This is a nice little segment from a TV show where one of the UK’s most famous Christians – Bear Grylls, has a conversation with one of the UK’s most famous atheists – Stephen Fry. And they are respectful. And civil. And that’s why adversarial debates are a stupid model of apologetics (well, that and they’re usually disconnected from the Gospel).
Over at the Creek Road blog I’ve started a little series overthinking my favourite TV series - Community.
“Community gives us a picture of a group of people coming together at Greendale Community College, initially united through selfishness and a desire to further their own agendas, but eventually staying together because they love one another and are prepared to make sacrifices. The show celebrates community, but it also shows that there are natural limits to this sort of community without Jesus, without a substantial community-defining act of sacrificial love to turn to when community life gets hard.
The community in Community is a genuine community, it can teach us some lessons for how we think of church community, but it’s a community that is limited in scope – and there are some ways church is ultimately a much greater form of community than anything a bunch of people can imagine or create without the cross of Jesus.”
While I was looking for some nice quotes from Community that had already been transcribed, I came across this cracker of a post from elsewhere that has nailed exactly what it is that makes Community hum. Especially when Dan Harmon is in control.
“In the best Community episodes, the show doesn’t pull its punches: characters end up hurting each other, sometimes deeply. And the best resolutions are the ones in which its characters can’t just shrug off each other’s problems as trivial, acknowledge that everybody’s secretly good and wonderful, hug! kiss! let’s forget this ever happened! Community’s ideal resolution is darker than that: it’s the one in which people face each other and say, I’m f**** up. I hurt people. And if I’m given another reason to hurt you again, I’ll do it, unless I make an active effort not to do that. Heck, even then I’ll probably hurt you still.
This is what makes the twee-ness of the music, the over-sweetness of the visuals (in which colors are rich and everything’s well-composed and characters have nary a hair out of line), acceptable, what saves Community from being sickening or intolerable. The sweetness is there to soften the sting. Community is a show about how hard communities are, how hard it is to make people behave well towards each other when sometimes there’s seemingly no reason to behave. “
This emphasis on the brokenness people bring to their relationships is a profound realisation about human nature – normally reserved for Christians with a high view of the fall, or for people exploring the selfish gene…
“Dan Harmon liked to describe Community, in interviews and on his blog, as having a “humanist” message. It always felt like that description, much like Community itself, was a pointed one, and one with a bit of a sting to it as well. Was Community heartwarming? Sure. Was it optimistic? Well, it seemed positive that people could do things despite themselves – but it always acknowledged the “despite”. If Community was a successfully humanist show, it was because it held no illusions about what “human” meant – and it wasn’t all good. In fact, much or most of humanity was rotten awful, which was what made it so funny to watch, and what made its occasional triumphs feel so rewarding…”
“…That talent, though, that ability to look at the worst parts of people and to see in them the seeds of humanity at its very best… that is crucial. That is rare. Now that I can see it for what it really is, I think it’s as important as I felt it was when I first found this show, and I can understand why that earlier Community held an appeal to me that nothing else on TV seemed to touch. It’s the harder routes, the difficult paths, the roads less taken, that force us to see the world around us for what it really is, rather than what we pretend it to be for our own convenience. Dan Harmon lives in a world of selfishness and loneliness and suffering, and he learned how to write that world in a way that felt truer, sharper, more hurtful, more honest. “
This is great trainwreck style television. A zookeeper is trying to explain the circle of life to an increasingly indignant interviewer.
“But one does not tend to be dismembered after a vaccination.”
I missed the Flappy Bird juggernaut. In fact. Completely. The developer is killing it tonight because it is stressing him out.
I am sorry 'Flappy Bird' users, 22 hours from now, I will take 'Flappy Bird' down. I cannot take this anymore.
— Dong Nguyen (@dongatory) February 8, 2014
Poor guy. The internet doesn’t like that idea very much.
But if you’re addicted – you’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them… There’s a language warning here…
Know when to walk away. And know when to hit your stupid phone with a hammer.
Crazy. I love that they feel the need to tell us no to try at home.
This is supremely good (thanks to Peter B who shared it on Facebook).
I love this. A Dutch artist, Berndnaut Smilde, makes clouds inside rooms.
He uses a smoke machine – but he controls the temperature and humidity in the room to get the clouds to form a particular way. Before they dissipate.
Remember that time I posted stuff about starting a church in South Bank. Well. That happens tomorrow. If you’re the praying type – could you pray for us?
If you’re not the praying type – and you live in Brisbane – you should come, find out what it means to be the praying type.
Here’s a video with some details.
Also – that post about starting a church in Brisbane’s inner city led to an interview with the Sunday Mail – you can read the interview and see the story here – turns out South Bank is the most ‘godless’ part of Brisbane.
This is the book I would write about how we think about media as Christians if I was going to write a book about how we think about and use media as Christians.
It is exceptional, and if you have any respect for how I’ve approached this sort of topic on this blog over the past however many years I’ve been banging on about this stuff – you should stop reading this review and buy the book, its title, in full, is: TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age.
I’m glad Andy Byers has written it for me, and for others. I will be effusive in my praise of this book (though I think there are definitely stones left unturned should I ever actually want to write a book). I will praise it to the hills because I believe it is essential reading for Christians who want to take the Gospel into new mediums using new technologies with a strong theological foundation.
It is methodologically sensible, theologically invigorating, and practically stimulating. It is the best book on thinking about the intersection of theology and media studies that I have read, and I have read all the others. Well. Maybe not all the others. But lots.
Like any book – this one should be assessed on its own terms. So Byers says:
“The conviction underlying this book is that Christian scripture is not only the best source for understanding Jesus but also the best source for understanding Google.”
“This book is a hermeneutical project in the church’s wider efforts of trying to understand the technological mediascape of the twenty-first century. The purpose is not to offer a how-to guidebook to help churches incorporate communications technology into their worship and witness. I am hoping to provide something more foundational. The point is to make some headway in constructing a theological frame of reference for understanding and appropriating media in the digital age and in the ages to come.”
His argument is:
“First: if God himself creates and employs media, then there must be a theological logic that can guide how we produce and use media and communications technology today. Here is the second claim: Christians are called to media saturation, but the primary media that are to shape, form, and saturate our lives are the media of God—TheoMedia, the communicative and revelatory means God employs to share himself and to influence humankind as his image bearers.”
His treatment of the unfolding Biblical saga is exceptional, and the touch points he selects and unpacks in this story are spectacular. His definition of media is broad – anything that is a “means to communicate” – and that is how I think it should be. Just about every ‘thing’ can function as media. His definition of TheoMedia is equally broad.
“… although there is such a thing as “new media,” the actual concept of media is as old as the hills. This is true literally, because the hills themselves are a form of media. God’s media. Or, we could say, “TheoMedia.” Media production began with God. The aesthetic media of God’s creation was produced by another form of divine media. The slope of the valleys and the rise of hills beneath glorious sky blue all came about through the medium of holy speech. Divine words addressed the primordial cosmic blankness, and ever since “let there be…” sounded in the dark, creation has served as a means of divine revelation and divine self-communication.”
I’m increasingly convinced that something akin to media studies is vital for good exegesis – knowing how a type of text functioned in its context is as important for interpretation as figuring out how the content of the text would have been understood in its context – indeed, you can’t do one without the other. I love how Byer’s approach to the question of media is driven by Biblical Theology – by unpacking how the media of God develops over the trajectories of the Biblical story.
“So to retrain what we think about “media,” we are going to make a pilgrimage of sorts throughout the entire biblical saga, tracing the narrative plotlines of the epic story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Re-Creation to show that the idea of media is a central theme of the church’s most sacred text.”
His understanding of this story is Christ centred, so his conclusions are also Christological, which, again, I think makes this book a must read.
I’m especially thrilled at his anthropology – his understanding of the role communication plays in what it means to be human. It’s all about humans being made in the image of God. More than any other work in this area, Byers gets that bearing an image involves communication (I’m pretty passionate about this).
“The most fundamental vocation of humanity is a media vocation, that of divine image bearing. Though the rest of creation reflects divine glory and beauty, Adam and Eve were endowed with an even more intrinsic capacity for conveying God’s character and intentions in the world.”
Byer’s description of how sin smashed this function, and how it is ultimately dealt with, and restored for us, in and through Jesus, is great. It is the theological basis for our participation in media use.
“Originally destined as the bearers of God’s image in the world, humanity—both Gentile and Jewish—had become shaped by the world’s unwholesome images and untruthful words. The once uninterrupted interaction with God was now clouded; the transmission was lost in the distracting white noise of worldly media. Such a disastrous media situation required a media “eucatastrophe,” to borrow a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien. That media “eucatastrophe” (an event of catastrophically good proportions) finally took place. It was the Incarnation. The TheoMedium of God’s Word became flesh. The public announcement of what Jesus has done on our behalf as the God who took on flesh is called “gospel.” It is a media term. In the genre of a eucatastrophic newsflash, the TheoMedium of the gospel is the breaking news that our King has arrived and conquered, that the mediated distance between humanity and God is to be bridged through the work of the Incarnate Christ, a new Mediator who has come from offstage as abruptly as that serpent of old. And this Mediator is hailed as the untainted “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15)… In the wake of bloodied cross and vacated tomb, a new TheoMedium was formed. Indwelled by the Spirit, that society we call “church” was created as a new TheoMedium in the world in the sense that we as the church are now being restored as bearers of God’s image.”
Byer’s is sensitive to the function of images in the Ancient Near East – a big part of my Masters Thesis, so very exciting for me. In the Ancient Near East kings held on to political power by building images of themselves as gods, fusing the royal with the divine – such imagery (which was later applied to coins and all sorts of multi-media) functioned as a powerful communication tool. Images of God-Kings communicated just by being. So did idols in a temple – which were ‘activated’ by a mouth washing ceremony by a river in a temple so that they would ‘speak for’ the god (just like Adam in Eden in Genesis 2 if you buy the theory that Eden is a proto-temple).
These images communicated something – by being representatives of the god-king. Byers shares this quote:
“Social space—the areas in which life was lived—for pagans was thus in a sense alive with images, mythologized. The statues in the temples and around the cities, the reliefs on the altars, the busts and statuettes of the home, etc. all, with varying degrees of intensity to be sure, figured the divine or, better for ancient polytheism, the divinities. The notion of a secular, separate realm devoid of religious penetration is of course a modern invention (if not itself a fiction). For ancient pagans, space was religious.” — KAVIN ROWE
But these images of god-kings and gods didn’t speak – nor did the gods behind the purely religious images. Image bearers of the God who does speak also speak, but we also communicate by being representatives of God, scattered around his world. Byers notes – from Israel’s history – that the media we soak ourselves in will end up shaping us.
“Choosing God’s words crafts us into a certain type of person. Choosing idolatry turns us into a vastly different sort of person. Media preferences alter who we are. Moses finds this painful story of the stone words and the metal calf to be gravely instructive for the Israelites who are about to make their fateful river crossing. They are a people shaped by certain media that cannot abide certain other types of media. The program of Canaan’s media displacement must therefore begin immediately. Hence the charge to physically mark their entry into Canaan with those plastered rocks. Think of the contrast in media form and content that will instantly take place once God’s people set foot onto their new land. Rather than images carefully crafted through metallurgy and woodworking, Israel will pile up twelve rocks and cover them with script. Stone words.”
We communicate by doing – but as people made in the image of the God who speaks, we represent him best when we bear his image (in what we do) and we use words. We need words to truly bear God’s image. Because God speaks. That’s what gives words priority. But words can never be separated from how they are delivered. This slight distinction plays out in Byer’s application – which seeks to resolve what I think should be a dichotomous tension – suggesting that TheoMedia makes words a priority. This is probably the only weakness I see in TheoMedia, and one of the coolest things about the Christian bookosphere overlapping with the Christian blogosphere is that we’ve been able to chat about my questions over email. I love that. It makes reading books so much more relationally connected.
Byer urges Christians to learn from the way God dealt with an increasingly complex media landscape for Israel – who were confronted by images (idols and temples) wherever they looked as they left Egypt and fought their way to the Promised Land. So he sees the shema as profoundly important. The idea that in a media saturated world we should spend our time soaking ourselves in God’s media, in order to approach other media from a more healthy perspective.
Here’s what he says about the shema…
“The words of God were to saturate the daily grind of the Israelite family. They were to feature orally in conversations in the fields and in the home. Bound to the hand, stuck between the eyes, and emblazoned on the entranceways of the home, the TheoMedia of God’s words were also to occupy the visual space of God’s people. In a world rife with unauthorized media sources, the Israelites were commanded to esteem their God as their primary media source, holding fast to the TheoMedia of divine words, embracing a life saturated by holy speech.”
“The greatest commandment in scripture—the highest demand on our lives—encourages a set of media practices by which our lives are saturated with verbal TheoMedia. The Shema should be recognized as a central text as the church negotiates twenty-first-century media. It is a passage that reminds Christians in the digital age and every age that we are called to media saturation, but the media that are to so thoroughly permeate every dimension of our lives are the media of God.”
Byers argues that we should prioritise ‘word’ media over all other forms – in part on the basis of the Shema, but because he’s serious about Biblical Theology this is a thread he carries through into the New Testament (more below).
“If oral and textual TheoMedia are indeed prioritized, then it is incumbent on us to retain and strengthen the skills of hearing and reading. If the burden of the previous chapters on the sights and sounds of God was to argue that TheoMedia are various and multisensory, the burden of this chapter and the next is to show that they are subordinate to logocentric media, that is, the word-oriented media of prophetic discourse and holy text.”
But first – my slight critique.
Words never occur in a vacuum – they always come with the context provided by the speaker – even in creation itself, when God spoke into the void (arguably, literally, a vacuum) – it was who was speaking that made stuff happen.
Byers is well aware of the trouble with dichotomies – he spends significant time showing that there’s often a false dichotomy presented between the idea that Scripture functions propositionally vis a vis narratively, when it should be both, held in tension.
When it comes to the verbal v visual dichotomy he acknowledges the multimedia nature of God, so he’s already pretty nuanced in his approach to the dichotomy, I just don’t think he should resolve it.
“We have seen that God is a multimedia God and that his words are also multimedia in nature. Like fire in the prophet’s bones, they are hard to contain, bursting the limits of our dichotomies and bursting the limits of every media format that would communicate them. Verbal TheoMedia cannot be safely locked within ink or confined within chiseled inscriptions. They are living words, words that can be seen as well as heard, tasted as well as touched.”
The big problem I have with his treatment of the Old Testament – and it’s only minor – is that I don’t think you can actually separate the words of the Shema from the visual communication effect that the Shema being carried out was intended to have on both people in Israel, and the nations. You can’t split cause and effect in this way by placing the emphasis on cause – because the effect is necessary, and part of the intended function of the law.
I like what Wenham says about the performance aspect of the entirety of Torah:
“But not only is the Old Testament ritual law central to theological understanding of scripture; I also want to suggest it is a model of modern communication technique. For a long time Christians have imagined that communication between God and man is essentially verbal, merely a matter of words. God speaks to man through the prophets or through the Bible: man replies in prayer. We view communication with God as a sort of two-way radio. But God does not restrict himself to words, he uses ritual such as sacraments: ritual is more like colour TV than radio. Ideas are made visible… Educational psychologists tell us that we remember 10% of what we hear, 30% of what we see but 70% of what we do. Modern preachers put most of their effort into teaching by hearing, though 90% of what they say will be forgotten. Moses put his main effort into teaching through ritual, a wise move if he wanted the people to remember such fundamental truths, for ritual is a kind of doing and therefore sticks in the mind much better than words…But I believe we should go further: not simply act out the ceremonies of the Old Covenant, but in our post-literate age devise dramatic rites that teach the fundamental truths of the new covenant as effectively as the Pentateuch teaches those of the old. This will require imagination and sensitivity, but I think would be worth the effort.”
If Wenham’s correct – part of the power of the Shema was in the doing, and part was in the watching – more than in the hearing (even if doing involved speaking the words). My argument is these things are so interconnected it is silly to try to prioritise one aspect of the communicative act above another aspect of the same part, and in this case, the communicative act is “image bearing for the God who speaks”… Anyway. This is a minor criticism and has only relatively small real world applications (except that it doesn’t undermine the humanity or worth of people who can’t use words as well as others).
Byers presents his argument in a theologically rich and thoroughly engaged way… I love the way he speaks about the Incarnation. God entering the stage, tearing the sky apart…
“And now we come to the point in the Bible’s salvation-history when the sky gets ripped apart. The Bible opens with what appears to be a calm, peaceful scene: “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). The Gospel of Mark opens in similar fashion. The Spirit is portrayed as a dove hovering above the waters of the River Jordan. This violent puncturing of the sky is a decisive moment in the biblical plot of redemption for Mark. It is the moment when it becomes clear that our God will tolerate no longer the divine-human alienation, when he will content himself no more with the mediation of prior centuries: “In Mark, then, God has ripped the heavens irrevocably apart at Jesus’ baptism, never to shut them again. Through this gracious gash in the universe, he has poured forth his Spirit into the earthly realm.” It is not just the sky that gets torn in Mark. The verb schizō reappears at the end of the Gospel, forming what biblical scholars call an inclusio, the dual use of a word or theme that encloses or bookends a larger body of text to serve as an interpretive frame. Mark is to be read within the frame of divine-human boundaries being torn and ripped apart: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37–38).”
I love his use of John the Baptist as a model for using mediums that are wired to try to turn you into the centre of attention.
…Jesus called him the greatest man born of a woman (Luke 7:28; Matt 11:11). It makes good sense to give a little attention to the man Jesus himself called the greatest. But what we find when we look to John is that the all-consuming vocation of the greatest man born of woman was to point to someone greater, and then fade away: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). There was absolutely no self-orientation to John’s celebrity status in the fourth Gospel (or in the other Gospels, for that matter): “In order that he may not be in any sense the object of his own preaching and action, he disowns every kind of movement towards himself.”
What a guide to participating in the online world. But Byer’s conviction (and mine) is that it’s Jesus who is the best model for participating in media.
“In all his flesh and blood reality, we could say that Jesus is the “Multimedium of God.” We could also understand Jesus—speaking, touching, imaging, embodying—as the most significant and the most multisensory TheoMedium of all… Just as the medium and message of the gospel informs our media practices, so also does the Incarnation of Christ.”
He suggests one of the implications of the incarnation is that we value presence over mediated absence, which is a handy tip, but he also suggests we should be seeking to take that presence wherever we can, wherever it’s needed…
“We should honour Christ’s Incarnation by infiltrating multiple communications realms but with a high valuation of embodied presence, refusing to treat social media as a fitting replacement for face-to-face interaction, but enjoying its capabilities for enabling interaction with those who are not across the table or in our living room.”
The climax of the incarnation – the cross – is equally important in framing how we participate in media.
“The cross of Christ opposes self-orientation in any and every setting, online or offline. The motivations behind my status updates are often suspect. My heart vainly flutters a bit when there is a sudden spike in the traffic on my blog. At times I resonate a bit too happily with that exclamation mark when Twitter informs me, “You were mentioned in a Tweet!” The point here is that Christ’s call to selflessness, visually depicted in the cross, extends to any and all realms, even the new realm of the Internet. We need to carry the determinative force of the optical medium of the cross symbol into that realm and comport our media practices accordingly”
This is another point where I feel like TheoMedia may have been strengthened slightly, if the emphasis wasn’t placed on word ministry quite so much, but included the possibility that visual image bearing was a factor in the acting out of the written word (beyond the sacraments). It’s a quibble, but here’s a worked example…
“I am suggesting that the church understand media through the person of Jesus and through the ancient media practices his saving work encourages. Our verbal interactions are to be informed by the verbal proclamation of the gospel. And if we are going to inhabit a visual culture, then we should draw on the visual media legacies of the cross. Some sort of cross-visuality is affirmed when Paul writes to the Galatians that “it was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified” (Gal 3:1 ESV). Now, the Galatians were not present at Golgotha on that fateful day. But Paul’s prior preaching ministry had presented such a “vivid, verbal portrait of the event of Jesus’ crucifixion” that the scene could be understood as having occurred “before your eyes.””
I don’t think Paul just uses vivid spoken words for this – but his scars and suffering too… I think there’s a link between 2 Corinthians 4, (and Paul’s list of suffering for others in 11), and Galatians 6.
“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” – 2 Corinthians 4:10-11
“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. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God. From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. – Galatians 6:14-17
This potentially expands his conclusion – but only slightly, because his conclusion is tops (I’m running out of superlatives and trying not to sound like an Apple product launch).
“We ourselves are TheoMedia. The church comprises fractured image bearers who are being restored to the image of Jesus, the perfect image of God. By the indwelling presence of Christ’s Spirit, every Christian is now a communicative means by whom God communicates within the church and reveals himself to the world.”
The control he suggests, for not being overwhelmed by the communication mediums of the world, and competing messages, is to soak yourself in TheoMedia… which, usefully, combats the “myths” packaged up in the mediums we use (as we’ll see when I finally write part four of my unfinished series on Facebook/social media and your brain).
“When it comes to spiritual gifts, the source of communication is God himself. When it comes to spiritual disciplines, we are giving God our attention and asking how he wants to influence our thoughts and alter our actions. There is this simple little policy I try to abide by after I wake up to face a new day. Before opening a screen, my plan is to open my Bible; and before listening to any voice online or on TV, I want to listen out for God’s voice through prayer… As the page has turned to this concluding chapter, my hope is that we are now dripping wet with biblical ink. In order to understand media in the digital age, we have plunged into the sacred texts of the church with the hope of having our perspectives reoriented around biblical wisdom. Reading scripture trains us for certain “habits of thought—habitual ways of viewing or making sense of the world.” This immersing of ourselves in the Bible’s theological vision cultivates “cognitive skills and sensibilities, and hence the ability to see, feel, and taste the world as disclosed in the diverse biblical texts.”
I don’t want to turn you off buying the book by giving away the ending – because 90% of the joy is in the journey to get there… but Byer’s conclusion is so sensible and theologically coherent that it seems obvious.
“We need to be drawing on cultural studies, research data, personal experiences, and practical wisdom for faithful living in the digital age; but not without our sacred “script” as a foundational resource. Here is the second overarching thesis: Christians are called to media saturation, but the primary media that are to shape, form, and saturate our lives are the media of God…we need an external media source to crack the soundscape and penetrate our field of vision. We need TheoMedia, the revelatory and communicative means of the One who is the wisest and best.”
He provides a summary of the argument of the book in eight thesis, and this is where the spoilers stop. Buy it. Read it. Give it to anybody who wants to use new mediums thoughtfully to communicate the Gospel. Get this book out there.
Tweet, oh people of God. Blog, text, and type status updates. But linger in the TheoMedia domain of the church and cling to the media legacies of Christ’s Incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, Ascension, and return. Hear the gospel. Look to the cross. Feel the embrace of brothers and sisters. Smell the aroma of bread broken and taste the sweet wetness of wine outpoured. Preach and baptize. Exercise spiritual gifts and practice spiritual disciplines that poise our senses before the media of God. – Andy Byers, TheoMedia
British commentary and bad lip reading. Ahh.
From time to time – well, twice before, I’ve interviewed people who have stepped out into the public sphere as Christians and stuck to their guns, winsomely talking about Jesus. You can read interviews with Mike O’Connor from Rockhampton and Guy Mason from Melbourne. Today, we’re heading to Sydney. Chatting to David Ould – who has appeared on Channel Ten’s The Project not once, but twice. I wanted to chat to David about what engaging with culture looks like – or, more correctly, what engaging our culture with the Good News about Jesus looks like. What follows are some transcripted highlights from our chat.
For those not familiar with your story – how did this all happen?
“I ended up on the project almost on a whim. I was driving with my kids, to school, in the morning, and the radio station in Sydney was running a competition. And I thought “I might have a crack at that” – so that day when I got home from work I put together a little application and shot a little video with the kids. I thought there’s no way this will happen. I was absolutely astounded when I got a call three days later.”
Your first appearance you were joining the panel, the second you were speaking about a particular topic. How do you prepare?
“For the no holds barred panel discussion, the first thing I did to prepare was watching it a lot more than I had before, and just trying to get my head around the format, and the style – just getting my head around the temperature, you want to play the ball that’s in front of you.
It was the week of the gay weddings in New Zealand, and I was worried that that would get featured, but they covered that on Monday. You get a briefing pack of the day’s news on the day. That’s how you prepare for it. You read that, and then you just say I’m going to have a bit of fun.
The second time, they called me up, and ran the story by me – about ABS data on religious belief and affiliation in Australia. My brain goes “give them something a bit interesting” – so basically I told them they were wrong, and what the real story was.
One of the things you’ve got to do is think about how you talk about Jesus as positively as possible in front of a lot of people.
You’re always thinking, aren’t you, well you should be, what do I do to talk about Jesus. That’s surely my agenda as a Christian. To talk about Jesus. So then you start thinking – how does this data tell me about Jesus. The census data is really a reflection of nominalism, nominal Christian belief and the way our culture has shifted, people are just being more honest about their beliefs. And genuine Christian belief is of course centered around understanding who Jesus is, and responding to him – and so then it becomes natural to be able to talk about things in terms of Christianity, and then genuinely following Jesus. So that’s what I sought to do in the interview, and also what I sought to do is rather than talking about religion in general, is talk about what I know about. Which is Christianity. Which is still the big major religion in Australia.”
Did you feel like in the background stuff – you had to play down the Jesus stuff and surprise them when you got on?
No. I went in, I applied for the show the first time around with the line that normal Christians don’t get a fair play in mainstream media. I almost dared them to take me on on that basis. I felt no need to play down – in fact – quite the opposite, I felt like that was the gimmick in having me on, not just a Christian, but a minister in fact. So there’s no need to play that down. Is there? If that is your gimmick. So the call back on the second time was on that basis – because I’m a Christian. So, given that they’re speaking to you on that basis that you’re a Christian, and surely your great desire is to talk about Jesus, it seems to me a no brainer at that point, you just go Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
Had you done much media before The Project? Are you a media tart?
Not a bit. No wait. That’s a lie. A little bit of local newspaper work on the lower north shore in Sydney. Just the sort of shameless stuff you do to try to get the church into the newspaper. But no, nothing like this.
You did some radio stuff around the project?
Yeah, we did some radio promos around the competition, I was on air a couple of times talking about it, and then we leveraged it into the local newspapers after it.
Some of the leveraging – that was about your charity a little bit?
Yeah, so the point of interest was “local minister on national TV” – so you play that card – but I’m really, in my job, trying to achieve two things – first and foremost I’m trying to achieve the proclamation of Jesus, here in my local community and have that done in a positive way, but also I’m spruiking my charity, which is based on the church grounds, which I’m the chairman of. To me, that’s actually doing the same thing, because to me “they see our good works and they praise our Father in Heaven.” So I have no problem talking about the good works we do in Jesus name. So just keeping those two things tight together in people’s sense of who we are.
Is that a form of cultural engagement?
It’s a form of community engagement.
What’s the difference?
“You can quote me on this. Cultural engagement seems to be a bit of a buzz word these days, I’m all for engaging with the culture. But it’s not a silver bullet. The Gospel is the silver bullet. So it’s important that we understand our culture, it’s important that we critique it, analyse it, but then it’s important that we bring the Gospel to bear on what we’ve observed there. So the question you’re asking, all the time, as you look at culture, is what is the great news, and the answer that the Gospel brings to the conundrums, to the problems, to the questions, that are being raised in the culture. And of course what is the answer that the Gospel brings to the questions the culture doesn’t know it should be asking. Which means, of course, you’ve got to start with the Gospel itself, and use it as the lens. The danger is we get to the position where we use our culture as a lens through which we look at the Gospel. So for example, the great extreme example is something like Liberation Theology – where the experience of people in a culture becomes the lens through which the Gospel is read. Whereas the flipside of that, is the example of slaves in America, where the Gospel became the lens through which they understood their experience. So slaves in the south could sing “free at last, free at last. I’m a Christian, I’m free from sin, and that radically impacts the way I see the world around me” – and Liberation Theologians, and further south, in South America, will look at “free at last” and say well you must be talking about your physical reality.”
Of course, the flipside is that we don’t read our culture at all, and we don’t understand how to talk to our culture at all. So the classic stereotype of sandwich board wearing people standing outside a supermarket shouting “the end of the world is nigh,” reading from the King James. That’s the classic example. But there’s a little bit of me that just wants to go, you know what, good on him. It’s the word of God and I’m not ashamed of the Gospel.
You’ve got to work out what that is – the thing that I fear is that we think it’s some sort of silver bullet, or that somehow we’re going to win people over to ourselves and then import the Gospel in. I think we’re better leading with the Gospel itself.
I’ve been thinking a little bit about the labels we use to describe how we do things this week, because I think community engagement – or social justice – and cultural engagement – are really important, but I agree with you on the dangers. What about using the terms “Gospel Justice” and “Gospel Engagement” to get that priority order right?
Yeah. So. In terms of good works – we preached through James earlier last year – the Gospel tells me that I treat people with grace. I’m a sick people being made well. I’m to treat people that way. James chapter 2 is just really clear – you either get the Gospel or you don’t, and if you do, you treat people in a certain way. I don’t think you need a fancy word for that. And then it’s about that simplicity of preaching the Gospel to a world that is lost, and nothing will save but the declaration of who Jesus is, and what he’s done.
I agree – but when you’re approaching an issue like asylum seekers – I really liked that post you wrote where you retold the Gospel as a refugee story – I’m thinking there’s an art to that, and that’s the kind of social justicy stuff I think we should be doing – social justice that specifically demonstrates the Gospel story. There doesn’t seem to be a huge model for that…
There is a model for that. The Scriptures, not least of which, Jesus himself. It’s a model. Marriage models the Gospel – so when you’re talking about marriage and sex and that kind of thing, you talk about it as a picture of the Gospel. And you’ve got Jesus’ parables, he’ll go “so there was a farmer in the field, and he needs some workers…” – he tells the Gospel of Grace in categories of whatever the debate is at the time. What he never allows those categories to do is distort what the Gospel is. It’s about letting the Gospel shape the way you come to an issue – so you ask “what does the Gospel have to say about this issue?” not “what does moralism have to say about this issue?” that’s the difference isn’t it. The question you need to ask is “if the Gospel were to be framed in the categories that are now in front of me, how would that be expressed?”
Which is what I think was the beauty of that asylum seeker post – it was just here’s Gospel categories applied in this situation. Here’s self sacrifice. Here’s how we as Christians tell the Gospel story by what we say into this situation. It’s the same with marriage equality stuff. The idea that you might sacrifice your sexuality for something bigger – that you might lay down your life to take up your cross – that confronts our culture but also provides an opportunity to express the Gospel through the stance we take.
So, back to The Project, you got the call from them second time around
Yeah. So, a researcher calls me, Monday after Christmas, and says, it’s so and so from the Project – have you got ten minutes? And I thought. I think I do. Sure. He ran me through the story, started to ask some questions, and then started to push me – about the decline in the census numbers – and starts to push me on whether this represents the collapse of Christianity.
And you’d pitched something into them between hadn’t you – about Kevin Rudd’s redefinition of Christianity – because you’d built a relationship with the producer while you were there?
I had five minutes after the show – and I was shameless – I said if you think I did ok, then I would like to talk about religious stuff with you guys again. I think I can give you what you want.
I emailed him about the K-Rudd stuff and he said “it’s over we’re not running it.” I think he thought he’d be voted out in a matter of days, and nobody would care.
I was still surprised to get the call.
Tell me about how you went about building relationships with a view to the longer term – at the heart of my PR advice is that it’s all about relationships. Building relationships with the media and developing trust and rapport.
Well it works in two ways, doesn’t it. It works in terms of just the actual person to person relationships. In which case you’ve got to be yourself, unless yourself is a really nasty and horrible person. In which case it’s over. And all the pastoral stuff you know anyway – everybody has a story, it’s important to be empathetic, to listen – you just want to keep doing that. The danger is that at the end of the day we do things to please people, so part of it is in yourself being confident as a Christian that you can hold your views with conviction, but be pleasant about it. That’s half the battle in our culture anyway – holding our views with good conscience and conviction, but doing it in a winsome and gracious way. So that’s the first way.
In terms of the business side of things – it’s remembering what they want from a guest or an interview. They want a dialogue. They want a conflict story. They want to be told they’re wrong. And they want short snappy sentences – particularly on a show like the Project, and if you can be interesting and funny – then go for it. It’s about working out what they want for that show – and giving them more of it.
Tell me about how you managed to apparently master the form of The Project in two goes?
You’re too kind – I think sometimes we end up doing stuff because they’re natural to us anyway, because it kind of works. It’s my nature to be very serious about things, but also to want to joke and have a joke. It’s my nature to be a bit of a people pleaser and to have a laugh. I’m not sure how that works – but it seems to work.
There is that business side to it – it’s about working out what product they want to buy, and then delivering it. So they want friendliness. They want chummy and matey conversations. They want the conflict. And they want to be able to finish on a joke – so you know, that’s kind of what we got the last time around. We had some serious topics – the topic itself, and abuse in the church and whether that had anything to do with it, and then I ended up trying to convert Dicko. Telling him to give Jesus another go – but doing it with a smile on my face.
You said in the lead up to your appearance you started watching it a bit more. Tell me how you went about exegeting the show, the ending with a joke thing is quite a perceptive observation.
So they call it infotainment – they mash together two things, the desire to be a news show, and entertaining. You can take two attitudes to that. And if you’re a news junky like me, it seems a bit like they’re dumbing it down – and they could be spending a whole hour of hard core news. And they are. But they’re also opening up news to an entirely different audience – people are watching the news again. And more than that, the people giving them the news are actually serious about it. So Carrie is actually a news presenter, and Charlie takes it very seriously, I was so impressed with that when I was there, and even Hughsie, they’ve change around a bit now, but he was there as a “token comedian” – he’s a very funny guy, but he was so engaged. They’re all very engaged around the production meeting table. Thinking things through.
You see that and you go what’s going on here. They want to get the information out, and have fun doing it. They seem to have that balance right. So you just try to mesh into that vibe. If you want to get Biblical about it, it’s the all things to all men thing, isn’t it. I’m never going to be Charlie or Dave – we don’t have to be – we go and meet people half way as an act of grace, we don’t leave behind what is fundamental to us. Jesus is our great model – he goes and he eats with sinners and tax collectors – he’s there with them, and yet he says the world will hate you because it hates me. He’s not going there to be loved, he’s going there to love. Our great danger is we go somewhere and the first thing we say is “please love me” and at that point the world’s affirmation of us is our idolatry, and we’ll rapidly discard anything that will make people not love us. But if we’re not so concerned about being loved, as loving, and revealing the Gospel, then we don’t fall into that trap. In a nation like Australia that’s easier sometimes than we think it might be. Australians like people to be themselves. They know when you’re faking it, and they don’t need you to conform.
In ministry I think we have to operate under the Tony Abbott principle. This has profoundly affected the way I think about doing ministry in Australia. I was in the lower north shore of Sydney, doing ministry, when Abbott became leader of the opposition and the Sydney Morning Herald and all their mates wrote off the Liberal Party until 2020, and the reality was the very opposite. The Liberals jumped in the polls. And we said “what is going on” – and of course, the answer is Australians like it when people talk straight. They hate spin – particularly when it comes to personal presentation. They love it when someone shoots from the hip and is just themselves. This means don’t fudge or undersell the hard stuff. We committed to not pulling our punches in sermons – we didn’t sugar coat anything – we gave it straight, without trying to explain it straight. God was good to us, every time we had a sermon like that we had visitors. I’d go up afterwards and say “it’s not always like that” and the standard response was “no, we loved it… there’s an authenticity.”
Authenticity and not pandering is the way to go.
Which brings us back to cultural engagement…
Yeah, we’ve just got to remember there is a silver bullet – and it’s already in the chamber – and it’s the Gospel. And anything that dilutes that is potentially very dangerous. And my other principle is that I’m seeking to lead with the Gospel. The Gospel is not the last part I want to say – it has to frame everything I’m going to say – now there are practical challenges that come with that, but if I’ve got it in my head, then hopefully that’s where I’ll go. All the PR guys tell you you’ve got to be on message. We’ve just got to work out what our message is. And it’s got to be the Gospel. Hasn’t it. It’s got to be the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus is great. Peter Jensen is famous for how he approached the media. He just said “I’ve got to tell you about three things – God, Jesus, Bible” – I dropped the first one. I just want to go straight to Jesus because I’m not a unitarian.
There’s an appropriateness to that because God speaks to the world in and through Jesus. That is the bridge between infinite God and finite us.
That’s right. That’s Matthew 11 isn’t it. There’s a beautiful logic to Matthew 11…
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
So there you go. What I love is the way Jesus does that. There is no way to know about God other than through Jesus. Which makes sense of the very next thing Jesus says.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Because if you are weary, and you are burdened, and there is no way to get to God other than Jesus, then the most logical, the most loving, the most natural thing for Jesus to say at that point is to say “come to me all of you” because there’s no where else to go. Your proclamation to anybody is those two things – making the exclusivity claim, and making the claim to rest in Jesus. And one hangs on the other.
One of our great idols – we’ve talked about this a little – is to be loved by the world. I think one of the problems that people doing public Christianity face, and this applies to blogging as well, and this is where the ‘cruciform’ thing comes in – it’s very easy to get on a soapbox, it’s very difficult to use that soapbox to deflect attention away from yourself and to Jesus. Can you talk about that? For all the fame and fun that comes from being on The Project – the concept that John the Baptist had “I must decrease so he may increase…”
I remember being in the vestry of a church once, and on the noticeboard was an ad from a magazine to buy a “50 years of Cliff Richard” plate, and somebody had just written, in pen, big enough to see, but small enough to be be discrete “John 3:30″ – which is that verse. So that’s your principle. You say “my job is to talk about Jesus” – what’s the mechanism of that, for John the Baptist, all of Judea went to him, so it’s ok for all of Judea to go to you, but not ok if you don’t point to Jesus. And John, of course, is incredibly impressive in the way that he goes about it, because he takes the people with him and he sends them to Jesus, and of course, he gets cut off pretty quickly. But that’s his intention. So what do you do?
You’ve got to stay humble. You’ve got to remember that you’re a sinner and Jesus is your saviour. You’ve got to get a good wife. Who’ll keep you humble. That’s really helpful. You’ve got to spend your time at the foot of the Cross. You’ve got to remember that at the end of the day it really is just about the audience of one – here’s the thing. If I keep talking about Jesus – that’s going to cure me of any desire for popularity. You cannot desire to be popular and pronounce the exclusivity of Jesus, and judgment, in the mainstream media. You can do it in our little Protestant ghettos.
Yeah, but the way you did it, it didn’t seem as offensive as the guys standing on street corners
I just kept saying to myself “keep smiling, keep smiling” – except when I was talking about the child abuse stuff, but that’s a good example to – when you’ve got to wear something, wear it. Greg Clarke was great on that one – when he was doing his stuff on the Da Vinci Code a few years ago, he said “where Dan Brown lands his punches, you’ve got to take them on the chin.” So, where it comes to the treatment of women – we’ve got to absolutely take it on the chin. Concede it. That’s part of the winsomeness. When you’re not being defensive all the time, it’s a chance to go “oh, ok”… it’s kind of the skill of empathy as well. The older you get the more you have heard people’s stories and you get it. You get where people are hurting.
Making stuff not about you is a profound challenge for blogging as well
When you’re doing stuff outside of Christian circles, I’ve got it in my head “the world will hate you because it hated me first” – I’m thinking theology of the cross, not theology of glory. To do a bit of Luther. I think when we’re in our Christian circles, we’re desperate to impress them. Desperate to get it right. And if you are a little bit good at what you do, and people like what you do, then I think that’s where the danger is for us as Christians. There’s a tension. God is constantly using sinners to minister to other sinners. So just crack on with it. It is interesting just trying to work out what it is you want, and what it is you’re trying to do, and who it is you’re trying to impress.
For me it’s finding my rhythm. I just go “I’ve done a lot of stuff, now I’m just going to write about stuff that interests me, and I force myself to get on and blog about the little things that have caught my mind.” It’s about making yourself do it, and people will either like it or they won’t. If you’re purely blogging for the people around you, then I don’t think you’re doing it for the right reason. So blogging is partly my way of having an effect, but also my way of processing as well. I do a lot of thinking that way.
Your blog is very impressive as well – and the danger is you look around at what other people are doing, we look at each other and you go “why am I not doing what they’re doing” so you look at Tim Challies, whose a guy like me who just said “I’m going to do a bit every day” and when you look at what he’s doing, it’s not extraordinary. It’s consistently good. The wrong response to that is to go “well what am I doing wrong” – the right response is to be thankful.
Any last words…
This has been exciting. It’s been really encouraging. One of the sweetest things to come out of all of this has been the tweets, the mentions online and the emails from people. I had some lovely emails from people who really appreciated it, and the consistent thing I got was people saying “Thank you for just talking about Jesus and not being ashamed of it.” So one thing I’d say is, if you see people doing that, in public. Do encourage them. Do thank them for it. Because you do feel like you’re leaning out 90 degrees off Niagara Falls sometimes, and you do wonder who is holding the rope behind you, and just to turn around to see a bunch of people holding the rope is tremendously encouraging, and encourages you to lean out a bit further next time. So do encourage people. That sounds like a shameless attempt to have people write to me…
Don’t worry. I’ll frame it the right way…
This is a stunning advert for a foodstuff (an oil based spice range).
A Tumblr dedicated to remixing Peanuts strips with Smiths lyrics.
Ahh. I love a good timelapse video…
If you want more like this – there are plenty of timelapses in the ol’ archives, and even another one from the International Space Station.