I am a huge fan of David Foster Wallace. I really enjoyed this little video where he talks about the kind of entertainment we consume, and it led me down the rabbit hole to this second, longer, interview. I love the stuff he says in the second video about the pacing of writing, and how you pace writing to shape the pace a reader reads. I read somewhere else that he wrote everything out using pen and paper (so too, apparently, did CS Lewis).
“DFW: I don’t write quickly at all. And the stuff goes through draft, after draft, after draft. Although I know when it gets to a point that sounds real to me, part of the realness has to do with speed, and being a little bit of a control freak about how fast the reader is reading stuff, wanting some stuff to be read fairly slowly and to have a kind of echoey resonance to it, and wanting other stuff to seem breathless, and headlong, and kind of speedy.
Question: What techniques do you use to make a reader read faster or slower?
DFW: I think, probably, the easiest one is just how long the sentences are.
If you can do a sentence that is kind of a run on, but you can do the grammar such that the reader never gets lost, but also never quite really gets to stop. Then you get that kind of breathless quality. The trick with that is you can do a little bit of that and at least for me it’s cool, but if you do too much of and the reader gets fatigued and kind of pissed off. And so, there’s a certain matter of varying speeds.
I don’t know. People talk about the metrics of poetry a whole lot, but there’s no language for this as far as I know. I don’t know how people talk about the complexity and kind of, in terms of the physics of reading, the rapidity with which you read and process sentences.”
“When you’re writing stuff you get to a point where it just sounds right. And I think one of the ways it sounds right is when it just gets some sort of drum beat to it.”
Interview: Another thing that occurred to me about the occasional longish sentence that people come across in your work… you’re very aware of us as living in a media culture, besieged with lots of messages and bits of information. Could it be that a long sentence is a way of keeping at bay distractions. You can’t very well say “oh honey, I’ll be with you in a minute just let me finish this sentence” if the sentence has another few hundred words to go.
DFW: The sexy thing to say would be yes… I could say that sounds really plausible to me, and we could riff about that a certain amount. The fact of the matter is that writing it, for me, is so much less sophisticated, and primitive. So much of it goes by ear or stomach. And I think that to the extent that I’m interested in attention or fragmentation it has way more to do with the way things are structured or not structured or divided up or having different facets. The sentence thing has a whole lot to do with the fact that a whole lot of people, it sounds very gooey, but it’s true, who write… I started reading very young, and one of the reasons I started reading very young is because for whatever reason, I was lonely. And one of the things I went to books for was a relationship. Now a weird kind. I never really thought I was talking to a person. But there was the sense of an intelligence there. Or another human thing that I was communing with… And I think a lot of the stuff with the sentences… Like. I’ll grin when people laugh about the long sentence thing. I don’t think. Like in some sense, I don’t really get it. Yeah. I’ve got some long sentences. But I think it’s mostly, I don’t know about anyone else, but the way that I think. I don’t think in sentences.
Interview: What do you think in?
DFW: Like a not as good Joycean tumble. I don’t think I’m very interested in reproducing the form of that, the way like stream of consciousness does, but I think I’m interested in trying to induce the feeling of that, a little bit, at least sometimes. Truth be told, when the thing about long sentences gets a big laugh, what it makes me think of is that I’ve screwed up. Because if the grammar of the sentence is ok. If the sentence is structured right. Really the reader shouldn’t even notice that it’s a long sentence. And so, probably I’m just not doing it as well as I could. It’s not a stylistic thing, and I don’t think I have any cognitive program about it.”
Big Brother with brains? SBS has something of a winning formula when it comes to mashing up people whose view points are diametrically opposed, and standing back to watch nature take its course. Go Back To Where You Came From was TV crack cocaine. I don’t know if these shows are all that great at producing lasting change, but watching people squirm through the reality of messy human relationships made up of messy humans with conflicting views is pretty good arm chair fodder. It’s voyeurism with a conscience..
Tonight Living With The Enemy, SBS’s new fly on the wall doco series, pitted Anglican Minister and blogger David Ould against engaged (and spoiler, by the end of the show, married) gay couple Gregory Storer and Michael Barnett. You can read a longish interview I did with David Ould back when he was getting over his first 15 minutes of fame on The Project.
David mentioned this show back in that interview – so I’d been looking forward to seeing it. I was expecting a crucifixion; a public humiliation where David managed to die a humiliating, public, death for the sake of the Gospel. We got some good Gospel stuff – but had to sit through the producer’s commitment to David undergoing some sort of redemptive narrative arc in order to get there. In something of an explanation not just of why he’s holding his position, but why he’s prepared to do it on national TV, David at one point says:
“I’m gonna stick with what Jesus says even if it makes me unpopular”
Like Go Back To Where You Came From the show is geared to emphasise just how opposed two particular views are. Unlike Go Back To Where You Came From the agenda in Living With The Enemy did seem to be to paint both positions (at least in this debate) with a degree of sympathy. It certainly wasn’t clear that David was the bad guy. He was charming while his interlocutors were strident. He appeared committed to having a conversation while Michael Barnett used a pow wow in a sandstone, stained-glass windowed church to launch a stinging string of coarse invective at both David and the God he represents.
When Michael and Gregory arrived at David’s house they were told they wouldn’t be living in the house, but in a specially produced caravan. I don’t know how I would have handled this. I honestly don’t. But it did set a particular tone for the show where David was ‘exclusive’ while the gay couple were ‘inclusive’ – inviting David along to their wedding, and to join them in a gay pride march. This was a shame. I’m loathe to criticise the approach David took. Parenting is a fraught ethical mine field, but I would have loved to have seen an all or nothing approach to having the guys live with a Christian family. It’s just that the decision involves real people – so while it would’ve been an interesting social experiment for me, the voyeuristic viewer, I (and the other remote jockeys around the country who feel this way) shouldn’t be in the driving seat when it comes to David’s family.
I love David, Michael, and Gregory’s willingness to take part in this exercise – but I felt like Michael, in particular, was more interested in scoring rhetorical points than in furthering the conversation. This could well have been a result of the producer’s desire for conflict. Both Michael and Gregory were genuinely upset and outraged by the Christian position – and this is one of the reasons we need to be exceptionally clear when we speak into this issue. We’re talking about real people with real emotions and real relationships. It’s messy. But all life is.
I thought the stuff with David’s identical twin brother Peter was particularly interesting. Having read Peter’s (now archived) blog for a few years I enjoyed his cameo. His story is significant, especially in the light of all the twin studies out there that have tried to explain the origins of sexual orientation. He makes an argument, by example, for the idea that sexual orientation can be somewhat fluid for some people. The format wasn’t a great format for presenting a nuanced view of this area – but I would have loved to see something in there about faithful singleness rather than a miraculous conversion to heterosexuality (even though Peter acknowledged this hasn’t been the entirety of his experience).
As much as I like David, as much as I enjoy his writing, his media appearances, and have enjoyed a few conversations with him over the last few years, I’m not in complete lock step with him when it comes to the marriage debate. I don’t particularly like his occasional reference to linking the production of children to marriage. I’m keen on defining it as a picture, affirmed and created by God, of the relationship between Jesus and the church. And seeing where we get to from there. The children bit kind of rules out (or devalues) marriage for people who know they can’t have kids or for people beyond child bearing age.
I’m also not particularly interested in fighting to convince an increasingly secular (and historically secular) nation that Christian definitions or constructs should bind them. The scene in the church, while jarring and offensive, actually cogently presented the atheist/homosexual case. And in a democracy, that case has legs. It’s just a case that needs to be made giving equal air time to all the views of all the constituents. Gregory is also right to want to avoid majorities dictating things for minorities. Might doesn’t make right. But this cuts both ways – whatever happens in the wash up of the marriage debate should protect all minorities, including people who want to maintain the Bible’s definition of marriage. That hasn’t necessarily been the case in other countries where the definition of marriage has shifted. Gregory and Michael need Jesus in order for the Christian view of sexuality to make sense. That’s the gap between Gregory and Michael and David’s twin brother Peter. The Gospel is compelling. Jesus is better than sex. His definition of love is better than anything we can imagine or experience. It is, as David calls it, profound. And appreciating this profundity is the key to reordering our understanding of sexual morality, and our definition of marriage flows from that. The Gospel is the horse that drives the marriage cart and how we define it.
I don’t think David was naive when it came to what he was signing up for, and how it might be presented, but the perennial issue facing Christians who do any sort of media stuff is that while we have an agenda that pushes us to get in front of the camera – proclaiming Jesus – the person wielding the camera has a different agenda: putting together a product that captures attention and entertains. This is even more true in a series like this.
The producer of this program had a vested interest in presenting conflict between the ‘enemies’ and also in presenting a compelling picture of people being changed by the experience.
The church service featured in the show was a dummy service produced for the show. David didn’t just happen to preach about homosexuality as a deliberately pointed attack on his guests. That wouldn’t be particularly hospitable. I know this to be true, but you can also work it out because he says “this afternoon we will be talking about…” and Glenquarie Anglican only has a morning service. But this service was used as part of the narrative of redemption, the story arc that David’s character is taken on as he is confronted and changed by the utter humanity of his conversation partners (which is where the show ends up). It was edited so that David’s sermon boils down to Leviticus. And the idea that homosexuality is detestable. The complete recording of the sermon is available (as of tonight) on Glenquarie Anglican’s website. The producer takes the sermon massively out of context. He makes it something it isn’t (but, to be fair, he does zero in on how the sermon was heard by Gregory and Michael).
The old rule applies.
Never say something in front of a camera you don’t want taken out of context and broadcast to the world.
If you want the Gospel stuff to be included in the show – only say the Gospel stuff. Don’t talk about Leviticus. David’s position in the show gets closer to being Gospel driven as the ‘journey’ comes to an end; it’s not that David has changed, it’s that the presentation of his character shifts.
I’m sympathetic to the need for Christians to be able to articulate a position on Leviticus because it’s part of the Bible and this is a massive belief blocker for modern Australians. But the harsh edit of that sermon should have been expected, and maybe this wasn’t the platform to try to present a nuanced position that incorporates the whole counsel of God. I don’t know.
David’s ‘character’ undergoes a massive upwards turn, as far as the show presents him, at the point when he is invited to attend Michael and Gregory’s wedding. His response is beautiful. He thanks them for extending this inclusive attitude to him. He is polite and good-humoured throughout the wedding proceedings even though he is as out of his comfort zone, as any stranger attending a wedding of people who have spent five days being hostile, and who is invited for the sake of a television spectacle might be. Which is to say he’s not all that comfortable. But he has a couple of nice conversations with the mother of the groom, and the father of the groom.
David’s comment that using marriage to validate a relationship makes the relationship necessarily more self-serving than other weddings, was interesting, and worth considering.
After the wedding he has an interesting altercation with Michael, who asks, “what would Jesus do?” His answer is nice.
“Jesus goes to many, many, people who he disagrees with. And he loves them profoundly. And he calls them to change.”
This ‘going to’ people in order to profoundly love them becomes the core of the redemption of David’s character at the hands of the producer in the downhill run to the program’s finish line. David is invited to take part in a gay pride parade. He agrees to in order to fully understand the reality of life for Michael and Gregory. The lack of ‘going to’ – the costly moving to where people are at – was a big feature of the producer’s use of the caravan and the awkward sermon – and that changes, in the show, because David is so well ‘included’ when he gets to Michael and Gregory’s house. The house of “no rules.”
It’s interesting that the show seems to play with this exclusion/inclusion dynamic, while not really editorialising the weird crassness/winsomeness divide. David, throughout, seems genuinely keen to be warm, even when he knows the caravan decision isn’t going to be popular. And this warmth continues when they aren’t face to face, using the diary camera. Michael and Gregory, on the other hand, are massively scathing of David (and his position) when he isn’t there, and, consistently, incredibly abrasive when he is.
In David’s pre-pride march epiphany he says he wants to love like Jesus does. Profoundly. Loving and being the friend of sinners and drunkards. This pushes him out of his comfort zone. And onto the streets of Melbourne with potentially, as Gregory named his fear: “a bunch of near naked men doing disgusting things with each other.” As he walks, David says “I’m not affirming their relationship, I’m just trying to be their friend”… It’s possible to be friends despite disagreeing. “People are being gracious, being kind to me,” says David – he is genuinely being included by the gay community. Something for us to learn as Christians (though Gregory and Michael were pretty comfortable in David’s church, except when he was preaching).
The concluding statements where everybody has come through the experience changed (but unchanged) David says something really nice.
David: “I think the word enemy is not a good word for this discussion that we’re having. We’re conversation partners. We’re going to disagree. And if we work harder to find out what we can agree on and at least understand each other better, we can not only have a good conversation ourselves but actually maybe help our friends to have good conversations as well.”
“It has helped me further understand what life is like for gay people. Particularly what drives them on this issue. I haven’t changed my mind, but I’ve understood them better, I think.”
Gregory: “I have gained a bit of an insight into how the mind of somebody who is against marriage equality, how their mind actually works. I’ve learned that you can have good conversations with people if you take your time and listen carefully. You can understand somebody else’s point of view without agreeing with them
David: “I’m not sure I’m more sympathetic to the arguments Michael and Gregory gave me. I think I am more empathetic. I think I understand them more. I feel them more. What I’m going to do most of all is walk away from this experience and talk to my peers, my friends, those who are on my side of this debate and say here’s a couple of things I think you need to get clearer in your head.”
It was an interesting experiment. I’m looking forward to hearing his reflections in coming days.
A couple of weeks ago I spoke at an event for people wanting to think about how to approach the complexity of debates and conversations about human sexuality in a way that points people to Jesus. You don’t have to go far to see Christians behaving badly in this space. In fact, there’ll be plenty of conversations on this topic kicking off in earnest tomorrow after my friend David Ould features on national television in the SBS series Living With The Enemy. I’m fairly confident we’ll be seeing the full gamut of Christian responses to homosexuality in the conversations around this program – from the helpful, to the unhelpful.
I realise as a married heterosexual I’m not really able to expertly navigate all the complexity in this space, but I am committed to the idea that we should be careful not to single out homosexuality as particularly egregious when all human sexual orientations are broken. All orientations are broken because all humans are broken. Naturally. Hard-wired to reject our creator and live for ourselves. In every area.
Somewhere along the way I picked up a cool latin phrase that expresses the type of brokenness we bring to every area of our lives (it was either in Luther, or Augustine, or someone writing about Augustine’s influence on Luther) – homo incurvatus in se – which translates to the idea that our humanity is curved in on itself. We are self seeking. At the expense of others. We bring self interest to every facet of our lives. Including our sexual orientation. Including our heterosexual orientation, and our relationships… We do ourselves, and those we speak to, a disservice when we suggest sexual wholeness is found in heterosexual relationships as though marriage is a fix for this brokenness. It might be part of the solution, but the real path to wholeness – genuine human wholeness – is through a restored relationship with the creator of humanity. The God who made sex, and other good stuff.
My ten tips (which you can also find in the slides I used at this thing) were:
1. Make it about Jesus: A Christian response to questions about sexuality that is distinctly different to a Jewish or Islamic response will be different where it is about Jesus.
2. Mind the gap. In Corinthians (1 Cor 5) Paul is pretty adamant that Christian sexual ethics are for Christians. I think this has implications for how, where, and when, we speak about sexual morality.
“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church” – 1 Cor 5:12
3. Love your (gay) neighbour. The (gay) shouldn’t have to appear in this tip at all. Sometimes it feels like Christians aren’t particularly loving in this space. But we’ve also got to resist the idea that love and sex are synonyms. An idea that has been made popular by such luminaries as Macklemore and K-Rudd. Just because the Bible speaks of love, and our society speaks of love, doesn’t mean we mean the same thing… When the Bible speaks of love the picture we should have in our heads isn’t limited to a wedding ceremony, the wedding ceremony is a picture of the love God has for people… We should be thinking that verses about love in the Bible are best explained by the sacrificial death of Jesus. The ultimate act of love.
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
4. Start by apologising. The church has done some horrible, not-minding-the-gap, things in this space. The first time I heard the word apologetics I was really confused about the idea that Christians should be apologising for following Jesus. I think now our apologetic needs to include an apology for the times when Christians haven’t been good at following Jesus. Part of the issue in this space is, as Vaughan Roberts suggests:
“The problem is largely caused by the fact that most of our comments on homosexuality are prompted, not primarily by a pastoral concern for struggling Christians, but by political debates in the world and the church.”
These were my favourite two slides in the whole presentation. I think they depict the relationship between history and the present.
We should be apologising for forgetting the humanity of those we speak against (or ‘othering’ them), for not being clear about our own natural sinfulness, for not distinguishing between orientation and sin, and for speaking as though the path to wholeness is a path to heterosexuality.
5. We need to divorce sexuality from identity. The assumption that you are who you want to have sex with – or who you’re born wanting to have sex with – is dangerous and dehumanising. It’s a form of slavery. Why can’t people be free to choose their own (sexual) identity, regardless of their natural inclinations? This is an odd and dangerous idea. Note: whether people are ‘born gay’ or formed gay by their environment (or both) is kind of irrelevant – it’s not really a ‘choice’ (mostly), though sexuality also seems to occur on a spectrum). It shouldn’t be a threat to Christian belief that people can be born gay. It’s only a threat if you read that people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1) and don’t read the rest of the Bible that points out that this image is broken by sin and we’ve consistently made the decision to drag God’s name through the mud.
Jesus seems to suggest that people are born with particular sexual orientations:
“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” – Matthew 19:11-12
6. We need to stop turning sex and marriage into a Christian idol. People are wholly human before marriage. We don’t find ‘another half’ when we get married, two whole people become one flesh. Sex and marriage are good gifts from God, but they are not the ultimate pursuit of every person. Suggesting that they are essentially dehumanises those who can’t find a partner, or who choose to be single. Jesus is God. Not sex. Our union with him, which will stretch into eternity, should be what we focus on, not the short term pleasures of this world.
7. We need to start celebrating faithful singleness in church communities. The way we pray, the way we structure our Sunday gatherings and social activities, the things we choose to emphasise on our websites or in stuff we write about church – all this stuff often reinforces the idea that the Christian norm is to be married with 2.5 kids. We should be wary of forms of Christianity that exclude Jesus from our fellowship… Somehow, sometime, we need to recapture the idea that there is something incredibly powerful about faithfulness and wholeness outside of marriage and reproduction. Talk to some single people – find out how to love them well, and do that.
8. We need to actually believe that Jesus is better than sex. This is true for married people and for single people. If he’s not – then pack Christianity in and ‘eat, drink, and be merry.‘ Jesus says there won’t be marriage (so presumably sex) in the new creation (Matt 22:30). If that scares you, or you think that is somehow robbing you of some satisfaction, then maybe it’s time for a rethink about your priorities? Jesus is better. Life is better than death. The reality is better than the analogy.
9. We need to pursue sexual emancipation. There have been plenty of comparisons made to the civil rights movement in the gay marriage debate, but not so many to the fight against slavery. The argument that people are born with a homosexual orientation so must, in order to be truly human, make homosexuality the core of their identity – or pursue the practice of homosexual sex – seems to me to be analogous to the idea that if somebody is born into slavery, and doesn’t want to stay in slavery, they should stay there anyway. It’s a modern version of Hume’s Naturalistic Fallacy. And it’s an awful form of group think that oppresses and dehumanises those who don’t want to go with the flow.
10. Tell stories about real people. Just as we need to apologise to our gay neighbours for dehumanising them in the way we speak about sexuality, there are human faces who represent the alternative positions. People taking up their cross to follow Jesus by denying themselves in this space. There are people, real people, with real stories, who have chosen to approach sexuality in a way that is framed by their faith. Every Christian who understands their sexuality as an outworking of an identity in Christ – including faithful heterosexual people – has a story to tell about bringing sexual brokenness to the table and finding wholeness and satisfaction in Jesus. I’m always greatly encouraged to see, hear, and read, stories from my faithful same sex attracted Christian brothers and sisters out there who are living stories of the pursuit of wholeness in Christ. This pursuit doesn’t mean trying to ‘pray away the gay’ – that kind of mentality and approach to sexuality is incredibly harmful, but it will in many cases mean a life of faithful celibacy. We can’t let these brothers and sisters walk this path alone, which means we need to keep hearing and celebrating these stories in order to become part of them. Such faithfulness should also always be encouraging. But these stories are a powerful antidote to some of the damaging ‘liberated’ approaches to sexuality (see 5 and 9).
I’m not the skeptic I thought I was. Forgive me for a slightly self-indulgent post musing on how I think, but this has come as quite a shock to me. It might make a change from wading through umpteen thousand words about what I think…
I’m not a skeptic.
This may not surprise you, given that my day job is to convince people of the existence of a supernatural being who sent his supernatural son (a son who shares his being) into the world he made to die and be raised from the dead. Many people think this particular sort of belief in the supernatural defies skepticism because it defies evidence and seems unbelievable (so shouldn’t be believed). I am skeptical about this sort of blanket dismissal of a particular worldview and its approach to evidence. I am skeptical about skepticism. But the fact that I’m not a skeptic surprises me.
For a long time I have described myself as a skeptic. I’ve understood my approach to truth claims as skeptical. I have understood skepticism as a core part of my epistemology (how I seek to know stuff). I’ve seen this as completely consistent with my Christianity, which I still believe is reasonable and evidence based.
I’m not really announcing a massive change in how I think I know things, just how I describe myself, particularly when it comes to discussions about Christianity. I’ll no longer play the “I’m a skeptic too” card.
There are many varieties of skepticism, many definitions, some more technical than others. What I’m talking about is skepticism as wikipedia defines it.
“Skepticism is generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere. Philosophical skepticism is an overall approach that requires all information to be well supported by evidence.”
The bold bits are particularly what I’ve been coming to term with, mostly it’s about the optimistic posture I’ve found myself taking to truth claims and what I consider to be evidence that supports these truth claims. Some of the tools of skepticism still form part of how I piece together my view of the world – tools like critical thinking, rational thought, logic… I still employ these in my approach to new information. But one thing I’m dissatisfied with when it comes to skepticism is that it is so negative. I’m much more inclined to take bits of information and see how they integrate into what I already understand about the world than see each bit of information as something to be rejected, or, if it passes, placed alongside other things I have evidence for as another factoid.
I have come to realise is that skepticism does not excite me. It doesn’t light my fires. It’s not the posture I want to adopt towards learning about the world. It’s not how I want to position myself when it comes to people who come forward with new information that challenges my thinking. I don’t want my default to be doubt, I want it to be seeing if the thing will fly. If it will fit with what I understand about the world, if it will add colour, depth, and life. I’ll still reject stuff that is wacky and nonsense, but the approach to that rejection won’t begin in the same place. Which is weird. Realising this has been a bit of a paradigm shift for me.
Most people – skeptics included seek to organise the facts they accept into some sort of systematic view of the world. I’m not wanting to paint skepticism as holding to a bunch of disconnected facts without seeing how they fit together, but truly skeptical people must always doubt that they’ve got the fit right. They must question both the merit of a particular fact, and, simultaneously, the merit of the frame they try to use to hold it.
I’ve decided that for me, a systematic view of the world actually helps me organise and accept facts. And I’ve decided I’m committed to many approaches to new data prior to applying the skeptical approach to the world. So I can’t call myself a skeptic. It turns out, the system by which I organise new information has been there all along – it’s been how I identify myself all along. It’s my faith. My belief that the world is best explained when the God who made it is present. This system guides my presuppositions, but not because the system tells me it should. I don’t think. I think I have good reasons to go with Christianity as the organising idea on philosophical, aesthetic, logical, and evidentiary grounds. I am skeptical about other organising ideas having the same explanatory power as Christianity. But to be frank, even if I think I chose the system through a skeptical approach based on evidence, I can’t escape the truth that given my upbringing Christianity is something like the default for me – so I have to keep exploring the possibility that other options will do it better. The way to assess this is how well a particular view integrates all the available data, the facts about the workings of the world, that I have come across and been convinced are true.
This isn’t skepticism. It’s freeing to admit this.
New facts don’t force me to toss out the system, but they will shape how I understand the workings of this system. I like this description, again from wikipedia, of ‘Knowledge Integration‘… this strikes me as much more fun, stimulating, and worthwhile. It also describes my intuitive approach to thinking about stuff much better than boring old skepticism.
“Knowledge integration has also been studied as the process of incorporating new information into a body of existing knowledge with an interdisciplinary approach. This process involves determining how the new information and the existing knowledge interact, how existing knowledge should be modified to accommodate the new information, and how the new information should be modified in light of the existing knowledge.”
I want to know stuff. I want to see how all the different streams of information, all the different facts, all the different fields of scholarship – from philosophy, to science, to the arts, to theology, can be integrated in a coherent and exciting way. One of these fields of knowledge has to provide the organising framework for the others. I think that’s just how it works. For me, this is theology – Christian theology – it helps me make sense of the world. As CS Lewis says:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
I’m liking this quote more and more.
I’ll stick with Christianity until I find a better look out point from which to view the world (and I’ll continue to allow my presuppositions to be challenged, though I admit to finding the intricacies and aesthetics of Christianity quite compelling). I’m probably too far gone. I just don’t know what other system accommodates and explains the Jesus event, and the emergence of Christianity post-crucifixion with the same power as Christianity. I think Christianity offers the best explanation of world history, the human condition, and our ability to do science and know anything as real. I think Christianity is the most coherent philosophical and ethical framework. I think the Bible’s story, centred on Jesus, is, aesthetically speaking, the best narrative to live by. But I’m open to other ideas.
I work with some very clever people who make very beautiful things. This term our church has tackled an ambitious project to show a stack of ways the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms are all about Jesus. Like he says they are in Luke 24.
We’re showing this episodic detective series The Adventures of Joe Jaffa in our services. I think it’s fantastic. I’m blown away by the sort of talent that is required to produce this sort of gear. I’ll update this post over the next few weeks (I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to share them so they can be appreciated sequentially). Here are the first five.
If your church could use these for anything – please do feel free to use them (it’d also be great to know if you are). There are hundreds of hours of work going into this (from one very passionate animator), so it’d be great for that work to help lots of people for a long time.
In that thing I wrote the other day about the awful tragedy unfolding in Iraq one of things I suggest in the list of things we might do when confronted with this tragedy is writing to relevant members and ministers in the Australian parliament calling for Australia to get involved with solving this complicated problem.
Here’s the letter I wrote. I’m massively channeling Sam Freney’s excellent letter to the Government about asylum seekers here. I hadn’t realised how much until I went back and read it.
Why not write something to these peeps yourself?
Why not also, while you’re praying for what’s going down in Iraq, pray for our politicians – often when we speak into stuff as Christians we forget how complex solutions to our broken world are, and that one of the things we’re told to do in the Bible is pray for those in authority.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. – 1 Timothy 2:1-4
Dear Prime Minister Hon Tony Abbott,
Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Hon Scott Morrison,
Opposition Leader Hon Bill Shorten, and Shadow Minister for Immigration,
and Border Protection Hon Richard Marles,
As a Christian, and an Australian Citizen, I am grieved and greatly moved by the plight of those persecuted to the point of death by the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL). You are no doubt aware of the situation and brutal future facing minority groups who refuse the rule of the self-appointed Caliphate.
This is a complex mess and I do not envy the Government as it forms whatever Australia’s response will be to these actions.
I don’t want to send a letter that denies the complexities involved in this, or involved in the global refugee crisis to which this conflict is quickly becoming a contributor.
I do want to send a letter encouraging you to know that many Christians are praying for you as you navigate this mess, and many others. As a Christian who takes the Bible seriously I believe this is the church’s role. To pray for you as you govern, and submit to your authority. And I believe your role is to find the best outcomes in a messy world made messier by the darkness of the human heart.
But I want to do something about this situation. I want to be part of the solution. I want to offer my resources. My time. My home. Whatever you can take, whatever can be of service, to help those who have been forced from their homes and their resources, by these events. Please tell me – and people like me – how we can help.
Please be prepared to think outside the box.
My family lives in a pretty modest, typical, house, but we can make room, we can accommodate, feed and clothe those who have been displaced. We can welcome those seeking refuge into our home, and into our family life. We are prepared to love and offer hospitality at our cost, not at the cost of the taxpayer. I’m sure there are others in a similar position who would do likewise. How will Australia play its part in responding to this emergency?
There are always going to be barriers to limit our intake of refugees if we are not prepared to make ourselves uncomfortable in our response, but this need seems pressing and I can’t bear to think that those who have seen friends and family brutally executed in this conflict should have their suffering prolonged by red tape. I recognise that there are many refugees from many conflicts in many refugee camps, and in detention – and my family would be happy to accommodate people from these situations as well.
Please can we look beyond the ideal model of dealing with this emergency, whatever that looks like, to find more rapid, costly, and compassionate solutions to this fractured world?
Surely a mattress on our lounge room floor and home cooked meals, for as long as is necessary, is preferable to life in a refugee camp.
We will take and provide for as many refugees as you believe is possible, and I will organise homes for as many others as I can using social media – many of my friends have expressed a desire to be part of the solution to this tragedy and have changed their profile pictures to the Arabic letter ن as an expression of solidarity with the persecuted. I don’t know how many people we can help – but it will be more than none, and better than nothing.
I want to be generous to those displaced – not just the Christians who are being persecuted for following Jesus, but anybody who is in need – by following Jesus, giving up what I have been given for the sake of others.
Please let me, and others who are willing, find new ways to do that in the midst of this appalling international tragedy.
John Stackhouse is a very smart man. And a Christian. He was on Q&A last night and served up what I think is the only coherent way to reconcile the tension between the very broken world we live in, and all the bad stuff that goes on, and not just believe in the existence of a loving God, but follow that God. I had a stab at answering this question (sort of) in about 12,000 words. Stackhouse was much more succinct. So his answer is of significantly greater value.
The ABC will no doubt post a transcript in the next little while – but I typed this one out last night to share on Facebook.
Question: Professor Stackhouse, as you know there is a lot of strife in this world, in various places, including what one commentator called evil, the likes of which we have not seen in generations. Such evil is even being visited upon innocent children. And many Australians are beginning to feel a sense of despair. It’s tempting to ask why God hasn’t shown up on the scene to fix a very broken situation. But supposing he did what’s your sense of a just punishment for those who bomb, torture, rape, and slay innocent human beings. And by the same token what remains of a positive vision for peace.
Stackhouse: I think it’s an excellent question. We do have to presume, if we’re Christians, and people of similar outlooks, that God is mourning over the world, that God is not happy about these things and that God, is, in fact, as the ancient Scriptures say, keeping a log of these things. That nobody does anything in a secret place. God has maximum surveillance in fact. He does know what everybody is doing all the time. He knows the metadata and the data. He’s got it all.
TJ: Does he do much with it though?
Stackhouse: Well. That’s I think the crucial question. If God wants me to continue to trust him as an all good and all powerful God when he manifestly seems not to be one or the other or both, then he better give me a jolly good reason to trust him anyway. And God hasn’t given me any daily briefing on why he’s allowing the atrocities here, or the atrocities there, and they go back since the dawn of time.
TJ: Is that where faith comes in, because we know many holocaust survivors lost their faith when they saw the dark side of human nature, and realised that God was never going to intervene?
Stackhouse: Indeed. Post holocaust theology among my Jewish friends is a very daunting and very dark place, because for them there is no ground on which to continue to believe in God that is strong enough, to outweigh the grounds for not believing in God. And that to me is the real question. It’s not necessarily whether God explains to me what he’s going to do. I’m not sure whether I have the moral or the mental capacity to be able to judge whether God is doing a good job in the world. I think he’s not doing a good job often, but I’m not sure I’m capable to judge that. But if he wants me allegience, he jolly well better give me a good reason to trust him anyway. And. For the Christian. That answer is Jesus. That answer is looking at this figure who Christians believe is the very face of God. So if God’s like that, then I can trust this hidden God, who seems to be making a mess of the world. And if he’s not like that, then I’m in a difficult situation. So Tony, for me, as a Christian who looks at the world like everybody else does, if I don’t have Jesus, I frankly, better be an atheist because like my Jewish friends, post holocaust, God doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job running things.
Two weeks ago. Sunday morning. Just before church. I checked Facebook on my phone. I read a story that punched me in the stomach.
Eight Christians had apparently been crucified in Iraq by ISIL. Martyred. The story wasn’t this one – but it was pretty much like it.
Standing up to preach about our crucified king, Jesus, became realer for me in that moment than it had ever been before. Martyrdom has a special place in the hearts of Christians because it’s how it all started. Our martyrs don’t die in a bid to take other lives with them, our martyrs die to give life to others. Our martyrs lay down their lives to follow our martyred king. Jesus.
It turned out the story was a couple of months old and had taken this time to reach Facebook in Australia. The situation hasn’t improved in those intervening months. Between May and now. It has deteriorated.
ISIL has systematically removed those who oppose their rule – both Muslim and Christian – through violent persecution. To the point that Obama has launched a military intervention in the region. To prevent genocide. Obama’s speech, launching this action isn’t silent on the persecution of Christians (even if most western media covering the story seems to be avoiding it).
“…we’ve begun operations to help save Iraqi civilians stranded on the mountain. As ISIL has marched across Iraq, it has waged a ruthless campaign against innocent Iraqis. And these terrorists have been especially barbaric towards religious minorities, including Christian and Yezidis, a small and ancient religious sect. Countless Iraqis have been displaced. And chilling reports describe ISIL militants rounding up families, conducting mass executions, and enslaving Yezidi women.”
My Facebook feed is filled with profile pictures featuring the Arabic letter ن for ‘n’ – for nazara (Christian) – because ISIL marks out Christians for death by placing this letter on their homes. The hashtag #wearen has captured expressions of Christian solidarity for our family in Iraq (though it’s worth remembering the need for human solidarity for all those people being persecuted by ISIL)
Here are some good things to read about how changing your profile picture can be a helpful thing to do, and an expression of solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters by David Ould (and a follow up) and Dave Miers. I haven’t changed my profile picture. Still. Partly because I’m a contrarian and am worried about the tokenism of ‘awareness raising’ in the face of helpless situations. Partly for reasons I will explain below. I have found the exercise useful for keeping me praying about these events as the symbol dominates my news feed. There are good ways to give money directly to people affected by the situation – the Bible Society or the Barnabas Fund would be good places to start. It’s worth thinking of ways to support non-Christians targeted by ISIL as well. I’m praying that the Christians fleeing Iraq will have opportunities to love and care for their country people also fleeing this oppressive regime.
My Facebook feed is also filled with people praying for and expressing outrage over the persecution of Christians. Rightly so. The stories coming out of Iraq – particularly those from Canon Andrew White, an Anglican minister in Iraq, including this story that ISIL is beheading Christian children. That’s such an awful sentence to write. Writing it now pales in comparison when it comes to how White must feel sharing this news with the church globally.
My friends sharing these stories and changing their profile pictures are expressing a sense of hopelessness – this seems so present, in our interconnected and globalised world, and yet so far away. So very far away. Far from our experiences of life in a beautiful country like Australia, and from our ability to help bring change. There is so little we can do.
My friends are sharing these stories and changing their profile pictures because they want to raise awareness of what’s going on for fellow Christians.
My friends are sharing these stories and changing their profile pictures because they want people to be praying. Which must surely be the response to events such as these.
These are all good motives.
But the situation is not hopeless.
I’m not writing this to cheapen the awful reality for other people living through an experience so far removed from my own. I’m not writing this lightly. If this is not true, then Christianity is not true. Or. Perhaps. If Christianity is not true. This is not true.
There is hope for those suffering in these events.
Despite the awful atrocities being committed against Christians. Despite the horror of what humans can do to one another in the name of religion. Despite the carnage. There is hope. The hope doesn’t rest in Obama launching airstrikes. The hope rests with the one who went to martyrdom to pave the way for Christians everywhere. To secure a certain future.
The Apostle Peter, who was, as legend has it, crucified upside down, spoke of this hope. A living hope. In his letter to the persecuted church.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. – 1 Peter 1
There is hope.
I love the link David Ould’s post makes to the Passover. That time in the book of Exodus, in a region not so far from where these events are happening, where the lives of people who put their faith in God were spared because their doors were marked with a symbol. Lamb’s blood.
I like it because it’s a great reminder that whatever happens to these Christians – even to the point of the awful stuff being reported – they are marked not by ISIL with their feeble Arabic letter. But by the blood of Jesus. This is the symbol for Christians. The blood spilled at the Cross. While the n is marking out those who are associated with Jesus – the Nazarene, and this is nice, and appropriately theologically accurate, I think there’s a better symbol. A symbol that marks the moment God wrote his name on those who turn to him, the symbol that marks that first martyrdom – a symbol designed by another evil empire. Rome. A symbol that represents real hope, and opens martyrdom up as a way of life for Christians. Even when we’re not literally being crucified. Peter fronts up to a bunch of Jewish rulers in Acts 4, shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus. And explains how the disciples are carrying on the work these rulers thought had died with Jesus. Just after they healed a crippled man. Peter says.
“know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is
“‘the stone you builders rejected,
which has become the cornerstone.’
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4
I don’t know if I’m suggesting that Christians everywhere start changing their profile pictures to a picture of the Cross. Though maybe I am. I’m not sure what the exit strategy is for those who have changed their profile pictures. How long do we maintain this solidarity? I think there’s been plenty of good stuff happening as a result of the use of ن. And I’ve suggested a few ways to take concrete action at the bottom of the post (also check out the Bible Society’s list of 5 things to do – some of these are the same). At the end of the day it’s a pretty minor quibble to suggest the cross is a better symbol of Christian hope than the Arabic letter designed to associate people with Jesus. But it’s the Cross that subverts evil and oppressive regimes who seek to stamp out Christians. It’s the cross that was the symbol that encouraged the earliest Christian martyrs to follow the way of Jesus. Even to death.
All of Tertullian’s Apology – a defence of Christianity to the Roman regime which was persecuting Christians in the hope of systematically wiping out the faith, is worth reading. Chapter 50 is particularly powerful stuff in the present context. Especially this bit.
But go zealously on, good presidents, you will stand higher with the people if you sacrifice the Christians at their wish, kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers that we thus suffer; for but very lately, in condemning a Christian woman to the leno rather than to the leo you made confession that a taint on our purity is considered among us something more terrible than any punishment and any death.Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed. – Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 50.
The last words from Peter’s first letter are also particularly worth reading in this present crisis. Words to persecuted Christians. Words I am praying our brothers and sisters in Iraq are reflecting on, words that give them hope, and give us hope as we watch events that seem to be hopeless.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. – 1 Peter 4
There is hope for the Christians being persecuted – even to the point of death. The symbol of that hope isn’t the letter the enemies of Christians put on their doors, it’s the way God opens a door for them. It’s the lamb’s blood of Exodus on a cosmic scale. The blood of Jesus.
There is hope, and martyrdom is an expression of that hope. It’s a testimony to what Jesus has done for us. Revelation, another book written to Christians suffering incredible persecution, links the symbol of the blood of the lamb – spilled at the cross – with martyrdom (not shrinking from death) – suggesting this way of life (and death) is part of the victory Jesus wins over those who persecute.
“They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.” - Revelation 12:11
All of these ‘things you can do’ lists have a massive danger of being tokenistic things that are more for our own comfort and appeasement than for the comfort of others if we’re not prepared to shoulder the cost when the story falls out of your Facebook newsfeed. What does responding to the situation in Iraq look like next month? Next year? Whenever you change your profile picture back to a picture of your smiling face, or your cute kids, or whatever abstraction tickles your fancy? How are you going to keep going?
If the hope people are dying for is real. If we really are children of God, like our brothers and sisters in Iraq. If we have confidence that what Jesus did at the Cross restores our relationship with the God who created all things by speaking, then we should realise that prayer is actually the best way we can respond to any situation. It’s real. Not a token gesture. I do like that Christians do awareness raising best out of everyone online – because the easiest and best response doesn’t cost us much more than the click of a button. It costs us speaking to God. What a privilege.
Wouldn’t it be great if Australia joined other countries like France in offering refuge to those experiencing these horrific atrocities? I know the global refugee situation is incredibly complex. But if what is going on is enough to provoke Obama to do something other than giving a speech, it must be a big deal. Can I suggest writing to Scott Morrison. A church going man. The Federal Immigration Minister. To suggest he might do whatever it takes to help protect our fellow humans (not just the Christian ones) who are suffering under ISIL, who are perhaps the closest thing to the physical manifestation of evil since the serpent slithered into the garden, or since Pilate washed his hands of the crucifixion of Jesus… There are other more recent examples of the kind of evil that systematically wipes out minorities, but to invoke them breaks the internet. You can write to Scott Morrison via the email address listed on this page. Here’s an example letter. But I’m sure you can come up with your own version.
I don’t know about you, and your church (or city). But in my church, and my city, there are those who have fled similar regimes – be it fleeing persecution in Africa, the Middle East, or anywhere.
We’re often so quick to move onto new plights based on the news cycle (or current events, when the news cycle isn’t all that reliable). This love for our persecuted fellow Christians (and persecuted fellow humans) can’t just be token. It can’t be solved by the firing off of a prayer, the click of a button, the absolution of a one-off financial donation, or a passionate email to an MP.
This is an issue we need to be in for the long haul. In. Costly. Painful. Real. World. Ways. How are you going to do stuff in the real world?
It starts with doing stuff for those who have already escaped persecution. Those who are here in our country as a result of our migration program. And this isn’t just about caring for Christians. You can’t take Jesus seriously when he speaks about loving our enemies (not just our neighbours) – if you’re going to limit this sort of care to Christians. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care for Christians who have been persecuted. We absolutely should. But they share our hope. Or we share theirs. So maybe we should be looking outside the people who tick the same box as us on the census form? The best way to avoid tokenistic jingoism is to get your hands in the mix – to make others comfortable through your own discomfort (it’s very easy to write about martyrdom). Trust me. I’ve spent the last hour or so doing it). This is a massive challenge when we respond to this sort of thing as Christians. It’s a challenge I feel.
I don’t want to change my profile picture until I’m sure I’m actually doing something to back up whatever is happening in the online space. Otherwise I feel like I’m in danger of being like the Pharisees who do a bunch of token religious stuff in public, so people will notice, but aren’t really doing much good in private. This isn’t a dig at those who have changed their pictures – I’m sure many of them are doing all sorts of stuff beyond just talking. But online stuff has a massive tendency towards the sort of thing Jesus nails in Matthew 23 when he smashes the Pharisees.
“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others…
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” – Matthew 23:5-7, 23-24
I’m aware of the irony of writing this stuff on a blog. From my lounge room. Firmly entrenched in middle class Australia. But I need to stop being a slaves to the news cycle and figure out how this passion for the persecuted transforms my every day reality. Maybe you do to?
All responses outside of the events, as they happen, have a tendency to feel like they’re token gestures. That’s one of my problems with anything that smells like clicktivism or awareness raising. When there’s so little being said about what is happening to Christians we (Christians) tend to feel like we’re being mistreated, vicariously. As if column inches in the news give us validation as Christians. As if we’re martyrs because our voice isn’t getting a run because of some insidious secular, anti-Christian, agenda. I’m not questioning whether such an agenda exists. I’m sure it’s possible. There’s been an anti-Christian agenda since the Roman rulers and the Jewish rulers got together to crucify Jesus.
I’m not going to wring my hands because the Christian aspect of this genocide isn’t getting published by our western media. That seems to be missing the point. Members of our global family. Fellow children of God. Are being executed for their faith. This is an incredibly powerful testimony to the hope that they have. These brothers and sisters of ours have nothing like the freedom we have to tell people why they are giving up their lives.
I’m not going to change my profile picture to raise the plight of my fellow Christians around the world as though the situation (as mind-blowingly horrible as it is) is hopeless. Nor am I going to change my profile picture without constantly reminding people that the Christians executed by ISIL have an amazing hope.
This situation is not hopeless. Though we might feel like it is. This situation is not hopeless. It is created by hope.
The hope in the midst of these horrific acts of genocide is the hope that has driven Christians to martyrdom since very soon after the death of Jesus. The hope of resurrection. Living hope.
The hope Peter says we should always be out to share with others. This may seem like an empty, or token, gesture in the face of the systematic elimination of Christianity from a section of the Levant, but it is not. It is what is required for that elimination to fail. The proclamation of the tangible, martyrdom-inspiring, living, and real hope that is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
“But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” – 1 Peter 3:15.
It takes a special sort of artist to be the subject of conspiracy theories that make their work more compelling. Not less. The Internet is full of bad conspiracy theories about art. Theories that draw from the same gene pool as the backwards masking movement from the early days of rock music. Theories that see ghosts operating in the machine. Theories from the Third Eagle of the Apocalypse. Theories are a dime a dozen. There are five that I choose to believe.
What I love about these is they are all (if true) demonstrations of intricate creativity being deliberately laid out over a significant amount of time with a huge degree of deliberation. If true they are the work of master craftspeople. People at the top of their creative games, and at the top of the creative game. The beauty of these theories (well not really the Office one – it’s just fun) is that you don’t have to notice them to appreciate the individual texts (movies and albums) involved, but when you do notice them, or experience them through the lens the theories provide, there is a greater richness in the experience and a greater appreciation of the mastery on display.
I choose to believe that Tarantino is a master story teller. A master of very deliberate decision making in the creative process. I think the best stories are layered. They reward multiple readings (or viewings). They get richer over time, not simpler.
My working theory in this post is that God is the ultimate deliberate creator. The ultimate story teller. And when we drill down into what makes excellent human story telling excellent we gain a new appreciation of the excellence of the story God has been telling since before the beginning of time that includes, but is not limited to, the story told by the Bible (I say this because I think a case can be made that the Bible is a demonstration of the story God has been telling through history since he created the world.
Tarantino’s approach to telling stories through deliberate and intricate plots helps me appreciate the story of the Bible.
Image Credit: IGN, The Intricate, Expansive Universe of Quentin Tarantino.
Like Tarantino’s movie corpus which includes all his films, occuring within one universe, the Bible is a collection of books put together across a span of time. Christians believe the creative intent behind the linking of these books and the stories and story they tell is the result of the deliberate creativity of a divine author – God – who doesn’t just deliberately author these texts with a particular creative intent, but all of human history.
The Bible is a set of books that work as discrete units with specific purposes that tell complete stories, books that form part of different genre based corpora (like the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets in the Old Testament. Just as Kill Bill is one story told over two episodes to give Tarantino more space, there are narrative based books of the Bible that come in two parts – like 1-2 Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. The books in the Old Testament often include a variety of sources and references to other texts in their time – Proverbs, for example, includes references to several foreign kings whose collections have been included in Israel’s official collection of theological wisdom. Genesis contains Jewish versions of stories (like the flood) that are retold by other cultures with other emphases (see, for example, the Gilgamesh Epic). The Bible uses these stories with a particular agenda according to God’s purposes. The Bible doesn’t contain all the stories God is telling in his world, because: a) there isn’t enough room, as John says at the end of his Gospel…
“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” – John 21:25
b) every human life is a story, and part of this story. Like in Tarantino’s movie universe – All these stories – the stories told in the Bible, and the stories told in history through our lives, are connected through God’s meta-narrative. The story of his son. Jesus.
Like Tarantino’s movies, this story involves an act of hyper-violence. The story of the Bible (at least so far as it claims it is one story) is the story of the lamb slain before the creation of the world – and how that slaying plays out for each one of us. Are we slayers or was he slain for us? How’s this stuff from Revelation 13 for Tarantinoesque… Just let the symbolism of this stuff wash over you – the really important bit is in the bolded verse, but that only really makes sense in its context.
People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”
The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world. – Revelation 13:4-8
We all play a part in God’s story – either we’re on team dragon or team lamb. And God’s story centres on this one particular violent event. Deliberately. As Peter puts it in Acts 2 when he speaks to the Jewish crowd the narrative of Luke-Acts holds responsible for killing Jesus…
This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. – Acts 2:23.
This chapter comes soon after (but in volume 2) Luke records Jesus telling us how to read the Bible as one intricate story with one agenda.
“He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” – Luke 24:44-47
This mind opening that Jesus performs for his disciples is something like that light that turns on when you hear the theory that Tarantino’s movies are all connected. It’s what happens when you’re given the key to understanding a bunch of stories you’d never quite connected.
Look. The Bible’s writers could have made all this stuff up. Maybe. I’m familiar with the argument about puddles that some people believe does away with the need for an intelligent designer in a fine-tuned universe. And I’m really advocating a view of a finely told story… And this construct Jesus suggests for reading the Bible actually does work, it gives us (or at least me), a particularly satisfying approach to an ancient text, tracing myriad threads through the Old Testament to the foot of the Cross and the feet of King Jesus. This could be the work of some very clever humans. It could be an artificial frame to put around a bunch of random text – as a hole in the ground is a random frame that perfectly encompasses a puddle… But bear with me for a moment.
Consider the crucifixion of Jesus as a massive triumph of deliberate planning. The orchestration of literature, events, and human behaviour. Masterfully woven together. Where written story (the Old Testament) and human history come together in an utterly sublime, but yet totally surprising, way. I love reading essays like I, Pencil (which is also a YouTube video now), or a recent article about Thermos sending a hot coffee by freight across the US, and all the things that have to fall neatly into place in the supply chain to get that coffee from farm to mouth.
I love thinking about the intricacies and deliberation required to achieve certain desired results.
I love the idea that true creativity is about finding an intricate, elegant (aesthetically pleasing), or deliberately and aptly selected (sledgehammers can be creatively applied) approach to achieving such results. This is why I love Rube Goldberg machines and OK Go film clips and uphold them as archetypal forms of creativity or ingenuity. It’s why I enjoy Tarantino movies and the theory they all take place in the same interwoven universe. They are examples of intricate, elegant, and deliberate story telling. But they are not the ultimate version of this sort of storytelling…
What is more intricate, elegant, and deliberate than having human history unfold in such a way that a specific person, born in a specific place, to a specific category of mother, killed by specific people, in a specific way, with specific events plausibly surrounding this specific death? That sounds a little like a potential plot line for a Tarantino movie. The ‘deliberate’ planning involved to get Jesus to the Cross blows my mind…
Consider the deliberate marshalling of human history and events both local and geo-political in order to have Jesus killed through an unexpected agreement between a particular surviving people group from the Ancient Near East (whose very survival was unlikely) – Israel – who believed that being hung on a tree was a sign of God’s curse and their bitter enemy – the occupiers – Rome – the most powerful human empire and propaganda machine the world had ever seen, who used crucifixion as a violent symbol in a PR war to keep sedition at bay.
Consider the sheer unlikelihood of the rise of Christianity amongst both Jews, with their views on crucifixion – theologically driven, and ancient, and Romans. Jews looked at crucifixion through the lens of Deuteronomy 21, which says:
“If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” – Deuteronomy 21:22-23
While Romans had the rhetorical power of the cross hammered into them by its use in events like the crucifixion of Spartacus’ army in 73BC. Where 6,000 Roman slaves were executed and displayed for all to see on the Appian Way – a 200km highway between Rome and Capua.
Consider that crucifixion was so violent and barbaric that Roman citizens were not permitted to be crucified. That sort of cultural aversion had to be developed in order for the cross to have its inverted rhetorical power in the Christian story. In order for its sheer unlikelihood as a means of heralding and coronating a king to be significantly subversive.
That’s the level of intricacy in this story’s supply chain.
That’s the sort of creativity involved in God’s story-telling.
Even if the puddle theory could be applied to this level of fine-tuning – there’s a sublime amount of creativity applied to weave all these elements together across genres, languages (from Hebrew to Greek (via Aramaic), through different political regimes (the nomadic patriarchy, the Jewish monarchy, exile under Assyria, exile under Persia, the return from exile, exile under Greece, exile under Rome), and to link them with an incredibly consistent application of tropes, and amazingly intricate intertextuality (both inside and outside the Biblical canon).
Whatever the explanation for the creative force behind this intricacy – be it a cabal of human editors working over that span to advance some sort of nefarious agenda (or simply for creativity’s sake), or divine (and I’m not sure the human alternative is all that plausible, even if I’m a sucker for creative literary conspiracy theories) – it is sublimely creative and exciting. It is deliberate, intricate, and elegant.
This is what sets the Bible’s story apart from the rest, in the same way that Tarantino’s movies sit apart from contemporary works or those within similar genres. But here are three areas where appreciating the deliberation and creativity in Tarantino’s movies helps me to get a sense of the greater creativity at play in the pages of the Bible – a much older text.
One of the interesting implications of the Tarantino theory (certain parts of which have been confirmed) is what it means for all the movies from our real universe that Tarantino references in his “realer than real” universe and also in the “movies that exist within the realer than real” universe. His movie universe is a movie universe where most of our texts also exist (in order for them to be referenced in whatever homage he chooses to pay them). Curiously. The Bible exists in the Tarantino universe. Pulp Fiction hitman, Jules Winnfield, quotes Ezekiel as he shoots his victims. Only. He doesn’t. This is what Jules says:
“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.”
Ezekiel 25:17 actually says:
“I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them.”
That’s a distraction from this concept of intertextuality. Intertextuality – speaking to, and with, other texts from within a text, is a sure-fire way to create intricacy and integration.
There’s quite a bit of language in this video that claims to contain every pop culture reference Tarantino makes in his movies. This “definitive guide” goes beyond mentions of other cultural artefacts within Tarantino’s work to explore the way he pays homage to a wide variety of texts. Here’s how the characters in his movies (and the movies of Robert Rodriguez) are interconnected.
Image Source: The Adventures of an Insomniac
The Bible is chock full of cross-references – interactions with other cultural texts, for sure, but the incredible number of cross references between the 66 books that became the Christian Bible is quite amazing. There are 63,000 cross references in the Bible depicted in this graphic.
Some of these cross references are more hefty than others – but the way the Bible links the words of the prophets in the Old Testament with the actions and words of Jesus is pretty stunning story-telling (more stunning if the connections are what actually happened, not just things creative writers invented – and I believe they are). This sort of intertextuality is Tarantino on steroids – that definitive guide to Tarantino, impressive though it is, contains 179 examples. Examples from one guy. From 18 of his movies. This infographic depicts about 352 times the number of references Tarantino managed, from 66 books, written by about 40 authors. The Bible’s intertextuality, in my opinion, is significantly more impressive because of the integration of the creativity of so many people, over so long, to tell a coherent story that also does both pop culture references and references within the universe of the Biblical texts.
As far as I’m concerned there are two options with the Bible. It is definitely an amazingly integrated story full of deliberation, intricacy and elegance – transcending a bunch of archaic genres that we aren’t particularly well equipped to grapple with. This story is either fiction, invented by a string of genius Tarantino like humans, operating across cultures, or it is truth, divinely authored through a string of genius Tarantino like humans. I like the concluding remarks from the essay I, Pencil mentioned above, at this point. I think what is true in this paragraph about the making of a pencil is truer about the writing of the Bible.
“I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.”
Tarantino has certain trademarks – some more offensive than others – that reoccur throughout his movies. These serve to link the movies together as ‘Tarantino’ movies. They are part of his distinctives. They are part of his personality.
The Bible is chock full of trademarks, or motifs, that reoccur across different books. There are also threads that carry the narrative across these books, through the cross references depicted above, to link the books of the Bible as one unfolding story. That’s part of the added appeal.
Here are just a few.
1. Women who can’t conceive falling pregnant and giving birth to a miraculous child after being visited by a messenger from God, the child then plays a significant part in God’s rescue plan. Starting with Abraham and Sarah (Isaac), then Jacob and Rachel (Joseph), then Sampson’s parents (his mother isn’t named), Elkanah and Hannah (who have Samuel), Zechariah and Elizabeth (John the Baptist), then, of course, Mary – the most unlikely mother – gives birth to Jesus.
2. Animal interactions as indicative of God’s judgment, or humanity’s obedience to God. From the snake in the garden, to Balaam and his talking donkey, to Jonah and the whale, to Elisha and his attack she-bears, to Sampson and David ripping apart lions and (not tigers) bears as signs of strength, animals are a reoccuring plot device in the Bible.
3. Gold. There’s Gold in Eden, at the start of the Bible, and from there on, gold (and the jewels also mentioned in Genesis 2) becomes like a thermometer that tests the temperature of humanity’s relationship with the creator and his world. The gold is plundered from Egypt during the Exodus, used to make a golden calf when Moses gets the 10 Commandments, used to construct the Temple and the clothes of the priests, and then the temple treasures are handed over to the bad guys on Israel’s road to exile.
4. Character names as determinative puns. Right from Adam, whose name means “of the ground” to Jesus, whose name means “God with us” – the Bible uses character names to move plot, and indicate where things have changed – for example, when Abram’s name is changed to Abraham.
5. Numbers. The Bible uses reoccuring numbers – like 12 (tribes and disciples) and 40 (days of rain for Noah, years in the wilderness for Israel, days in the desert for Jesus) – to link stories and events.
There are also tropes within books. Genesis, which starts in the Garden, spends the rest of the book playing with the idea of ‘seed’ – including the weird story of Onan. Judges is full of people killing using improvised weaponry. 1-2 Samuel reads like a mafia novel – Kings (or Godfathers) rely on their hitmen (Abner for Saul, Joab for David) to carry off increasingly nasty hits. Quite a few books in the histories section involve stories about people building markers to recognise significant places or events that are said to “remain till this day”…
My favourite thread that helps carry the narrative is the good old “image of God” thread – which isn’t just about the ideal human and our relationship to God, but is a constant criticism of the idolatry of the nations that Israel keeps taking up. People are meant to be living images of the living God, but they’re so keen to make dead images (still, wooden, stone, or metal) of dead gods. This thread helps explain the prohibitions against making images of God, and the problems Israel have with being the people God wants them to be. The Bible is pretty clear that the things we make our gods shape us. When Israel is shaped by the living God things are good (this doesn’t happen often), when they are shaped by idols, they die. This carries through to Jesus, who the Bible tells us is the image of God. Who transforms dead people who have turned away from God into live people, reconnected with God. It’s a big story of recreation – the end of the Bible, Revelation, is a perfect world, with a Garden, where God is present with people restored to his image.
I like some Tarantino movies better than others. I can appreciate things about his movies that I don’t like. But this Tarantino universe theory – and the ingenuity underpinning it – excites me. It opens up new ways to appreciate each movie. The connection to something bigger makes the individual movie richer. Each movie stands on its own. Each movie is a coherent and discrete unit. But they’re linked – not just by the name on the can. Tarantino. But by the use of tropes, by the intertextual approach, the signature style, all that stuff. The more aware of this stuff I am, the more I appreciate about Tarantino’s work.
It’s the same with the Bible. Each book of the Bible offers something different (maybe with the exception of Chronicles as they relate to 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings). Each stands alone as art. Each is a work of creativity. Each has a relatively clear meaning and purpose – but this clarity becomes richer with time, the more one understands the creativity at play in the text. The books that take a narrative form stand alone as stories with beginnings and endings. With characters. With a purpose. With the artistic development of ideas and images. But what makes the Bible really sing is when each book takes its place next to the others as this unfolding story. God’s story. The story that brings all the tropes, all the threads, all the events, together in one person. Jesus. God’s king. The king anticipated by the Old Testament. The author writing himself into the story in order to be known. The master story teller who becomes part of the story, and dies for the sake of the characters he loves. That’s when the story becomes deliberate. Intricate. Elegant. And a model of creativity at its most sublime.
When you think about it, very few people in this world stand and fall on their ability to stand and deliver a compelling public speech. The field narrows somewhat when you’re talking people performing largely as themselves, or under their own names (not in character). Comedians. politicians. TV and radio presenters, motivational speakers, preachers… and Professional Wrestlers. In this post I’m going to air some dirty laundry – revealing that I know more about (and think far more about) professional wrestling than I should… but bear with me.
I suspect there’s stuff preachers can learn (given the right approach to learning) from the cream of each of these crops – be it Jerry Seinfeld and Ricky Gervais, Barack Obama, Ira Glass, or Paul Heyman.
Who is Paul Heyman?
He’s not even a wrestler.
He’s a manager (essentially paid to be a mouth piece to help people who can’t speak for themselves get over with the crowds).
In that video he’s standing next to Brock Lesnar, Lesnar is a bona fide fighter. WWE might be ‘sports entertainment’ – but Lesnar was the UFC Heavyweight World Champion. He just can’t speak (he’s not mute, he’s just not interesting). Paul Heyman has built a career out of speaking for guys like Lesnar.
A speech, in wrestling parlance, is called a promo. Promos are up there with in ring ability when it comes to advancing WWE storylines. Here’s another Heyman special.
There’s obviously a fair bit of bombast involved in the professional wrestling world. It’s over the top. And that sets the stage, and frames the delivery. But the audience is along for the ride. Hanging off every word. Booing and cheering when they should.
They are in the palm of Heyman’s hand. What’s extra impressive is that this speech is happening in the slot a typical WWE episode reserves for the ‘main event’ – the much hyped (but usually unresolved) match between two (or more) guys who will headline the next pay-per-view. It’s prime time in this prime time programming. And instead of over-muscled, juiced-up, meatheads grappling with one another for the cursory few minutes before outside interference renders the match void (to hold the finish over until a bigger pay day), we have a speech. This “speech in the place of a fight” both is, and isn’t, unconventional. Despite ostensibly being all about wrestling the WWE is nothing without speeches. Because the WWE’s product is the stories it tells. And the stories it sells.
The WWE, and its component superstars, are modern day story tellers. They use words and choreographed action to tell stories – much like the opera, the ballet, or the theatre. They might be a little oafish and ham-fisted in their delivery (of both lines, and blows). But they’re telling stories and selling out seats. Wrestling is a cultural event. Its a billion dollar business (changes within the company can wreak havoc with WWE’s market value – a recent change in the company’s broadcasting approach saw owner Vince McMahon lose something in the order of $750 million in a very short amount of time). It’s serious, even if it’s not ‘real.’
The WWE stands in a long and rich history of pugilistic endeavours being played out as the circus element of ‘bread and circuses.’ Cajoling an audience into cheering for the hero who is coming up against an exaggerated pantomime villain (while they hand over fists full of money) is an old formula , but it still works. The WWE is big business. And it relies on guys like Heyman (and the more articulate wrestlers – like Chris Jericho, pictured above) to sell tickets and move merchandise by telling compelling stories that the audience buys in to – with their money, their voices, and their emotions.
There’s some really nice writing underpinning this second Heyman speech – the building of intensity with a nice use of cadence and the escalating repetition in the paragraph quoted below which works because of the punchiness of the verbs, and the way they’re doing the heavy lifting when it comes to advancing the storyline.
If you want to overthink wrestling – Grantland’s Masked Man is a stunningly interesting commentator and historian on the phenomenon of professional wrestling. His book The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling is worth a read to get a handle on this quirky corner of the entertainment world. The Masked Man spends a few thousand words explaining why these promos from Paul Heyman are the archetypal pieces of wrestling oratory, there’s something nice, for instance, in the way Heyman plays with the fourth wall (in wrestling this is called ‘Kayfabe’) he mixes truths about wrestling and its fakery/scriptedness with fiction, and even with a bit of a hat tip to exactly what it is he’s doing as he speaks…
“I don’t just stand out here and spew hype and hyperbole; I exploit historical facts to shove my points down your throats. To wit, I offer you what happened the last time my client Brock Lesnar zeroed in on someone and decided to give them a beating.”
This para throws to a video clip of Lesnar’s very surprising (and totally scripted) win over the indomitable Undertaker at Wrestlemania. It’s driving the storyline towards the next pay per view, where Lesnar won’t be facing the WWE’s perennial pin-up boy, John Cena. Lesnar is a part timer. The time allowed for his stories to get traction with the audience is contracted, Heyman’s job is to throw fuel on the fire – giving the story significance as quickly as possible.
“At SummerSlam my client Brock Lesnar will take John Cena down. Brock Lesnar will punch John Cena’s face in. John Cena, you’re going to be hurt by Brock Lesnar. Brock Lesnar’s going to injure John Cena. Brock Lesnar is going to mangle John Cena. And then, and only then, Brock Lesnar is going to F-5 John Cena and strip John Cena of the dignity of being the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, the same way Brock Lesnar stripped the Undertaker of his dignity and exposed the streak as just being a myth — the same myth that Brock Lesnar hears every week on television when John Cena is referred to as being the greatest WWE Champion of all time. Fifteen world titles in 10 years: Now that sounds like something worth conquering.”
So. I contend. There is much that preachers can learn, should we so choose, from the WWE. I’m not suggesting we ditch church and start up Christian Wrestling Federations (as some are in the habit of doing), or that we recruit preachers from the ranks of the WWE (a road surprisingly well-travelled – hall-of-famers Ted DiBiase and Shawn Michaels are engaged in various preaching gigs). When Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the flashy orators he wasn’t going to be like as a guy preaching about the crucifixion of Jesus, it’s likely the flashy orators he had in mind were oiled up guys who shaved their chests after spending too long in the gym… but it’s also fair to say Paul’s writings and the records of his speeches suggest a fairly sophisticated understanding of the guys he positioned his approach against… his opponents… the ‘heels’ (wrestling term for bad guys) to his ‘face’…
… And, if you want to get really technical with the wrestling stuff – Paul had a pretty massive ‘face turn’ – where Acts positions him as one of the worst of the bad guys – a Pharisee shooting up the ranks, and then depicts his conversion into the leader of the Gentile church. Paul’s biography is the stuff wrestling promoters have been copying for years. But I digress…
I’m also fairly convinced that Paul knew about oratory, that he learned from orators, and as a result (and because he was also being led by God) he was able to present the story of Jesus in a bunch of compelling ways that varied depending on his audience (as you see in Acts). And so I’m convinced that we, like Paul, should be looking around at people who are telling stories in ways people find compelling in our day and age. I’m not an expert preacher – and I’m so not experty that I’m prepared to learn from anyone who might help.
Wrestlers know they can get the crowd on side (if they’re good guys) or off side (if they’re bad guys) with a quick bit of contextualisation. If you’re a good guy you know who the local sporting teams are, you give them a shout out, you praise the town, and you get a ‘cheap pop.’ If you’re the bad guy you insult the town, insult the sporting heroes, and you get ‘cheap heat’… but there are more audiences to consider at every event. The beauty of Heyman’s speeches are that they play to the ‘cheap heat’ stuff, while also tapping into the genuine loathing of John Cena amidst the fans who consider themselves ‘insiders’ – people who see past the surface level fakery of wrestling and still choose to invest themselves in the WWE universe. Heyman nailed his appeal to these guys, because he understood their language and their disposition, and spoke to them.
There’s something in this for preachers – not just in reaching sub-cultures via their idiosyncrasies, but also in knowing what your audience is expecting from you and choosing to either deliver on expectations or subvert/exceed them. I like the idea that preaching needs to be sufficiently local that the people who you are preaching to feel like you’re speaking to them, especially if they’ve never heard preaching before, but also rich enough that people who think they know how preaching works are surprised by what you’re doing with a genre of communication they believe they’re familiar with.
The really good wrestlers – the ones that get big and headline big events – are the ones who’ve managed to achieve something like wrestling transcendence. Historically, these are the guys that non-wrestling crowds recognise. They get into movies or reality TV. They start movements of fans who influence the writing of the shows (most recently an anti-hero named Daniel Bryan managed to get so popular with the fans that he became WWE World Champion). They do this by capturing the imagination, by being relatable, and by including the fans in their stories. Incidentally, the WWE has poured bucket loads of money into building a presence online, especially on social media. It’s not uncommon for WWE storylines to be trending on Twitter, and for the Twitter stuff to become part of the storyline. WWE has democratised its product, giving certain amounts of control (or the illusion of control) to its fans. The more enfranchised the fans feel, the more connected to the process, the more they feel involved in the stories, the more they invest themselves into what’s going on. Emotionally, and, more importantly for the WWE, financially. Fans identify with wrestlers in these storylines – and they buy the T-Shirt to prove it…
There’s something about the power of the good v evil story that wrestling tells over and over again that gets the audience engaged. And you know who has a better good v evil story to tell than professional wrestlers? Christian preachers. We have a big story, our preaching should always connect to it, or we’re telling small stories that might move some people, but will (if the wrestling world is any reflection on reality) be a flash in the pan. There are plenty of wrestlers who didn’t cut it because their stories never became significant, multi-episode, entities, and as a result never reached the stage of including or exciting the audience.Sometimes I feel like I’m so caught up in the facts of the Gospel story that I forget how much the story is my story, and is also the story I’m inviting every body listening to belong to. Christianity is about more than buying a T-Shirt that says ‘Team Jesus’ – but the story is so compelling it can produce radical transformation to those who become part of it.
Part of the whole story-telling to get buy in thing involves moving the audience to cheer for the good guys (or the smart audiences to cheer for the bad guys), and boo the bad guys. Listen to the crowd in the Heyman speeches, watch the faces of the kids (and adults) in the crowd when their favourite wrestler loses a match, and you’ll see the real emotional connection people make with these wrestlers through these stories. Here’s a photo of the crowd response to the Undertaker losing to Brock Lesnar (before that he’d been 21-0 at Wrestlemania).
Image Credit: This post cataloguing responses to the surprise finish.
The thing about preaching is that we want people to be making an emotional connection like this – but not with us. With Jesus. I think we want to move people’s emotions, but we want our emotions to be moving in the same way. There’s a Cicero quote about his desire to never producing an emotional response in his audience that he didn’t feel himself first. Which is a good rule of thumb (or voice).
The great thing about preaching about Jesus is that we’re not the main event, we’re the fans who help shape the story of our hero as we tell people about him and participate in his victory. We feel emotions (or we should) when we’re talking about Jesus like those kid fans do. This means we’re in a position to deal in the emotional space with real authenticity. Unlike in the fake world of professional wrestling.
All too often I’ve found myself avoiding dealing in the emotional space. I think this is often because I forget I’m the kid in the stands and think I’m a vital piece of the show – where the pressure is on me to deliver. It’s not. Jesus wins the cosmic wrestling match. We cheer. We know the outcome. We wince with every blow now, as the bout carries on. But his victory is assured and we share the spoils. We will experience the emotional highs of victory. Our emotions need to ride this rollercoaster for us to really appreciate the story, and for us to really tell it. I think part of my inability to engage the emotions as I preach is, in part, because I’m worried that being emotional makes the story (or my preaching) about me. The nice thing about remembering that preaching is telling Jesus’ story (that it’s not about me at all) is that it frees me to respond emotionally as I tell it. I can be the fan who feels like my fate is caught up with the guy I’m cheering for – because it is.
Using Paul Heyman as the example driving this piece is interesting because he’s not a conventional wrestling orator, by today’s standards. Most wrestlers do their own talking, and their success (in the ring, and out of it) depends as much on their ability to tell a story as it does on their in ring prowess. In fact. Because wrestling is scripted – even the stuff in the ring – wrestlers are judged on their ability to ‘sell’ the in ring action as well. They have to be able to tell a compelling story with everything they do. They have to be part of the story.
Every wrestling character has a role to play. And the story – like a piece of theatre – depends on them playing that role. These stories don’t work if everyone wants to be the good guy, or if everybody wants to be in the spotlight. In the normal wrestling equation there can only be one hero.
Heyman has made a career out of shining the spotlight on others (sort of, he’s never far from it, or from controversy). Even when he’s focusing the spotlight on others he is in your face and part of the main event. Preachers need to know our role in the story of the Gospel. It’s not about us, but we do have a part to play – as do the people we’re speaking to. The pull to make myself the star of the show is something I’m constantly aware of – partly because I like being the centre of attention, partly because sometimes I believe I should be…
One of the enduring truths about wrestling – even with its occasional David v Goliath underdog victory – is that if you’re going to run your mouth, you need to match it up with action. There’s a stereotypical heel character who runs his mouth, and then runs away (or relies on underhanded tactics to get cheap victories). These are probably the least popular bad guys. The lowest of the low. The really famous wrestlers – guys like Steve Austin, The Rock, Hulk Hogan – they were able to deliver on the mic, and believably back up the talk with action.
There’s something in this for preachers. Wrestlers can’t live by anything that looks like “win the match, where necessary use fists” any more than preachers can “preach the Gospel, when necessary use words” – but both words and actions are necessary for in ring and in pulpit success. It’s a credibility thing as much as an authenticity thing. For compelling wrestling, and compelling preaching, words need to meet deeds with sublime consistency.
Wrestlers don’t get attention by copying the gimmicks of those who have gone before. They might borrow the occasional move, in tribute to past greats, or to align themselves with wrestling lore and history. But originality is important. Finding a balance between imitating the people worth imitating and developing your own voice on the mic, and moves in the ring, is part of winning the crowd and influencing people. The really fun wrestlers know what the mould looks like but choose to break it. They innovate on the mic, they innovate in the ring. They figure out what sort of unique contribution they can make, and what sort of unique stories this enables them to tell.
I think this is true in preaching too. There’s a massive temptation the more other preachers move sets and voices dominate the podcast airwaves to borrow too much. To be a clone. That might work on a local scene where nobody has heard of the big famous guy, but it doesn’t work when everybody else listens to the same guy you’re imitating. People can spot fakes who are faking it in a fake world, I think it’s probably more damaging if you’re caught faking it in the real world. I heard some advice once, I forget who it was from, that preachers who are just starting out should listen to as many preachers as they possibly can, rather than just a hero. There’s something insightful in that. But I’d rather figure out what it looks like for me to preach as me, than for me to preach as a pastiche of my favourite preaching heroes.
Practice makes perfect. There’s that (potentially debunked) Malcolm Gladwell theory about 10,000 hours being required to master something, and this could well be true for wrestlers. The best wrestlers hone their skills for years in small halls, regional promotions, wrestling has beens (ala Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler) and wannabes until they get noticed. This is the ‘indie’ scene. It’s where the guys who have tasted success in the WWE in more recent years have cut their teeth. Especially the ‘original’ guys – not the carbon copy muscular supermen who can’t string sentences together but look tough in speedos so experience a certain degree of success naturally guys – but the guys who tell unique and different stories. Guys like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and Dean Ambrose (guys the Masked Man and other internet commentators write about with a certain degree of admiration bordering on obsession – see, for example, this treatment of the rise of Daniel Bryan).
I suspect part of finding your voice is using it. As much as possible. Wherever possible. To whoever possible. And getting a sense of what flies and what doesn’t. I don’t know what this looks like when it comes to training for preachers in this day and age, but I certainly haven’t racked up 10,000 hours of preaching (even with the equation including prep + delivery). That’s a 10 year project, assuming one preaches every week for 48 weeks of the year and takes 20-25 hours to prepare and deliver a sermon. So I’m comfortable that it’s going to be quite a while before I feel like I shouldn’t be preaching to 12 people in a dank school hall.
The line between in-show character and real life person/actor is pretty blurry when it comes to your typical WWE superstar. The world of ‘kayfabe‘ means wrestlers are meant to only ever appear in public in character. Personas in tact. This is doubly true for what happens during a show – the wikipedia article on ‘breaking’ (which Jimmy Fallon was hilariously notorious for on Saturday Night Live) has its own special section reserved for professional wrestling.
It’s as important for my preaching as for the success of a wrestler committed to ‘the business’ that I stay in character. The difference between wrestling and preaching is that preaching isn’t fake. I am my character. I perform under my own name – for Jesus’ name. I don’t perform under a stage name for a multi-billion dollar company that depends on my ability to uphold an act. As a preacher I genuinely want everything I do to be telling the story of Jesus. In the pulpit or at home with my kids when visitors pop in. Christianity is part of who I am. I am part of the story of Jesus in every sphere, there is no room for breaking for the preacher (that’s not to say there isn’t room for stuffing up – part of the great news of the Gospel is that God forgives sinners like me through Jesus’ victory).
Because somebody might do this to you. And that would be bad.
There was a while when I was tempted to buy into the idea that you should think about yourself as a brand. Who am I kidding – I bought into the idea. Once upon a time I would have read this suggestion to spend a magic nine minutes a day developing my own brand and thought it was dynamite advice for getting ahead in this world. Because it probably is.
I like branding. I like marketing. I like growing a brand. I like people to like me. So it made sense to think about building a tribe of devoted followers who want to hang off my every word, or like my every status, or whatever it is that people who are brands crave. But that’s a dangerous path to making yourself the centre of the universe. And I don’t want to be the centre of my universe – let alone anybody else’s.
You’re not a brand, you’re a human. You don’t have a brand. Cattle have brands. You’re not a cow. I know this because cows can’t read.
If you’re a Christian – you’re not out to make your own name, or craft your own image.
“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.” – Romans 8:29
And you know you’re not the centre of the universe. Jesus is.
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy” – Colossians 1
Paul, who spent a significant part of his life promoting brand Jesus (and not brand Paul) was also branded by Jesus – the scars he bore for his efforts were scars pointing people to his king.
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world… From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. – Galatians 6
So here’s a challenge. If we want to live out our new reality – pointing people to the centre of reality as we become more like him – why not figure out how you can spend nine minutes a day promoting Jesus online.
Nine minutes doesn’t sound like a lot – and it’s not (promoting Jesus is a whole of life thing). But as the people behind the 9 minute personal brand challenge point out – it adds up, and it’s better than nothing.
“9 Minutes a day translates into three hours a month. Can you imagine the impact on your career if you focused on the brand called you for three full hours every month?”
So. Nine minutes a day. Can you do it? Will people notice? Who knows. But it will, at the very least, change you – because the way we use the mediums we use changes us as we use them. perhaps it will be part of the process of conforming you into the image of Jesus.
These are like the low hanging fruit. I’m just sort of riffing off (or ripping off) the tips from the Lifehacker post where I saw the 9 minute idea.
1. Write something about following Jesus. Engage with the world you live in. Share it. A blog post, a Facebook status, an email, a message to a friend. Create content that shows you don’t live for your own glory, but to glorify Jesus.
2. Read the Bible. Share it. Not in the weird contextless way that so many people seem to do. Even my eyes glaze over at those posts – and I love the Bible. But show how it hits your heart, not just your head.
3. Pray for people. Your friends. People who need to know Jesus. It’s God who changes people’s hearts, by his Spirit, not your pithy Facebook status. That’s part of realising that your own brand has nothing to do with it…
4. Read some things by other Christians. Curate them. Share them with your friends. Discuss them with others. Be an editor for your friends. Social media, like traditional media, needs deliberate editors. People are increasingly discovering content via social media, so why not supply it?
5. Encourage your friends. Post stuff on Facebook walls. PM people with a note of encouragement – ask how you can pray for them (and do it). Send encouraging emails. Invite people to catch up in real life.
6. Comment on discussions with your friends in a way that points people to Jesus (both in your content and manner), and that adds value to whatever the conversation is (too often Christians run into these forays spouting jargon that just confuses people, mind the gap a bit, explain why you think differently while being humble and loving those you disagree with).
7. Enter the fray in one of the countless discussions about Christianity (or anything) on other media platforms – like the one about the amazing woman who forgave her husband’s killers. Stand up for Jesus.
8. Be, visibly, a Christian online – in all your profiles. Write them so they’re about how amazing Jesus is, not how amazing you are. It’s a bit like sticking a Jesus fish on your car, it keeps you accountable when it comes to what you share, what you say, and how you say it.
9. Show that you appreciate the goodness of God’s creation. Share good stuff. Fun stuff. Not just overtly Christian stuff. Be grateful. Acknowledge the source of the good stuff you’re enjoying and sharing. Not in a super spiritual way, just in a way that cultivates thankfulness in your own mind and demonstrates it to others.
10. Try not to self-promote. We have a massive tendency to try to put ourselves at the centre of the universe, and social media seems designed to facilitate and amplify that tendency.
Will you join me in trying to do this? Nine minutes a day. What are some other ideas?
I think people who choose careers that aren’t glamorous, but are chances to serve people, are to be admired. I think when these people turn mundane jobs into performance art, they are to be celebrated. So here are three.
It’s weird. I’ve seen all three doing the rounds this week. Have you seen any more?
Ron Burgundy would be proud.
All the fights from the first three Michael Bay Transformers movies supercut together. No plot. All is as it should be.