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Image credit: Outreach Media

Whatever happens in the wash-up of the tragic events of the last 24 hours in Sydney, you can be sure that we’ll see the best of humanity displayed alongside its very worst. We’ll see expressions of love and solidarity for those who are the victims in this event, and for those at the margins of Australian society — the foreigners and sojourners in our mix, those who own religious beliefs outside the majority — and we’ll see expressions of hatred for that latter group.

The majority religious belief in Australia is nominal Christianity with a dash of moralism and a substantial serving of the idea that religion shouldn’t actually motivate anybody to act in any way. Let me distance true Christianity from that belief, just as the Islamic clerics in the media today are working to dispel the belief that this gunman’s actions were consistent with true Islam. It’s hard to distance anybody from any religion if religions are a choose your own adventure matter with no clearly understood consensus on exactly what such a religion involves. I can’t speak as an expert on Islam, but I’m certain that true Christianity involves truly following the Christ, Jesus. That’s where we get the name, it’s where we get our ethics, our system of belief, our key to interpreting our Scriptures.

Events like this are an opportunity for Australia to learn about the true nature of religion —not, in the sense, of learning facts about the substance of different religious beliefs, though this will no doubt happen as media outlets seek to fill air time and column inches — but to learn that at its core, religious belief compels religious people towards particular sorts of action.

There is an emerging picture of this gunman that suggests that his religious beliefs were a convenient addition to an already criminally deranged approach to life, there is very little sense that he speaks for the Islamic community, or even many other Australian Muslims. His actions have been roundly condemned by Islamic leaders. Calling oneself a cleric does not make one a cleric any more than rocking up outside random houses with for sale signs, without the permission of the owner, makes one a real estate agent.

No. Religion does motivate people. It’s not a private thing. It motivates one’s public actions. Whether you believe that you have no fate beyond the grave, your fate beyond the grave depends on the good and upright life you live now in obedience to your God, or your fate beyond the grave is determined by the death and resurrection of Jesus; the perfect king who came to pay the price for our inability to live that good and upright life, who now calls his followers to live as part of his kingdom by sacrificially loving others — these beliefs shape your actions.

Never more than now.

Never more than in a crisis and its wash up.

Never more than in the midst of the human experience of grief and turmoil.

With #prayforphil and now #prayforsydney I wonder if there has been more prayer, or at least more public calls for prayer, in the last month in Australia than in any other month in Australian history. People turn back to some sense of religiosity in these moments. It’s up to those people who are motivated by faith to show the fruit of that faith now.

Islamic clerics will spend the next few days distancing themselves from the actions of this deranged man. Rightly. Christian leaders will potentially spend the next few days distancing our religion from theirs. Wrongly. Let me be clear. I don’t believe Islam is a ‘religion of truth’ — I believe Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. But I certainly don’t believe this gunman acted as a representative of Islam as it is practiced and understood by other Muslims in our community. Now is not the time to create distance, now is the time to demonstrate love for the marginal and the marginalised. Now is the time to live out words like this…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” —Jesus

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

So. Christian. Nominal or not. Now is your opportunity to put the words of Jesus into practice. To love those around you — whether you think they’re neighbours or enemies. People of other faiths should have no fear when confronted with a Christianity like this. A Christianity shaped by the Christ. Who showed that loving your enemies means laying down your life for them.

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

Pray for the families grieving the loss of their loved ones.

Pray for the police and politicians who dealt with this situation and must now deal with whatever fallout these events bring.

Pray for our nation, that we would, at this time, be defined by the religion we claim to own when we’re filling out our census form.

This, prayer, is part of the outworking of religious belief. But I don’t know of any place in the Bible where we’re called to pray, but not called to match our prayers with acting accordingly.

Like the rest of Australia – and perhaps like anybody who follows sports around the world — I’ve been struggling to put words to why the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes has hit me for six. And then some.

Death is part of life as we know it. Everyone dies. This fundamental truth faces all of us — I will die, you will die, the people we love will die.

Why then does death feel the way it does? Unnatural. Broken. Empty.

Why do we feel the way we do about death? Sad. Powerless. Afraid.

And if we’re all just a finite number of heart beats away from death — why has this death in particular rocked us to the degree it has?

I suspect part of the answer is in the tragic elements of the story, the countless what ifs, and the absence of someone or something to blame. We’ve been conditioned by whodunnits and our ability to diagnose and dissect every event to want something or someone to point the finger at when things go wrong. We want a clear link between cause and effect. We just don’t have that here. People are searching anywhere and everywhere (apparently it’s Mitchell Johnson’s fault and it’s Michael Clarke’s fault and it’s all of our faults – and that’s just one article). We’re sure that we can’t blame Sean Abbott, the bowler.

Rightly sure — and perhaps the most touching thing in the washup of this awful mess has been the way people have rallied behind Abbott. His was a routine delivery. The Cricinfo ball by ball coverage of Hughes’ last innings shows just how routine the short ball was — and how untroubled Hughes had been up until ball number 161.

Abbott to Phil Hughes

No run, another short one, ducks, he’s in no hurry

Abbott to Phil Hughes

No run, low bouncer, still ducks

The thing that strikes me in tragic accidents like this is how many opportunities there were in the moments leading up to the event for things to go differently.

For the accident not just to be avoided — like the millions of other bouncers that have sailed past batsmen all over the world, and throughout the history of the game – but for it to not have the possibility of happening at all.

I’ve found myself trying to play the what if game, unravelling the various causes from this fatal effect. Not apportioning blame where none exists, but reliving those past moments that plot out some sort of alternative future?

And there are so many in the game of cricket. So many potential causes — causes that are almost always clearly linked to their effects. Our understanding of cricket has been totally atomised, in part, as a result of the technology we use as part of our lens for viewing the game, partly because every aspect of the game of cricket is understood scientifically, or geometrically. Cricket is not a game of inches, but millimetres.

So — as I have when confronted with any tragic accident like this — I’ve spent the last few days falling down desperate rabbit-holes of what-ifs, as though that will help unlock some hidden meaning in this event that will make it all make sense.

What if Hughes had chosen to play this ball the same way he’d played every other short ball in the innings? What if someone had paused to tie a shoe lace, and even that small interval prompted a different series of choices for the actors in this tragedy? What if the bowler had changed his mind and bowled a fuller delivery?

What if a heckler in the crowd had — or hadn’t — distracted a player at any point in proceedings, delaying play for just a moment, sharpening or distracting the concentration of the players to impact their actions by just one degree?

What if there’d been a misfield and they’d stolen a quick single at the end of the over before, so that Tom Cooper, Hughes’ batting partner, had been on strike?

“No run, blocks to off to end the over. SA 2/134 (Hughes 61, Cooper 5)”

What if, on the previous delivery, the batsmen had run a single, rather than taking two? What if the fielder had scurried to the ball quicker?

Two runs, on leg and swung away fine

What if. What if. What if.

It doesn’t help. The asking. It is not cathartic. The questions splinter out into other questions. Questions that can’t possibly be answered. Questions that make for interesting, but unhelpful, speculation. Questions that involve trying to rewrite events of the past to change the future.

But this approach is no more, or less, rational than the other ways of processing this sort of tragedy.

I think one of the more shocking things about the last few days is not so much how improbable everything seems, but how unfair it is — a young man, in his prime, about to regain his place in the Australian team after yo-yoing in and out of the team. A prodigy about to deliver on his potential. Struck down.

It’s not just unfair, it’s a reminder of how beyond the control of everyone involved this cause-effect nexus actually is. We are powerless. One of Australia’s best batsmen was felled by the sort of ball he had faced thousands of times. A handful of Australia’s most qualified surgeons were powerless to change the outcome for Hughes. Millions of Australians joined in prayer hoping to have some input into securing a different outcome.

That’s what we want when it comes to causality, isn’t it? The ability to nudge or cajole the objects we’re presented in our circumstances, tweaking whatever causal knobs we can, to secure our desired future. It’s no good playing the ‘what if’ game, because it deals only with knobs unturned, paths untaken, the past. It feeds this belief that we are in control.

And this, I think, is part of why this sort of death hits us so hard.

We are not in control.

I think that maybe we think we’re ok with death. People seem to be able to process death, to grieve, to move on. Not our own. Of course. But others. Maybe we can be philosophical about death. Maybe we can cope with its existence as a universal reality. Maybe we can see it as part of life. So long as it seems to be something we can face up to, or control, or fight against. Hughes was robbed of all of this. And this is a reminder that we might well be robbed of all this too.

And, personally, that’s where I think I’m struggling, and where others I speak to seem to be heading, even if we can’t all quite put our finger on what’s going on here, or precisely account for why this one death, out of so many other deaths that happened on November 27, has captured the global imagination.

How on earth are we meant to understand and respond to the fragility of human life? To the idea that at any given moment, death is millimetres away, and worse, that these millimetres may not be in our control, but in the hands of another? A driver not paying attention on the road next to us. A builder or engineer being negligent at some point in some process, at some point in the past.

I think. If I’m honest.  The real struggle for me when I play the what if game, and when I play it in circumstances where I’ve prayed, and where there have been outpourings from thousands upon thousands of others who all indicate they’re also praying, is wondering where God’s hand is in all of this?

Here is Australian cricketing legend Adam Gilchrist on Twitter:

Dear Lord, if ever the need for footprints in the sand, it’s now #PhilHughes #courage #strength

— Adam Gilchrist (@gilly381) November 25, 2014

Why didn’t God intervene to sever cause from effect?

Why?

Not just for Phil Hughes, why not for others?

Why death? Why chaos? Why pain?

If I’m really honest, events like this just throw the spotlight back on these existential questions that face all humans. All of us who are bound by cause and effect.

And for those of us, Christians, who believe in the sovereignty of God over cause and effect, this is a startling reminder that death, whatever manner it uses to find us is an inevitable outcome for people. And that life in all its forms — as we experience it, and as God promises it — comes from God. God is ultimately in control. Of cause and effect. Of life. Of death. Every being has their being only as a result of God…

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”— Revelation 4:11

This is the answer to Adam Gilchrist’s question — it’s the same answer the Footprint poem he cites gives – sort of. God is in every life, giving life. He carries every person every step of the way, from birth, to death.

Life is a precious gift. But it is, apart from the life Jesus offers through his resurrection, a temporary gift.

God gives. God takes away. We experience this taking away — the hand of God — death — through cause and effect.

We might wish for him to break cause away from effect in certain circumstances and times in our lives, but suspending the natural order, if the natural order has its being in God, as Revelation 4 suggests, then we’re calling on God to break himself at that point.

A big ask.

God did break in to the monotony of cause and effect. In Jesus. Where he broke in to the world, and was broken. Crucified. The death he planned before he made the world. This death that was the product of an amazingly intricate chain of causes and effects, such that words written in the Old Testament Book of Psalms played their way out in vivid colour a thousand years later at the crucifixion. This death broke death. If Jesus was raised from the dead. And I believe he was. Everything we understand about cause and effect changes at that point. Until this point the effect of crucifixion was death, the effect of life was death, the effect of death was finality. The resurrection breaks that. God didn’t just leave random footprints on some sand to tell us that he was with us — he entered the picture, walked the earth, left his fingerprints everywhere, had nails driven through his hands, spilled his blood, and died, to show us he was with us. And to invite us to walk with him. To life.

If we’re looking for footprints in events like the tragic circumstances of this week, without first seeing the indelible footprint God left on the earth at the Cross of Jesus, we’re going to struggle to see God in these, or any, events.

This quote from one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, grapples with the fleeting nature of human life — the reality of our mortality— suggesting Jesus death, chosen before the creation of the world, breaks the cause and effect connection between life and death. Because Jesus beats death our lives don’t necessarily end in death.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.  He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.  For,

“All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
     but the word of the Lord endures forever.” — 1 Peter 1:18-21, 23-25

This is what I turn to when I’m asking questions about death. Questions about where God is in the events at the end of every human life. Questions about why God doesn’t just do something. He’s there. He has.

I don’t want this to be preachy. I don’t want it to be cheapening the harrowing events of this week. I’m not really seeking to persuade anyone of anything. I’m thinking out loud. Life, more than ever, seems so fragile. So fleeting. Like vapour. And this is where I’ve found comfort. This is how I’ve dug my way out of the rabbit warren of ‘what if’ questions in my head. This is what I’ve clung to in the face of the reminder that I’m not in control of my life, or the lives of those I love, but God is, and he is good.

Death is unnatural. Death sucks. Death is the ultimate reminder that we aren’t God. That we are creatures. That we are dependant on another for our existence. Death is the ultimate reminder that we were made for life, and that we can be recreated, by the living creator.

 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. — Revelation 21:6

A few months ago I was asked to talk to some final year students at Queensland Theological College about ‘Ministry in an iWorld.’

You can see my (mostly) self-explanatory set of slides from my presentation here.

This weekend I’m repurposing what I said at this presentation for a group of young adults, so-called ‘digital natives,’ from church at South Bank. I’m hoping they’ll teach me some stuff about social media beyond the walls of Facebook.

This post will hopefully be something like a bridge from that college presentation to this next one… and hopefully also work as something of a one-stop-shop for where I’m up to with thinking on this stuff. One of the things I love about blogging is the way you can see your own thinking evolve over the passage of time, and hopefully this is equally helpful for people reading along at home.

Anyway.

Here’s the basic idea…

The internet presents fantastic opportunities for Christians to visibly be people who are made in the image of God, broken by sin, while being transformed into the image of Jesus, so long as we understand the medium.

That mix of being being broken by sin while being transformed into the image of Jesus is pretty important if the cardinal virtue of the new media is authenticity. And I think it is.

It’s important for us to understand the mediums we’re using to communicate because whether you think it’s a gross oversimplification – or a meaningless cliche – the medium really is the message. Or, at least, it dictates how the message is received. So we do actually need to be thoughtful about how (and if) we should use different tools at our disposal to proclaim Jesus.

Here’s a clip from Community where a baby boomer gets excited about the opportunities on YouTube. The same opportunities exist on all sorts of platforms, but we’ll work better online if what we do is less baby boomer and more native. That means thinking about the platforms and why and how people use them.

I thought it might be worth distilling that presentation down into these principles, and explaining what you see in the slides a little bit. Some of these points are abstract and theological (rather than practical), so I’ve tried to give the implications of each point as I understand them. So here goes.

1. God is the ideal communicator/media user. And Jesus is the ultimate example of his communication style.

The Christian God speaks. He created the world (by speaking). Somehow the world, as a creation, reflects the creator. Somehow our relating and communicating is a reflection of the relating and communicating within the Trinity. It’d be almost impossible to make any logical jumps from how God operates to how we should operate without believing that God reveals himself accurately as he communicates. God communicates through revelation – in the media of the Bible (including both the content and communication methodology), but ultimately he communicated in Jesus. His word made flesh. And God’s communication in Jesus shapes his communication through his people…

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” – Hebrews 1:1-3

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14

“Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” - John 20:21

Implications: 

  • God made the world, how the world works reflects him.
  • God provides the definition of ‘good’ in all areas of life, including in how we go about communicating to other creatures (other people).
  • We see the best example of his communication, and the easiest to imitate, in the person of Jesus – his life, his manner, his words, his method, and his audience shape our life, manner, words, method and audience.
  • John’s Gospel starts with Jesus, the word, being sent into the world in the flesh, and ends with Jesus sending his people into the world.

2. We were made to communicate like God does, as his representatives.

In Genesis 1 we learn that God creates, speaks, rules, and relates. In Genesis 2 we see God’s image bearers doing the same thing. Bearing God’s image is an active thing. A job. And this job is performed by speaking (in Genesis 2 man names the animals, as God named the things he made in chapter 1). God’s use of living image bearers is one of the big differences between the God of the Bible and the dead idols he triumphs over throughout the Old Testament. Dead gods are represented by dead wood in shapes made by people, the living God is represented by speaking images that he made.

Compare Genesis 1:26 with Exodus 20:4.

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

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”

The  ‘image’ in these two passages are different Hebrew words, but the word used in one for sky and the other for heavens above, and the words for earth and water are the same, as is the word ‘make.’ I think there’s a strong link. God’s people are meant to represent God in a similar way to how idols were thought to represent dead gods. Israel weren’t meant to make images because they were meant to be images. Speaking images.

The communication power of images was pretty massive in the Ancient Near East, and in Rome, and whenever the word image appears in the Bible it is riffing off what people understand images to do in those contexts. When we follow Jesus we are transformed by the Spirit to bear his image in the world, as he perfectly bore the image of God.

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” – Colossians 1:15

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

Implications:

  • Our whole lives communicate about who it is we worship.
  • Social media is all about projecting an ‘image’ to the world (often using images).
  • We can choose to project an image of ourselves, our idols, or the idol of self, or we can choose to represent Jesus, bearing his image, like we were made to.
  • When we speak as Christians we should speak about Jesus and the world God made, as people shaped by Jesus.

3. God communicates by bridging the gap to his audience – especially in Jesus – so we should too.

There are some fancy theological buzz words for this – God makes himself understandable (accommodates) us when he speaks, especially through the process of coming to us, becoming like us and speaking our language (incarnation) – this is what we should be imitating. God is infinite. We are finite. Add up every human thought ever produced, published, and uploaded to the interwebs, and you’re not even getting towards a drop in the ocean when it comes to knowing about God, or the universe he made. Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt famously claimed (perhaps incorrectly) that:

“There were 5 Exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days.”

This means there’s a lot of information out there about the world (and the suggestion is that Schmidt underestimated how much). If you add up the lifespans, and knowledge, of every human who has existed, and will exist, you still get a finite number. And God’s knowledge is infinite… God knows lots about everything that we don’t (and can’t). He especially knows things about infinity – and his infinite self – that we cannot possibly comprehend. In order for us to know anything about God, truly, he needs to tell us in ways we can understand. This is where the concept of revelation fits in. God bridges this gap and reveals himself in his world, by his word, by the Word made flesh (Jesus), and by the Spirit. This is called ‘accommodation.’ God accommodates himself to us most clearly in Jesus, in the climactic act of the story he is orchestrating on the world stage, the ‘incarnation’ – where he becomes human, and knowable, in the ultimate act of revelation – the act that the rest of revelation (the Bible) points towards (and points out from).

If God has revealed himself to us by his Spirit we’re a little closer to the infinite than we were before this happens. We know stuff about God that other people don’t yet. When we speak in this world we need to remember this gap, and do our best to bridge it.

While these words from Paul in 1 Corinthians could sound like a bit of a dodge, moving away from scrutiny, they’re also consistent with the gap between God’s nature and ours, and what is needed to communicate across that gap, as outlined above.

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” – 1 Corinthians 2:13-14

Paul doesn’t say we should leave that person in the dark and wait for the Spirit to do its work, he seems to think the Spirit works through us as we speak, and particularly as we accommodate the people we’re speaking to. It’s interesting to read this chapter in parallel with Philippians 2. Paul seems to be modelling his accommodating approach on the incarnating accommodation of Jesus.

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” - 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

He goes into this ‘accommodating’ thing more in his second letter to the Corinthians.

“… we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 4:2-6

Implications:

  • Jesus used the medium people in his day used (he spoke – but he also demonstrated his message through action, and symbols (like the Lord’s Supper), using the language of the people he spoke to (Aramaic), the genres they were familiar with (parables and sermons), and adapted his message according to who he was speaking to.
  • Jesus words were backed up by his life. He lived a persuasive life. Our conduct backs up our message – our conduct, thanks to social media, is more visible than ever before.
  • We should aim to communicate with people where they are at, and try, as much as possible given the gap between how we see and understand the world and how those we are communicating understand the world, to “go native.”
  • Accommodation will include understanding the mediums we use to communicate with these people, how people use them, and what these mediums do to shape the messages (and messengers) they carry, and communicating accordingly in ways that commend and fit our message.
  • We need to present the unchanging Gospel in ways that are consistent with how the people we are speaking to use the mediums we adopt.
  • Our communication should be us generously offering what God has given to us to others. We are giving something to the people we speak to.

4. God communicates by subverting the mediums he adopts. So we should too.

If the ‘incarnation’ – the word becoming flesh – is God’s ultimate piece of communication, the ultimate part of this ultimate piece of communication is the cross (and the resurrection). The Cross reveals God’s ethos – God is a God whose character is defined by costly other-centred love. The Cross was a communication medium – it was used to declare the weakness of the crucified, to humiliate them while celebrating the might of the Roman empire. Jesus turns the Cross upside down. Paul arguably does the same with first century oratorical conventions. The Christian message is subversive. When we ‘accommodate’ and ‘incarnate’ we are also ‘subverting’ – this is consistent with what the genres adopted in the Bible do to other texts in their categories, from Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament to Gospels in the New. It’s this subversion, shaped by (and including) the content of our message, that will make it hard for people to accept the Gospel. For Paul, this meant living out the message of the Cross, being beaten, bloodied, humiliated and scarred – and owning that as part of his testimony about the ‘foolishness’ of Christ in the face of first century oratory that celebrated the perfectly sculpted orator’s body and the fusion of the schools of philosophy and rhetoric. Paul is the anti-orator. But in being the anti-orator, he is also being an orator. It’s a paradox. One we also have to wrestle with.

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong… And so it was with me, brothers and sisters… When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. – 1 Corinthians 1:18, 27, 2:1-5

Implications:

  • Jesus becoming human is a model of drawing near to the people we want to reach, Jesus being executed on the cross shows that this drawing near should cost us something and provide a benefit to the other.
  • Our participation in any communication mediums – including social media – should be shaped by the Cross.
  • It should be loving, costly to ourselves, for the sake of the people we are trying to reach.

5. Media platforms are not neutral tools, they bring message shaping ‘myths’ to our communication, which in turn shape their users.

These ‘myths’ are what we should be subverting.

You can read more about this stuff in this massive series on what social media use does to our brains. Communication mediums are like any tool – they shape the people who wield them as we use them to do stuff. Consider the arms of a builder using a sledge hammer vs the arms of a builder using a jackhammer. Tools shape us. It’d be naive to think that we (individually and collectively) aren’t changed when we make the switch from using largely oral communication to written communication, or changing from written communication with a high cost of production that is difficult to distribute to the almost frictionless publishing of the online world.

A ‘myth’ in this sense is the stories surrounding the platform, which provide implicit ‘values’ for the messages the medium carries – so, for example, with Facebook the myths are about friendship and connection. Facebook also uses an algorithm to control what people see or don’t see – this algorithm is a pattern based on these ‘myths’ and it completely shapes our experience of Facebook without most of us being aware.

These myths shape our communication – so they shape our thinking directly (inasmuch as our thinking is shaped directly by communication), and indirectly (inasmuch as we are shaped by the tools we use).

I think the Bible has some good stuff to say about worldly myths when it comes to communication – given, especially, that the New Testament was written into a time where arguably the greatest propaganda machine that has ever existed – the Roman Empire – was defining the way media happened (and Christian media words like “Gospel” and “preaching” had meanings for first century audiences that were being subverted).

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

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

Some of the values and ‘myths’ our communication platforms contain will be expressions of the function as image bearers of the living God that all humans still have so we don’t necessarily have to turn every communication platform upside down in order to use them, but we do have to be aware of how and why a medium/platform works to use it well.

Implications:

  • If we are trying to decide whether to use or subvert a medium we should ask questions about the ‘myths’ or embedded values mediums/platforms contain, and the patterns these values create.
  • We need to know how mediums work so that our messages will be seen by the people we’d like to see them.
  • The Gospel of Jesus, with its ‘embedded values’ that renew our minds, is the story that shapes us as communicators into living communication mediums. This trumps all other mediums/myths.
  • What these mediums do to us as we use them is part of the cost of communication that we should be prepared to wear in order to reach people.

6. Social media platforms are ‘social’ and they are ‘media’

Most people who get social media wrong (in my opinion – and by most objective measures of effective use of a medium) fail to take the dual nature of new media into account. It’s there in the name. Social Media is both ‘social’ – built around person-to-person relationships in networks, and ‘media’ – a public and permanent form of communication. If you’re not a stickler on your privacy settings (and even then – thanks to the way people can copy, record, screenshot, and share the stuff you post beyond your intended audience), when you post stuff online it’s a form of broadcasting/publishing. While you might post stuff to your friends on a platform like Facebook, every friend who joins in a discussion on one of your posts is potentially broadcasting the conversation to all of your mutual friends and most of their friends. That’s essentially how the Facebook algorithm works (though it is tweaked constantly).

If you’re talking to your friends online it’s worth remembering that it’s possible that you’re talking to your friends through a megaphone in a public park. Most people might not be interested in listening, but they don’t always have a choice. This is truer still on platforms like Twitter where the privacy settings are almost non-existent. And on blogs. The implications of this are that while the stuff you post may have an intended context when it comes to people you know, what you say can very quickly be shared beyond that context. An example – probably far removed from the experience of anyone reading this, is how much the mainstream media is now relying on tweets for their coverage of major events and human interest stories. Twitter is the new vox-pop. It’s handy for journalists because they can pick people based on their level of expertise, number of followers/retweets, or proximity to events.

Broadcast media from a central authoritative voice is dying. Authority is being determined by the market – the stuff that is shared and ‘viral’ rather than by expertise. This is good for those who want to publish stuff who didn’t originally have the platform, but it is bad for expertise (and expertise is important). Experts need to publish for themselves, and figure out how to get their content distributed through networks.

Media distribution used to look like this:

broadcast

 

 

 

Now it looks like this.

social

 

Those graphics are flogged from Tom Standage’s TEDx talk promoting the excellent Writing On The Wall which explores how this shift in media is a return to how the media worked prior to the mass media – suggesting that it’s mass media with distribution power in the hands of the few that is a relative anomaly once societies become literate.

Implications:

  • Don’t post stuff on social media that you don’t want broadcast to the world.
  • Because it’s media and you have a message you have to think a bit like someone being interviewed by a journalist (or all the people seeing your stuff). So stay on message – or at least avoid doing or saying things that undermine your key message. Which is the Gospel.
  • When you do post stuff, be aware that the whole world could be watching on have the audience beyond you initial audience in mind (and so, provide context for people who don’t know you, where possible).
  • When you want stuff to spread, don’t act as a ‘broadcaster’ – social media is two-way, it celebrates user generated content not stuff that feels corporate. Post stuff as a real person, to real people, with a view to ongoing relationship and conversation – not as some sort of robot.
  • Credibility is hard to achieve and easy to lose.

7. Social media platforms are ‘democratised’ media – they make everybody a potential reporter, an editor, or a curator.

Broadcast media as we know it is dying. Most of the obituaries point to the Internet, and the changing patterns of media consumption, as the killer. I think it’s also partly that our broadcast media is really terrible. Generally. And one of the ways it’s terrible is that it’s a completely one way street – and they’ve invited their demise by turning to social media to suddenly make media consumption two-way (think hashtags during Q&A, or tweets during reality TV). This trend is known as ‘democratisation.’

The word ‘democratised’ is a buzzword that describes a few concepts that distinguish social media from broadcast media. It captures these ideas.

  1. Everyone is free to publish online – publishing is free, or cheap (in the case of a blog).
  2. What people see (and where people are going to see things) has now been taken out of the hands of the publisher and put in the hands of algorithms like Google’s search tool and Facebook’s news feed. Google will doubtless be working harder and harder to include social ‘juice’ in their algorithm to deliver more intuitive results.
  3. User generated content has somehow gained traction at the expense of expert generated content and content generated by large corporations. Authenticity is the cardinal virtue of the social media world.
  4. Authority comes from the crowd – via recommendations directly sourced, and through user-generated platforms where content is created and reviewed by the masses (eg wikipedia, airbnb, Trip Advisor, Urban Spoon, Yelp, Beanhunter, etc).
  5. We participate in this new media world whether we know it or not – everything we share, like, interact with, and view, is monitored and used to shape the internet we, and our friends, see. We all have an audience.

Here are some handy facts about how this works. This is largely about Facebook and comes from a video called ‘A World Without Facebook.’

content

audience

The algorithms Facebook use influence our ability to effectively report, edit, and curate. They’re stuff to be aware of when it comes to the content you share. The algorithm changes all the time – but it basically measures how connected people in your network are to you (how often they interact with you), and how popular a particular post is. The algorithm is getting smarter all the time and Facebook is focused on serving up ‘high quality’ items. Posting lots of stuff nobody cares about is a way to guarantee Facebook will stop serving up your stuff to your friends. Maybe think about how often you interact with different sorts of posts and avoid the ones you tend to avoid.

Implications

  • The average person posts three things a day in their newsfeed, the average user with an average number of friends has up to 390 pieces of content they could be seeing any time they log in. It’s a noisy world. If you want people to meet the authentic, Gospel shaped, you and hear what you have to say you have to figure out how to grab attention amidst all this noise. Probably it will involve paying attention to others, and responding like a person who loves them (and actually loving them).
  • Genuine generosity or ‘providing value for free’ is at the heart of most advice about social media success.
  • There are fun studies out there on what happens to your newsfeed when you like everything, or like nothing, that suggest the more genuine you are in your interactions online the better the experience.
  • Be generous and genuinely other person centred on Facebook and you’re simultaneously winning and subverting the Facebook game.

8. Social media platforms are limited

Social media is ‘cheap’,  disembodied and pixelated, and word/verbal heavy (in the old way of talking about communication – it’s logos driven).

It doesn’t take long for a horrible use of a new tool to follow the invention of a tool. Historically horrible uses of tools have driven innovation – the porn industry is responsible for massive technological change, as is military research. Trolling. Cyber-bullying (really, just bullying). Horror stories about adults grooming kids. Phishing scams. Vigilante name and shame campaigns exposing people who are actually innocent as criminals. Doxing. It’s easy to see the very obvious failures of new media (old media isn’t much better – just google “phone hacking scandal” to see a prime example of pretty horrible stuff being done in the name of ‘media’). But social media has some pitfalls for the rest of us too.

Even when we accept the premise that our communication in person is ‘mediated’ – as in, we choose how we present ourselves and communicate our thinking to another party – a significant portion of our communication (and our ability to receive communication via our senses) is non-verbal. This means communication online is mostly words (we can do videos and pictures as well), it’s disembodied. Our communication is mediated by pixels. It’s disincarnate – by nature. Moving away from costly relationships and into the frictionless online environment is a move in the opposite direction to the example Jesus gives in becoming flesh. This said, God obviously values communication via text (and other mediums), that’s why we have the Bible – his written word (and why it calls us to live in ways that communicate things about who he is through our ethics, structures, and sacraments).

Part of the myth of social media is that it’s free – or cheap. Which gives messages carried on the medium an implicit value – lower than the value of a plane ticket that brings people together, lower than the value of a posted letter, or a phone call. But these communication forms are still valuable because all communication says something about the communicator valuing their audience. Communication takes time, creativity, effort. It costs. Online communication is also costly in terms of what the use of a medium is doing to the person using it, following the thinking outlined above. This cost is also caught up in the old saying that if you’re not paying for something you’re not the customer, you’re the product. Being on Facebook, or other mediums, comes at a cost to your privacy, to your brain, to your schedule…

It’s worth reading this mega-essay from Michael Jensen on the ABC’s Religion page to get a slightly different view on this question. He cites a whole heap of examples that back up the value of communication via writing, suggesting it is a valuable form of co-creating and image bearing. Which is absolutely true. If participating in social media wasn’t of value then I’ve wasted the 4,800 words I’ve spent on this post so far…

Here’s a snippet from this essay.

“Even when we say that the physical presence of a person doesn’t remove the need for interpretation, it is still the case that we use written texts to substitute for the relative immediacy of physical presence. People have of course been using social media for centuries. What is a letter but the use of a written text to mediate the presence of one person to another? And ancient writers had noticed the power of a written text to convey presence-in-absence. Psalm 119 is an extraordinary encomium to the torah, verging perhaps on blasphemy, since the words and commands and precepts and statutes are themselves praised to the highest. But since the divine word conveys – or even substitutes for – the divine presence, this logolatry is perfectly in keeping with Hebrew monotheism.

The epistolary form that so dominates the New Testament canon brings this issue of presence-in-absence to the fore. Paul repeatedly pours himself into his words, keenly feeling the pain of physical absence because of distance and because of the chains of his imprisonment. In 1 Corinthians 5:3, he writes, “though absent in body, I am present in spirit”…

For Paul, the point of being present in body is not as if somehow to remove the need for hermeneutics – it is, rather, ethical. This conveys a hermeneutical advantage, but does not remove the need for hermeneutics. What I mean by that is the fact that Paul reminds the churches of his physical presence, and yearns to be present with them again, is a testimony to his integrity and affirms his love for them. It was not only his words, but his observed manner of life in connection to those words – in imitation of Christ – that establishes his apostleship, and proves his sincerity of motive. He reminds his listeners of his costly service of them and of the way in which he supported himself financially when he was with them.

What Paul reminds us of here is that bodily creatures delight in their proximity to other bodily creatures. The physical presence of another person comforts and stimulates and enlivens us in a unique way. If it were not so, then death would not worry us: we would just read what the dead person wrote. Paul’s chains, and his fear of his impending death, do concern him because he will not be able to be present alongside his words so as to confirm and entrench them. It is he who will write, “now we see through a glass darkly; then we will see face to face.” Nevertheless, his words can – effectively if not completely – mediate his presence to his first readers, and beyond them, even to contemporary readers. Logos can, by the powers of recollection or imagination, supply the missing pathos and ethos.

Ultimately, in fact, Paul’s ministry was about the temporary absence of Christ, and about the way in which his presence could be mediated – by the Spirit, received by those who believed the preached Word of God.”

This is great stuff. I’ve edited out a few of the Biblical references because that quote is already too long… But while I agree that text is a “substitute for the relative immediacy of physical presence” that can “mediate the presence of one person to another” – it’s not a two way mediation. It only works that way for the person receiving the text. And the best ‘social’ media (indeed the best of any ‘communication’ – if it is an act of communion between two parties) is two-way. I think that’s what John captures when he writes this (and he writes something that is essentially identical in 3 John).

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. – 2 John 1:12

Implications

  • Social media is disembodied ‘logos’ driven communication, which makes ethos (and other context people use for interpretation) largely invisible – when we use these platforms we need to provide this context in our words.
  • A good rule of thumb given the limitations of written communication is to write with clarity, while reading with charity. Give people what they need to understand you, read people in the most generous possible way and ask for help understanding what they’ve said.
  • While we interact with other pixelated avatars online, there’s a person on the other side of the screen.
  • The best communication – modelled on the incarnation of Jesus – is costly, and moves sacrificially from disembodiment to embodiment. Communication via pixels is easier than communication via blood, sweat, and tears.
  • Presence in ‘embodied’ communication means the relationship is simultaneously costly/valuable for both parties. In text the cost is paid by the writer in the absent presence of the reader, and the value experienced by the reader in the absent presence of the writer.
  • Text is a great and important way to communicate, especially when we have to be absent. It lasts longer, and, thanks to the Internet, is much less costly to transmit than for any previous generation. Once upon a time text had to be engraved into stone. Printing this post on a printing press would have required plates to be created letter by letter.
  • A good rule of thumb in ‘costly’ communication is to up the cost a step when you’re responding. If someone texts you, ring them, if someone calls you, catch up over coffee, etc. The medium is the message – how we choose to communicate to someone shows how we value them.

9. Social Media has incredible potential for Christians to be the people we are called to be for the sake of the people around us.

This is more conclusion than final point, and this conclusion is the basic position I think we arrive at given the first eight points. Every communication medium has limits. That’s part of our finitude. But the massive opportunities presented by the incredibly low barriers to participating in the new media landscape mean Christians who want to live out our calling faithfully should be seeking to do this online (and offline). Where opportunities present themselves.

Implications:

  • Christians are called to pursue generous, costly, engagement with others, seeing the value of any available medium, but always seeking to become more ‘incarnate,’ in order to both present and live out the message of the Gospel so that our medium and message are aligned.

Here’s where things end up for Abed and Shirley, if you can remember back that far…

I really want to be vulnerable and authentic on social media. To air the dirty laundry, to be human. To be broken. To subvert the paradigm of the curated life. To not live my life through a series of filtered photos of filtered coffee from cafes that I have carefully filtered through the lens of my snobbery.

I truly believe the lack of this sort of vulnerability – there’s plenty of vulnerability that is simply attention seeking – is one of the pitfalls of social media. Everyone looks like they have it more together than me. Incidentally, I crave the same authenticity in real world relationships. For us to be broken and vulnerable – without the fear that such honesty will be weaponised and turned against us. Wouldn’t our churches be more welcoming if people bringing brokenness into the gathering didn’t feel like everybody else had everything completely under control. Bare relational functionality is a foreign concept to so many of those around us who have grown up in broken homes.

So why am I unable to be vulnerable, broken, and authentic online?

Here’s my thesis: authentic brokenness that rises above the virtual clutter will be authenticity that expresses genuine gratitude – anything else is the same self-image promotion we’re trying to steer clear of, just in a different package.

I want authenticity. But I’ve found it almost impossible to be authentically broken in what I post – in fact, I think at times it would be wrong, and self seeking, for me to share my brokenness.

At my very best I sometimes manage to not post quite so much of the ‘my life is awesome’ dross as I feel inclined to do, to moderate what I post mindful of the way it might alienate those who do not have what I’ve been given, who crave it.

I stuffed up recently. I was a bad father, and a worse husband. I was pig-headed, proud, so very broken. I thought “this is a chance for me to publicly flagellate myself for my failings. To be honest. To let it all hang out.” And yet, I didn’t pull the trigger, and I’m confident this was the right decision.

Why?

Because like my brokenness, so much of our brokenness – the really messy stuff – happens in the context of relationships, and some of this story is not mine to tell. It’s ours. In my case this week – it’s hurt shared by my family, and brokenness inflicted on them. It doesn’t serve them to share it. The hurt is not mine to exploit for the sake of my own authenticity.

I’ve been thinking more about Augustine and Luther’s notion of humanity curved in on itself – the idea that every human act, regardless of its apparent external trajectory, is ultimately self-seeking.

Though it might seem like it if you read the Internet, wading through the comments on Richard Dawkin’s website, or the ABC religion pages, it’s not all that complicated to understand what the book of Genesis is all about, its function in the story of the Bible, it accounts for the good but broken world that we live in, it diagnoses my heart, and yours, arriving at the same point as Augustine and Luther… It provides the setting for the rest of the story of the Bible, and of human history, the story that climaxes at the Cross.

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

This is true for the times we want to attempt such vulnerable authenticity. This ‘curve’ affects even those times that we’re acknowledging that our hearts are curved in on themselves. I’m no more righteous because I acknowledge that I’m broken, I’m just broken in different ways (and maybe slightly more self-aware of that brokenness). Perversely, I might even start to feel pride that I’m much better at being broken than those around me, that I’m much more self-aware. That I am more authentic.

What are we truly expecting when we post stuff about what is wrong with the world? It’s not a humble-brag, it’s the anti-brag. Even in moments of genuine contrition what am I going to do when the supportive comments come streaming in – without all the background on the situation?

How will I respond – how will the person I’ve wronged respond – when comments like these start popping up?

“You’re not so bad…”

“I think you’re great…”

“You’ll do better next time.”

Who does this serve?

Me.

I’ve decided a far better way when it comes to authenticity online is not genuine brokenness – but genuine gratitude.

It’s gratitude that marks out a genuine, not self-serving, response to our own brokenness.

Gratitude towards those around me who stick with me even when I don’t deserve it, and ultimately gratitude towards God. Gratitude to God – who not only made an amazing world with plenty to be thankful for as we enjoy it, but he sticks with us though our natural inclination is to push him out of the picture, to live for my own image and name’s sake, not for his, to join the angry mob shouting ‘crucify him’… He gave his life in exchange for ours. I’m not sure there are any more profound words in the Bible than those from Jesus on the Cross – speaking about the people who put him there. His enemies.

“Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing…”

He’s not just talking about the people standing under his feet as he expires. He’s talking about the finite number of people who will ever exist. He’s talking about me. And you. Everyone. Even though our hearts are curved away from him and towards ourselves.

Do you reckon John Newton would have released Amazing Grace if he knew how his brokenness would be put up in lights (literally, in the days of overhead and data projectors) paraded for so many people in so many places, across such a long period of time, to see? I think he would have. Absolutely. But do you think the song would have anything like it’s power if it was simply a confession of his wretchedness, and not genuine thankfulness in the face of what God did for him at the cross?

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

That’s pretty much the note to be hitting, I think, when it comes to how we live our authentically broken lives – which is, I think, incredibly important for Christians in the social media space, on platforms that are geared towards cultivating and curating one’s preferred self in front of one’s preferred friends.

For C (and other women of Brisbane)

Tonight, just before church, I met a woman named C. Her name is not really mine to share – but I’ve tried to set up a targeted Facebook campaign in the hope that she’ll see this.

C wanted to know if our church is progressive or conservative.

I tried to tell her that we were both – I’m not a big fan of sticking to either label. As a church we aim to stick to what the Bible says, and who it says Jesus is, which means we’re conservative – but we also think Jesus is for everybody, and that rather than giving people a rule book about how to live, we want them to meet Jesus, hear the good news about the radical sacrificial love displayed at the cross, and live in response. Which I hope means we’re progressive – and frees us to be genuinely progressive, and radical, on all sorts of social issues, as we choose approaches that open up the opportunity for people to be truly transformed for the better.

C was particularly interested in our position on men and women in leadership, and on homosexuality (especially gay marriage), I’m not sure how interested she was in hearing the rationale for these positions – she decided that our church wasn’t for her when she heard that the Presbyterian Church of Queensland limits eldership and preaching to men.

C had been part of churches in the past – even working for a mega church in Sydney – but left because she has not found a church suitable to her progressive needs. If this sounds like any woman you know – please send her this link. The church needs women like C who are passionate about people and equality, and progress.

The Gospel – the good news of Jesus’ sacrificial love for all people – including his enemies – expressed through his death on the cross in our place, and his resurrection to bring us new life – lives changed and defined by this love is the key to any true progress in our society. It’s the key to fixing the sort of gender issues that plague the church and society at large, where men cling on to power and authority – weaponising leadership, rather than leading like Jesus (the good shepherd who lays down his life for his flock). When we put our trust in Jesus, we’re all called to take up our cross and follow him – this cross-shaped life transcends gender, and it changes how we think of, and use, all aspects of our identity and person to love and serve others.

I told C she was more than welcome to join us even if she disagreed with us on these (or every) issues, and invited her to check us out. But she left.

This made me sad.

I’m still sad.

It breaks my heart that C did not feel welcome to join us tonight. That she came to another church that ultimately disappointed her. It breaks my heart that she didn’t stick around to listen to us, to meet the remarkable women in our church community, and the men.

It breaks my heart that this ‘conservative’ stance on women might get in the way of people meeting Jesus because it stops them even coming through the doors to see how such a stance plays out on the ground, in real lives. Our church – and every church I have been a part of – is home to strong women, thinking women, gifted women, who wrestle with what the Bible says, who Jesus is, and how that should play out in their lives. I’d love C, and others, to meet these women, hear their thinking, and see how even grappling with this question can help us understand more of who God is.

It breaks my heart to think that C, and others like her, think that by being part of the system I am part of I am robbing my wife and daughter of the opportunity to fully be the people God made them to be (a paraphrase of her words about what this sort of church does for women generally, not the woman and girl in my family specifically). C was strong, kind, and polite. She didn’t make this observation to offend me – or belittle the women in our church (or my family). She was motivated by her passion for others. She’s just the sort of woman the church needs.

It breaks my heart that it might be true (and that I think it often is). It breaks my heart that she might be right that ‘conservative’ churches might stop women meeting their full potential. It worries me that our churches – my church – might be places that value being conservative over constantly progressing, always reforming, always growing to become something closer to the church the Bible calls us to be, a church full of people shaped into the image of Jesus.

This progress and reform doesn’t mean throwing tradition under the bus. It doesn’t mean reinterpreting passages that we don’t like because they speak of particular customs in particular times. There are certain things we must conserve – certain things we are called to hand on from generation to generation so that the good news about Jesus continues to be told.

The Gospel calls us to be counter-cultural. To live lives different to the people around us. To be remarkable. And this call – this cross-shaped call – needs to transform the way we approach gender. And leadership. Sometimes this will mean we’re more conservative than the society we live in, other times it will mean being more progressive than the society we live in. The dichotomy is ultimately unhelpful.

Let me be clear – when it comes to gender stuff I think part of being counter-cultural is structuring our churches in a way that communicates something about the God who made us, telling the story of humanity as the Bible tells it. Which is why I think both Jesus and Paul, when speaking of gender and marriage, speak of Genesis as providing the structure for our relationships as Christians. Structuring our relationships according to the story we’re trying to live out – the story of the Bible – is part of telling that story.

Our gatherings, and the way we structure them, communicate something about our beliefs. And, like it or not, the Bible’s story of redemption of people – both male and female – equally – begins with God creating male and female. Both in the image of God, both valuable to God with equal dignity, but in the story Adam is created first, then Eve. This doesn’t make Adam more human than Eve but the Genesis account is comfortable suggesting Adam and Eve are completely equal, and completely able to bear God’s image, while performing different functions.

Again. This is easier for me to say as a man, especially as a man who ‘leads’… but the day I don’t see my ‘leadership’ as being called to lay down my life for others is the day I should be booted out of my job.

Our gatherings should communicate that every human has equal dignity and value in God’s eyes. Regardless of the role they’re playing in the gathering. I think Jesus is serious when he talks about the first being last. I think he models a counter-cultural approach to value and importance when he launches his kingdom by dying on a cross.

What our gatherings don’t currently communicate is that we hold women in such high esteem (and all people) that we would lay down our lives for them in a heartbeat.

Our gatherings don’t really communicate that any Christian submission echoes the submission of the Son to the Father in the Trinity, the Son who says ‘not my will but yours’ and goes to the Cross.

This submission is voluntary – an act of the will of the Son (perfectly united with the will of the Father).

This submission does not make the Son less than the Father. It can not. That would break the Trinity.

It is, therefore, possible to voluntarily submit (and be honoured and celebrated for this submitting), without being lesser in nature.

It is possible in the Trinity, so it is possible in our churches.

I know all this is easy for me to say – as a man, in a position of privilege, from a position of leadership.

But hear me out.
I want the church to do better in this space.
I want the church I lead to do better in this space.
I want this to come at cost to myself.
I want us to be always progressing. Always reforming.
I want a church full of men who love women so well that ‘Christian’ is synonymous with feminist.
I want a church where ‘leadership’ is synonymous with ‘sacrificial love.’
I want, if possible, a church where ‘conservative’ is synonymous with ‘progressive’ – because what we’re really holding on to is the Gospel, and what we’re really living out is the love of God as displayed in Jesus Christ.

That’s a lot of wants. Interestingly, one thing I would like to suggest to C, and others who are disgruntled with the church, and disenfranchised as a result, is that church is ultimately not about us. We’re never going to find the perfect church for us, especially if we’re assuming we’ve got a perfect grasp on truth.

What’s important is what God wants. What’s important is that our churches are made up of people – men, women, and children – being transformed by the Holy Spirit, always progressing to be more like Jesus.

There is no space for inequality in the church (but, again, lest you object that a complementarian approach is inequal, there is a space for those who want to voluntarily be part of a community that wants to voluntarily structure itself in a way that communicates something about the Triune God, the world God made, and the way God redeems the world at the Cross, to voluntarily submit to others, for the sake of others).

Here’s a couple more wants.

I want to be part of a church that celebrates women and their gifts, and gives space for these gifts to flourish, and to be used for the flourishing of others.
I want a church where women feel safe to speak, where they know they’ll be listened to, and know their contributions will be heard and valued.

I want to lead a church like that.

I don’t think leadership comes from a title (or with a title). The title I have is not something that marks me out as different to the people at church, or better than them. There has been no upwards shift in my value. I’m deeply and profoundly committed to the priesthood of all believers – men and women. Christian leadership comes through sacrifice. Voluntary sacrifice. For the sake of others.

We’re all called to do that – every person in our church who wants to follow Jesus is called to lead this way. Regardless of your title, your position, your gender.

Again, I know it’s easy for me to say this, I have a title, I have a position, I am a man.

I know the approach to gender known as ‘complementarianism’ comes at a cost to women.
I know it has been used as a weapon by men in positions of authority.
I know that we (men, or complementarians) have, at times, tried to take this approach to gender beyond the boundaries of church communities so that men believe they are superior to women and should hold on to all positions of power.

I don’t think there’s any good reason for a woman not to be Prime Minister, or hold any position outside the church. How we structure stuff in the church is different because of what we’re trying to do as the church – point people to Jesus, and his sacrifice.

Submission is costly. It always comes at the expense of the one doing the submitting. There’s no escaping the truth that women in the church are being asked to pay this cost. But for this cost to have value it has to be voluntarily paid – as a result of people wanting to imitate Jesus.

Imitating Jesus is the key to real progress – and the key to real, eternal, flourishing (it’s also the key to short term pain and cost).

My wife is incredibly gifted. I have no doubt she could do most of the things I can do, and many things that I can’t, if she were in my position. The fact that she isn’t, and doesn’t seek to be (because she wants to uphold the Bible’s teaching on gender) is a testimony to the Gospel. It teaches me about Jesus. She leads me towards progress in this way. Her approach to life, and her sacrificial use (and non-use) of her gifts, shows me that she wants to imitate Christ.

It teaches me daily.

Every day I am grateful to God that I get to be married to such a gifted woman who is eager to use her gifts, but also eager to forgo using her gifts, for the sake of others.

I pray that both my children – my daughter and my son – will grow up in Jesus, to reach their full potential, to use their gifts to serve others, to submit to others and to lead others.

I want them both to be like their mum. I want them both to be like Jesus. I don’t think my daughter is any less able to do this than my son. I know that in many ways it’s going to be harder for my daughter to live in this world than it is for my son. I want him to grow up wanting that to change.

We’re not going to be truly progressive as a church without conserving the good news of Jesus and building our churches around his story – and being prepared to hang on to that when the world around us wants to move us away from it. We’re not going to progress as a church – to allow the women in our churches to truly thrive – without hearing from women like C who are strong, passionate and prepared to speak. Without them being passionate about Jesus, and passionate about the Church. Which is why it really is a tragedy that C, and others like her, are not joining churches like mine. Which is why I’m still sad. Hours later.

God and the God Shot

“…The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food…” // GENESIS 2:9

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. // ROMANS 1:20

God created Coffee. Coffee reveals something about God’s qualities. Coffee is good.

Coffee is proof that God loves us. 

It’s an interesting premise. A great T-Shirt slogan. But does it hold up to scrutiny?

I think it does. Here’s an attempt to prove the premise. This is long. Don’t think of it as a long blog post, but rather, a short e-book. But, for the blog post types – here’s the summary.

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Coffee is part of God’s good creation, God’s creation includes creativity and beauty – he made things of quality to be enjoyed, the purpose of this good world God created was to point people to him, and to reveal his goodness.

Coffee is also proof that we are fundamentally messy.

The way we drink coffee reveals that our hearts are diseased, and that this disease is because we don’t use the stuff God created for what he created it for. The way we consume coffee, and the narrative we surround it with, diagnoses our heart.

We consume coffee, and are consumed by it. We consume coffee, and as we consume it, we consume others and consume our world.

We worship coffee. We are tempted to find our identity in coffee – to use it as a point of pride – or to make it part of the way we control the world. We are addicts. Unable to function without a daily dose.

Whether you call it ‘instant’ (an abomination that literally causes desolation), or ‘specialty’ (where my preferences more naturally lie), you’re introducing a narrative to your consumption that reveals your idols.

On the ‘instant’ front: we trash God’s good creation and the people who work the land, to mass produce low quality crops that we then turn into a dehydrated, chemically-maimed, husk of its former self for our instant gratification. We want total deniability when it comes to process, but want it to fuel our addiction.

On the ‘specialty’ front:  We’re obsessed with control. We spend all our time finding finicky details to tweak for the sake of one iota’s difference, while crafting a narrative for the humble bean that explains just how sophisticated we are as we sip it – even if this means treating people and the planet more ethically, we wear our ethics as a badge of pride and self-glorification.

We engage in what CS Lewis calls the ‘gluttony of delicacy’ and can spend our time and money pursuing a perfect coffee, which doesn’t exist. Chasing a taste of heaven only regarding the creator of heaven and earth as something of an Arthurian punch-line. The chief end of our quest for perfection. Yet. The closest we get to the ‘God Shot’ – the Holy Grail of coffee craftsmanship – the more we realise it is unattainable.

We’ve taken God’s good gift of coffee and turned it into an idol, but even when we’re not worshipping it – the best most God-directed coffee experiences are still a reminder of what we crave. 

Our best experiences of coffee now involve fleeting moments, ephemeral visions of the future, a tantalising window between two worlds, where we pull a few wisps of heaven into a porcelain cup, and have them drift past our taste buds into oblivion. They can’t be savoured for long because they are vapour. There, and then gone. Such momentary bliss is a reminder that we are not yet home. That the world God created has been frustrated by humanity’s choice – corporately, and individually – rejecting him and choosing to use the things he made the wrong way.

This ‘God Shot’, and what we do with coffee, is a simultaneous testimony to our limits, our brokenness, and God’s goodness.

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WHAT IS THE GOD SHOT

“It is a homage to God in a way because when someone talks about a God Shot, it is something so special, so unique, so perfect, it’s almost as if God Himself has blessed it.”

// Mark Prince, coffeegeek.com, ‘Defining what is the God Shot,’ 2002

 

What is the God Shot? You could do worse than reading this 12 year old attempt at a definition from Mark Prince. It’s hard to describe exactly what separates the God Shot from the great shot. There is a certain quality that lingers. That you identify when you find it, and that tugs at the edge of your palate when you don’t. The God Shot has a certain Je ne sais quoi about it that one can’t really begin to describe without dipping into foreign tongues to borrow words. It’s a picture with colours beyond the average spectrum.

Perhaps it’s like asking someone to imagine a blue yellow that isn’t green – our heads can conceive of such a fantastical construction – but picturing it is beyond us.

This is the God Shot. It brings impossibilities together. It is paradox in a cup. Or, as Mark Prince puts it while trying to find words…

“…the God Shot is the ristretto shot maximized to the point of achieving something that David Schomer (of Espresso Vivace) and many other espresso purists before him have sought: coffee that tastes as good as fresh roasted coffee smells.

This is the fleeting thing. It really is.”

// Mark Prince, coffeegeek.com

Specialty coffee tasters describe coffee with all sorts of ‘tasting notes’ – something akin to the things you’ll read on the label of a bottle of wine. There’s a tasting wheel that invites people who spend a lifetime honing their senses of taste and smell to describe the flavours and aromas of coffee – and the sides of the wheel very rarely meet. The God Shot brings them together.


Image Source: coffeesnobs.com.au

Here’s how to spot a God Shot in the wild… it’s a multisensory thing…

“The God Shot is a double ristretto shot that looks special from the moment it starts slurping down from the portafilter spouts. The colour of the streams is always a dark rust-red colour, and often a sense of tiger striping, with alternating lines of lighter rust with darker rust, can be seen. In the cup, the shot is 100% crema from the get go right up until the end of the pour, and the black nectar starts to form as you complete the shot. It can take up to 30 seconds or longer for the crema to settle in the top third of the cup, leaving the bottom two thirds an opaque black. The top of the crema is quite often a dark ruby rust color with no traces of over extraction (blond or beige spots), but often something called tiger-mottling, or specks of darker spots where the intense, highly concentrated colloids and flavours of the espresso draw show themselves – these are the barely-solubles that made it to the cup.

The aromas as you lift the cup to your nose almost overpower with the intense, pure smell of what the roasted and ground coffee smelled like moments before. As you swirl the shot to release even more aromas, the true God Shot will almost overwhelm you. Then it comes time for the first sip. You’ll know at this moment, if you didn’t already, this was something unique – the mouthfeel is beyond almost anything you’ve sampled before – the aromas, tastes, colloids, flavours, you name it, they all coat the tongue and seem to constantly hit the perfect notes on all four major taste areas of your tongue. They compete with each other, but always seem to compliment the areas of sweet, sour, bitter and sharp on the tongue.

As you swallow the shot, the back of your mouth and throat get the final joy – the espresso coats this part of your mouth and doesn’t want to give up. Where a normal espresso shot may leave bitters and an unpleasant tang in the throat, the God Shot gives such an amazing sensation of mild bitters and sweets that it is almost as if your mouth doesn’t want to lose this sensation – it wants to keep it around for a while.”

// Mark Prince, coffeegeek.com, ‘Defining what is the God Shot’

MY QUEST FOR THE GOD SHOT

Of the perhaps six thousand coffees I’ve consumed in the last eight years (at a rate of two a day, which is conservative)- this is when my chemical romance with C8H10N4O2 truly blossomed (it’s not really about the drug though – the effect of caffeine gets in the way of the consumption of delicious coffee as far as I’m concerned) – there are around six coffees that I remember – and salivate over just a little bit – six that I experienced as ‘God Shots’ – purists would say that by adding milk I’ve adulterated the untamed beauty of the espresso, but milk, too, is a gift from God to be enjoyed. And the creative coupling of milk and coffee is a match surely made in heaven.

I poured two of these six myself – a Brazilian and a Tanzanian – within a few months of each other.

The other four were from cafes – I can’t name dates, but I can list places. And flavours. One came from Coffee Dominion in Townsville, one was from One Drop, one was from Shucked Espresso, and one was from Merriweather – these three cafes are in Brisbane. Two of these were on blends that were carefully orchestrated and calculated to stimulate and excite the senses. I’ve had exceptional coffees from cafes too numerous to mention. But these are the memories that stick. Feasts for the senses.

  • The Coffee Dominion coffee reminded me of butterscotch.
  • The One Drop coffee was on a day that I was flying up to North Queensland in my first year back in Brisbane, and I still remember the toffee-apple after taste as I drove home.
  • The one from Shucked was a Costa Rican that evoked a strong sense of lemon meringue pie.
  • The coffee from Merriweather was two Sundays ago – I don’t know quite how to describe the blast of sweet fruity flavours that cut through the milk in my flat white. You know a coffee is good when you text the roaster to thank them.

These moments stand out in what is almost literally an ocean of coffee. Well. About 175,200mL of coffee.

175 litres of exceptional coffee.

Coffee made in the best cafes in Australia. Coffee systematically and methodically produced at home, or at the hands of some of Australia’s best baristas. And despite limiting the search to the cream of the crop the God Shot has appeared for me 0.1% of the time (if my maths is right – it rarely is). Even if I add my next 20 or 30 favourite coffees we’re still at less than 1%.

I’ve got fancy equipment. I’ve tried roasting my own coffee. I’ve tried sourcing coffee from the best roasters wherever I go. I’ve read about coffee. I’ve practiced and honed the craft of espresso extraction. And my success ratio is significantly smaller than the percentage of God Shots to shots.

I drink more coffee at home than out, but God Shots from elsewhere outnumber the coffees I’ve produced three to one.

HOW DO YOU PRODUCE A GOD SHOT?

Mark Prince’s symposium of baristas (surely the official collective noun for a group of baristas?) agree that while the God Shot requires the perfect preparation – the perfect preparation is no guarantee of a God Shot.

The God Shot will not be tamed by human ritual or superstition.

The God Shot is not subject to the whims of the one searching for it, but one must search in the right places.

“Do everything right, and hope for the best.

That’s it. Do your prep the right way – make sure you’re using the best quality specialty coffee beans you can get, fresh roasted and well blended. Make sure your grinder is working in tip top shape and it is a top notch grinder. “Be at one” with your grinder, as in know how your grinder will react to the beans you put in it, know about the tiny things such as humidity, ambient air temperatures, age of the beans and the like, and adjust the grind accordingly.

Make sure your espresso machine is set up right, and running right. Know the proper temperatures and boiler pressures your machine needs to pull off a great shot. Keep your equipment clean.

Prepare your portafilter with all the skill and experience you can muster. Dose the exact proper amount. Level it off, get ready to tamp, and do your tamp. Tamp and spin and wipe. Flush the grouphead for a second or two, even on the commercial machine in a high volume shop. Lock and load, set up the cup and brew.

And hope (or more appropriately pray) for the best.

Do the things right, and you’ll get a great shot of espresso every time. But great doesn’t equal a God Shot. Why? Even the most seasoned, professional and passionate Baristas know they can pull great shots, but also know the God Shot only comes if the stars are aligned, the moons in phase, Jupiter is in Venus, yada yada… oh yeah, and for some who believe in it, God looked down, and decided, yes, this one is worthy, I bless it.”

// Mark Prince, coffeegeek.com

The religious pursuit of the God Shot highlights the problems with all human religiosity – we don’t control God via a series of buttons, variables, and levers, which can be carefully balanced to deliver us a desired outcome. The God Shot mocks our desire to be in control.

THE GOD SHOT AS (UNATTAINABLE) JOY

My experience of the God Shot is fleeting – and I’m not alone. But it’s also what keeps me going back for more, hoping that I’ll taste it again.

This reminds me of CS Lewis’s (and Rammstein’s) concept of sehnsucht.

CS Lewis writes about the fleeting experiences of joy we have now, in this world, and how their fleeting nature reminds us that we are not yet home. We are not where we were created to be – our world is not what it was created to be. Coffee is not yet what it was created to be. And the gap between our experiences now and what we anticipate – the gap that drives our longings – our cravings – and their final satisfaction… that’s this sehnsucht.

“That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan”, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves. It appeared to me therefore that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given–nay, cannot even be imagined as given–in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.”

// CS Lewis, PILGRIM’S REGRESS

This is the same sense I think I feel when it comes to the fleeting experience of the God Shot, and the desire that sparks… CS Lewis also speaks of joy in similar terms…

“All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.”

// CS Lewis, LETTERS

He speaks of this momentary experience of joy – which, again, describes these six coffees.

“It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?…Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone the whole glimpse… withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else… an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction…”

// CS Lewis, SURPRISED BY JOY

 As an example of joy, provided by something God has created, the God Shot (and the quest for the God shot) reminds us that God is good, and that we are not home. That we are only seeing glimpses of heaven in our coffee cup. It’s a bit like the God Shot – both in its presence and in its absence – helps us see what the writer of Ecclesiastes says in chapter 3.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”

// ECCLESIASTES 3:11-13 

THE GOD SHOT AND THE HEART

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…  They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator”

// ROMANS 1:21, 25

Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 5:23

Coffee is actually good for your heart (and many other aspects of your health). But the way we consume coffee reveals that our hearts are profoundly diseased in a non-medical sense, and this disease permeates our every action, and our every use of the good things God has made.

Our hearts are diseased in such a way that when they control our hands and mouths we perpetuate this disease – inflicting it on others.

Our use of coffee – when it’s not properly directed to giving glory to the creator for what he has made, joyfully co-creating with his good gifts – falls into two opposite and equally pernicious uses of God’s world. We trash it, or we worship it. While both ends of the coffee spectrum – instant or specialty – can involve trashing or wrongly treasuring creation (rather than the creator), they tend to gravitate towards either pole.

Coffee helps diagnose our diseased hearts. We speak casually of coffee addiction, when what we really mean is dependence. We’ve become slaves to this created thing. The labels we apply to coffee – at either end of the quality spectrum – reveal our idolatry. Instant coffee. Specialty coffee. The narrative we use to surround our consumption of coffee is part of the narrative of our lives – and if it isn’t connected to God, this is a problem. 

THE SIN(S) OF INSTANT COFFEE

Instant coffee is symptomatic of the spread of our destructive disease into God’s world – the root cause may well be described as idolatry, but it’s the idolatry of self. Instant coffee. Instant gratification. An instant fix. Caffeine is this tool we’ve harnessed to further our ends, and instant coffee is the most efficient delivery mechanism that maintains some sort of veneer of pleasure (or connection to God’s wondrous coffee bean – I mean, you could take caffeine tablets or inject caffeine – but who’d want to do that?).

But is it instant? Really? We do not question. We don’t need to. Instant coffee is simply fuel, not fun. It’s all science, no art. Pure utility. It is instant. Quick. Cheap. Easy. To focus on the process is to miss the point – or, a lack of focus on the process is precisely the point.

‘Instant’ is a counterfeit claim. It’s not instant (it’s also arguably not coffee). But we want to be ignorant of everything leading up to our fix lest it reveal the deception inherent in the name, and the narrative.

The soluble instant coffee crystal is produced by a convoluted process that, in its lack of care for the world and its people, is both symptom and symbol of our corrupt hearts. It’s a symbol of our quick-paced, fix-driven world of convenient utility and productivity, and a symptom of the corruption we sow wherever our diseased hearts pump sin around our bodies and into our actions.

Our consumption of ‘instant coffee’ involves our consumption of the world around us – consuming both people and planet on the altar of our own convenience.

While much of the world’s coffee – including coffee at the specialty end – is produced in under-developed countries, and many coffee farmers are underpaid (passing that underpayment on to their workers – or slaves) – instant coffee uses the cheapest and nastiest coffee grown in the worst conditions.

The drive to supply the ever-increasing insatiable desire for coffee (largely in the developed west) is leading to deforestation in some of the planet’s most significant rainforests.

The coffee grown for instant coffee is much less likely to be ‘ethical’ on either the environmental, economic, or personal front than anything further along the spectrum towards specialty. This is because the people drinking it care less about quality, and less about process.

Instant coffee is not mankind creatively using God’s good gift to bring life. It’s destructive. This destruction spans the entire process – from planting to packaging, and arguably includes the way the coffee itself is treated – roasted without care, batch produced, dehydrated and crystallised using either extremely hot air or snap freezing. Subjectively speaking it’s hard to see how the generic approach to coffee production – where the only distinction in quality or process appears to be which process is used to crystallise the coffee – can point you to the good and creative creator better than specialty coffee – but if you love the taste of instant, and think you can drink it to the glory of God, then go for it. But remember…

“Most of the ethical problems in today’s coffee industry occur with poor quality Arabica coffee (ie Arabica which is grown at low altitudes, and poorly processed) and most of the world’s Robusta. This low cost coffee predominantly ends up in jars of instant coffee. Many of the large companies that use this coffee don’t purchase based on quality, their most important factor is price — as low as possible.”

// Five SensesWhat is Ethical Coffee

Here’s a rule of thumb. If something you enjoy, that you didn’t produce by the sweat of your brow, is really cheap, then someone else has paid the price. It could be this kid.


Image Credit: The Atlantic.

THE SIN(S) OF SPECIALTY COFFEE

“…the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols… The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labours under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth…”

// Calvin, INSTITUTES, I.XI.8

Lest you think I’m only prepared to point the finger at the side of the coffee spectrum I’m biased against – the specialty end of the coffee spectrum is every bit as pernicious. Where instant coffee denies the significance of process, specialty coffee celebrates it – praising the human ingenuity of farmer, roaster, and barista. The idolatry associated with this emphasis on process and control also sees the end user forging their identity on the basis of their consumption decisions.

You are your coffee order. I’ve got no doubt this is true, because it has, at times, been true for me. Here’s a description of the modern obsession with the designer life based on curated choices…

“We declare our individuality via our capacity to consume differently — to mix purchases from Target with those from quirky Etsy shops — and to tweet, use Facebook, or pin in a way that separates us from others . . . Unique taste — and the capacity to avoid the basic — is a privilege. A privilege of location (usually urban), of education (exposure to other cultures and locales), and of parentage (who would introduce and exalt other tastes). To summarize the groundbreaking work of theorist Pierre Bourdieu: We don’t choose our tastes so much as the micro-specifics of our class determine them.”

// Anne Petersen, ‘Basic is just another word for class anxiety,’ buzzfeed.com

If you want to order the ‘single origin honey processed Costa Rica De Licho as a double shot, three quarter latte, with the milk at 62 degrees’ and you know what each of those things contributes to the taste, and you care so much that you won’t accept any less – then you’re probably engaging in what CS Lewis calls the Gluttony of Delicacy.

“She would be astonished—one day, I hope, will be—to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness and self-concern?”

// CS Lewis, SCREWTAPE LETTERS

Sound familiar. Enslaved to sensuality? The woman described in the Screwtape Letters is one being led away from God by her particular tastes, her desire for her needs to be met in just the right way.

“You will say that these are very small sins, and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

// CS Lewis, SCREWTAPE LETTERS

Specialty Coffee is much more likely to be ethically produced. Partly because specialty coffee producers are generally nice people and want to do the right thing, and partly because partnerships on the ground with coffee growers will produce a guarantee of supply and allows the specialty industry to have some control over growing conditions – ensuring a better quality crop. Here’s the thing – such is the disease of our hearts – that even our most altruistic moments are part of a ‘triple bottom line’ approach to life – there’s a sense that we are ethical in our decision making because it is a way to buy some sort of indulgence to mitigate our consumption of the world around us.

We are often ethical because it makes us feel better. If we this wasn’t the case then the ethics of a particular coffee wouldn’t be a massive marketing tool. We’d care more about whether or not ethical systems like Fairtrade actually work (they don’t really, relationship based coffee purchasing seems to be the most ethical approach).

Or, we’re ethical because we see the good that our conscientious purchasing decisions do for someone else, and  feel a sense of pride that  our consumption is making a difference, which frees us to consume more, and invites us to continue to find our identity – or our point of difference – in just how special our decisions are. For us, and others.

The way our diseased hearts affect even our good deeds is the result of what Martin Luther called humanity curved in upon itself (or, in Latin, incurvatus in se) – even our good deeds are directed to our own glory, not to God’s. Even our good use of the coffee bean becomes a chance for us to celebrate our own ingenuity.

The pitfalls of ‘specialty’ coffee aren’t just limited to the bench seats of your local small-batch roaster. They’re just as prevalent in the coffee laboratory of the home coffee snob, who seeks to outsnob the other shots, to pour the most consistent god shots, to control every possible variable with increasingly complex (and expensive) equipment allowing minute adjustments to be made to the grind size, the temperature, the pressure, the water purity – every variable can be tweaked in the pursuit of that elusive and fleeting moment of joy. Joy that should be found in the appreciation of the one who made the coffee bean, and gave us taste buds. This joy is counterfeit joy. It is pleasure. And we seek to stimulate the senses as they grow and develop. The bar keeps raising. We’re never satisfied. We invest in bigger. Better. Brighter. We become discontent. Upgraditis is another word for idolatry.

Too often the quest for the God shot – for joy, be it in coffee, or any good thing God has made, becomes the ultimate quest.

THE SIN OF DELIBERATELY BAD COFFEE

You may have heard the line that really good coffee is expensive, so Christians should steer clear of it in order to spend that money on important work. Like telling people about Jesus.

I’ve certainly heard it.

I’ve used it about other stuff.

Like free range eggs and the environment (Thankfully. While the archives of my blog represent my thoughts in the past – our thinking grows as we do…).

But I don’t think you can separate using God’s world rightly and excellently from telling people about Jesus quite so easily.

The God of the Bible is good. He made a good world. A beautiful world. For people to enjoy – to find their joy in him, through the things he made. While there is certainly a place for asceticism – forgoing pleasures – in the face of a gluttonous world, there’s also a place for aesthetics in the good world God has made. For Christians to be modelling the best uses of God’s world in order to point people to the goodness of God. Otherwise, why will people listen to us when we tell them that God is good? God’s goodness isn’t just revealed at the cross of Jesus – though it certainly is revealed there. It’s revealed in the world he made, and his love for it. Jesus didn’t just die to gather a people (though he certainly did that) – his entering the world, his death, and his resurrection are part of the redemption of the world and God’s plans for a new creation – where the joy we experience fleetingly now will become complete.

Our presentation of the good news needs to be embodied, and it needs to mesh with people’s experience of the world. Too much of our evangelism is disconnected from reality – and there’s incredible scope for aesthetic and existential apologetics as well as the philosophical, or historical stuff we normally engage in, so long as we navigate away from idolatry.

Personally, I think this rules out instant coffee. But you might love the flavour, and find other people who do to… and you might be able to overcome the other issues – like the ethical issues – associated with instant. We’ll deal with this a bit more below – where I’ll again, make my case against Instant Coffee.

DIVINE ‘HEART SURGERY’ AND THE RIGHT USE OF COFFEE

“The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.”

// GENESIS 6:5

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

// ECCLESIASTES 3:11

So the God Shot points us to the idea that we were created for something better, while our attempts to capture and reproduce it show that we are broken. Our hearts are simultaneously wired to point us to eternity, and diseased in such a way as to sow death at every turn and in our every action (the very opposite of eternity).

Here’s a cool quote from author William Faulkner when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949… this is, in part, why I think an aesthetic/existential approach to sharing the Gospel is worth pursuing.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

// William Faulkner, NOBEL LITERATURE PRIZE SPEECH, 1949

His whole speech is worth reading – especially if you work as though the poetry he wants people to be writing is an analogy for the God Shot.

The tension in the human heart is not solved by itself – or, as Faulkner suggests – pointing to some higher version of itself. It needs recreation, intervention, a redefinition of what it means for it to beat for its maker again. It needs surgery.

This surgery happens when God makes an incision into time and space, decisively entering to declare both the true trajectory for history, and the true pattern for the human. So, when Paul describes Jesus become a man, within creation, to Timothy, he says:

“Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:
He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 3:16

This is God performing cosmic heart surgery. This is God pouring himself out on the world. The perfect pour. A multi-sensory experience that redefines every other experience of the senses. It’s only when our hearts are radically realigned with their creator that we can start to appreciate the good things he made the way they were intended to be enjoyed – as good gifts from a good God.

PUTTING COFFEE IN ITS PLACE

Here’s where Paul goes next when he’s talking to Timothy – this little description of Jesus’ entry into time and space – in the flesh – is how Paul is addressing a bunch of wrong thinking about what to do with delicious and nutritious gifts from God (and, indeed, what to do with everything God made).

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 4:3-5

It’s worth breaking this down – Paul tells Timothy that some hypocritical liars who have abandoned the faith will come telling people not to enjoy God’s good gifts that were there from creation. Marriage. Good food. But these things were made by God “to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth” – and in the context this “knowing the truth” must surely be linked to “the mystery from which true godliness springs” – knowing Jesus. This puts the physical world into perspective. It has value (like physical training), and it frames our labour and our strivings – there are echoes of Ecclesiastes 3 to be found here, because this is where meaning is to be found.

“For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labour and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 4:8-10

The right response to God’s good gifts is not to reject them but to receive them. With thanksgiving. The right response to coffee is not to baptize it – like Pope Clement VIII but to accept it as already good, in line with God’s good intentions for his creation.

When coffee was first introduced to the western world – from Islamic Africa – it was suspiciously treated as the ‘Devil’s Cup’ – before condemning it, Pope Clement VIII asked to try some and apparently said:

“This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptising it…”

Coffee is good. It is made by God. It is made by God to be enjoyed so that we are thankful to God – not trashing it, or treasuring it (as God) – but treasuring God through it. In the next couple of chapters Paul says a few other things about how we’re to approach good stuff God has made.

“Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 5:23

“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 6:6-8

And here is the clincher.

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”

// 1 TIMOTHY 6:17-19

God provides us with good gifts for us to enjoy them. We are rich – especially when it comes to the coffee world – our consumption of coffee is a chance for us to enjoy God’s creation, do good deeds, and be generous to others, with our senses fixed on the true life to come.

USING COFFEE TO TELL GOD’S STORY, NOT OUR OWN

“I am not, however, so superstitious as to think that all visible representations of every kind are unlawful. But as sculpture and painting are gifts of God, what I insist for is, that both shall be used purely and lawfully,—that gifts which the Lord has bestowed upon us, for his glory and our good, shall not be preposterously abused, nay, shall not be perverted to our destruction.”

// John Calvin, INSTITUTES I.XI. 12

So. To wrap up. And here’s where I get a little more speculative – feel free to disagree with me…

Lets assume for a moment that when Romans talks about the function of what God makes it’s not our job to sit passively by why the heavens point people to God.

This seems pretty clear. A long held understanding of ‘natural theology’ -which is basically the understanding that we can know of God from nature – is that nature might point us to a God (enough to earn us judgment), but it won’t point us to God as he reveals himself in his word, and in Christ. So, people then think we should focus on sharing this special revelation from God – teaching God’s word and preaching about Jesus… This might be where the “don’t spend money on coffee when you can spend it on Jesus” idea comes from. This involves ignoring one stream of God’s revelation to us (about his character and qualities) in order to promote another. Why not do both?

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

// ROMANS 1

So. If what a few people call ‘God’s second book’ – what has been made – is meant to point us to God why don’t we think his people have a responsibility to interpret ‘what has been made’ and use it rightly to point people to the maker?

And. Is there any evidence to suggest this is how we should think of the world God has made?

I think so. The Calvin quote shows this sort of idea isn’t novel. But here’s a cool thing – when God creates his people and puts them in the garden, we’re told about the other stuff God makes.

“The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.)”

// GENESIS 2:11-12

This is such a bizarre thing to mention. God made lots of other stuff. But we get this mention of some (presumably) really good things he made. Gold pops up all over the place – including when Israel is escaping Egypt.

“The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.”

// EXODUS 12:35-36

We’ve covered our tendency towards idolatry already. The tendency to turn God’s good gifts into God, treasuring them too much. Look what happens when Israel is waiting around at the foot of the mountain while Moses speaks with God.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

// EXODUS 32:1-4

Gold. The good stuff God made, that was there at Adam’s disposal, presumably to help remind humanity that God made a good world (the constant refrain in Genesis 1). It has become an idol. It is not revealing God. His second book is not being properly understood – or taught by his people. Here’s another reference to Gold – being rightly used – from the Old Testament. This is Gold being used to tell God’s story – to bring ‘general’ and ‘special’ revelation, or God’s two books, together. Note that Moses is being given the design for this priestly garb at the same time that Aaron is turning the gold into an idol, and that it specifically mentions onyx (there in Genesis 2), and that it makes mention of the artistry of the human craftsman…

“Make the ephod of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen—the work of skilled hands. It is to have two shoulder pieces attached to two of its corners, so it can be fastened. Its skillfully woven waistband is to be like it—of one piece with the ephod and made with gold, and with blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and with finely twisted linen, and finally, that the design, and artistry, has a purpose.

“Take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel in the order of their birth—six names on one stone and the remaining six on the other. Engrave the names of the sons of Israel on the two stones the way a gem cutter engraves a seal. Then mount the stones in gold filigree settings and fasten them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod as memorial stones for the sons of Israel. Aaron is to bear the names on his shoulders as a memorial before the LORD”

// EXODUS 28:6-12

Coffee is gold (it’s a metaphor – like in those banking ads). 

The pursuit of the ‘God Shot’ so long as it is rightly framed by the pursuit of the God who made the coffee, is a way to both enjoy God’s creation with thankfulness, and point others to it.

As you pursue perfection (while knowing it is unattainable this side of God’s new creation), applying ingenuity, science, and art, to achieve the very best cup of coffee possible – so long as you are not turning coffee into an idol – you have a chance to tell God’s story, and ours.

If God brews coffee in heaven (it may well be tea) – I can’t imagine him serving up anything that tastes like International Roast. I don’t think you can truly reveal God’s character from a cup of instant coffee – not when you see the contempt with which it treats his creation, and not when you make the comparison to the significantly richer double ristretto that tastes as good as ground coffee smells.

This is where God’s good creation meets art, meets science, to the glory of a transcendent creative and good God.

God’s story is the gospel – his story of redemption of our broken hearts, and their realignment to him through Jesus. Our use of the world he made should mirror that realignment, and tell that story. This has to change our consumption habits for the benefit of our neighbours – global and local.

Good coffee is proof that God is good.

We’ve got the Katter Australia Party, and the Palmer United Party, I think it’s time we had the Fred Nile Party — the suggestion that Nile’s Christian Democratic Party (CDP) is definitively Christian is getting harder and harder to swallow. I propose a rebrand.

The TL:DR; version of this post is that if you think the CDP should change its name you should fill out this change.org petition.

Here’s what the CDP says it stands for:

“While we have fought for the values that made our nation, we are committed to the future development of our nation as an inclusive community based on cohesive values that made us a people.

The CDP seeks to support and promote pro-Christian, pro-family, pro-child, pro-life policies for the benefit of all Australians, and to ensure that all legislation is brought into conformity with the revealed will of God in the Holy Bible, with a special emphasis on the ministry of reconciliation.”

It’s unclear to me how this image the CDP shared on Facebook is consistent with this platform, let alone with the God of the Bible (the Bible is curiously silent on Australia and the role of its flag), it isn’t silent on how we’re to treat people who are different to us — especially how those who are powerful should treat those who are vulnerable or marginalised. In a democracy, where you’re part of the majority — regardless of your socio-economic status— you are part of the ‘powerful.’

 

CDP

Muslims in Australia are not our enemies. They’re our neighbours. And even if a particular individual wants to position themselves as my enemy — or yours— if you follow Jesus this doesn’t change how you treat that individual. Here’s what Jesus says in Matthew 5 (verses 44 and 45)…

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

I can’t fathom how this image is loving to our Muslim neighbours (a core value of Christianity from the mouth of Christ himself).  I certainly can’t fathom how the word Christian belongs on the image at all. I don’t think Jesus is particularly interested in the Australian flag. His concern is that people put their trust in him, and find their citizenship in his kingdom. People are in the same non-Jesus boat whether their rejection of him pushes you towards a storm trooper helmet, Australian flag face paint, or the niqab.

Our citizenship, as Christians, is not caught up in the nation we are providentially born into, or blessed to migrate to and be accepted into as citizens, our citizenship is tied up with our king, and that means though we’ll want to love our neighbours in whatever geographical context we find ourselves.

There’s a letter about Christians, written to a guy named Diognetus, that describes how the early church lived in the places they lived that would be helpful for us to remember — especially as the idea of Christendom gets smaller and smaller in our rear view mirrors.

But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.

They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.

Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign.

We don’t need to get caught up in jingoism (and if we do find nationalism, or patriotism, personally compelling, perhaps reflecting on the role our ancestors have played in shaping the country we live in, or being excited about the role we play in shaping our nation as citizens, we certainly need to distinguish our patriotism from our Christianity).

Philippians 3 kind of captures all this stuff — it talks about what a Christian looks like (they follow the example of Jesus, in this case Paul as he follows that example), it talks about those people who don’t follow Jesus. It should grieve us when people don’t follow Jesus.

17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

You might want to play the “no true Scotsman” game here, but I’m going to work on the assumption that the word Christian means what it meant when it was coined (you may also want to call this an etymological fallacy). Christians are people who follow Jesus. Here’s a little story from Acts that describes how people first came to be called Christians, and who this label described — you’ll notice that it transcends national boundaries, but particularly it describes the changes that make people ‘Christian’… This is from Acts 11.

19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

I have no reason to doubt that Fred Nile is a Christian. I’m not calling that into question. But the CDP platform in general, and this message above in particular, are not Christian policies, they’re Fred Nile’s policies. It’s wrong for him to suggest otherwise. Jesus is the essence of Christianity. I’d go further to suggest that his sacrificial love on behalf of his enemies, in order to invite them to be part of his kingdom (and indeed, his family) is the essence of Jesus.
This charade has gone on for far too long. There might not seem like much you can do about it beyond putting up your hand and saying ‘not in my name,’ and working hard to love and include Muslims treating them like Jesus treated you. But please pray for Fred Nile. He’s a human. By all accounts he loves Jesus. Pray for those in the CDP. And write to them. You can get Fred Nile’s email address here, or simply sign this change.org petition and you’ll send him this email:


Dear Fred,

The time has come. While it is true, in the broadest sense, that the Christian Democratic Party occupies a legitimate position in Australia’s political landscape, and it is true that people of faith should have a voice in Australian politics, we call on you to change the name of your party because at present you are not living up to any of your titular nouns.

Christian (n): Followers of Jesus Christ.
Democratic (n): relating to, or supporting democracy or its principles.
Party (n): a social gathering of invited guests, typically involving eating, drinking, and entertainment.

or:

a formally constituted political group that contests elections and attempts to form or take part in a government.

While I have no reason to doubt that you are a follower of Jesus, personally, it is clear from recent hateful nationalistically driven attempts to prevent other citizens of Australia exercising their democratic rights (where a CDP Facebook post suggested Australian flag face paint is the “only face-covering that is acceptable in Australia”) that the CDP’s actions are not those that can meaningfully said to be following Jesus.

Jesus laid down his life for his enemies to make them his family, and called those following his example — taking his name — to love our neighbours (and our enemies). There is no Christian rationale for treating a fellow human as an enemy.

It is also clear that the CDP is not interested in extending democratic principles to those people they disagree with. It is also clear that your party is failing to adequately act as a party in either sense — in this bigoted posturing dressed up as ‘Christian’ you are neither entertaining, nor ‘attempting to form or take part in a government’.

If you are not going to speak in any way that recognisably represents or recommends that people find their identity in Jesus — God’s king — then please change your name.

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” — Philippians 3:20
Sincerely,
[Your name]


Other stuff to read

LWTE_Header_gay_marriage_924wide

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. 

Producing a redemption narrative and THAT sermon

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.

ten tips for talking about sexuality

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.

warriors of christendom

culture war

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).

 

handing in my skeptics card

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.

Sincerely,

Nathan Campbell

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)

we are n

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.

Why not ن?

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

What can we do?

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?

1. Pray.

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.

2. Give.

I mentioned the Bible Society or the Barnabas Fund as options earlier. Voice of the Martyrs is another option. If you have another specific campaign to suggest – leave a comment.

3. Write.

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.

4. Love those who have fled persecution already in our midst.

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?

5. Don’t just do ‘token’ awareness raising. Don’t let the martyrdom of our brothers and sisters be in vain.

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.

tarantino movies bible

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.

  1. Radiohead orchestrated a secret album within two albums called 0110 (previously).
  2. TV writers are trying to organise cross-overs between characters (not actors) from a range of programs that means most of the TV we consume is happening within the dreams of a character named Tommy Westphall from a show you’ve probably never heard of (previously).
  3. Pixar’s movies are all united in the same universe (previously).
  4. The Office UK and the Office US exist in the same universe and thus broke any laws of probability by the exact same day happening in two offices across the Atlantic (previously)
  5. Quentin Tarantino’s movies are all either set in the same universe, or are movies watched by people who live in that universe (more).

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.

 

What the Bible is…

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.

Intertextuality

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.

Bible-Cross-References-Infographic

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.”

The use of tropes (type-scenes, reoccuring metaphors, images, objects, patterns, or ideas) in both narrative and meta-narrative

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.

The individual integrity and brilliance of the parts but greater integrity and brilliance of the canon

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.