly affected by previous Aronofsky vehicles like Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, but I’d read and watched so much negativity about this movie that I thought it was going to be a disaster. It wasn’t.

Let me make a couple of important points right up front.

Noah isn’t a Christian movie. From the interviews I’ve read – Aronofsky is a “cultural Jew” who drew on a range of Jewish sources, who also has a Catholic background, and he says he has belief in the Biblical God.

Noah is a movie that makes serious attempts to grapple with big theological questions – but many of the reviews around the web operate as though Noah is a story that belongs to evangelical Christians. Aronofsky chose to make Noah because he grew up with the story – both in the Jewish and Catholic traditions. While we, as Christians, believe the story of Noah only makes sense if it’s read in the light of Jesus (because we think the whole Bible points us to Jesus), the story has a place in Aronofsky’s heritage too.

READING NOAH AS A TEXT

A movie is a “text.” It’s important to read texts on their own terms – to interpret according to genre, to the intention of the author, to review things based on the meaning the text is trying to convey (especially if the author of the text tells us what that is). That’s common courtesy. If you’re going to enter into a dialogue with someone or something, it’s polite to understand the position you’re engaging with.

Plenty of reviews have torn Noah to shreds because it isn’t faithful to the Biblical narrative. This is an understandable criticism, because the story of Noah is one we hold dear, but it assumes that Darren Aronofsky has a responsibility to present a text according to our worldview, rather than his own.

This is an odd view of art and the artist. Or of a text and its author.

It’s also an interesting view of the ownership of an ancient text that belongs to many traditions – including Christians. We can’t assume that there were no storytellers telling the story of Noah and the flood before Moses wrote it down a long time after the fact. While we may believe we have the truest telling of the story that doesn’t give us exclusive rights to tell it or to criticise people for not telling it our way.

Noah is a creative use of a story contained in the Bible to present a worldview, sure, and this worldview is theological – it’s just not about the Christian God because there is no sense that the story is connected to Jesus.

Here’s perhaps the greatest irony in the online outrage about Noah. Harnessing the Noah story for theological agendas outside of God’s agenda is so old that it actually predates Moses writing down the Noah story in Genesis (the story would have been passed by word of mouth until it was written down). Moses wrote about Noah generations after the fact, and by that time just about every culture and religious group from the Ancient Near East had a flood story that interpreted a cataclysmic flood according to their theological convictions (eg the Gilgamesh Epic).

And when it comes to the story of Noah itself – Jewish, Islamic, and Christian interpreters all understand and tell the story of Noah (and indeed the entire Old Testament) differently. We understand that the story of Noah helps us understand the story of Jesus. And we should, as Christians, be thankful that Aronofsky chose the story we’re conversant with, so that we can converse with it. This could easily be Gilgamesh.

You don’t have to like a movie for it to be a good or useful movie. You don’t have to agree with the worldview a movie presents in order to enjoy the movie and think it is worth engaging with. You don’t have to dismiss a movie simply because it challenges your view of the world. If we only want to view and consume art and media that conforms to our own view of the world we’re very quickly signing up for a propaganda campaign.

INTERPRETING TEXTS (LIKE NOAH) WITH THE WRITER IN MIND

If we approach Noah as though Aronofsky’s decision to choose a story we like means it’s our story to control, and he has to tell it the way we like, that’s a pretty interesting and disconnected understanding of how texts work in our world.

Writers have always adapted stories to suit their own purposes, according to their creative agendas to put forward a worldview. That’s what Aronofsky is doing here, he told The Atlantic:

“For me, there’s a big discussion about dominion and stewardship. There’s this contradiction [between the two], some would say, in the Bible, but it doesn’t have to be a contradiction. It can work together. The thing is, we have clearly taken dominion over the planet. We’ve fulfilled that. But have we been good stewards?

Leviticus, also in the Bible, talks about how every seventh year we’re supposed to give the land a rest. When’s the last time our land has gotten a rest? We’re way overdue for that jubilee. And I think that’s what I want. That’s why I made the film. For that reason.”

He told Christianity Today that he is responding to and engaging with the text in a manner consistent with his background.

“Within our tradition, being Jews—a long tradition of thousands of years of people writing commentary on the biblical story—there isn’t anything we’re doing that’s out of line or out of sync, but within that, you don’t want to contradict what’s there. In all the midrash tradition, the text is what the text is. The text exists and is truth and the word and the final authority. But how you decide to interpret it, you can open up your imagination to be inspired by it.”

I went in to the movie expecting to be confronted with a radical environmental agenda – but Noah critiques the radical environmentalism of its protagonist as much as the pillaging of the environment he confronts.

I left thankful that the Christian God isn’t a standoffish God, like the God of Noah, he doesn’t leave people wondering about how they can be saved, or what he wants them to do, interpreting signs and following dreams – but that he got his hands dirty in order to rescue people, that he revealed himself and his character progressively through the Old Testament and then ultimately in Jesus coming into the world, dying for the world – to fix the broken human condition – in a simultaneous act of judgment and mercy. Aronofsky got that paradox right. We felt the weight of it, from Noah and his family’s perspective, as he travelled the narrative arc of restoration of relationships, broken relationships, punishment, and redemption of relationship that drives the Old Testament. This perspective enabled us to feel the emotions of a human on sidelines watching on, and the weight of being an agent in the arc, while as judgment falls on people no more or less deserving of it than ourselves. It wasn’t that Noah’s heart was any different to those around him, it too was darkened by sin.

I left the movie feeling enriched for having seen it – even with the schlocky rock monster/fallen angels, and the narrative liberties Aronofsky took to further his own agenda – particularly leaving two of Noah’s sons wifeless, and the third with a barren wife (who – spoiler alert – miraculously conceives, which, surprisingly is a nice tie in with the OT narrative and with the miraculous birth of Jesus).

USING NOAH AS A TEXT, AS CHRISTIANS

For Noah to be useful you don’t even have to use it to have conversations with your friends, colleagues, and family who aren’t familiar with the story or who don’t believe in God – Noah is useful because it challenges us to reflect on the God we believe in, the God who takes sin so seriously he wipes out a planet full of people, we need to remember, despite Noah, that the Christian God does not stand back from the disaster of the human condition, but enters the fray to rescue people at great cost to himself.

The Christian God is not the God of Noah. But the God of Noah will help us think about who the true God is, and who we are as followers of the true God.

People won’t take us seriously as Christians – people who are defined by our understanding of a significant text – if we continue to read culture and media with an essentially illiterate interpretive approach. We can’t interpret cultural texts from other worldviews while ignoring things like genre (this is a Hollywood movie from an art house director, trying his hand at an epic, not a Christian puff piece) and context (the author of this piece is not claiming to present your views or your understanding of the story of Noah). Too many Christian reviews floating around the web don’t make those two connections.

We won’t just look disengaged from the people and culture around us, but we will be disengaged if we continue act as the entitled kid in the playground who wants the world addressed on our own terms and who will take our ball and go home if it isn’t.

We rightly get annoyed when people bring a foreign interpretive approach to our text – the Bible – and tell us what we should think… and we could rightly get annoyed if Noah was presented as an accurate rendition of the Biblical story… but it’s not. Noah is a movie. It’s based on a wide variety of source texts including the extra-Biblical Book of Enoch and the Midrashic interpretive traditions (where the crazy rock creatures, The Watchers come from – though their rockiness is an invention). Aronofsky’s presentation of the story, while it takes certain liberties with the narrative, is incredibly theologically rich, and while its aesthetic won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, I left the cinema feeling confronted about the depths of human sinfulness, challenged to think about how we should be looking after God’s creation, and struggling with the enormity of God’s judgment and its cost.

If we want to follow the examples of the writers of the Bible – and of Jesus who became a human medium to step into the muck of creation to communicate God’s rescue plan to us – then we need to be prepared to engage with the culture around us, and the worldviews that we don’t agree with, in order to connect the Gospel with the world we live in.

Engaging with, critiquing, and rewriting secular texts and stories in order to present God’s plan of salvation is also as old as the Old Testament. The Bible is full of appropriations of Ancient Near Eastern traditions corrected to point people to the true and living God – we don’t have any textual evidence to suggest that Egyptian sages got up in arms about the inclusion of Egyptian proverbs in Solomon’s compendium of Proverbs that are presented in a framework that tells people that true wisdom comes from fearing Israel’s God. So why are we indignant when people use our source material?

ENGAGING WITH NOAH’S THEOLOGY

This is a telling of the Noah story worth engaging with, not just dismissing, even though it’s a problematic telling of the story (partly just because of the rock monsters). It is richly presented, with sensitivity to the array of source material and some nice narrative driven imagination around some of the details we’re not given in the narrative – like where the wood came from, how God called the animals to the ark, and how they got the animals not to kill each other on the ark) – especially around the Eden motif. It explores big themes surrounding who God is, who we are, what justice, mercy, and righteousness look like, and ethics, especially environmental ethics.

Noah gets plenty of stuff wrong, and it takes liberties with the Biblical story to present another story – but it is a theologically rich and challenging story that uses Biblical themes in a stimulating way. Here are some of the themes I particularly enjoyed… Just beware, this contains serious spoilers…

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO “BE A (HU)MAN?”

The question of what it means to “be a man,” or be human, is one of the interesting threads carrying the narrative, and, in a nice homage to chiastic Jewish story telling (a chiasm is like a hamburger layers that are paired around other layers on the inside) – it opens and closes the narrative. The question is posed at the beginning and only answered properly at the end. The story starts with Noah’s dad sitting Noah down for the chat, to tell him about humanity’s proper place in God’s world. Only the chat is interrupted when (spoiler alert) the film’s villain caves Noah’s dad’s head in while his shocked son looks on from a hiding spot behind a rock. Noah’s dad is killed in the name of pillaging the planet by Tubal-Cain. As a result, Noah is left with no real understanding of humanity’s place in creation, and a serious chip on the shoulder when it comes to protecting the environment.

Flash forward a few years and he won’t even let his son pick a flower, he murders three men for killing one dog, and he has a theological conviction that animals are innocent and humans are evil and corrupt. He has one shaky anthropology.

Even Tubal-Cain knows humans are made in God’s image, though he thinks this means exercising dominion and trashing the place in pursuit of power. When Noah’s son Ham sticks a knife into his armpit, killing him, Tubal-Cain whispers “now you are a man.” This is an understanding of humanity built on the foundation of our post-Eden brokenness, and a weird picture of God as capricious, with no real connection to our created role.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,

    in the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” – Genesis 1:26-28

That’s what we were meant to be – but human nature in Noah’s day – as described in Genesis 6 – is a pretty messed up.

“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. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” – Genesis 6:5

This is a theme Aronofsky and his co-writer say they were exploring. Deliberately.

“What intrigued me and Ari was that Noah is the fourth story in the Bible. You have creation, original sin, the first murder, and then it jumps forward and everything’s terrible, and God wants to start over again. What was clear to us was that Noah is a descendant of original sin. There are three sons, and he’s a descendant of Seth, so his ancestors are Adam and Eve, so he has that inside him. That brought to us this weird question: Why restart if that possibility [of being sinful] is still there? Man still has the possibility of being tempted.

AH: Especially because you finish reading Noah and all the wicked people have been wiped out, and one family survived, and you flip the page and it’s Babel. So it immediately raises the question, what does that mean? If you look at the context of the story within the Bible, what is that trying to say about the sinfulness and wickedness within us? That was what we had to explore, not the good guys and the bad guys, but both the good and the bad within us.”

There’s a great scene in the movie extrapolating what happened between Cain and Abel into modern times, modern killing – the darkness of the human heart is universal. This movie nails sin. There’s another great scene where Noah is in the middle of a clamouring, angry, mob and he sees a picture of himself participating in the depravity. He’s struck by the realisation that he’s evil too. As a result he becomes committed to wiping humanity out and giving the animals a fresh start. He tells the creation story to his family while they’re locked in the boat – and he stops before the creation of man, suggesting that’s where God hit perfection, the pinnacle, paradise – with man something of an afterthought that quickly trashed the joint. This is fiction – it’s not in the Bible. It’s also not the view the movie presents (even though it is presented in the movie). The movie demonstrates this is an inaccurate view. We’re meant to get that Noah is getting it wrong.

In the Bible it’s when God creates man that the world is “very good” not just “good,” in the Bible it’s clear that human life is meant to be preserved by the ark (there are more animals that are good for eating taken on board than the other types of animals). We’re meant to get that Noah is wrong about this, in the movie, that it’s the result of Noah’s theologically broken understanding of humanity’s place in the world. We’re meant to get this when the women in his life speak reason, compassion, and mercy to him.  We’re meant to get this when we see his understanding of humanity is righted as he first confronts his heart’s capacity for love when he meets his new twin granddaughters. We’re meant to get it when at the end of movie (and the closing of the chiasm) he tells his children and grandchildren that being human means being God’s image bearers, stewarding creation.

Some people have suggested that we’re meant to see Noah rejecting the harsh approach of ‘the Creator’ in his love-fuelled epiphany, but we’ve earlier been told that God doesn’t speak in the way Noah keeps expecting him to – he speaks in “a way we will understand” – he speaks through people, circumstances, and through qualities that are in line with his plans and character. Every time Noah is about to do something stupid, or things look dire, he’s delivered by providential timing. Even if he’s an oblivious idiot, hell-bent on self-destruction the self-destruction is interrupted by circumstances – like the ark crashing into the mountain. Though he feels like he’s left stranded and unaware of what God wants, he is riding the waves of God’s plan from start to finish. The God of Noah is bigger than the characters in the movie appreciate.

What’s nice about this theme is that it lays a platform for Christians to talk about what it means to be human. It gives us a chance to point to Jesus, the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) who demonstrates what sacrificial love for God and for others looks like and renews our humanity by giving us the changed hearts the Old Testament promises and anticipates. The only way out of the darkness of our hearts is to turn to God, we can’t just love our way out of trouble and into goodness. Noah’s quest to save humanity is ultimately doomed – as we see in the very next chapter of the Bible. It’s only when God steps in to the picture that things can change.

WHAT IS THE ‘GOOD LIFE’ IN GOD’S WORLD? AND HOW DO WE KNOW?

Every pre-flood character is operating with a shaky understanding of humanity’s relationship to God and, as a result, in how to live in the world and care for the environment. The champions of the film’s two human sides – the descendants of Cain (Tubal-Cain) and of Seth (Noah) have competing ideas from competing extremes on the spectrum.

Tubal-Cain thinks following God – as an image-bearer – means digging up all the precious resources to dominate the planet.

Noah thinks the environment is more important than human life and that it’s right to wipe out humans in order to give the environment a second chance.

Their views are clearly flawed. It’s not just left up to us, the audience, to figure that out. The idea that it is morally good to kill two newborn children so that humanity can die out is clearly repugnant, as is the idea that having dominion means trashing the planet. Adam and Eve were given a job in the Garden of Eden – to cultivate and keep the garden, presumably to extend its amazing life-giving presence over the whole planet. They were also to be fruitful and multiply. This is the tension – between dominion and stewardship – that drove Aronofsky to make the movie. He’s not an environmental crazy person just because his protaganist is, and Noah’s views change and grow through the movie.

Noah is not the environmental propaganda film some have painted it to be.

And even its call to care for the environment has theological merit. Those who would follow the God of the Bible have a responsibility to care for the creation God left us to operate in. From the preceding chapters in the Biblical narrative it is clear that humans had an environmental responsibility, and if they are being “only evil all the time” you can be certain this includes mistreating the environment.

Both Noah and Tubal-Cain have wrong views of man, of the world and of God. Both struggle to figure out how God reveals himself, and are given to looking for mystical dreams, drug induced revelation, or the sky splitting open, to figure out what God wants of them. Both expect a God who is so distant he is essentially absent. Their creator is essentially a ‘demiurge’ – a small god who exists within and is confined by creation, a small and mechanistic deity that is only present if he is obvious. The god Noah and Tubal-Cain are looking for is the sort of god that the New Atheists think Christians follow, and the sort of God they’d stand up and take notice of if he’d only fling lightning bolts at their heads or rearrange the stars to write them a message.

In a bit of a contradiction, Noah’s God is both distant and about to step in with an apocalyptic intervention because he’s not happy with what’s happening in his world. This makes Noah’s God seem petty and vindictive. Aloof but angry. The Watchers – the crazy rock monsters  – don’t help here, their inclusion paints Noah’s god as petty and small-minded. It’s only Methuselah – and later Noah’s wife, Naameh, and daughter-in-law, Na-El – who have a view of God working through and authoring events, who expect God to be operating and revealing himself through the ordinary and mundane – “speaking to people in a way they will understand” as Methuselah puts it. It’s these three who come closest to seeing God operating relationally through judgment and mercy – not being a detached monster. Noah gets there in the end. But the journey isn’t pretty.

Noah’s descent into craziness (in the film) involves a movement from complete trust in God’s providence (he tells Ham that God will provide the wife he desires as he provided the wood for the ark – in a nice hat tip to Abraham’s answer to Isaac when he asks where the sheep to be sacrificed is a little later on), to an inability to recognise that providence even when it appears miraculously through the pregnancy of his apparently barren daughter in law. It’s clear that Noah stops relating to, and listening to God, when he stops seeing his provision of salvation as a form of revelation of his plan.

It’s only when we see God as very (infinitely) big, and outside of creation – supplying life and breath and being to the universe (Acts 17), while also being very (omnipotently and omnipresently) engaged with what’s going on in the world, especially with what’s going on in the human heart, that we can understand how God might be working in our lives without us noticing, or without us hearing the blaring trumpets in the sky heralding his every move.

It’s only when we see God as deeply invested in the fate of humanity and the planet that we can even begin to appreciate the motivations behind the flood, and Noah goes some way towards asking and answering that question in a real way.

GOD’S DEEP INVESTMENT INTO HUMANITY IS DISPLAYED MOST VIVIDLY AT THE CROSS OF JESUS.

The good life is a life connected to God, the giver of life. It’s a life lived in the light of his revelation to us, in a relationship with him. God is not distant. The Christian God is the God who comes near. The God who speaks. Who speaks to create. Who speaks to reveal. Who spoke to Noah (in the book version) with detailed instructions. Who speaks through texts people understand, using genres they can engage with – and who then reveals himself in Jesus, his word made flesh (John 1:1). The Christian God is not petty, small-minded, and vindictive, he doesn’t stand back from the problem of sin, but gets involved. He was prepared to become nothing in the person of Jesus, prepared to become human, prepared to sacrifice his son to save the world (which makes the horror Noah feels at that idea even more poignant – God went to lengths we can’t imagine). Jesus also provides the guide to living the good life – a life lived for the sake of others, to reconnect them with God. We know what the good life is, because we see it in Jesus – the true image bearer.

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

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” – Philippians 2:5-8

THE DEPTH OF SIN AND COST OF JUDGMENT: BOTH JUSTICE AND MERCY

One thing the movie Noah belts out of the park is the picture of the human condition. I don’t think I’ve seen any movie that deliberately captures the darkness of the human heart like this one does, or that thinks a massive reboot of the human race is a fathomable response to this sort of darkness, the movie is sympathetic to the cost involved in carrying out judgment like this. The anguish on Noah’s face as people – even evil people – are erased from the earth and his dejected response when they finally hit land is a really helpful picture of how broken humans should respond to God’s judgment when we’re, through no merit of our own, recipients of his saving mercy. We should be horrified by the fruits of sin – the death it brings into the world, and by the cost of sin.

This part of The Atlantic’s interview with Aronofsky is profound.

“We constructed an entire film around that decision. The moment that it “grieved Him in his heart to destroy creation,” is, for me, the high dramatic moment in the story. Because think about it: It’s the fourth story in the Bible. You go from creation to original sin to the first murder and then time jumps to when everything is messed up. The world is wicked. Wickedness is in all of our thoughts. Violence against man and against the planet.

And so it was so bad that He decides that He is going to destroy everything and destroy this creation. So what we decided to do was to align Noah with that character arc and give Noah that understanding: He understands what man has done, he wants justice, and, over the course of the film, learns mercy. What’s nice about that is that is how I think Thomas Aquinas defined righteousness: a balance of justice and mercy.

Maybe what made Noah righteous was that he mirrored, in some sense, God’s own heart about what was happening?

Sure. That’s another way of looking at it. And we completely connected that. Because really, Noah just follows whatever God tells him to do. So that led us to believe that maybe they were aligned, emotionally, you know? And that paid off for us when you get to the end of the story and [Noah] gets drunk… What do we do with this? How do we connect this with this understanding? For me, it was obvious that it was connected to survivor’s guilt or some kind of guilt about doing something wrong.” 

I spent most of the latter half of the movie pretty angry with Aronofsky’s Noah, because he didn’t seem to have any understanding of mercy whatsoever. This was a fruit of his anaemic understanding of humanity (as something like a cancer), a result of a poor understanding of God (as someone distant and dispassionate) and of creation (as paradise ruined and innocence lost). This cold-hearted pig-headed lack of mercy made me want the story to end with a twist, where Noah died and everyone lived happily ever after, because that seemed the just response for people having to put up with Noah on the ark for so long. But in a nice picture of sacrificial love – it’s the daughter in law who reaches out to Noah to redeem him, to bring him back from the wine-addled abyss he found himself in. The daughter in law who he had terrorised, whose children he held at knife point in his pursuit of justice. She restores Noah’s humanity, she mends his broken understanding of how God might reveal himself, and she invites him to come back home because God is a “God of justice, mercy, and second chances.”

Because Noah treats sin as a big deal, it treats salvation as a big deal, and as a result, sees the cost of justice and salvation being carried out simultaneously as carrying an incredibly heavy toll. Noah is at the point of emotional breakdown on the ark, just as the last sight of land disappears – and he has the breakdown when they finally land. Pursuing justice and offering merciful salvation at the same time is costly.

PARADISE LOST – THE RETURN TO EDEN

My favourite motif in the movie is the use of Eden. The theme of paradise lost, and seeing Noah’s journey as an effort to recreate Eden, an effort that everyone – from Aronofsky in his interviews to Noah in his character – knows is doomed to fail because of the mess in the human heart.

Eden becomes a vehicle for the film’s environmental agenda. Noah’s Eden is a place where humans live in harmony with nature – stewarding it. Where humanity in some sense, exists for the garden, not the garden for humanity. Noah spends a significant part of the movie believing that humans should not be present in the garden at all. Pushing us a few steps towards a return to the environmental paradise is the ethical goal, or end, of the text.

Aronofsky does some really fun stuff with Eden. The ark is made from wood from a forest created by a seed from Eden that Methuselah has carried around with him waiting for the right time. When the forest springs up, five waterways appear and spread around the planet, inviting the animals to the ark – back to Eden. There is certainly an element of ‘recreation’ going on in the Noah story in the Bible. Noah is a new Adam. Adam named the animals and ruled over them, Noah protects the animals carrying them in an Edenic sort of boat – a wooden replica of Eden’s ‘tree of life’ – delivering salvation in the midst of God’s judgment. There’s a nice sensitivity in Noah to the place of Eden in the Old Testament. Eden imagery appears everywhere in the Old Testament – in prophecies about what it to come when God restores hearts, and in the interior design of the Temple.

What really interests me is that the Bible already has a concept for a seed surviving out of Eden. And it’s not about the trees. It’s about humanity. We lose this a little bit in most of our English translations – but in Genesis 3:15, where God provides a glimmer of hope about the future of humanity and the future of Satan amidst the cursing and expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden, there’s the launch of a thread that works its way through the Bible all the way to Jesus – there’s a seed that we follow from here on in. Passed on from generation to generation – it’s a theme in Genesis. The NASB chooses to use the literal “seed” rather than offspring – here’s what it says:

“And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.” – Genesis 3:15, NASB

Interestingly, Jewish and Christian interpreters read this seed line very differently. For Christians, it’s a very early promise that God will intervene with a messiah. It’s a glimmer of hope amidst the darkness of Genesis 3 – the breaking of our hearts and the breakdown of our created relationship with the Creator.

If Aronofsky’s Noah understood the seed of Eden as human he’d have had a very different view about the purpose of the ark (one that was more consistent with the Biblical narrative). And it’s a helpful way to engage with the film’s environmental agenda – it helps us order the relationship between humanity and creation rightly. We are to steward creation so that it helps us do what we were created to do – exercise dominion and carry God’s image around his creation. As Christians, who are people being recreated in the image of Jesus, our divine mandate looks more like the Great Commission – we’re to steward creation in a way that helps us help people reconnect with God through Jesus. Compare Genesis 1:28 with Matthew 28:19-20…

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” – Genesis 1:28

We’re told to fill the earth with God’s image bearers in Genesis 1. And then in Matthew we’re told to make disciples – people being transformed into the image of Jesus, all over the world…

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20

We’re to “subdue the world” in this new commission by connecting them with Jesus and the Creator (baptising them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and teaching people to obey Jesus’ commands – commands Jesus sums up a few chapters earlier in Matthew. This is all about the restoration of our humanity and the restoration of our relationship with the Creator.

“And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Loving God with all our hearts is something the Old Testament demonstrates is impossible – it’s the complete opposite to God’s diagnosis of the human heart just before the flood (Genesis 6:5), and this restoration of human heart’s is also tied to the restoration of the planet. This is what Christianity offers to the environmental agenda – hope that when the world is one day populated only by people with transformed hearts, it too will be restored.

“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” – Romans 8:19-23

While this waiting is going on, God is transforming hearts and transforming people into a new image – the image of Jesus – by his Spirit.

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

God is profoundly interested in this “seed” from Eden continuing, and coming back to what it was like in Eden, being restored to Eden like status – a relationship with the Creator.

In order to return humanity to Eden, God does use something like the tree of life, a new wooden vessel where salvation and judgment are played out. The cross. Where Jesus, the true seed of Adam – the true Adam. God’s image made flesh. Is crucified. Nailed to a tree that takes our curse and brings life in an amazing exchange. The cross is Noah’s Ark on steroids. It’s capable of carrying any human who turns to God back to Eden. Back to paradise. It shows the value God places on human life, the cost he’s prepared to pay in order to be the God of justice, mercy, and second chances.

A Jewish understanding of God as presented in Noah misses this vital piece of the picture – the vital piece where God steps in to the world, where God is not absent, still. We are not waiting for the Messiah to come. We are living in 2014AD. Counting the years since Jesus arrived. Our God is not silent and distant. He is not able to be understood as capricious or vindictive. He knows the cost of justice because he paid the price.

Aronofsky’s Noah prompted me to think through this aspect of God’s character, and God’s desire for us to steward creation well in order to connect people with Jesus, the giver of life, through the tree of life – the cross. If he’d told the story my way, that would’ve been amazing. I’d love for Darren Aronofsky to meet Jesus, and to understand the Noah story through his worldview, but in the mean time I’ll settle for appreciating the care and sensitivity he put in to telling his version of the story in a rich way.

The Persecution Complex: Real ‘religious’ freedom means allowing space for all religious agendas (even secular ones)

So. There’s a back and forth of sorts going on where Akos Balogh has responded (twice) to the first of my persecution complex posts. He’s asking “should Christians defend religious freedom” and responding to some of what I’ve outlined previously. I don’t want to rehash old ground here and you can follow his posts to see where he’s going.

What I do want to do is point out that if the last thing I wrote is true — if every person has a religious agenda because every person is a worshipper — then real religious freedom is simply freedom. For the Christian who sees every vision of the ‘good life’ as religious, “religious freedom” is a tautology. This has a few implications for how we take part in a secular landscape, and what we call for. Let’s ignore, for a moment, that the dominant secular religion appears to have it in for Christianity. I still think Stephen McAlpine’s Exile Stage 2 thing is true, (and I still think we’re in Rome — my response to that post). If we’re serious about ‘religious freedom’ for our neighbours — which is what Akos is calling for, when he argues that pursuing unfettered religious freedom is neighbour love for, for example, our Muslim neighbours, then we need to extend that to our gay neighbours. Freedom to practice their religion; their pursuit of happiness; their god. At the moment, these neighbours are suggesting their worship requires marriage equality. If the last post is true, this is a love — a desire — for an object of worship that is orienting members of the gay community and those who are part of the larger religion of sexual liberty and freedom. In the ancient world there were actual gods that people would worship who embodied these things, so its not beyond the pale to suggest this is a religious belief, even if its adherents deny it.

It’s up to those arguing for religious freedom to show why others should not be free to practice their religion freely, or to show that their free practice of this religion impinges on, or harms, members of the community-beyond-their-community.

What advocates of religious freedom need to articulate better is why we might seek to limit the freedom of others. Which we do. Typically the same voices calling for religious freedom are also amongst the loudest voices upholding traditional marriage. Which makes it confusing, because it sounds a lot like these voices aren’t pushing for religious freedom across the board, but for Christians to remain the gatekeepers in our secular public square. This inconsistency is jarring; and I wonder how much it has contributed to our rapid exile from the public square. We have not been able to articulate the difference between our desire for religious freedom, and our desire for our vision of the good (and I believe God’s created order is the ultimate good) to form the basis of our society which is religiously pluralistic, and full of competing visions.

I think it’s because we don’t practice what we’re preaching on this front, and that’s fine. Perhaps. We’ve either got to decide if we think life in secular Australia is a competition to run the table, so that the loudest and most popular voice determines the good for all, or if we really believe in liberal democracy, where the ‘table’ — the public — is run in such a way that everybody at it feels like their freedoms are protected as much as possible; but where the table comes to agreement to limit certain freedoms for the sake of the common good, or to minimise harm. Part of the art of secular democracy is making compromises that extend freedoms to others. We’ve been pretty uncompromising in our time at the head of the table; and while we might be prepared to extend some sort of branch to other religions whose Gods are transcendent or spiritual rather than secular idols, this uncompromising stance while we’ve been in power will come back to bite us, and is.

We might argue that our ‘agenda’ is an agenda for real, objective, good. And it is. At least I believe it is. But we don’t live in a world where people see things objectively. And if Romans 1 and 8 are to be believed, people don’t see things objectively because God gives people over to a certain way of seeing the world, and only the Spirit restores our ability to see it truly. Our secular table has moved on from modernism and we keep approaching it as though we’re on the hunt for some objective common goods. It’s not going to work. It probably should never have worked if all agendas are religious or functions of worship. Because the things we worship are the foundation for what we think ‘objectivity’ is — its found in the will of the god(s), or God.

We might argue that other agendas cause harm. We should definitely speak out when we think something will lead to harm; and argue for good things. This is what loving our neighbours looks like. Certainly. But the role of the secular ‘table’ is to hear many of these visions of ‘goodness’ and ‘harm’ and to hold them in balance. What is harmful is almost always an assessment based on our own standards (though often, by God’s common grace, people will still have shared senses of what is good and what is harm). This common grace is clouded by the worship of idols though. As worshippers are given over to a broken way of seeing the world.

If we want to participate in our secular democracy, as worshippers with an agenda, then we must, in articulating a ‘good’ also identify things that are ‘not good’ — all agendas do that.

The role of the common table is to figure out what harms we’re going to allow, what harms we’re going to limit, and how we’re going to prevent different groups causing harm to one another as we pursue common goods. Safe Schools is an interesting test case for this, so too is RI. Both sides of the same sex marriage debate are also making arguments on the basis of harm minimisation. But this is fraught, because the standards held in common are very small when we’re talking, from a Christian point of view, about people whom ‘God has given over’ to particular wrong views of the world. We’re talking to people whose imaginations and desires are fired up by their objects of worship, and seeking to deny them their loves. Imagine if the boot was on the other foot. We may not need to imagine this hypothetically for very long; and we don’t need to look far overseas to see how Christians are treated in countries without a ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage. It must be odd for our brothers and sisters in countries where the regime is anti-Christian and anti-democratic to see our hand-wringing in the face of social change; to many of our brothers and sisters around the world and through history what we are talking about is a luxury.

If we really believe in religious freedom and we really want it for ourselves, maybe its time we started confronting the reality of life in a secular (but not irreligious) public, maybe its time we started finding ways to both generously give freedom to others (even when we think what they’re doing is not good and that it causes harm), recognising that what they are asking for is religious freedom, even if they don’t articulate it that way. Maybe we should do this in order to maintain our own voice at the table; but maybe we should also do this because God has given them over to this way of thinking and the way out comes via us using our voice to call people to a new type of worship. The worship of the true and living God. Maybe it’s too late to keep our voice at the table in our secular, liberal, democracy. But perhaps on the way out we should use whatever voice we still have to lovingly and carefully articulate our counter-vision for the good so that people in our public might consider it; and might even change their object of worship as the Holy Spirit changes the way they see the world. Who knows, maybe as it has been historically in the west, that will be what actually delivers us freedom as God changes the hearts and minds of those we speak to.

 

The Persecution Complex: Everyone has a ‘religious’ agenda, even the secularists

There is always an agenda.

Every person has one. Every group. Every ideology. Mostly every person. But sometimes we can cobble together around an object of common love and push a shared agenda. Usually in doing that there’s a bunch of compromise. So Catholics Anglicans, and even Muslims can come together for certain moral causes while sharing very different — fundamentally different — reasons for doing so. And the union at that point is only as good as the sharing of ‘the agenda’…

This week the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales is in the news because they appear to be worried about ‘the homosexual agenda’ (at least that’s how the story frames it, and they can frame it that way because we Presbyterians used the words “the homosexual agenda”). The lede of this story proclaims:

“Sydney’s most expensive private school has asked the Presbyterian Church for advice on what the church describes as the “homosexual agenda”, in the event that a same-sex couple wanted to enrol their child at the school.”

When I hear the words “the homosexual agenda,” I picture a secret cabal that programs the universal homosexual response to every issue with the end goal of making everybody gay; but I fear the setters of the “gay agenda” may sometimes be as at odds with members of the gay community as the Australian Christian Lobby are with some Christians; and I’d rather listen to what people are asking for and figure out why than simply label every issue someone raises as part of a bigger agenda (though I admit things almost always are part of some bigger agenda).

As an aside, before the story about Scots falls too far into the background — I find it profound that a school that charges more than $30,000 a year is more worried about homosexuality than greed, or the idolatry of education…

I’ve always found it odd when Christians speak of a ‘gay agenda’ — not because I don’t think there are groups out there who have united around a common cause — but because it seems an easy way to not listen to people, or to dismiss a ‘counter-agenda’ simply on the basis of an ad hominem style “well, we know they are simply representing their own interest” dismissal. There are groups like GLAAD and Australian Marriage Equality who are out there trying to further ‘an’ agenda, just as there’s a National LGBTI Health Alliance. These groups definitely advocate particular ‘agendas’ for the sake of their community. And probably with good reason. I’m not sure we can ever treat agendas as totally homogenous (even for individuals, because we often have agendas that compete for our time and attention, and with each other in contradictory ways).

We seem to use ‘agenda’ as a pejorative — a reason not to listen — especially if it competes with our own agenda (though because an agenda is a thing we treat as a negative we always want to pretend we are unbiased, either with no agenda or an agenda purely for the common good). That a position is put forward by people with ‘agendas’ is an odd reason to push back rather than listen. And an even worse reason to exclude their position from a place in the metaphorical ‘public table’… That we disagree with an agenda is also not a great reason to exclude it from this public table unless we can show it isn’t for the common good, or rather, that it causes harm. So. For example. We get enough people behind agendas that rule out murder or other common objects that we consider ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ — and that would rule out pro-murder agenda should it ever appear on the scene. And that’s good. It’s also why the worst thing you can do to an alternative agenda is suggest that it is actually harmful (and that’s the strategy people are adopting over and over again to silence the church).

Perhaps the ‘homosexual agenda’ is simply an attempt by a community within our civil society to provide a better life for homosexual people according to a particular vision of what it looks like for people to thrive or flourish. It’s not nefarious or secret. Even if there are people setting some sort of agenda in meetings somewhere. It’s consistent with a view of the world and the human person and what ‘good’ is. And so agendas aren’t just to be dismissed out of hand because we have a different view. We have to work out how to live at peace with one another. There’s another constructive reason I think we should listen to people that I’ll outline below that lines up with our ‘Christian agenda’… Agendas are everywhere. But to speak of ‘agendas’ as though they’re the product of some cabal somewhere rather than just a product of our humanity is odd, and an exercise in ‘othering’ rather than listening. We all have agendas. There’s a homosexual agenda to provide better health and happiness for homosexual people (including to push for marriage/social inclusion/safety for LGBTIQA people). There’s also a ‘queer’ agenda (articulated quite directly in various places by Roz Ward from Safe Schools) that would like sexual fluidity to be the norm; for us all to be queer, which rather undermines the idea that to be queer is to be different; it is possible that this agenda might say some interesting and valuable things that we should listen to in order to understand the queer community too…

We can’t be naive about agendas that are operating around us. But nor is an ‘agenda’ in and of itself a bad thing, and a secular society probably has the responsibility to accommodate as many competing and conflicting agendas as possible.

Our agendas are set by our worship

Let’s try replacing the idea of an agenda with the idea of all of us being homo liturgicus — creatures who worship.

Let’s assume that each of us worships something, and that this object of worship orients our hearts, minds, and lives. That it captures our imaginations and our desires. Let’s assume our worship supplies our agenda. Whoever we are. We’re pushed out into the world with an ‘agenda’ — a picture of human flourishing; first for ourselves, as worshippers, but then for others, as image bearers of our objects of worship who are living breathing ambassadors of our chosen deity. Let’s also assume that most of us think love for other things is ordered by our love for the thing we love ultimately. That all of us order our love, and understand love, based on this object of worship. So the thing that is first in my heart defines not just how I love other things or people in my life but what I think love looks like when I direct it to them. If I love money above all else, then that frames how I treat money, but it also means I show love for others by giving them money, or not taking money from them unfairly. If I love my sexuality above all else, if my fundamental desire is for sex and freedom to pursue sex and identity where I see fit, then the way I love others involves either sex (drawing them in to a shared act of worship) or fighting for their sexual freedom. That’s the gay agenda. Or one of them.

Here’s how James K.A Smith puts it in You Are What You Love:

If you are what you love, and your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life. In other words, this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart—the center of the human person designed for God, as Augustine reminded us. More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do—and what those practices do to you…

We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate…

Our idolatries, then, are more liturgical than theological. Our most alluring idols are less intellectual inventions and more affective projections—they are the fruit of disordered wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance. Instead of being on guard for false teachings and analyzing culture in order to sift out the distorting messages, we need to recognize that there are rival liturgies everywhere.

To be human is to be a liturgical animal, a creature whose loves are shaped by our worship. And worship isn’t optional. Even a writer like David Foster Wallace, who had no theological agenda, recognized that to be human is to worship.

 

Every idol has an agenda. There is no space that contains people that is a ‘worship free’ zone. Every time we gather at a table with others, each person’s agenda, in some way, is driven by whatever they view as ‘ultimate’ — the ultimate picture of the ideal person, the ideal community, the ideal shared way of life.

Truly ‘secular’ space isn’t freed from religion and thus ‘neutral’ — it allows space for these competing agendas, and works toward a ‘common’ good. Often these agendas will have very different visions of good — but sometimes they’ll dovetail; like in the case of Roz Ward whose (self acknowledged) Marxist agenda saw her views align with others in the LGBTIQA community, and educators, who want to make schools safer for LGBTIQA students. But though Ward is a member of the LGBTIQA community her particular Marxist/Queer agenda is at odds with other members of the ‘T’ community like Catherine McGregor, who says she believes strongly that gender being a binary thing is important or she wouldn’t have transitioned… We always line our agendas up with others for convenience, but that allegience will only take us so far if we don’t share a common object of worship (not just love).

We shouldn’t ‘fear’ agendas, or try to silence them simply because our ‘agenda’ may happen to be true, or simply because we believe it leads to good things, and other view. True secularism is about figuring out how competing agendas — competing visions of human flourishing (and personal flourishing) — views including our own — might exist side by side. But we should be prepared, as a society, to discern what agendas involve harm, and that might bring many agendas together, and we should, as Christians, consider how much it is possible for us to share agendas — or platforms — with other idolatrous views in order to respond to a particular idolatrous view as though the harms can be easily ordered simply because some moral visions line up with our own.

 

Why we should listen to, and how we should live alongside, other agendas

It has always interested me that Paul, as a faithful Jew who no doubt loved Deuteronomy 7 and its call to purity from idols, didn’t walk through Athens with a sledgehammer, but with open eyes and ears. And that when he speaks, he speaks in a way that articulates the Gospel as the answer to the imagination and desire of the Athenians, and the Athenian Agenda. I think this is because he’s carrying out the Christian agenda — which is no less than the Deuteronomic agenda to topple idols. But the thing that topples idols is a toppling of stone hearts formed by the worship stone idols, that comes from the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26), who comes via Jesus. Make no mistake. Paul topples the idols of Athens in the hearts of those who turn to God. But he’s happy not to topple them for anyone else. He’s happy to be another voice in the marketplace of ideas and in the courtroom that decides which gods have legitimacy — the areopagus.

Our agenda, as Christians, is clear. It’s to worship God, and in doing so, to bear his image. To glorify him. And the result of doing that faithfully looks, I think, a lot like what we are re-created to do as Christians. Our new cultural mandate. The Great Commission. This sets the agenda for us.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:19-20

We’re Great Commission people; sent out into a world full of worshippers who are being formed into the image of their idols. Discipled by counter-liturgies. Pursuing counter-agendas.

One way we fulfil the great commission is, I think, by listening well to the world we live in and seeing the universal human desires at the heart of people’s agendas — seeing where God’s design is being distorted by idolatry so that we can invite people to rediscover the telos — the purpose and fulfilment — of that desire in having their loves and desires ordered around Jesus. Listening and understanding is also, in itself, an act of love. Its a way that we can show people we care; that we want to understand their wants and needs, and that we want to live at piece not conscript their desires and imaginations in order to force a conversion. Attempting to make people live as though they worship God isn’t our job — and trying to do that is bound to be frustrated anyway given that Romans 1 says people love and worship what they love and worship because God has given their thoughts and desires over to their idolatry.

Instead of dismissing the ‘homosexual agenda’ perhaps we should listen to what objects of common good those pushing that agenda are pushing for — like more safety for kids who don’t fit the norm — but we should also listen for the desire for love, intimacy, and a sense of satisfying identity that people are craving so that we can connect those desires with where God designed them to be ultimately fulfilled. Not in sex. But in an intimate relationship with our creator.

And listening informs our speech. We aren’t called to speak to caricatures, but to people. People who worship. And our message must be one that replaces a false god with the real one; or rather; God does away with these idols via our preaching with what Thomas Chalmers calls The Expulsive Power of a New Affection; a sermon in which he points out our task is not simply to fill an empty space in a person’s heart with a new God, but to replace an old object of worship with a new, better, more complete, God.

“And it is the same in the great world. We shall never be able to arrest any of its leading pursuits, by a naked demonstration of their vanity. It is quite in vain to think of stopping one of these pursuits in any way else, but by stimulating to another. In attempting to bring a worldly man intent and busied with the prosecution of his objects to a dead stand, we have not merely to encounter the charm which he annexes to these objects – but we have to encounter the pleasure which he feels in the very prosecution of them. It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. We must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest, and hope, and congenial activity, as the former…”

This act of ‘encountering the charm’ and the ‘pleasure’ in order to dissipate them means listening well to what is driving other agendas, and observing what they do and don’t deliver; not simply dismissing them. In a secular world it means (so long as we have a place at the table) finding a place at the table for agendas we disagree with even when we believe all such idolatry leads to eternal harm; because we have no tool to fight idolatry but the Gospel. Silencing or dismissing other agendas rather than generously engaging with the people behind them isn’t love. Everyone has an agenda. Maybe we should start being more open about our own, and more worried about who we’re worshipping and what we’re seen to be worshipping if we make morality or natural law our tool for taking down idols — not the Gospel of Jesus.

The persecution complex: Ware the carrot more than the stick

carrot_stick2
Image Credit: Mark Stivers

There’s always an easy way out.

Just bend the knee and the beatings will stop… not only will they stop. You’ll be forgiven.

Not only will you be forgiven, you’ll become a champion for the cause able to help people just like you used to be see the way out.

This is the carrot. This has always been the way. Perhaps because people taking the carrot is the Devil’s ultimate weapon — because it is really people reaching out and grasping the forbidden fruit…

Ware the carrot. Fear the carrot. It is more dangerous than the stick.

There’s always a carrot.

There’s always a way out. Even in extremely sticky situations.

This was true in Daniel.

“Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” — Daniel 3:14-17

It was true in Rome, under Emperor Trajan, who wrote these instructions to Pliny, the governor of one of his provinces who wanted to know how to treat Christians, and people who’d once claimed to be Christian, but walked away.

“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.”

And you know, for Polycarp, a bloke who the empire killed because he wouldn’t renounce Jesus, whose death is described in the aptly named The Martyrdom Of Polycarp.

Some tried to persuade him to walk away from his death at the hands of the empire saying:

“What harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?”

He refused. Over and over again.

“And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as],” Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.”

But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.”

Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;”

Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

This is the goal. Our goal and the worlds. Ours is to believe that Jesus is true, and true to us. Theirs is to persuade us to blaspheme our king and Saviour. Because that is what the serpent has been after since the beginning. And the best way to do that is to offer the carrot.

And, of course, this is exactly what is at play when Satan offers Jesus a carrot, and Jesus ultimately chooses the sticks — the wooden planks of the cross — instead. 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” — Matthew 4:8-10

The world lures us away by offering carrots. The sticks are a distraction to make the carrot more appealing. So that we’ll wander off and join everybody else in their boundless enjoyment of the carrot.

There’s a rabbit warren in Richard Adam’s Watership Down, Cowslip’s Warren, where the rabbits appear to be living in bliss. They’re well fed. By humans. All you can eat carrots. The rabbits don’t realise that they’re being farmed by the people. That they’re food. That’s the people in our world. They’re being kept well fed, they think they’re indulging in the good things they worship, but they are ensnared.

The rabbits in Cowslip’s Warren have no stories to connect them to the past, to explain why people should or shouldn’t enjoy boundless carrots. Just poetry, just revelry in the moment. They need to keep disconnected from history, and from other stories, and from other warrens, in order to believe that what goes on in their warren — where rabbits are snared by their human overlords and disappear from time to time — that this is normal. That it’s just what happens.

“The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits. They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear; and that struck here and there, never enough at a time to drive them away. They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy’s warren and paying his price?” — Watership Down

And the thing the carrot-addled rabbits had forgotten? The words of the ‘Rabbit God’ El-ahrairah.

“All the world will be your enemy prince of a thousand enemies. And when they catch you they will kill you. But first they must catch you. Digger. Listener. Runner. Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed.”

Rabbits were meant to remember the story of El-ahrairah, and his teaching, and run and hide. Made for it. Not to sit and get fat on carrots. Not become story-less.

Watership Down is prophetic really. The lure of the carrot is powerful. Especially when we disconnect ourselves from our past, from history, from stories, from eternity, and start living as though this moment is all there is. Which is exactly what our dominant culture has done. Who needs history? Who needs ‘transcendence’ or anything beyond the here and now? Why wouldn’t we want more carrots?

This is how our culture is destroying the church. Yet we keep worrying about the stick. Stop worrying about the stick.

The stick of persecution might be looming large for Christians in Australia as we read about new laws and new campaigns to silence Christian voices (or sometimes just to stop us being jerks). But there’s always a way out. A carrot, dangling just out of reach. Luring us. Leading us.

The thing is. We aren’t actually rabbits. Jesus is our El-Ahrairah. And our own survival isn’t necessarily our goal. We’re to be nimble  — shrewd and innocent — in the face of persecution, sure. But we’re going to be caught. And offered carrots, and beaten with sticks.  But we’re to endure it, to know that persecution of the body is not a great reason to grab hold of some carrots. And we only ever read these words of Jesus from Matthew 10 in the light of the climax of the story, the cross and resurrection. He tells us (starting with his disciples) this is going to happen, and then he lives it himself. He endures persecution. This is the story that we’re meant to remember that’ll keep us from the offer of carrots.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles… You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

“The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” — Matthew 10:16-18, 22-28

As an aside, lets make sure we’re getting beaten for the right stuff. I’m all for persecution but we don’t have to bring it on ourselves by being idiots — pretending we’re still the ones holding a stick, or grabbing for us, is sure to see us belted harder. Let’s get hit for what Jesus told us to get hit for. The very unpopular Gospel message we preach. Not for having it in for particular subsets of our culture, or the ‘enemies’ we choose to target in a circle of stick wielders that is closing in on us. You know. When we get stories published in newspapers about how we’ve had to officially decide whether to let the kids of gay parents come to our schools… That’s a paddlin’ — but for entirely the wrong reason.

There’s always going to be a stick. The world is always going to come after us because the ‘prince of this world’ is coming after us, and the world.

There’s always a carrot though. An easy way out. And that’s where the insidious part of the trap lies.

If you want to stop the beating you could walk away. And the lure is strong. I’d say the lure is stronger than the stick, and yet, for those of us who won’t walk, we seem more worried about what the stick will do to us than we are about the lure of the culture around us and what it promises those who walk away.

The turkish delight is delicious and our society is always looking for Edmunds.

The world is always so beautiful, in part because it glories and indulges in the good things God has made, using the senses God has given us. It wants to hold all of those things. To grasp. To worship. While ignoring that God who made them.

Maybe it’s time we spent less time worrying about the stick wielders. Maybe we should remember what happened to the White Witch in Narnia is the fate awaiting those wielding the stick, and start worrying about the damage being done by the lure of the carrot. The stick will fall. The blow will land… But even if it hurts, the pain will be temporary for us, and the joy eternal.

 

We don’t just have to grit our teeth and bear the pain. God is good. And we can know his goodness and joy now too. One of our answers here should be to realise that we already have the carrot the world offers, just as Adam and Eve were already ‘like God’ in Genesis 3. We live in the same world, the same pleasures are ours in the good contexts God made for them to be enjoyed in, and while this pleasure will be fleeting and frustrated and won’t deliver everything we want, it should point us to where we are going. If we trust that his plans and designs are good, and build communities where that goodness is evident in the love of his people, then we’ll be less likely to be lured by what the world has to offer. This is part of being the ‘eschatological Christian’ Stephen McAlpine is urging us to be — we know God is good, and we know the carrot he offers is more complete than anything our world can dangle in front of us, even as the world beats us with its paddles. We know that joy now is possible, but it reminds us, as CS Lewis says, of our pilgrim status. That we’re not home yet.

Be like Jesus. Pursue the real carrot.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. — Hebrews 12:1-3

Maybe it’s time we stopped thinking that we keep people from the carrot by crying “Don’t hit me” and start crying “hit harder” because the carrot is real. And we want people to believe it.

An interview with James KA Smith

JKAS2

There is no author who has been more formative for me in the last 18 months than James K.A Smith.

I’ve enjoyed his work and found it stimulating (there’s lots of it though, he’s prolific).

I’ve written 10s of thousands of words about the Marvel universe (Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, and Episode 4, plus my review of Daredevil season 2) playing with his (and Charles Taylor’s) insights on the “secular age” and how (not) to be secular. I’ve reviewed video games from this paradigm too. I think one of our massive challenges is figuring out how we can re-enchant the world for people before we even begin to talk to them about the nature and character of God.

Our current sermon series at church on being made in the image of God (and living as God’s images who are being transformed into the image of Christ) is profoundly impacted by his latest You Are What You Love (though the series was already well underway before it came out, and his influence is really an amalgam of his Imagining The Kingdom and Desiring The Kingdom which You Are What You Love summarises). 

You could say I’m a fan. So it was super fun to interview him for Eternity.

Here are a couple of nice highlights. But read the whole thing.

We inhabit the world as an “immanent frame” – a self-contained, self-sufficient “nature” that we presume is undisturbed by transcendence or eternity. [And Taylor points out that this is the water in which even believers swim – we don’t realise how disenchanted our belief has become.] The “buffered” self then is kind of a mirror of this: in an enchanted world, the self was “porous” – open to spirits and the Spirit, to demons and God. In a disenchanted world, the self is (allegedly) secured from such incursions…

The arts refuse the kind of flattened, brain-on-a-stick temptation of modernity. Well, at least good art does. There are all kinds of terribly bad art that is horribly didactic and just tries to offer “pretty” modes of transmission for some “message”. And unfortunately a lot of that bad art calls itself “Christian” art.

But good art – art that is allusive, oblique, suggestive, evocative, imaginative, art that traffics in mystery – living with that kind of art can re-enchant the world for us. It can become the wallpaper of our experience; it can be woven into our daily rhythms. The films of Terence Malick, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the poetry of Les Murray, the paintings of Mako Fujimura – these are all avenues of enchantment that will help us to resist the disenchantment and commodification of a commercialist, consumeristic culture.

This interview was organised via Christian Heritage College and the Associated Christian Schools Leaders Retreat, who are hosting James at a few events in July. I’m going to the Learning and Loves one.

ACS Leaders Retreat

Program and Registration details —ACS Leaders Retreat 2016

Learning and Loves: Re-Imagining Christian Education

Details and Registration details — http://www.chc.edu.au/about-us/conferences/chc-research-symposium/

Millis Dinner — How (Not) To Be Secular: Cultural Engagement In A Pluralist Age

Registration — http://www.chc.edu.au/about-us/conferences/chc-research-symposium/registration-jamie-smith-symposium/

 

A letter to Queensland’s Education Minister about Religious Instruction in schools (from an RI teacher)

There are some stories in the local and national press today where some questions are being raised about the place of Religious Instruction in secular schools. I’ve recently discovered that I really enjoy teaching RI in schools. The controversy surrounds this ‘offending’ paragraph in some of the material that Prostestant RI teachers in Queensland (I’m one of these) are given to help us prepare and teach lessons in schools.

rimaterial

I thought this letter might encourage other teachers, and parents, to get in touch with Kate Jones, the Minister for Education (I emailed education@ministerial.qld.gov.au, and, if email conventions haven’t changed from my time in the secular workforce, what might be her direct email address). I reckon it’d be terrific if the department heard from a lot of teachers that RI experiences in our schools are diverse, but come from people who are genuinely thoughtful, and genuinely seeking the good of the children we’re lucky to teach. Also, I hate putting the ‘ordained’ and ‘rev’ bit in because I don’t think it should make any difference, and perhaps I over think this a little, but on balance I thought it might be more helpful not less, but I think if lots of non ‘ordained’ people from the priesthood of all believers were also to write, then that would be fantastic.

Dear The Hon Kate Jones MP,

I read a couple of stories in the media today about how RI classes in our schools – classes where parents have opted in because they identify with a particular religious view (in this case Protestant Christianity) – have involved volunteers teaching kids about sin (or will involve, in lesson 12 of the material from Connect). I started teaching RI at <REDACTED> State School about six weeks ago. I’m an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church, we have a new church that started in South Bank and connecting with the local school is important to us as we seek to love and serve our community by building a relationship of trust with them. Part of this means being committed to sharing what we believe is ‘good news’ – the best news – for people. That God is real, and that he loves us even when we stuff up. Part of this also means facing hard questions from kids who are thinking through spiritual realities while they’re at school (which is perhaps a legitimate educational activity?). We definitely don’t take access to our schools for granted, and are incredibly thankful for the invitation to participate in the life of our community; nor do we want to be coercing or manipulating children into sharing our beliefs because we hold some sort of ‘authority’… RI could be a dangerous vehicle for indoctrination, and I am glad members of our community, and our schools, are being vigilant on that front!

Thanks for all the work you do as one of our elected representatives. I love the passion you bring to the education portfolio and believe education is probably the most important cabinet ministry. My wife and I are trying to navigate finding the right school for our 4 year old daughter (and eventually for our almost 3 year old son, and 1 year old daughter). It’s tough. There are so many different theories about education out there, and so many different priorities. I don’t envy you your position, but I am committed to praying that you’ll act with wisdom and help our system form the sorts of critical and creative thinkers our society needs in order to flourish. One day I might even write you a letter about how much I think our schools should foster imagination and the sense that we’re all part of something bigger than just the need to learn things in order to answer questions in a test.

In fact, this letter might even be part of that because it speaks, in some way, to the importance of Religious Instruction (or its equivalent) in schools. One thing religion does is it fires up the imagination, pointing us not just to what could be if we live selfless lives that seek to transform the world, but perhaps what is, beyond the material world. Obviously as a Christian pastor (I’m a Presbyterian Minister), I have a personal belief that God is real and so our imaginings are actually hard wired into us as part of our reaching out for the nature of the divine. But even if this isn’t true, the sort of reaching for a better life that follows being taught the story of a transcendent being who loves us and cares about how we live, and provides an example for how we should live in Jesus, and especially in his death, is, on balance, a good sort of reaching that should lead our society in good places if it continues to ‘enchant’ us; if it continues to point us beyond ourselves, and perhaps if it serves to give us perspective beyond how important the next NAPLAN test is, or whatever else is crowding our kids brains in a crowded, pressure filled, curriculum.

The problem is, if we teach kids what life could be like, and their experience doesn’t line up to that, we’re only teaching part of the picture. We’re missing the point that Christianity includes a sense that things in this world, and in our lives, don’t always match up to how they should be. If we don’t teach about sin, and its universality, we miss the point that we’re to be driven by a longing for something better, while realising that it won’t always line up with what we achieve. We also miss the point that the great news of Christianity is that Jesus deals with sin, he doesn’t just give us a pattern for life. We can’t inspire kids without teaching them exactly what it is that Christianity teaches about the problems in our world, and how those problems shape, and are shaped by, the problems with the way we live. I can totally see how if Lesson 12 of Connect was taught clumsily, or from bad intentions, it could end up being used for guilt based manipulation, and no doubt different teachers approach teaching RI differently. I don’t know every RI teacher in the state, but the many I do know are both:

a) Aware of the privilege it is to teach kids what we believe, and perhaps inspire them towards living lives of love, where their confidence is placed not in their ability to be good, but in God’s love;

b) Aware that this privilege will be lost should we abuse it and veer into coercive or manipulative behaviour.

I thought it might be instructive for you to hear about how RI works, and how this material shapes the experience, in reality from an RI teacher. I’m not sure I’m normal, but anecdotes form data, and I’m happy to ask other teachers to share their experience too, especially if it helps us establish trust in the communities we are trying to love and serve. I get 30 minutes with a class of kids a week. By the time the roll is taken and the kids are settled, its 20. By the time we establish some sort of rapport with the kids, as guests who they see once a week its 15 minutes, and because we’re ultimately keen to answer the questions that kids are wanting to explore about different topics, and about the particular religion they’ve opted in to learning about, we try to spend as much time as possible answering these questions. This leaves us about 5 minutes a week of ‘teaching’ time, at least in our class, and in that time the Connect material serves as a guide but not a master. Most of the time we tell a story about Jesus that introduces a concept from the week, and then we ask kids to interact with the story and ask their own questions. When we give answers we don’t give ‘imperatives’ but say “as a Christian, I personally believe X,” because Protestant RI covers a multitude of denominations, with different beliefs about finer points of doctrine we can’t even be dogmatic about our own beliefs, we have to honour the many other traditions that might be present in the room. It’s complex to navigate this well, and I’m sure I make mistakes, and others might too, but I believe the benefits to our society, and our children, make these occasional clumsy moments worth it. I’m certainly hoping that my own children will be encouraged to think beyond math and science, and consider how they might best contribute to the peace and flourishing of our community, and how they might live in a secular, post-modern, world alongside people they disagree with, without wanting to exclude those voices and perspectives from the table.

Thanks again for all you do. If there’s any capacity for me to be helpful as the department considers its response to the RI material, I am willing to be of assistance.

Regards,

Rev. Nathan Campbell,

Pastor, Creek Road Presbyterian Church, South Bank

The lobby group who cried wolf: An analogy, or parable, to explain why analogies pointing to heinous and dark points in our history might be true, but don’t really work in moral debate

crywolf

There was a shepherd boy. A gatekeeper. He had a flock of sheep that he looked after and he tried to look after them very well indeed. There were often other sheep wandering near his pen, and he would gaze longingly at them wishing that those sheep would become part of his flock. There were many sheep out there who appeared to have no shepherd at all, but they actually belonged to the nearby town. The town, unable to really agree on how sheep should be sheltered, was trying to live without shepherds. They were making decisions by having adult conversations where a variety of voices were invited to the table. Shouty voices that didn’t listen to others tended to be ignored, but sometimes they held sway because no compelling alternative view was put forward.

One day. This sheep saw a couple of dark, furry, ears pop up on the horizon. They sure looked wolf-like.

“Hmm. He thought to himself. This is an opportunity for me to make my case for the role of the shepherd.”

And then he saw some teeth. He remembered once seeing the damage a wolf had done to a stray sheep. He knew that the people of the village were also terrified of wolves and what they did to sheep. He thought this might be an opportunity to get a few of the sheep outside the pen to join his flock, or at least for people to recognise his role as a shepherd. The thing is, he knew this was a dog that belonged to one of the townspeople. That this particular townsperson believed the dog was the best way to look after the sheep, so much that he’d even opined about the possibility of getting rid of the town’s common sheep altogether, and just getting dogs. It’s fair to say that the shepherd didn’t like this idea, and he didn’t love the idea of a bunch of wolf like creatures hanging around near his poor defenceless sheep.

The shepherd, despite knowing full well that this wasn’t a real wolf,* and knowing that the town would see through his ruse eventually, believed the town would recognise the damage a wolf might cause and see the connection in the maw of this black dog ran into the town crying “WOLF! WOLF! WOLF!” He interrupted a town council meeting where some reasonable voices had already been arguing that sheep need shepherds, and that dogs with wolf like tendencies also had a place in the town but the future of the town probably depended on everybody figuring out how to live together, despite and through disagreement. Just as they always had.

The thing is. The boy had tried this trick before. Many times. And when people realised that it was a dog, not the wolf who had previously caused such horrific damage to both sheep and dogs, they didn’t just stop listening to the shepherd. Some made plans to release the sheep from the shepherd’s pen. Others became even louder in their calling for dogs, who might better fight off wolves if they ever arrived, or indeed, keep the wolf from the door. Others simply wanted to exclude those in favour of the ancient art of shepherding from the table.

Everyone in the town has a concern for the safety of the sheep. Some might even want sheep to dress as dogs. Ultimately the town will decide the best way to do this, especially for the sheep in the commons, and they might listen to shepherds who speak out of concern for their sheep so long as they don’t keep raising the spectre of a sharp-toothed wolf wanting to devour everybody. Dogs might serve their place in keeping wolves at bay, and other sheep, outside the shepherd’s flock, safe (though not as safe as they’d be with a shepherd, and perhaps the shepherd’s job might be to ask that every sheep should be free to choose that safety, and to model that safety and love well).

See. The problem with this shepherd in this story is that he’s actually forgotten what shepherding is all about. And what is attractive to sheep. It’s not so much that they offer protection from wolves. It’s that they offer protection from wolves by facing them directly, not running to the town to get the town council to do their work for them out of fear. The shepherd had forgotten the ultimate lesson in shepherding; the lesson from the ultimate shepherd. The shepherd had also, in a way, or at least as it appears, become more worried about preserving the role of the shepherd than protecting the sheep.

The shepherd’s job isn’t to make the town fear the wolves, or hunt the wolves, or even keep the wolves at bay by making them fear dogs instead. The shepherd’s job is not to make the case against dogs by linking them to wolves. That is dog whistling. The shepherd’s job is to make the case that shepherds are better for sheep than dogs. And, if some people in the town choose to use dogs, the shepherd’s job is to help them fight off wolves. Wolves are hungry. The shepherd does have a role to play in spotting wolves, but this job is damaged every time the shepherd cries wolf when he doesn’t like a townsperson’s dog. Shepherding is a noble calling. The shepherd’s job is to protect sheep from wolves, and sometimes, it’s to make the wolf eat them so quickly it chokes on the bones and dies.

The shepherd’s job is not to protect the dignity of the office of shepherd by comparing it to the wolf, or the dog, or comparing dogs to wolves. The comparison should be so obvious it doesn’t have to be made. It’s to inspire others to become shepherds because they see how great and virtuous this sort of sacrificial love is. This love also helps the sheep feel at home and secure with the shepherd. This shepherd has lost his way. He’s lost the art of shepherding. He’s lost the real pattern of the ultimate shepherd through some transmission loss, but also because he’s seen how effective some of the louder more powerful voices in the town are at getting their way. This analogical shepherd share’s the goals of the ultimate shepherd, but has lost his method. He’s decided to cry WOLF! Rather than facing the wolves at the cost of himself. In doing so, he is at risk of just being a hired hand, and not a shepherd. A real shepherd has skin in the game in such a way that the real wolves, and the dogs, bite the shepherd and not the sheep, or when the sheep get bitten because they wander off, he’s there to save them and patch them up. The ultimate shepherd dies for his sheep.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” — Jesus, the ultimate shepherd, in John 10:11-16

*There are real wolves. The holocaust and the stolen generation are good evidence for this, and might be times when shepherds failed, where shepherds became allies with the wolves, or were eaten first and nobody listened. The town should probably be made aware somehow when a real wolf comes. And this is one point where this analogy falls down, which kind of proves the point that analogies are terrible. And sometimes dogs become wolf like and attack sheep. But the shepherd needs to have skin in the game in these situations and be able to show the tooth marks if he’s going to be taken seriously as a wolf-fighter.

Post script. In case the analogy breaks down. This is me, by analogy, arguing that making an analogy to something really terrible like the holocaust or stolen generation is a dangerous, high risk, game and the ACL should stop playing it because it is stopping other ‘shepherds’ being able to protect our sheep. Analogies and comparisons are fraught. I am, for the record, comparing the ACL to the boy who cried wolf, but also suggesting that in losing Jesus and his example they are playing as the “Hired help” not the shepherds.

This is not Presbyterian: A response to ‘Step Right Up’ an article in the Australian Presbyterian Magazine

An article has been published in my denomination’s national publication (Australian Presbyterian) that I feel compelled to strongly, and publicly, disagree with. This is still, I think, my biggest platform. A dilemma I face is that by publishing here more people might feel drawn to read the original piece which is, frankly, destructive and dangerous. If this article, Jared Hood’s Step Right Up, represented anything like an official position in the denomination (and it is presented, unchallenged, without counterpoint as all op-eds are), then I would expect my wife and daughters to leave the Presbyterian Church, following, or followed by, every single man and woman in our congregation, every infertile couple, every same sex attracted person. In a church congregation of around 120 people, we’d have very few left, if everyone who cares about ministering to and with people in these categories left too our church would be empty. There would be nobody.

This article, which I will quote below, is not Presbyterian in an official sense. It’s an extreme position held by a legitimate Presbyterian academic who teaches in one of our colleges – but it is not the party line. It is, in my opinion, outrageous. Articles in this publication have become more outrageous over recent times as we ratchet up the culture wars and our rhetoric becomes simultaneously more fearful and more stridently combative in the face of the demise of Christendom (as though this is a recent thing). The strategy the magazine appears to have adopted in response, via this article, is “breed more”… because apparently that’s God’s answer. The problem is that this magazine seems to speak on behalf of the denomination I belong to. I can’t claim to offer the exclusively true Presbyterian position, but I think I can suggest that this is not a representative view, and if it is, then I’ll hand in my membership.

When we talk about ‘purpose’ which this article does, especially when we conflate ‘purpose’ with ‘ends’ we’re talking in the realm of what Aristotle and others call the ‘telos’ — this article has a problematic view of what marriage is for (kids), what life is for (marriage) and what Christians are for (ruling). It misses how Jesus is a game-changer.

This piece has a wonky view of the telos of marriage

“What is marriage about in Scripture? Chiefly two things. First it is about the physical relationship between a man and a woman. Genesis comes straight to it: “one flesh”. The main meaning is as obvious as Shakespear’s crude “beast with two backs”… Second, “one flesh” is at the core of marriage, but it is not the core… The singular fundamental purpose of marriage is this: to have children.” — Jared Hood

It’s a big jump to go from ‘marriage involves sex’ which is true, and ‘sex leads to children’ which is true but only sometimes, to the ‘singular fundamental purpose of marriage’ is to have children. Children are a good fruit of marriage. But our bodies are often so messed up by the brokenness and frustration of the world that having children itself is not guaranteed in marriage, and plenty of people get married after child bearing age (we’ll talk about how limited a view of humanity in general is on display here below). Marriage is about two different people becoming one — this is how we bear God’s image in marriage. Producing new life via giving birth is another part of us reflecting who God is, and we don’t want to understate that case, but this is a pretty utilitarian view of marriage that assess marriage’s purpose entirely on the ends it might lead to. Faithfulness through the trial of not producing offspring — for married people, or single people — is something God appears to approve of and bless throughout the Biblical story (but fruitfulness in terms of ‘seed’ or offspring’ is definitely something people desire.

But the telos of Christian marriage is not children. It’s Christlikeness. It’s the fruit of the Spirit. This character that grows in us as relate to our spouses is the same character God grows in those who are unable to get married, unmarried, or divorced in all their relationships. Transmitting this fruit — the fruit of the Spirit — to other people either in real Great Commission terms via the Gospel, or as we raise children in Christian community (with Christian community) is what fruitfulness looks like. Children brought up in the knowledge of the Gospel might be a product of Christian marriage, but they are not its ends. Christlikeness is the end goal in every relationship for every Christian. More fruit of the Spirit produced by more lives being restored to Christ is what ‘offspring’ looks like. Everything Paul says about Christian marriage in Ephesians 5 (and about all other relationships) comes through the interpretive grid of Ephesians 5:1-2 (and Paul’s picture of maturity/fruitfulness in Ephesians 4).

Follow God’s example,therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” — Ephesians 5:1-2

This is at the heart of what it means to bear God’s image again as we’re transformed into the image of Christ. To imitate him. And then to make disciples. That’s the goal of the Great Commission, which includes Christian parenting as we disciple our children.  Paul talks a whole lot about marriage in Ephesians 5. He says nothing about children but a lot about marriage reflecting who God is, and reflecting unity.

After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—  for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. — Ephesians 5:29-33

The end goal of marriage is unity that reflects the Gospel. Which isn’t that different to our end goal as humans. And our highest calling.

This piece has a wonky view of our ‘telos’ as humans

Hood jumps straight from fruitfulness to procreation. A legitimate step in the Old Testament when God’s people were breeding themselves into existence. Hood holds the Great Commission and what he calls Christ’s “first great commission” as separate, not as related.  This piece confuses ends, means, and purpose of marriage – it takes the fruit and obscures the trees.

Hood argues that having children is the very purpose of our existence — not just of marriage — and because of this marriage is part of the purpose of our humanity. The goal of our humanity is, then, much like the goal posited by evolution; the survival of the (Christian) species. And we achieve this by giving birth to lots of ‘Godly seed’…What damaging piffle. His view of humanity rules out such luminaries as Jesus and Paul.

“Marriage exists for this. Male and female exist for this (Gen 1:27). In the next age, maleness, femaleness, and marriage, won’t matter (Mt 22:30). In this age, God says “procreate”, and therefore there is “one-flesh” marriage”… If you’re male or female today , be intentional about both marriage and children… Women of the church need to step up. If God has called you to be a wife and mother —99% of women — don’t stoop to only being a CEO. You can be celibate for the Kingdom, but not for your career. Make career decisions that fit with motherhood, not vice versa. Motherhood is the goal – “she will be saved through childbearing” (1 Tim 2:15). A Christian woman fulfils God’s plan and lives out her salvation by being a mother.” — Jared Hood

This is perhaps the most damaging argument I’ve ever read under the label Presbyterian. It is pastorally deadly. It is practically impossible. It is unloving and dangerous. It is folly dressed up as wisdom. It needs to be challenged at every turn.

Male and female exist to procreate? Male and female exist to reflect the image of God. Childbearing may or may not be part of this. Male and female exist to bear the image of God together, and as individuals. Whatever our calling. Do we really believe 1 Corinthians 7? That, according to Paul, singleness can be desirable and good? What damaging and terrible advice given in the guise of rigourous theological thought and exegesis. This isn’t just about countering a worldly idolatry of career, which infects our culture, this is poison. This is pastoral poison for every infertile man or woman who knows of their condition before marriage, it is poison for the couples working through fertility issues, it is poison for long term singles who have remained pure and faithful, pursuing chastity and thus childlessness above all other options, I have no idea where he pulled the 99% figure from, perhaps from the days when marriages were arranged in order to secure dowries and land deals. It is horrific. A car crash. And must be called out for what it is.

The goal of Christian living — male or female — is Christlikeness. Christlikeness is how we now bear God’s image, which flows through to how we understand fruitfulness and why the ‘first commission’ leads into the Great Commission rather than being separate. Fruitfulness is Christlikeness. Or as childless Paul puts it…

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 8:29-30

What’s interesting is that Romans 8 is much more Presbyterian (or Presbyterianism is much more, officially, closely aligned with Romans 8). Our purpose, ultimately, is to be glorifiers, as God transforms us to reflect who he is, by his Spirit, as his children. Or as the official Presbyterian catechism — a summary of our beliefs — puts it, in question and answer form:

What is the chief end of mankind?
A. Mankind’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

This leads to fruitfulness, and this too is us bearing God’s image.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. — Galatians 5:22-24

Hood doesn’t even  offer  a terribly compelling reading of Genesis apart from our telos as we see it in Jesus, he says (or sees) nothing of how fruitfulness might be tied to being a community of people who represent God. People are two whole ‘ones’, not two halves, before they become one. People must be able to bear God’s image and work towards collective human fruitfulness before marriage, Abel, a childless bloke, somehow found favour in God’s eyes in Genesis 4 via his display of sacrificial love for God.

The goal of marriage is Christlikeness. The goal of singleness is Christlikeness. The goal of personhood is Christlikeness. Fruitfulness is Christlikeness.

This piece has a wonky view of masculinity and femininity

This piece assumes some pretty damaging social norms about what men and women should be doing in order to grow up being ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ — it totally fails to grapple with all our norms being essentially constructed, the Biblical manhood he pines for looks nothing like the manhood of the Ancient Near East, and everything like the manhood of the pre-enlightenment west. Our assumptions about gender are almost always constructed from a particular human culture, and you’re probably in trouble if you’re trying to construct them from the Ancient Near East anyway, unless you want to somehow argue that you should force a daughter to marry her rapist, which made a little more cultural sense in a time where marriage was necessary for financial sustainability and rape essentially ruled out marriage. The Gospel, more than anything else, has shaped the way gender works for goodness and equality rather than curse and brokenness. There’s a reason we don’t let the ministers of our churches act like King David, discarding one wife, while murdering someone else to take his…

“Women spend 13 or more years in education learning to be CEOs and Senior Counsels, not learning to be mums. Men learn to remain boys into their late 20s, with Playstations, picture story books (sorry, “graphic novels”) and the juvenility of internet pornography… Education is great, but don’t use it to delay growing up. University is not compulsory, or even Years 11 and 12. Aim for marriage. To get the woman you’ve chosen to love down the aisle you’re going to need a life-plan to support her and your children… Women need mothercraft skills — there’s a conference topic or two. Mothers need playgroups. Can older women help (Titus 2:3)? Men need a church culture that says the time for onesies and superhero T-shirts is over.” — Jared Hood

I read this last bit to a young bloke at church who is delaying his education to take a gap year — serving our youth. He was wearing a Superman T-shirt. I’m sorry, but this is such a terrible view of art and gaming, and education that will leave people ill-equipped to even come close to engaging in the Great Commission with people who enjoy these pastimes. Probably the only thing I thought was agreeable in the whole piece was his labelling pornography as juvenile.

Honestly. I have two daughters and a son. I want singleness to be a plausible calling for them if that’s what following Jesus calls them to do. I don’t want them marrying deadbeats. I don’t want them marrying for the sake of marriage because someone tells them it’s God’s plan for their life. I don’t want them marrying non-Christians (because, for any non-Christian readers, the love of Jesus is the example I wish to be at the heart of her marriage, and what I hope we manage to pass on as parents). I want them to stay faithful and believe that Christlikeness is their goal, and is more rewarding and important than sex and procreation. I want them to be able to be happily single if need be, and to be trained and equipped to make a significant difference in the world. CEO or otherwise. I also want them to be able to engage with art and culture with discernment rather than fear, and to be able to use the universal human longings and desires that art — including graphic novels, games, and superhero stories — express to do that.

 

 This piece has a wonky view of the world and how God works in it

“We don’t know what Australia will decide in the promised plebiscite. We do know this: Christendom is dead. We mourn its demise. The darkness is well advanced… In the days after the US Supreme Court decision [about Same Sex Marriage], I was heard to joke: “At least we can outbreed them.” I wasn’t really joking. Hannah, in 1 Samuel 1, sees a society fit for judgment and she does something about it. She gives her son to the Lord, to be the leader that Israel needed, to be a Nazirite like powerful Samson (1:11). On more levels than one, “children” is the response to same sex marriage. The Christian strategy is family. ” — Jared Hood

What the?

No wait.

What the?

As though we can control how our kids turn out (though Hood makes some suggestions about how to do that…

“When enrolling children in school, don’t ask the principal, “how many of your students go on to university?” Ask “how many students survive your school with their faith intact?” and “how many thrive at your school in the fear and admonition of the Lord?” — Jared Hood

It feels like, from start to finish, this is Hood’s aim, to respond to the shifting of society by positing this strategy. Outbreed ’em. As though this is how God works. As though it is his means for bringing change in the world. Procreate.

Here’s how God brings change to the world — a theme and method so sorely lacking in Hood’s graceless and destructive piece. This is also the path to the sort of righteousness Hood seems to crave… and this is what I’ll be teaching my kids is the path to real humanity, their purpose, the thing they’re to pass on in this world, in all their relationships, if they want to bring change.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.  For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”” — Romans 1:16-17

The darkness is winning. Is it? Was Christendom which was heavy on morality light on Jesus really all its cracked up to be? Is the answer to have lots of kids, or to start living like kids. God’s kids? Imitating our big brother?

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness,righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.  Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. — Ephesians 4:8-11

The persecution complex: for ‘exiled’ Christians freedom from persecution is a want, not a need

There’s a chorus of voices — Christian voices — standing at the margins of the public square, and sometimes even getting into it — clamouring for one thing. The one thing we can agree on as Christians, and that we can agree on even with our Islamic, Jewish, or Buddhist neighbours… what do we want? Freedom of religion. When do we want it? Always.

But is this really something we need? Is it self-evidently a good thing, because it makes our lives better, because it unfetters the Gospel message, and allows us to love our neighbours well? Is religious freedom — freedom from persecution — an ultimate good, or is it just a good thing that we want? And how much of that ‘wanting’ is self-interest? How much of it is genuinely motivated by love for others — be they Christian brothers and sisters, or our Islamic neighbours?

Religious persecution sucks. And there’s certainly no place for Christians to be persecutors — though we have been, historically, and continue to be in certain pockets of the world — even persecuting each other. But should we be fighting for religious freedom, or is religious freedom (historically) a good bi-product of a thing that we actually fight for — the Lordship of Jesus.

A bigger question I think is how coherent it is to actually push for religious freedom in a culture where the dominant religious position — a sort of idolatrous secularism that enshrines a bunch of new gods — practices its religion by opposing and dismembering all the others. Sure, you can be religious, it says, so long as your religion conforms to our new easy-going, inoffensive, set of beliefs and so long as you don’t call into question the central tenets of individual freedom and identity construction — around like sexuality, gender, and the pursuit of happiness by whatever means possible. You can be religious so long as you chuck your core beliefs in and replace them with ours. Keep the trappings, the pomp, the ceremony, the rituals… but empty them of meaning and make them signify some other thing…

This is the religion of our culture. And if we’re to be consistent, affording its adherents and priestly caste the right to practice will ultimately destroy us, or them.

A recent post from elsewhere confronted people like me who might argue for the ‘romantic view of persecution’ — that persecution is actually good for us, posed these questions:

But I wonder if this view is in danger of so magnifying God’s sovereignty over history (and of persecution), that it ignores our responsibility to love our neighbour: wouldn’t such love include protecting our neighbour from harms such as persecution? … Now we Christians might feel ok about our basic freedoms gradually being reduced (at least in theory!): but what about our non-Christian neighbour: how might they fare in an environment where their basic freedoms of conscience, association, and speech, are rolled back?

But what if persecution is actually fundamental to our religious practice — our view of the world? What if the lens we’re to look through to assess the world and our experiences in it is the Cross, not some sort of worldly form of culture building or moral framework? What if the Cross is our moral framework? What if loving our non-Christian neighbour — especially potential victims of persecution — means standing with them and bearing the cost, not fighting to occupy a position of power and influence in worldly ways? What if the cross is actually where we start when defining neighbour-love? It was for John. It so defined his understanding of love, and of God’s love, that it became the paradigm for all acts of love in God’s name…

 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” — 1 John 3:16-18

A quick reminder of the Gospel

The heart of the Gospel is the persecuted, crucified, king. Jesus. We’re called to take up our cross and follow him. 

The power of God triumphs over worldly power and authority in the most unlikely way — through weakness, through persecution, through the sacrificial death of the king. Loving our neighbours — Christian, Australian, or global — will always look like us being like Jesus to them, and for them. This is how we know what love is. This, too, is how they know that we are Jesus’ disciples, that we have love for one another (John 13:35), and we’re not just sent to love our brothers and sisters the way Jesus does, but sent into the world to be like Jesus (John 20:21)… There’s a deeper richness in what John says in his first letter in these verses, but just note the links here between Jesus, the testimony of Jesus, the love of God, our knowledge of that love, and its implications…

And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love… In this world we are like Jesus…We love because he first loved us…” — 1 John 4:15-16, 17, 19

Every time John talks about love he has the character of God in view — “God is love” — and not in an abstract way, but the character and love of God we see on display at the cross. This is what love is. This is what loving our neighbour looks like. If you want to love your neighbour — and want them to know that your love is an echo of God’s love — then this love is always connected to the example of Jesus, not simply a figuring out what people think is good for them… what they think they need.

God is love. He’s also power. And the path to true freedom. And love, power, and the path to freedom are all on display at the Cross. Anything else is counterfeit, or some sort of shadow reality pointing to the ultimate. If you want to see freedom, power, and love as God does — look at the world through the lens of the cross. If you want to be powerful. If you want real freedom. It’s found in the Gospel, not some other picture.

The Gospel is the power of God that brings salvation (Romans 1:16), the world thinks the Cross, and the view it provides of God, is weakness and folly but it is the power and wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-25), and it is the pattern of life and witness we’re to adopt. Weakness. Being crushed, afflicted, destroyed. This is the picture of Christian life and love; of power and victory. Our victory procession looks like being the ‘scum of the earth, the garbage of the world’ (1 Corinthians 4:11-13). But we don’t really believe that any more. We’ve been conditioned by too many years of Christendom, or the comfortable idolatrous worship of morality that looked very Christian. The same man-made religion the Pharisees were condemned for… and now we fight for that idol in the face of our cultures new gods — sexual liberation and the freedom and safety to completely construct one’s identity without being offended. 

It’s like we no longer believe this to be true:

“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.” — 1 Corinthians 12:9-10

“My power is made perfect in weakness”? Do we believe this?

Tell me again how religious freedom is a fundamental need if we’re really going to love people? This is one of those things that Paul says, that John says, that Jesus says, and that the blood of Christian martyrs through time and space cry out, but we don’t believe it. We live as though real success looks like worldly victory and freedom in this world.

The Christian life is one of meakness and weakness. Sure, we offer temporary freedom from suffering and pain to people — but we do that by taking it on ourselves, or wearing the cost of fighting for it, and these are good things. But they’re wants. Not needs. We’re called to a life of persecution and suffering as we bear the cost of following a crucified king in the world that killed him, and the cost of loving those who are afflicted. Suffering with those who suffer, mourning with those who mourn. The beatitudes are not a funny parody that God made up. They’re no Babylon Bee article. They’re a real pattern; they’re the pattern that Jesus followed. 

Salvation that comes through death and resurrection is the picture of freedom we’re to adopt. Real freedom. And this example is the picture of love we’re to adopt. Anything else offers false hope.  

Until we start believing that God is the source of real power, real freedom, and real love, all we’re offering to our world are shadows and counterfeits. Until we start believing it then every time the world beats us down it’ll feel like a loss, not a victory. We’ll think we’re loving people if we’re offering up some analogy of the world’s view of power, or flourishing, or love… but let’s start with our first principles, about who God is, and who we are, and then with God’s view of the world…

A quick ancient history lesson

John and Paul wrote their gear about the Christian life in a secular-religious world. A world where people were free to have their own god or gods, so long as they first bowed the knee to the real ‘god’ — Caesar. The personification of the ultimate human empire. The image of human might and power. At least the Caesars didn’t pretend to be ‘secular’, they just declared themselves divine. As Rome conquered they absorbed the gods of other cultures into their pantheon, but all under the ‘secular’/state agenda. Until they got to Israel… The Jews kicked up such a stink about the idea of bowing to Caesar they were given a special dispensation so long as they prayed for Caesar, rather than too Caesar. Judaism was a ‘religio licita’ (a legal religion) so long as the Jews acknowledged Caesar as the real king, the real power. A dynamic on display in the trial and execution of Jesus.

John and Paul wrote all this stuff about weakness and power, about what we need to flourish, not just nice things we want, about what love for our neighbour really looks like amidst persecution. Not just soft persecution. The persecution that involved the execution of Jesus, and others, for claiming that Caesar was not really powerful; that the emperor had no clothes. This is what we’re called to testify to — not to win religious freedom, but to call out idolatry and its destruction, even in its secular form. At our cost. This is what neighbour love looks like. Not just laying down our possessions for those who are oppressed and marginalised, but being prepared to lay down our lives in defiance of other religious agendas.

The secular landscape — the public square — is not neutral. It is not a platform where natural law arguments win out. It’s a landscape controlled by beastly powers who want to keep overcoming the lamb. Because they’re ruled by fear. They’re also not really in control. Their destinies are assured by the one who is — so are ours.

John writes another book, or letter, into this political reality. Revelation. Oft-misunderstood. His apocalyptic vision presents the slain and resurrected lamb as the one who is really in control — even as he dies — and the beastly powers as what they are; losers with a godless, crossless, view of the world, of power, and of love. Real witness, real love, well, it looks like the same testimony he calls Jesus’ followers to in his Gospel, and his letters, being faithful witnesses who live like Jesus, at cost. The letter starts with seven churches who he calls to be faithful witnesses, he calls them not to get sucked into beastly, worldly, visions of power — the same temptation that lured Adam and Eve, and that Jesus rejected in the wilderness — he calls them to hold on to Jesus… and by chapter 11, only two are standing. Two lampstands. Two faithful witnesses, who ultimately share their king’s fate. First death. Then resurrection.

“Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city — which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.” — Revelation 11:7-12

This is what faces us when we faithfully walk into the secular public square. It’s not secular and neutral; its hostile and idolatrous. Its beastly. The world is hostile, as John puts it in 1 John (and Jesus puts it in the Gospel), it’ll hate us because it hates Jesus, it’ll hate us because its full of people ‘secular’ types who, though they seem nice seem to want good things, and seem to be rational, are children of the Devil (1 John 3); people who’ve grabbed onto the temptation of worldly power, not to the Cross. This seems harsh, and perhaps it is, but John says there’s no middle ground. No neutral ground. The public square is hostile; the gatekeepers are against us. Without the lens of the cross — God’s way of seeing the world — we have the distorted lens handed to us in the first chapters of the Bible, by the serpent, so we get love, power, and ‘good’ wrong. The world doesn’t just reject Jesus, but his messengers.

A quick theological ‘positioning’ primer

We keep making the mistake of not seeing love the way God sees it, or ourselves the way the world sees us (and the way God calls us). This is not a ‘romantic’ notion; but the gritty reality. We are exiles. Strangers. Followers of a king the world rejected. Destined for the same scummy procession, rubbish in the world’s eyes but faithful and beloved by God.

Everybody worships. There is no real ‘secular’ we’re not just facing flesh and blood when we put forward a position but people and cultures who have been shaped by generations of rejection of God. In John’s apocalyptic, vivid, technicolour view of the world the beastly world, that views power the way the Caesars did, wants us dead. They don’t like the threat we pose to unfettered freedom to pursue your own identity. They don’t like a view of victory that involves an ugly cross. It’s a religion that can’t tolerate the freedom of other religions unless it dismembers them and leaves converts with a carcass to pick over or stitch on, Frankenstein-like, to their new religious identity.

This apocalyptic vision has to change the way we engage with the world. It has to change what we think love looks like, or needs, or freedom, look like. Love looks like Jesus. People need real freedom from seeing the world wrong. People need freedom from death and judgment. People need Jesus, not freedom to find their identity in some cobbled together god who doesn’t challenge the secular ‘reality’…

Not only do we seem not to believe weakness is real power, we seem to believe the world is our friend. A friend who can be cajoled and persuaded with good natural arguments or as we play the power game, lobbying for such goods as ‘religious freedom’ for everybody but the secular overlords. Rome had something like that… the religio licita. It’s not enough for us simply to want the secular world not to hurt us. To buy our freedom simply by seeking the welfare of the city or empire on its terms alone… We really do want a revolution, the revolution of hearts and minds as they find real freedom and power in the Gospel. In the blood of Jesus.

A quick look at implications

Religious freedom is a luxury. A luxury won, in part, through the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices of Christians throughout the ages, I’m not suggesting we throw it away cheaply; I’m suggesting we rediscover the truths that underpin it. That we rediscover the radical sort of love for our neighbours that goes far beyond simply winning them the right to freedom of speech, but that comes from speaking freely to them, whatever false picture of god or power they have. I’m suggesting we stop throwing our lot in behind counterfeit gods like ‘freedom’ and start exercising the freedom that comes from knowing God really does love us, and he really is powerful, and real love and power is on display in the crushing victory of the cross — which looks like a crushing defeat. If we stick with this message rather than playing worldly games using worldly tools (like lobbying, using natural law arguments, or using force) then we avoid a bunch of issues, the sort of issues that arise when we’re inconsistent, the sort of issues that have seen Christians turn the sword against one another, or against others, the sort of issues that undermine our witness. We also make sure we’re being rejected for the right thing, for our core business — we’re not called to be hated because we’re different, Jesus says the world will hate us because of him.

We can’t actually call for ‘religious freedom’ and expect that it won’t lead to persecution because aggressive secularism is a religion, a beastly religion that co-opts power to destroy all other gods and assimilate people from all other faiths. I’m suggesting that we should work harder at believing the world isn’t going to love us when we proclaim Jesus, that the secular world is not neutral but opposed to us because it has a different view of power and freedom, and that weakness and apparent defeat is the norm — and what God works through our humble sacrifice offered in love for others.

This also gives us clarity when it comes to how we relate to governments. This is tricky, they’re a means of God’s grace to us, a means by which law and order happens, we’re told to pray for them, to live at peace with them, and to obey them. But the government these instructions specifically, originally, refer to is the government that executed Jesus. Rome. Paul’s approach to the representatives of this government in Acts presumably line up with what he tells us to do in Romans 13. And what does he do in Romans? He appeals to Caesar, he wants to get to Rome to make some sort of case for his approach to life (and we get a hint that the Gospel makes it into Caesar’s household in Philippians), and en route to Rome he preaches the Gospel to its representatives… hoping to convert them. Ultimately this is what happens to the empire… the Gospel is lived and preached and becomes too compelling to ignore (or genuinely converts the emperor, depending on your take on history). It’s ultimately this change, via the testimony of the Gospel — God’s power through weakness — and the love for those who are oppressed and marginalised by the beastly powers of the world that brings freedom of religion for people in the west. According to history, and the development of good things we like, like religious freedom and freedom from persecution, the lived and spoken demonstration of God’s love — the proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed — is the best way to oppose oppression and horrible, harmful, uses of power, the best way to love our neighbours, and the best way to secure religious freedom for those who disagree with us. Tolerance of alternative religious beliefs is not widely practiced outside the west (nor is it something Christians were/are all that good at). It’s how God works.

This puts our expectations more in line with the Gospel, history, our theology and the experience of persecuted Christians in the minority world. Christians who face physical persecution along with limitations in what they can say or do… It leaves us resting in our weakness, and relying on God’s ultimate victory being on display in death and resurrection.

Public Christianity and bearing the image of God: some confessions and a response to the response to Q&A’s Christian episode

Confession #1. I have not watched Q&A’s “Christian” special from last night. I’m not yet sure I can stomach it, but I am reading the transcript. There’s some good stuff there, and some bad stuff.

Confession #2. I have followed the discussion about the episode in earnest because when it comes to public ‘texts’ that aim to articulate a vision for the good life in our community — conversations in the public square — the conversation about the text interests me as much, if not more, than the ‘text’ itself.

Confession #3. I have, in the past, said many, many, things about public Christianity that I stand by, but that this post addresses, specifically the idea that the way to get the Gospel into a conversation in the public sphere is to say the name Jesus lots and lots. That’s definitely partly true. But it’s not everything.

Confession #4. I suspect the outcome of what I’m going to suggest below is less Christianity in the public square and more Christianity for the public good, but doing that might get us some invitations back to the adult table (I’m pretty sure Q&A is actually the teenager’s table not the adult’s table).

I do still like the vision for our place in the public square put forward by Scott Stephens from the ABC (summarised here, quoted below). But I don’t think the ‘public square’ as represented by our new media ‘Fourth Estate‘ is actually capable of allowing us to play the role he speaks about. This version of the fourth estate — the role the media was meant to play as a sort of public guardian speaking truth to power by providing a public square — now comes in either in the form of Q&A’s national broadcast of representative debate, or the sort of public square we find on our Social Media platforms where the voices we hear are curated by algorithms and filtered based on popularity. I firmly believe that to achieve Scott Stephen’s utopian vision we may actually need to develop an alternative public square where we can play that role, and that may be less about taking our up role as the ‘First Estate’ with renewed vigour (where the other estates shut us out and don’t see us as part of the ‘estates of the realm‘), and thinking of ourselves as an entirely different realm. Where we might invite more voices to take part in conversations about the common good at our own table, and listen well to them.

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.” — Scott Stephens, at the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society’s Faith and Public Office Conference

This is a nice sentiment, and a lofty goal, but it’s made harder because our contributions to the public square have, for some time, been at odds with the religion of our day, our secular idols. We are exiles. We don’t belong to the realm, the powers and authorities in our culture anymore, even if we might protest loudly and seek to claim our rightful, historical, place at the table.

We’re marginalised voices not in a sort of woe-is-me I’m being persecuted sense, but in the we’ve-made-a-rod-for-our-own-backs sense. We’ve used the power and influence we’ve had in the public square to silence voices that people are now listening to. Or so they tell us. What’s weird is that we probably actually belong at the margins, if we’re going to take following a crucified king seriously, and whatever power or influence we might have is probably best used on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the weak. We’re being pushed to the space we should be speaking from anyway, and now we can listen to these voices that Scott Stephens suggests we should be giving voice to. So there’s that.

It’s possible we’ve allowed too many people to speak in our name, unquestioned, equating conservative morality with God’s kingdom in much the same way that makes this picture so obviously vile and offensive, but without being amplified to cartoonish heights.

trump

So what separates any of our political engagment — our ‘public Christianity’ — from Trump’s? Whether we’re on the right or the left, what is it that protects us from co-opting Jesus for our own agenda and has us living as people tasked with being part of God’s agenda? Because the problem with paying lip service to Jesus in order to get the word cloud looking more “Christian” is that it’s actually not evidence that you’re contributing to the public good as a Christian; that you’re actually doing things for his name. Not yours. The calling of the ‘public Christian’, or the calling to be publicly Christian, is a call to bear the image of Jesus in his world. Paul describes this task succinctly in Colossians 3.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:17

I’ve, generally speaking and with a few notable exceptions who do things very well, been very vocally critical of public Christianity in Australia. Especially in the media. One of my loudest critiques, often the things I write that have the most ‘virality’ is that our public Christians need to speak about Jesus. We definitely need to get the ‘word’ part right, but ‘word or deed’ isn’t setting up two optional categories, it’s unpacking the ‘whatever you do’… they’re related. Not separate. They’re twin aspects of our image bearing vocation.

I would’ve loved the panelists on the show last night to have spoken more about Jesus, not artificially weaving him in to answers to real questions, but showing how he informs good and real answers to real political questions at every turn. If our answers to any question about life in the world as Christians isn’t built on Jesus, and the virtues that we’re called to exhibit as we live for his name, then they might be ‘wise’ or philosophical, they might even be good and sensible and human, but they’re not meaningfully Christian. There’s plenty of human wisdom that Christians can tap into as citizens as we observe the world, but that always has some connection to the divine nature and character of God, that stuff can inform the public square when it comes to decision making and the shape of our life together, but a good mathematician or health professional can do that sort of thing too (and Christians can, and should, be good mathematicians or health professionals). But when it comes to ‘public Christianity’ we’re talking about our answers to the public’s great needs coming from somewhere beyond simply good science or math. I feel like we’ve lost this central conviction, that Jesus should be at the heart of our politics — literally how we ‘citizen’ — and how we speak into the public square as his ambassadors. His image bearers. I certainly don’t see this conviction articulated in many places whether we’re talking about Christianity’s conservative or progressive arms.  The context of that Colossians verse is our new political reality. Our belonging to a new people. Our renewed function as image bearers…

“… you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised,barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” — Colossians 3:10-14

Too often our assessment of public Christianity, mine included, is about Logos.

Did they hit the right notes on my Christian shibboleth test?

Did they say “X”? 

Where X is our summary of the Gospel, for me, something like: “Jesus is Lord of a new kingdom, he proves it and invites us to take part in it, and be one with him, through his death and resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit”…

And that’s important, but it’s a potentially meaningless criteria if its simply about getting the message right… The Gospel is a message. But it’s a message about an alternative political reality. An alternative emperor; that’s caught up in the first century meaning of the word Gospel. A ‘gospel’ was political good news, delivered by ambassadors, that shaped the lives of citizens. Words matter. The word-made-flesh matters. But in Jesus being word and flesh we see the way to navigate this tension. A human image is embodied. We teach by what we do, by what we consider to be virtuous and how we embody those virtues, and how that embodied life supports and amplifies our speaking. We’ve been Logos heavy, and part of the answer is Ethos, and its relationship to the fruit of our message, to what people do if, or when, they’re persuaded. It’s in lives that match our words, and words that spring to lives from our lives, from the relationships we have in and with our community; from how we love people. It’s not seeing ‘truth’ and ‘love’ as exactly the same thing, as though we love simply by speaking, or as completely disconnected activities. More of the answer comes from properly seeing the Gospel as a challenge to the political orders of the world, not just a detached bit of news that leaves us unchanged. This stuff changes everything, and the change is demonstrated in the examples we live in our world.

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. — Philippians 3:17-20

This new “citizenship” is why we might end up excluded from ‘estates of the realm’ when the realm belongs to those opposed to Christianity and to Jesus. This is why thinking of the church as belonging to that realm as a separate estate to the media, as the ‘first estate of the realm,’ not as a realm of its own, will also lead to trouble. We are citizens of something new, but we still have obligations to love our neighbours, and part of that love must surely be in seeking their good by modelling and articulating an alternative Christ-centered vision of life whenever, and wherever, we’re invited to speak.

This typical ‘Logos-centric’ approach, an approach I’ve been guilty of, is an anemic vision of what it means to be publicly Christian. To do “Christian politics.” It puts too much weight on proclamation and not enough on the ethos that goes with it, and I think it makes the criteria a simple check box that some of us, me included, are prepared to tick off if people simply give lip service to Jesus. This is a dangerous check-box if it means we’ll pass people who say things that are totally at odds with the sort of lives of love, and vision for human flourishing, that the Gospel brings and exemplifies in the person of Jesus, or fail people who are living those lives out of Christian convictions but don’t totally land the Gospel in their delivery. There are reasons to pass or fail people at either end of the spectrum… but it’s not enough to tick-a-box for the Gospel, or to quote bits of the Bible that seem to support our position, any monkey, even Trump, can do that.

A certain subset of people reading this, the type who have jumped on the same bandwagon as me with a bit of vigour (and often not much sympathy for the way public Christianity via the media takes place) might switch off here, especially if it sounds like I’m saying “preach the Gospel, when necessary use words” — I’m absolutely not saying that. Words are always necessary, and as Christians, our words about life in the commonwealth as Christians with a view to the common good, should always be fundamentally informed by the Word-made-flesh, and point to him as the model of the good life, and the solution to our bad and damaging ways of life.

Successful public Christianity, whether its on the TV or on your street, is about genuinely grappling with who Jesus is and what he is remaking us to be as we share in his death and resurrection, living out the fruits of this new life, and this grappling, and inviting others to do the same. It’s about adopting a posture of other-loving humility that informs our words and our manner. Trump clearly hasn’t done that, if you listen to what he says about Christianity, but if you listen carefully to many of our Christian voices, voices coming from people I believe are often genuinely Christians, we don’t get much of a sense of this deep-seated conviction that the Gospel creates a political reality. We need Christian images, not simply disembodied Christian voices. Which means the adversarial Q&A format is an interesting challenge… We need to rest in our new citizenship, and develop a new vision for what life together with other kingdoms, following other gods, looks like. Because that’s what Christian politics is about. Citizenship. That’s what shapes our ethos, or image, and feeds into our words. A belief that Jesus is Lord is something that should lead us to proclaim that truth, and build a community around it. A community of Christians though; its loony cultural-colonialism to expect people to live as Christians without the Gospel. The Lordship of Jesus, and his example of love and the ultimate picture of what human life should look like, should help us form coherent opinions on all sorts of social issues so that words on our lips aren’t window dressing, but are substantiated by our lives, and show why we do things differently.

In an age where the public square is contested, and the Christian voice is losing a position of power it held too vigorously and too long to the point that the power corrupted us, we need something more sophisticated than bumper sticker Christianity. Conservative or progressive secular politics with a bit of Jesus chucked in on top. We need to be able to articulate a radically different vision of humanity and ‘kingdom’ that comes from our new citizenship, and our new way of seeing the world, which begins with the death and resurrection of Jesus and seeks to make his name great in the world. We need to recapture the sense that public Christianity is a fundamentally human activity caught up in our created vocation of carrying God’s image throughout his world, as his image bearers, especially as this image — that is broken by our decision to bear the image of false gods — is being restored by God’s Spirit so we are transformed into the image of Jesus. Our persuasive efforts in the public sphere are about being people of this new kingdom, ambassadors from a different sort of kingdom, pointing to the conquering king. His name should be on our lips not as a token ‘get the Gospel in to the Public Square’ box to tick, but because our foundational belief is that a public square founded on anything else is deadly and destructive.

Too much of our ‘public Christianity’ — some of which is on display in the transcript from last night that I’ve read so far — is just us picking a political side that we’ve been indoctrinated into by our culture, our parents, or what appeals to us. The default human institutions — left or right — with a bit of Jesus. Sometimes it’s not so simple. Sometimes we’re informed by some part of our Christianity that is not ‘central’ — like a moral framework that we pull from the Old Testament, without Jesus, so we’re constructing our own man-made religious framework, sometimes our actions are shaped by a particular vision of the new creation, an eschatology, where we’re seeking to construct something good without recognising the gap that exists between us and our neighbours is infinite – that we have the mind of Christ, via the Spirit, and they don’t. Sometimes it seems we expect people to take these positions on board in their life, to change their deeds, without being transformed into the image of the one whose name we now live for, the one who stands at the centre of the cosmos and models the way of love for us, and so rightly stands at the centre of any true picture of how we should do life together as people. Too much of it assumes we have a right to have a voice at the table in an estate that is not ours. Too much assumes that we’re to hold on to, or wield, power (in the form of lobbying) for the sake of ‘Christians’, not use whatever power or influence we have for the sake of others (in the form of advocacy). Too much of us leaves Jesus acting as the ambassador of whatever worldly cause has co-opted us, even if it’s morally good and naturally worthwhile, so that we, and he, are ambassadors for morality and nature, and not for the one who is truly moral and created all things.

If you’re going to be a public Christian, which we should all be every time we cross the threshold of our homes and walk into public space, and any time we invite the public into our space, we’d do well to meditate on Colossians 3 and 2 Corinthians 3-5, perhaps especially this bit…

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 5:14-20

This should ultimately be what separates us from Trump, and keeps us both wanting to speak about Jesus and doing it coherently. It’s who we now are, not just a box we tick to appease the Christians talking about our performance on social media or in 3,000 word rants on their blogs.

Love thy neighbour

Love your neighbour as yourself — Jesus

We live on the greatest street in Brisbane. At least I believe we do. Here’s how you can challenge us for the title, and why you should.

streetscape
Life on our street is great. Geography is part of this, of course, our quiet suburban street has handy access to the one of Brisbane’s main arterial roads, is close to a major shopping centre, and is a dead end backing onto a large sporting field. But the thing that makes this street great is community.

It’s our neighbours.

We didn’t build this community, we joined it, we were welcomed into it, and we know we belong in it. We’re not the newest people in the street anymore, and we’ve been able to be part of inviting others into this community, but it’s been a valuable time for us to think about what it means to be good neighbours. And this is important. It’s important because community is good for people; and isolation is bad.

Neighbouring is fundamental to who we are; in our national psyche “everybody needs good neighbours,” and in our family’s Christian framework, we believe we’re called above just about everything else to love our neighbours — and that’s, of course, a call to love any fellow human, our ‘global neighbours’ but it most definitely includes the people we live in closest proximity to; those in our streets, apartment blocks, or whatever other form of geographic proximity to people you experience.

We’ve lived in quite a few houses as a couple now, and both lived in plenty of houses before that, and our experience of neighbours has been mixed. We’ve lived in a townhouse complex where we barely said hi to the other residents, we’ve lived next to friends we loved dearly before moving in, we’ve lived next to people who became friends who we shared meals with, and in a cul-de-sac where people, including us, would appear and disappear through remotely opened garage doors and never even make eye contact. I think for various reasons, including a growing individualism, and a materialism where ‘every man’s home is his castle,’ where toys and man caves, and their female and family equivalents, exist to keep people satisfied behind the threshold of the front door. We’ve, at least in my observations of city life, lost the art of hospitality. But that’s not true on our street.

We have regular get-togethers: spontaneous weekend barbeques, afternoon beers, street parties for Australia Day, October Fest, and Christmas (especially for the turning on of the street’s Christmas light displays), cooking competitions — like our recent chicken wing off. We have an Easter Egg hunt. We held a street garage sale. We help out with odd jobs — renovations, furniture moving, concrete slab pouring, chasing runaway dogs, and electrical work (well, that’s the friendly neighbourhood sparky, great guy, I’m more than happy to recommend his services to you). Beer and coffee seem to be pretty much on tap. Our kids play together, we babysit for each other, some people holiday together, there’s a street Facebook group which people treat like our own Uber service, and notice board. We bake for each other. We create pot-luck banquets from our combined leftovers. We pet-sit. People exercise together. We philosophise. We share our stories. We listen. We laugh. The dads plot and scheme together and cook up amazing ideas like a trailer mounted cool room that holds 12 kegs, with three of them on tap… That’s not all of it, and I’m not responsible for any of this (except the coffee).

I love being out on the street with my neighbours. I often peer out the windows hoping to see someone else outside. We’re friends. Genuinely. People are choosing to renovate rather than sell up and move somewhere nicer. This stuff amazes me. We talk often about how amazing this community is, and how organic it seems. We’ve talked about amping things up with more incidental stuff (and some dreams of a street brewery), some of us have spoken about trying to develop a culture of shifting life to the front yard — a concept described in this book Playborhood — that I think is fascinating. We make space for the introverts too. People come and go, dipping in and out as required, others stay and stay, a couple of Saturday nights ago I found myself dragging my laptop out onto the street at 11pm to work on a talk for church (not for the next day), because I’d planned to do that from 6pm, and didn’t want to leave the fun.

Not everyone in our street is part of this ‘community’. We invite everyone to major events — like Australia Day and Octoberfest. We try to talk to anyone whose passage up the street is obstructed by our afternoon beers. Some people choose not to take part, some are more involved than others. Most of the long term people on the street, especially the families, are part of what goes on. It’s welcoming, it’s open, it took us a while to realise this, and we don’t have the same history as others do with each other — but genuine, deep, friendships take time to build, but that process can be accelerated with social lubricants like beer, coffee, and generosity. Which my neighbours offer by the bucket.

I’m not saying this stuff to brag about what we’ve done, or how good we’ve got it. Though I’m constantly excited. I didn’t build this. I’m saying this because I think our Aussie culture sorely needs this. Your street needs this. You need it. It’s good for you, and for your neighbours.

I’m learning what it means to be a good neighbour from some of the best. And it seems easy. It seems to be something you could do too. But I suspect it seems easy because a culture has been built here for a long time, from some pretty strong convictions that everybody does need good neighbours. It’s actually not easy, until it is. It’s a bit counter-cultural. It takes intentional breaking down of barriers.

But here’s what I believe. Not just because I’m a Christian, and it fits, but because I think good neighbours — good communities — are absolutely essential for human flourishing. And we’re losing this part of our shared life — and you can do something about it.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Community is a fundamental human need. It’s not really optional, as much as some of us might think we can get by without it. Neighbours, the TV show, is right. Everybody needs good neighbours. There’s plenty of good academic data out there connecting wellbeing to belonging and community. And there’s plenty of social science and science stuff out there to suggest that community or tribal instincts are historically important for adaptation and survival, and this isn’t just about breeding.

If we’re to take the Christian account of our humanity seriously — we also see that we’re social animals. We’re made to be part of a community. This will feel different for different people — introversion and extroversion mean community has different costs and benefits, but no man or woman is made to be an island, even if sometimes we wish our ‘castles’ had a moat to cut us off from the rest of the world. The first two chapters of the Bible are, in part, about establishing this truth — that we are relational beings, that we’re made in the image of the God who is a community — Father, Son, and Spirit, and that our bearing of this image is a function of our community, or relationships, so that we need more than just ourselves — we need ‘male and female,’ and in the Genesis 2 version of the creation of humanity, we’re told community — relationships — are necessary for human flourishing, for things to be the ‘good’ that has been God’s aim in creating the world.

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” — Genesis 1:26

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” — Genesis 1:31

“The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” — Genesis 2:18

The Bible’s picture of paradise, of ‘the good life’ is people living in community with one another, and with God. The flipside in the Bible’s story, essentially the story of paradise lost (and ultimately found again) is that we’re told our experience of relationships, or community, won’t always be great. We’re still made in God’s image, but our decision not to align our lives with his plans for the world comes at the cost of our relationships. We’re self-interested before we’re other-interested, and often our interest in others is framed in terms of what we can get more than what we can give. Which is interesting when it comes to Jesus’ description of the greatest commandments, these are a recipe for re-finding ‘paradise’ — for life being ‘good’ again.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”  — Matthew 22:37-39

This command, along with Jesus’ version of the ‘golden rule’, which tells us to do good to others, not just avoid doing bad (like other versions of the golden rule from other wise people), has been pretty influential in the cultures — western culture — built around Christian thinking. But it’s not just a “Christian” thing, nor is good neighbouring. It’s fundamentally part of our wiring, and happens wherever humanity happens; just with our inherent selfishness also part of the mix.

For Christians, good neighbouring isn’t a means to some other end — its not a sales strategy for Christianity (though if you’re a good neighbour, people might listen to you or ask you questions from genuine interest), it is what we’re told to do. We have a particular motivation to be good neighbours because it’s what Jesus told us to do.

When good neighbouring happens, for any of us, it’s a taste of paradise. When community happens, when it really happens, when it is built on neighbouring, on others-centred love, it produces really great stuff. It’s a picture of humanity as it was made to be. A taste of paradise. One of the best fruits of Christianity’s undeniable influence in western society is these words of Jesus do occupy a space somewhere close to the heart of our western identity; even if we want to reject all the mysterious spiritual stuff.

How to love your neighbours (like ours love us)

I’ve done my best to ask around about how this happened. The history, or story, of our street. I largely put it down to one guy, at least so the story goes. A natural born community builder who bought into the street a long time ago; when his house was ‘the party house’ — and it was a party house which drew some other people who moved into, or lived on, the street into its orbit. The geography stuff is a factor, the dead end makes it easier to congregate on the street, or in the park, but really it was one guy who was intentional about being open to new relationships, because as I talk to him, he is utterly committed to community, and the way he builds it is through profound generosity. This generosity is infectious, and it may well be that there’s a statistical anomaly that means I live around some of the most generous people I’ve ever met, but I think its also just this expectation that gets built over time that generosity to those you live in community with produces benefit, not cost.

People seem to think our street sounds good and desirable. When I tell them what’s going on, or post photos online, people say things like ‘you’re lucky to have that’ — I don’t think it’s luck. I think we’re lucky to have landed here, sure, but it’s the product of a few people taking the time and expending the effort to deliberately build a thing that expresses something deeply true and good about our humanity. It’s not dumb luck. It’s the result of love, and a desire for real community.

So here’s some tips I’ve gleaned from learning this story and watching our little community operate.

  1. Be intentional 
    This doesn’t happen by accident. You don’t accidentally love your neighbours, you do it by deciding that’s a thing you want to do, and prioritise. You do it by meeting people, learning names, going out of your way to contribute to the lives of those around you at every opportunity. You do it by creating opportunities. By doing things on your street, in your home, and inviting your neighbours to be part of it.
  2. Communicate
    Community requires communication. Part of this is just smiling, waving, and speaking to each other in passing. It requires trying to get to know your neighbours. Knowing people’s names is only half the battle. If you’re going to do a chicken wing cook off it’s not just a matter of cooking some wings and hoping the smell will draw a crowd. A Facebook group might be a little intense — but its probably worthwhile grabbing phone numbers for people on your street, or in your complex, for neighbourhood watch or runaway dog purposes, maybe you could put together a directory, with people’s names — and that’ll help you remember who’s who, and give you a good reason to meet new people on the street as they arrive. Don’t spam these lists or try to sell stuff to your neighbours in some crass way. Love is not a means to some other agenda, it’s an end in itself. But these sorts of contact lists might be a great tool for creating the sort of events that will build your community. Like a chicken wing cook off.
  3. Be welcoming
    There’ll always be people on your street who you get on with more naturally than others. But if you just pick a few friends and shut everyone else out, you’re not building a community, you’re building a commune. One of the nicest things about our community is how inclusive it is. We’re a pretty diverse bunch when it comes to age, stage, politics, religion, and vocation — sure, we also have much in common in terms of ethnicity and a few other things — but everybody gets invited to things, and everybody is welcome. There seems to be a commitment to putting up with one another through some things that in another street could lead to a blood feud. We’ve had a few pet related mishaps, and I’m constantly amazed that people put up with our barking dog and my bad jokes.
  4. Be generous
    I tell lots of people that I don’t think I’ve had to buy a beer since we moved in. I think that’s probably true. And it’s not just beer — I mentioned some stuff above, but we’ve been given clothes, toys, a spit roast thing (that I’m going to convert into a coffee roaster), a home-welded chicken coop far beyond my capabilities, plenty of time in the form of dog-sitting… and some other incredibly generous acts of service from different people. We’ve found various ways to give back, but we still feel like our neighbours have been more generous to us than we have to them, and so, we’re always keen to be generous to the street whenever, and however, we can. I get the sense this is true for most of us. Someone has to start this cycle though, in order to create a culture, and that might simply look like doing some baking, or cooking some meals, or pitching in with some odd jobs as you notice them when you’re hanging out in your front yard.Generosity includes hospitality. You can’t expect all neighbouring to happen on the street. That can get uncomfortable after a while (though most of us have readily accessible picnic chairs). We’ve got to the point on our street where our kids will, upon invitation, quite confidently wander around our neighbours houses and yards. And we’re pretty happy for our neighbours to drop in or come round too — like for Family Feud viewing parties. For us to do this sort of thing requires us to be comfortable with the fact that the stage of life we’re in means our house will never actually feel tidy, and we’ve just got to roll with that.
  5. Shift to the front yard
    This is a big one from Playborhood. And it’s counter-cultural. All our fun stuff is still in our backyard. Our trampoline (built at night with the help of our neighbours), our veggie patch, our swingset and sand pit. And my beloved hammock. In this we’re not alone, Aussies have become back yard types. Secluded. Fenced in. Enjoying the serenity and privacy of our own little kingdoms. The back yard is important for our family’s sanity, but most of our incidental ‘street time’ comes from keeping an ear out for activity while we’re inside, or from deliberate loitering, and playing with our dog, in the front yard. The park and the quiet street make this easier. Most of our neighbours kids are older than ours, and are often out riding, or playing, or making home movies; and ours are always keen to join their big friends.
  6. Create traditions
    This one is the most fun. We’re gradually building an events calendar that features regular signature events, with incidentals like birthdays and spontaneity padding things out. These things get a life of their own the more fun people have with them. One of the guys bought a bunch of steins for Octoberfest that he gave to each of us. There’s a perpetual Golden Drumstick at stake in the wing off. The Christmas Lights get bigger and brighter each year. Our kids almost drowned under the sea of Easter Chocolate. These things add a richness, and we’re often talking about the next one and planning how we might improve it (which gives us plenty to talk about — and relationships start out with those awkward conversations about the weather, then move through talking about shared interests, before you get to the deeper level of trust and understanding). These traditions shape the life of the community, and help us figure out what we value, and they’re fun.
  7. Have low expectations
    This stuff doesn’t happen overnight. What we enjoy on our street is the fruit of relationships that extend back many years before we arrived. But I don’t just mean have low expectations about how quickly this will happen so that you seek to make incremental steps towards community, I mean have low expectations of each other. This is counter-cultural stuff. People are busy. People are suspicious of strangers, and about people who are over-enthusiastic about things that look intense… but community is good for us. That’s my belief, and experience. Not every street has someone like our pioneering neighbour who build community naturally, or other people moving in with the same values. You might have to be that person. Don’t expect people to sign up, expect that you’ll have to model stuff, take the first step, and carry the cost (at least initially) of growing a community.

Do you have good neighbours? What are your tips? Chances are my actual neighbours will see this, because we’re Facebook friends. They’ve probably got some ideas too (and I trust that I haven’t given away any trade secrets)…

11 propositions on gender stuff in churches (and the wider world)

I’ve been asked to speak at an upcoming event on women’s ministry in our denomination with a couple of women from church, one of whom is my colleague, the other is my wife. They are both smart and pretty well thought out on this stuff, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around all this gender stuff in the church, and the world.

So here’s my attempt to articulate something like my framework for thinking through how men and women relate in the church, and what ‘gender roles’ look like. The TL:DR; version is pretty much that I think men and women are equal and different, and that this comes together, ideally, in a way that allows us to bear the image of God, as we see him in Jesus, through our relating.

  1. Any attempt to define things about our humanity, including gender, must start with understanding God.

    Before we get to what maleness and femaleness mean for Christians we need to look at who makes humans and why. In philosophical buzzspeak any ‘theological anthropology’ (an account of what it means to be human) rightly begins with God. This is especially true because humans are made in the image of God, and it takes both genders working in harmony for us to even begin being anything like the God of the Bible, who is three persons eternally in perfect, loving, harmony where difference (three) and unity (one) are twin poles of who God is. This isn’t to say we should shatter the creator/creature divide. But the Bible starts with the definitive claim that we are made in God’s image, which means we should look to who God is as we figure out such fundamental questions of who we are.

    Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

    So God created mankind in his own image,
        in the image of God he created them;
        male and female he created them. — Genesis 1:26-27

    One of the other distinctive parts of this claim is that the God who speaks is plural. God is an ‘us’…

  2. The Triune God models difference, equality, and voluntary submission without a loss of that equality

    The last clause of this heading is one that is contested by theologians. There are plenty of people who think that any submission, voluntary or otherwise, is indicative of inequality. But I, frankly, disagree. I do think the voluntary part of the equation is incredibly, incredibly, important. And our attempts to define gender relationships within the church often don’t feel all that voluntary, and sometimes watching men and women (perhaps especially married couples) relate in churches, especially where the woman is obviously gifted, feels a bit like watching someone with Stockholm Syndrome. I think people exercising their God-given gifts for the sake of the body is pretty essential to human flourishing, but, paradoxically, choosing not to exercise those gifts in a particular way, or context, voluntarily, can also be an act of self-giving love, to wit:

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

    Who, being in very nature God,
        did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
    rather, he made himself nothing
        by taking the very nature of a servant,
        being made in human likeness.
    And being found in appearance as a man,
        he humbled himself
        by becoming obedient to death—
            even death on a cross! — Philippians 2:5-8

    Some argue that Jesus only submits to the father during the incarnation. And that’s fine. I think if we, the church, are the ‘body of Christ’ now, we should probably be modelling our human relationships on this example, like Philippians 2 suggests, and I also believe there’s an utter eternal consistency between who God is within the Trinity in an eternal sense, and who God is as the persons of God operate in creation and human history. But what’s important is that you can’t undermine the equality of the persons of the Trinity, nor their difference, without straying into fairly major problems, and while the persons of the Trinity have very distinct roles in their interactions with the world, they act according to the same unified purpose, and they’re always present in one another’s actions. The fancy Greek word for this is perichoresis. They are eternally interpenetrating. This is the union/relationship from which all their creative and loving acts flow. And we are one of those creative and loving acts, but we carry the imprint of that within our being and purpose.

    There’s a degree of the paradoxical to all this. Which is important to remember…

  3. Men and women are different and equal

    Because here’s another one that has often, I think, been poorly expressed. Plenty of Christians focus on the ‘different’, plenty on the ‘equal’, many on the relationship whether its ‘equal but different’ or ‘different but equal’… but wherever you put the ‘but’ you’re essentially indicating a preference or priority in a tribal understanding of the relationship between these two paradoxical poles. I’m going with the ‘and’, because like G.K Chesterton, and many others before and after him, I think we run into massive troubles when we kill paradoxes.

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

    One of my fears on gender stuff is we’ve either decided there is no paradox, or kept one more furiously than the other. I think the richness of the image of God we bear in the world depends on our ability to live together, navigating this paradox together. And this richness, and thus the image bearing, is threatened when we follow broken patterns of human relationships (see below), and part of that brokenness is an attempt to deny difference, equality, or the affirm difference or equality, without holding both furiously.

  4. Because bearing the image of God is a vocation not a description, it is tied to a concept of a priesthood of all believers.

    God doesn’t look like a man, or a woman. The ‘image’ in Genesis 1, as Dorothy Sayers says, is not physical.

    “Only the most simple-minded people of any age or nation have supposed the image to be a physical one. The innumerable pictures which display the Creator as a hirsute old gentleman in flowing robes seated on a bank of cloud are recognised to be purely symbolic. The “image”, whatever the author may have meant by it, is something shared by male and female alike; the aggressive masculinity of the pictorial Jehovah represents power, rationality or what you will: it has no relation to the text I have quoted. Christian doctrine and tradition, indeed, by language and picture, sets its face against all sexual symbolism for the divine fertility.” — Dorothy Sayers, Mind of the Maker

    That last bit is interesting I think, especially given this law in Deuteronomy 4:

    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.” — Deuteronomy 4:15-20

    See, this is interesting. God can’t be represented in an image of any shape, specifically man or woman. The problem with idols is that they never truly capture the nature of God. Nothing created does. Except for the idol-like images that God himself makes — first the people in Genesis 1, and now the people he has re-cast for himself, like an idol, through the furnace of Egypt. This ‘people of his inheritance’ is his kingdom of priests…

    Although the whole earth is mine,  you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” — Exodus 19:5-6

    And later, in 1 Peter 2, this mantle is explicitly passed to the church. We are God’s priestly people.

    But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. — 1 Peter 2:9-10

    We are his representatives. His restored, recast, image bearers. The body of Christ… This is not just males, or just females, its males and females together, in relationships that ‘have the same mindset as Christ Jesus’ on display.

    To use some fancy philosophical words — our ontology (what it means to ‘be’) isn’t just functional (a job) it’s relational (our ‘being’ only matters if we’re being in connection with others (God and other people). Being truly human, according to God’s design, means males and females sharing in this task of representing God to his world. Specifically for Christians that means bearing the image of Jesus. Our relationships with one another should involve us imitating him.

    Unbroken by sin we’d all be ‘priests’ in the sense Israel, then the church, are called to be priests, mediating God’s presence to the world in how we live, what we say, and especially how we live in a way that celebrates equality and difference. We, the body of Christ, bear the image of God together in a much richer way than we bear it alone.

  5. Genesis 3 describes a cursed pattern of relationships that leads to enmity between the genders, and the patriarchy is a product of this, it’s not an instruction manual for Christian male/female relationships.

    “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:28

    We were made to rule over creation together. In cooperation. Male and female. All of us. We were equally tasked with this image bearing vocation…  but then things fall apart.

    To the woman he said,

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

    Sometimes the default patterns we adopt in our churches, be they from our culture or from church tradition, look more like Genesis 3 than Jesus. I get a bit worried when we read Genesis 3 like its the inevitable pattern of relationships between men and women in the church. Somehow men have authority because ‘he will rule over you’… what 3:16 describes is a loss, in our natural ‘human’ relationships, of the function we were given to, together, rule over God’s creation. It describes exactly the kind of brokenness that produces the patriarchy, which is, essentially, a system built on this pattern of relating. Men grasping power and using it to rule over women. This also produces certain broken social constructions of gender that are harmful and perpetuate the effects of the fall. That’s what our nature does without divine intervention. We play out this cursed pattern and extend it to the ends of the earth, rather than extending God’s life-giving rule, like we were made to.

    It’s not just blokes who are sinful though, this is just a particular manifestation of the power struggle that replaces the power sharing of Genesis 1-2. This is broken, and  Jesus came to fix it. Relationships within the church are meant to be built on the example of Jesus not on the mess made in Genesis 3, the default mess.

    Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God… Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. — Ephesians 5:1-2, 21

  6. The men, the ‘patriarchs,’ in the Old Testament are almost universally terrible to women, and that’s evidence that they are not examples for good, upright conduct, but pointers to our universal brokenness and our need for a better model.

    Just as Genesis 3:16 is not a pattern for ideal male/female relationships, the characters we meet living out this cursed arrangement are not role models. Name one major authority figure in the Old Testament who does not have a fraught, or abusive, relationship with women. And it’s a downward spiral. We’re not meant to imitate David’s approach to Bathsheba, or Abraham’s treatment of Sarah, or Judah with Tamar, or any of the horrible interactions we see. We’re meant to get the sense that the world isn’t safe any more. The nakedness without fear in the Garden of Eden has been replaced with something much more sinister. Jesus is different. His relationships with women are very different. They’re safe. He doesn’t use his power to abuse, but to protect. He doesn’t view women as ‘less than’ him, but consistently, throughout his ministry, defies social conventions (like, for example, the convention that judged an adulterous woman or a prostitute but not the men in her life, he refuses to buy into that model, and, as another example, his unconventional dependence on women as witnesses to the resurrection).

  7. Gender is socially constructed, but the Kingdom of God, as we see it in the church, is a society. A society holding out an alternative construction of life in the world built on the foundation of Jesus. This society has its own construction of gender that must celebrate difference and equality.

    Eden had a social construct. No person exists in isolation from society, in fact, we can’t. We will if the picture of being outlined above stacks up with the Biblical data, always ‘be’ caught up in a purpose that requires us to be in relationship with others, and be as a function of those relationships. Our sense of being, our identities, are caught up and defined in a society, or many societies. This is especially true if our created function, as image bearers, includes developing human societies and cultures where people exist in loving, others-centered, self-giving, relationships built on the example of Jesus. It seems odd to think that ‘social construction’ doesn’t extend into the society of God’s people, his kingdom, or that God is ambivalent to the shape our relationships with one another take, given that he made us equal and different in order to reflect something of the divine nature.

    We’re not going to get this right, and there’s a sense where we’re always defining ourselves, in God’s kingdom, against the ‘kingdoms of this world’ — worldly conceptions of gender, especially those from our culture, will always have a ring of truthiness to them because they’re part of the air we breathe. We’re also navigating between two poles of the difference/equality paradox and most people, and church structures, seem to be pulled more strongly towards one pole than the other.

    It can be hard to extract the social constructions from the ‘divine design’, especially with that cursed fall, or the fall’s curse, playing around with our experience of gender in our relationships.

    There are some basic biological building blocks of anatomical sex when it comes to males and females that mean not every ‘gender role’ is entirely constructed by an individual. There are obviously spectrums within maleness and femaleness when it comes to issues like hormonal and reproductive function, but like all males, I’ll never get pregnant, and there’s a certain amount of social freedom (and thus constructed identity) that comes from knowing this. But there are also sweeping social changes that have occurred through different periods of history that have rewritten gender norms over and over again, which means it’s not good enough for the church to just to adopt the unquestioned assumptions or constructions of gender from previous generations — there’s a great piece by Ellen Mandeville on Christ and Pop Culture exploring some of the dangers faced when we do that, which is absolutely worth your time. She demonstrates, I think pretty convincingly, that much of what we think of gender is socially constructed. But she stops well short of suggesting that this truth means we need to eradicate ‘difference’ between male and female. Instead, we’re to keep navigating between those two poles — equality and difference.

    I think the way this difference and equality plays out is in a shared function, or telos, for God’s people — a shared sense of belonging to the body of Christ. A shared understanding that all the parts of the body are equally important, while playing different roles. And, as unpopular as this may be in a world where gender is constructed differently, or deconstructed, or where equality trumps difference, I think we need to be open to the possibility that just as different persons of the Trinity play different roles, so too must different persons of the church play different roles, but, just as the persons of the Trinity are ‘perichoretically’ linked so that they never act alone, this is true for the body of Christ as well; we are all united by the same Spirit. Well, that’s how Paul puts it anyway… he’s talking about how men and women — all members of the body — operate together as the church.

    There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good… 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. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” — 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-14 

    Paul talks about a bunch of specific types of gifting for specific people in the body. Now, as is the case any time I write about this stuff it’s worth acknowledging my ‘privilege’ up front when it comes to roles within the body. I’m not just a male, I’m a member of the body with a fairly prominent role that some might desire because it seems to carry a degree of authority. But Paul says that role as ‘impressive’ as it may be in a worldly sense (in a world that values oratory), is just as God-given as any other role in the body, and no more valuable. While there are these particular roles, some of which Paul seems to suggest are distributed according to gender, Paul seems to play down their value against one particular kind of gifting he wants to see thriving in the body. The greater gifts. The most excellent way. The gift of Christ like love. That’s what 1 Corinthians 13, where he goes next, is about.
    “Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.” — 1 Corinthians 12:31. 

    I’m pretty sure Paul isn’t departing from the body message he’s just been labouring up until this point in order to flatly contradict everything he’s just said. I’m pretty sure the ‘greater gifts’ aren’t the sort of prominent teaching roles we tend to attach value to in conversations about gender. I think we may, in fact, be importing worldly pictures of authority and value, our own social constructs, into the mix at that point. Paul has just said:

    But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”

    So I’m pretty sure he’s not turning around to turn people against one another as they compete for top spot. Whatever that is. If we want to pursue equality in the church, which we absolutely should, I don’t think it comes at the expense of difference, and I certainly don’t think it’s about picking roles that the world holds in high esteem and suggesting that if they’re gendered that we’re necessarily a product of the patriarchy… it might mean that, it has happened before (see the Old Testament)… I think we need to think quite differently about authority, power, and roles within the church — and, so, quite differently about our understanding of gender; particularly what benefits real equality and difference can construct for males and females if we construct our understanding of humanity — and the relationship between males and females on the love of Jesus, and his example, not on broken patterns of humanity. But part of this thinking differently means protecting both equality and difference when these poles are challenged by worldly constructs (or deconstructions) of gender.

    But then I’m a man, in a position the world would hold in high esteem, so take my position with a grain of salt and read me according to my potential cultural biases.

    The next four points are a little shorter because, hopefully, they build on what has come so far and sit more in the realm of implications than framework.

  8. We model a different pattern best when we deliberately bear the image of God, voluntarily submitting autonomy, while navigating that paradox of equality and difference, in particular God-given contexts (church gatherings and marriage).

    These two contexts are deliberately designed to reflect something about who God is, especially and specifically geared towards reflecting who Jesus is as he relates to the Father during his earthly ministry, and as he relates to the church (so Genesis 2 sets up marriage as a ‘perichoretic union’ that makes the male/female relationship a specific parallel to the Trinity and a place where fruitful multiplication of the sort envisaged in Genesis 1 happens, but I don’t think it’s the only way people contribute to such fruitfulness, we’re fully human in any human community. Then Paul specifically talks about marriage relationships as a picture of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5).

  9. Leadership/authority in a church where every person is a priest/image bearer looks much more like being a model worthy of imitation than standing in a spot and speaking for a while.

    The patterns of life brought about by the Gospel are caught, not simply taught. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed James K.A Smith’s insights into how we are formed as people, and how we are formed as image bearers/disciples specifically, and his emphasis on the power of a sense of telos/purpose/direction that pulls us along and orders our habits. He articulates this framework in a number of book and talks you can fond on Youtube. His latest You Are What You Love is a great starting point.

    According to Smith, we learn these habits through ‘liturgy’ and I think one of our strongest liturgies is Christian community where the members of the body are using their gifts, throughout the week, to serve Jesus.

  10. Our church structures and how we divvy up subsets of our role as the body of Christ should navigate the paradoxical tension between equality and difference.

    Paradoxes are a good and necessary thing if you’re made in the image of the God who is both three and one. Both the ‘egalitarian’ and ‘complementarian’ positions as they play out in the modern church run the risk of attempting to resolve a paradox. I have been increasingly frustrated with the camp I most naturally belong to — the ‘equal but different’ complementarian camp, because they seem to constantly define themselves against the egalitarian position, which is a position that, in its extremes, also flattens a paradox. Paradoxes don’t produce certainty, they invite us to apply wisdom and to tread carefully. Rather than picking one equal/different pole to stand on — and appointing individuals within the body according to some pattern, gender, or giftedness — why don’t we aim for a more perichoretic/priesthood-of-all-believers style model of ministry where whoever stands up to speak is meaningfully and actually speaking for the whole body, such that there is no sense of misplaced authority or belief that any body part is greater than another. You could argue that simply letting everyone do everything is an answer, but I don’t think that lines up with the particularity of God’s design as described in 1 Corinthians 12.

    Flattening paradoxes robs the Christian community of the richness of multiple voices and perspectives, and so produces an anaemic body, a poor society, and thus terribly constructed understandings of maleness and femaleness that damage all of us. Nobody wins if the men in our churches look and sound like the patriarchy of the Old Testament or the modern world. We win if the men and women in our churches are following the example of Christ as we seek to work together to bear his image, and if our bodies are shaped richly as we let the message of Christ dwell among us richly by hearing that message from as many Spirit-shaped voices as possible.

  11. Whatever the church does to construct an alternative ‘cruciform’ picture of relationships between men and women in the church we have a vitally important opportunity to model relationships built on the example of Jesus to those outside the church, and opportunities to speak against the damage our fallen nature does to male-female relationships in the world around us.

    Any of these constructions of gender, revolving around mutual, voluntary, submission, are occurring within the context of the church where we are, together, trying to model an alternative social construction — the kingdom of God. It’s ridiculous when we do what some people have done and still do, taking difference that expresses itself in voluntary application of roles within the context of these specific ‘social relationships’ and, in the name of discernment, applying them to secular gender roles where the meaning of this voluntary submission is lost, or interpreted through a fallen, worldly grid. There are popular examples of this like suggesting that women can’t be police officers, politicians, or anything that involves the wielding of worldly authority. This pattern of thinking reinforces the ‘patriarchy’ (in the systemic sense, not the Old Testament sense). It’s dangerous. The world isn’t a fun place for women because it is cursed and fallen, and, at least at the moment, men wield the power — on a systemic level, and often on an individual level. This is especially true because of some of the physical differences between the sexes — like, as I mentioned above, the universal truth that I do not have to live in fear of being impregnated by rape. But it’s not just what’s been called ‘rape culture’ — it’s also a product of building cultures and structures built on unchecked bias. This isn’t always malicious, it can simply be a product of nobody, especially the ‘privileged’ reading or listening to voices and ideas beyond our bias or comfort zone. We too easily assume we’re wisely navigating paradoxes without listening to voices that challenge the status quo. I have found recently that I’m significantly more likely to quote a white male as an authoritative source than any other category of person, and this isn’t because I don’t think women, or people from other cultural/racial backgrounds can write, it’s just a product of my bias. I haven’t really looked. This sort of bias robs women who write of the chance to be heard, but also robs any community I speak into the chance to hear voices from other perspectives. It is a failure to celebrate difference. Challenging these default patterns inside the church, and outside it, is a pretty significant job for God’s image bearers. Together.

    We’re citizens of God’s new kingdom, we’re not people who just sit on our hands and take the fallenness of male-female relationships as a given. We have the pattern for their restoration, but we also know that the curse that came with our rejection of God’s design is real.

Slaying the dragon: Video games, fairy tales, and seeing life in this world as it really is

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” — G.K Chesterton

“Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind”  — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

We are, throughout, in another world. What makes the world valuable is not, of course, mere multiplication of the marvellous either for cosmic effect… or for mere astonishment, but its quality, its flavour. If good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort (which are very much rarer) are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience. Hence the difficulty of discussing them at all with those who refuse to be taken out of what they call ‘real life’ — which means, perhaps, the groove through some far wider area of possible experience to which our senses and our biological, social, or economic interests usually confine us — or, if taken, can see nothing outside it but aching boredom or sickening monstrosity. They shudder and ask to go home.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction

“Most people think of games as power fantasies—escapism that makes people feel heroic and accomplished. That Dragon, Cancer has the opposite effect.” — Drew Dixon, That Dragon, Cancer teaches players to long for renewal amidst defeat

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A video game made me cry.

I cry at the drop of a hat these days; well; I feel like crying at the drop of a hat. But this game pulled me in and then kicked me in the feels. It’s called Fallout 4. You might have heard of it. But. Be warned. There be spoilers.

Actually. Two video games made me cry. The one that really had the tears flowing — that didn’t just kick me in the feels, but headlocked me and threw me into some sort of MMA style submission hold — is an independent release called That Dragon, Cancer.

Why did these games make me cry? They have a couple of things in common — both games take place in beautifully rendered, coherent, worlds. These environments are the product of the sort of mythopoeic world-creation that’d have both C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien feeling pretty excited about the capacity for video games to get us in touch with the enchanted reality we really live in. Both games rely heavily on story-telling; we’re carried along on a journey that pulls on the heart strings quite deliberately — even though Fallout 4 is in a sandboxy open world where you’ve got some freedom, while That Dragon, Cancer requires you to click your way from A to B in a very linear manner. Both games — and here’s the rub — hit me in the feels because of what they do with parenting, and loss. Though there’s also a stark difference here which made the impact of That Dragon, Cancer longer lasting for me; in that it is the real story of creator Ryan Green, and his wife Amy, and the loss of their beautiful son Joel. It’s an enchanting story because even amidst the clinical science and the very raw, real, emotions on display from the Green family, and others who’ve battled the dragon, there is a sense that Joel’s story plays out against a transcendent backdrop. This life, this cancer, is not all there is — it’s a dragon to be fought as part of a bigger, spiritual, narrative that is much bigger than simply the Greens versus a horrible and confronting bunch of aggressive cells.

Fallout 4 is pure post-apocalyptic fiction told in a completely ‘immanent’ frame. There’s no real ‘enchantment’ here. Just the ability to explore and craft your way to recovery, building villages for survivors of the nuclear apocalypse while hunting for your abducted son, Shaun. Everything is very ‘tactile’ in a sort of digital way. You scrounge through debris looking for duct tape so that you can upgrade a weapon; you can salvage components from just about anything to use it to build your settlements or upgrade your mechanical armour. I can’t walk into Bunnings or the hardware aisle of a department store now without subliminally thinking ‘jackpot’ — everything is subject to the laws of cause and effect, and you’re the author of your own destiny. You’re, as you play, in control of your story. The one spanner in the works is that it turns out Shaun was pulled from the grasp of your murdered wife a significant number of years before you’re cryogenically defrosted, many more than you thought, and he’s much older than you. He’s the game’s ‘father’ figure; and now the head of the potentially nefarious ‘Institute,’ the organisation responsible for his abduction and your wife’s death. What you do with this information, and with Shaun, changes the course of the game.

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Image: “I, Father, am your son” — an awkward reunion in Fallout 4

My virtual self was convinced of the evils of The Institute, and pretty upset that Shaun wasn’t the little kid I’d been searching for; so I shot my son. For the greater good. My finger hovered over the trigger button for quite a while. This was the sort of ethical dilemma that video games now confront us with as they draw us into their worlds — into their ‘narrative frames’ — I shot ‘father’ because any relationship I thought I had with the character was based on lies. He was a manipulator, and his organisation was a threat to the better vision of the future that I was building in the Fallout 4 world. But I felt conflicted doing it.

It helped that the Fallout world is both purely digital, with no real world crossover, and purely immanent — the consequences of my actions were going to change that world, but the flow on effects would only be in the chain of causality in the ‘immanent’ world, there was no cost to my digital soul because in the post-apocalyptic rubble there’s very little room for faith. Those of faith were members of strange post-doomsday doomsday cults. The landscape is littered with abandoned churches that at best are home to a few post-human irradiated ghouls. I wore a clerical robe for much of my time wandering through the landscape, but the hope I brought came from slaying mutant cockroaches and liberating civilians from the grasp of some over-sized mutants. With a custom-made automatic shotgun.

Fallout’s world is our ‘disenchanted’ reality on steroids. This little paragraph from Dreyfuss and Kelly’s All Things Shining a philosophical treatise on the evacuation of ‘meaning’ and lustre from post-modern life, could easily describe the sort of world you inhabit as your character. There’s nothing remotely shiny — physical or metaphorical — about the Fallout world.

“The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s Medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away.” — Hubert Dreyfuss & Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining

Fallout didn’t end up teaching me much about myself; I enjoyed the scavenging and building of settlements for others more than I enjoyed picking which faction to side with in the bid for some sort of restorative revolution. I felt things about the loss of my son — while pursuing him — but when confronted with the reality, I made a very ‘immanent’ decision; one that benefited my digital minions and my wasteland idealism. One that fit my nobel cleric’s vision of the end times best. I just wanted my people to live another day… so when that happened, I was happy. Happy enough to hang up the shotgun, which I named THE DELIVERER, and start pottering around in my settlement with a robotic barman.

That was Fallout 4. Perhaps the perfect story — or at least ‘a’ story — for the disenchanted ‘secular’ age; where transcendent questions are secondary. That Dragon, Cancer is the reverse. The ‘sciency’ immanent questions are very much the present reality, but there’s something bigger at play. A dragon that needs killing. A dragon we’d like to see killed, as fellow citizens of this world.

“Fear is cancer’s preservative. Cancer’s embalming oil. You’re a snake. A serpent. A dragon with snuffed out coal on his breath. Melting.”

“Whenever I ask sciency questions I nod my head. Digesting every Latin word, hoping it will stick to my ribs, become part of me. That if I ask enough questions, that maybe I could get my brains around this cancer.”

If only cancer could be killed simply by understanding it. If only we could think it gone.

It’s unclear to me still whether That Dragon, Cancer has a happy ending. Joel dies. You know that from the beginning. From the marketing. You’ve got to be prepared to ride that rollercoaster with the family before investing yourself. Joel dies. And yet. He lives. And not just in digital form — though it’s beautiful that Ryan and Amy were able to ‘incarnate’ and preserve Joel’s memory in the bits and bytes of his story in a lasting way. Joel lives because Joel’s family put their faith in Jesus. Joel lives, waiting for that time when Jesus returns to slay the dragon once and for all.

I can’t remember the first time I fell apart while playing. Joel’s polygonal face in game play very readily blurred into the visage of my son. I was destroyed by empathy with every click, as I moved through the journey from early stages, to treatment, to diagnosis, to prognosis, to desparate fight, to Joels’ death. One of the big moments for me was the moment you see Ryan’s immanent world collapse. The moment where asking all the great science questions in the world isn’t going to cut it. The moment where the immanent world collapses, or can’t support us, and we’re left grasping towards the transcendent, and really asking “where are you God?”, “where are you when kids like his, maybe like mine, are getting cancer?”

Does God really care? Or as Ryan asks at one point:

“If Joel does die, will Jesus even care? Will he weep for him? Or for me? I think greater than my fear of death, is my fear of insignificance.”

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Ryan and Amy ask those questions. And carry us with sensitivity and beauty and grace through their journey towards answering them. They don’t find all the answers, but they find reason to hope. They find meaning in faith — not just in the latin names of Joel’s dragon-like cells, or in the treatment. They find beauty in moments of pain, and things to be thankful for. They are amazing, and though they’re a world away I love them for it; and I long to spend at least some of my eternity with them and their pancake-loving son. Their story enchanted me. Here are some of the closing words from Amy to Ryan. I know I lost it at this point — I know it made me confront the ‘dragon’ and shake my fist at it, and its master death and Satan. I know it made me place more of my hope and trust in the one who will end the dragon’s grip on this world.

 

“So here we are. And the air is emptier without his laugh, and yet our hearts are still full, though with a different drink. And this ride we’ve been on for so long is silent. And so also is the Lord. And so we sit here in this new silence. And long for the noise to start again. And long for the music to start again, and for the disc to spin again. Even if it means going round and round for many more years. For at least we would be moving and Joel would be laughing, here on earth. And not only in heaven. I sense that his silence is only because he is drawing his breath. And now we know love and longing, empty and full, all in one moment. And I am grateful that we loved him well. And that we miss him well.” — Amy Green, That Dragon, Cancer

 

We’re waiting, with Ryan and Amy, Joel’s parents. Waiting amidst pain. Waiting in longing. Waiting in hope. Waiting for that day when Joel’s ‘words’ at the end of the game become reality — “you made it too“… Waiting for our faith to become sight.

And I’m glad they’ve shared some of their waiting with us, and all of their faith, and hope, and love for Joel, and their abiding trust in Jesus through the pain. I’m glad I ‘played’ my way through their story, and that my world was expanded by their experience — by Joel’s love for water, and ducks, and dogs, and pancakes, and by his family’s love for him. I love the final scene of the game — an imagination of reunion. Final reunion. A picture of Joel in the new creation. Cancer dead. Family restored. It’s more compelling than the reunion in Fallout, and ultimately, despite the multi-million dollar difference in budgets for rendering the world — and despite the pain being real — I’d rather live in Ryan and Amy’s world, which is more vivid and real, than in Fallout’s post-apocalyptic flatness and grey. I’d rather face these real questions — real pain, real mess, than that moment — real or virtual — of indecision about what preferred immanent solution I want to pursue with the pull of a lever, or a trigger, as I seek an effect I might cause. I’d rather live in an enchanted world than a disenchanted world where only ‘scientific’ questions have any bearing on the future of my family. I’d rather not feel like I’m in control — because I have no answer in the face of tragedy if I am. I can’t slay the dragons in this world on my own.

So why does this matter? Why overthink video games — no matter how profound — in this way? Stories matter. The worlds our stories occupy matters. Because we’re shaped, profoundly, by story. Especially stories we participate in — which gives video games incredible power. This quote from James Smith could well be contrasting the approach to the world found in Fallout 4 and in That Dragon, Cancer.

“Instead, we should say that we have a “feel” for the world that is informed by stories that dispose us to inhabit the world as either a bounteous but broken gift of the gracious Creator or a closed system of scarcity and competition; and as a result, either I will just “naturally” be disposed to see others as neighbors, as image-bearers of God, whose very faces call to me in a way that is transcendent, or I will have a “take” on others as competitors, threats, impositions on my autonomy.” — James K.A Smith, Imagining the Kingdom

Fallout 4 relies on the premise that you can be totally in control of everything — put the right machines together, make the right choices, control the world and your environment just right — and you’ll live, not just you, but the society you’re building. That Dragon, Cancer makes it clear this promise is a baldfaced lie. It doesn’t matter how good you are at pulling levers, or knowing stuff — the monster will take down the machines every time. Hope is found somewhere beyond the machine. These games and their questions of loss, and children, and control, are interesting examples of the two ways of seeing the world and ourselves that Charles Taylor talks about in A Secular Age and James K.A Smith summarises for us in How (Not) To Be Secular:

“It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter. But Taylor’s account of disenchantment has a different accent, suggesting that this is primarily a shift in the location of meaning, moving it from “the world” into “the mind.” Significance no longer inheres in things; rather, meaning and significance are a property of minds who perceive meaning internally… Meaning is now located in agents. Only once this shift is in place can the proverbial brain-in-a-vat scenario gain any currency; only once meaning is located in minds can we worry that someone or something could completely dupe us about the meaning of the world by manipulating our brains… There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power Things can do stuff.” — How (Not) To Be Secular

Fallout 4 and its world of things and control — even its ‘hauntedness’ — is set in a secular world. Even the disease — and the very visible scarring of people and ghouls — is the result of the nuclear apocalypse. That Dragon, Cancer presents us with the reality that the world is broken, and asks ‘is there more to this disease than we might grapple with via science’… these stories, these worlds, leave us with a very different understanding of ourselves, and our limits.

At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous. Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment”… So the modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority, “giving its own autonomous order to its life”  — How (Not) To Be Secular

My character in Fallout was most definitely buffered — protected by his isolation, never getting too close to those in the settlements, separated from the world by my mech-suit, totally and symbolically insulated and isolated from the nuclear affects of the world. Even my pet dog was called ‘Dogmeat’ — perhaps to prevent any sort of attachment. Totally buffered. Totally autonomous. Totally in control — which is, ultimately, why I shot my son. Because I preferred my own ‘ordering’ of the world to his proposal, and wasn’t going to sign up. While the Greens, in That Dragon, Cancer couldn’t be buffered even if they tried. They didn’t just have to be completely open to some sort of transcendent blessing amidst their vulnerability, in making the game and consciously ‘unbuffering’ — both seeking contributions from other affected families, and involving ‘players’ like me in their story — they’ve remained vulnerable and connected. There’s a real path towards healing for them. Not in terms of tackling the dragon — Jesus will ultimately do that, and science might help along the way. The path to healing is one consistent with a transcendent world, and the picture of the enchanted, and enchanting, future we see in Revelation. What I’ve really learned in these games, as I’ve played, is that when you’re being beaten and buffeted about by what life in this world throws at you, an unbuffered self actually, counter-intuitively, has more to protect it than the buffered self. We aren’t in control. We need others. We need hope. We need transcendence. We need more than what ‘is’ in this material world. More than Dogmeat, or friendmeat. We need a dragon slayer.

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

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:1-5