Daring to feed the trolls: 8 tips for responding when trolls attack

troll

Image source: Threadless

What do you do when a small band of trolls attacks you, or your church, online? Whether its a bunch of people rocking up to vandalise your Facebook page, or people invading the comments section of your website, whether it’s someone known to you, or a stranger, how are you going to respond to trolls? What’ll you do if some disgruntled member of your community turns to a trolling community and asks them to target your page just for LOLs?

I confess, I hadn’t really thought about this specifically until a merry band of trolls turned up dropping offensive comments and 1* reviews on our church Facebook page on Saturday. It’s very hard to undo the sort of damage they do to your rating (but if you pick a church based on its Facebook rating, we need to talk). We received a tip-off that the comments were coming from a Facebook group dedicated to trolling, after somebody looking to cause a bit of trouble and damage decided to target our page; so I decided to head into the troll’s den to see what I could learn, and I replied to a handful of the reviews. I think it went ok.

The trolling stopped soon after; but it’d be easy to get a little bit stirred up if a bunch of vandals started wreaking whatever havoc they could on your Facebook wall. It’s in events like this that your approach to social media, and Jesus, really gets tested, and I had these handy principles bouncing around in my head as I replied. This stuff might all be obvious, but it is a fusion of PR principles and Gospel principles, which I’m in a position to offer, so having this framework might be useful for someone else when trolls attack.

1. Love your troll: Remember the inherent image-bearing dignity of the troll

If trolls are guilty of forgetting that the people at the other side of the pixels they create are people, with feelings, and families, and stories, and anxieties and pain, then it’d be a shame if we forgot that about them when responding. Trolls aren’t, by their nature, being particularly nice, but they’re people, and there has to be some sort of motivation for becoming a troll. Because they’re people, they’re people who are fearfully and wonderfully made by God and their trolling doesn’t totally eradicate the image of God in them. How we treat people who are hurting, and who are hurting us, privately or publicly (and if you’re responding to a troll it’s likely going to be public) shows what we believe about humanity, and about who’s ultimately in control. There are also these fine words of Jesus to consider, not to mention his example as he’s beaten, nailed to a cross, and jeered.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Matthew 5:11-12

2. Pray for your troll.

Your troll is a person; a person who might one day put their trust in Jesus and be a person you spend eternity with; an immortal who will be made to be gloriously like Jesus. So maybe rather than tearing into them with your wit, or your perfectly planned response, you could pray for them first. That God might be at work in their heart.

“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…” — Matthew 5:43-45

3. Respond by taking up your cross; not your sword (or fighting pen)

Thinking this way about your troll; remembering that even if they’re acting like your enemy, you’re called to love them, should take a little sting out of your response. Sure, they’re probably saying stupid and hurtful things about you, and probably about Jesus too — and there’s a real cost to that. But part of loving and forgiving our enemies is taking on that cost and not paying it back in kind.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. — Matthew 5:38-41

The pay-off, of sorts, is that in responding this way you actually score a win for the good guys. Responding in kind — repaying evil with evil, makes you evil and loses your neutral audience.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12: 17-21

Plus, if you can’t love your enemies when they’re flinging some words at you, what are you going to do when they want to crucify you?

If you have confidence that Jesus really is king, and the cross is really a victory, then you don’t have to grab a sword (or the ‘mighty pen’) to respond to an attack, you can keep taking up your cross.

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. — Matthew 26:52

4. Criticism and crisis are an opportunity to show what you believe is truer and better than the alternatives

This is the best thing I learned (apart, perhaps, from the persuasive power of stories) working in public relations, and especially crisis management. You get more attention in a crisis; people are watching to see how you respond. A crisis is a chance to demonstrate the coherence and consistency of what you stand for, because if you can’t stand under pressure then what you stand for is basically useless. A crisis is a chance to respond in an unexpected way that demonstrates your point of difference. Fight fire with fire and nobody will be able to tell you apart from the person trying to burn you… but be different, and the contrast is greater still.

If you can’t respond to a troll with the Gospel — the good news of Jesus, his rule over your church and his example being what guides your response because at the heart of the Gospel is God’s love for you — who’ve chosen to be his enemy —  then you need to check that the Gospel really is your ‘key message’… the great thing about the Gospel is that it is the best and most disarming response to a troll. What power does someone who wants to harm you have when you know that Jesus wins, but that he wins by being crucified by God’s enemies.

5. Respond with Humour — especially at your own expense (don’t take yourself too seriously)

Being combative or unnecessarily defensive when everyone can tell your troll is a troll is what gives a troll their power and satisfaction. They want to cost you time and attention. They want you to get grumpy. Do the opposite. If you are quicker to admit your faults and failings than they are to point them out, you rob the troll of any power to say anything particularly hurtful. This makes you look human to those looking on, and like your identity doesn’t depend on the words of your ‘enemy’ — it shows that your identity and security lie else where. And that’s a good thing for those of us who are in Christ.

6. Humbly avoid getting into a silly argument, or exchanging insults, with your troll

Nothing wastes more time online than stupid arguments; and often the reason these arguments waste such time is a prideful desire to win, or to defend yourself and your reputation over and over again in the face of silly attacks. This point, and the next one, may mean that sometimes you shouldn’t respond at all.

It’s very easy to slip into the idea that thriving online, particularly on social media, is about getting as much attention as possible, and about managing your reputation so that you amplify Jesus’ reputation. But his reputation is amplified when we are humbly confident in him. His reputation is damaged when we argue and joke and bicker like the trolls who are trying to make life difficult for us. Your presence on social media — as a church, or a Christian, isn’t about you, but about Jesus. You are God’s media — his image bearers who are being transformed into the image of Jesus. You represent him, not yourself. So be prepared to let it go, and realise, when you don’t, it’s Jesus you’re representing with your words. Stay humble (this also helps you be self-deprecating).

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. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. — Romans 12:2-3

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.  — Philippians 2:3, 14-16

Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. — Ephesians 5:4

Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. — 2 Timothy 2:16

7. Use wisdom to decide whether or not you should even reply

Turning the other cheek is an active thing, not just passive, so you might have to offer yourself up to your troll; but that’s not always the wisest course of action. Responding is the absolute best way to feed a troll if you don’t respond in such a way that it de-escalates the situation. There’s wisdom in responding well, and it might take wisdom to realise that not responding at all is the best bet. I lean towards responding because of the next point. But Proverbial wisdom reminds us that there’s a paradox to navigate here so that we don’t end up looking like we’re part-troll ourselves.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes. — Proverbs 26:4-5

One thing to bear in mind on social media is that there are many people watching — not just the fool who might be wise in his or her own eyes, but the friends of the fool, and your friends too. There’s risk involved in replying so be careful.

8. Respond with the Gospel; invite your troll to de-trollify by meeting Jesus

Your troll is a person; your response to their warped view of God’s world, his king, and his people, is a chance to model the Gospel, but, in your love for your troll, it’s also a chance to model the Gospel directly to a person who has taken the time to engage with you, who wants to waste your time in conversation (albeit to score points and LOLs), why not follow the steps above and see if you can also attempt to persuade your troll to give up their trolly ways, or at least have those looking for LOLs second guessing just how funny or effective that trolling is.

Educating loves: A morning in Brisbane with James KA Smith

There aren’t many writers whose works I’ve devoured with the enthusiasm with which I’ve devoured James K.A. Smith’s work in the last few years. He has a way of both articulating and stretching the way I think, and his theological framework has rich potential in ways he hasn’t even begun to tap into yet in his writing. I’m finding it incredibly useful not just in thinking about how we evangelise and disciple, but how I deal with people pastorally. So I’m thankful for him, and I was thrilled to interview him recently for the Bible Society’s Eternity newspaper, and then to meet him in Brisbane yesterday as he spoke at a symposium at the Christian Heritage College; as a pastor I was a little out of place in a conference full of education practitioners, but I very much enjoyed the conference.

While I’m not an ‘educator’, I’m passionate about education  — Christians need to figure out how to live well, and speak well, in the world; and I’m increasingly on board with Christian education, despite being pretty happy with my public school/secular university educations. This is all to say I think this matters. We’ve got to teach our kids to engage well with the world for its sake, not keep them in a bubble for their own (here’s the transcript of a talk I gave on why and how we should approach getting educated). And I don’t think reformed evangelicals like me have done a great job of doing this — the schools my denomination is involved, around the country, with charge such high fees that they can’t possibly be achieving this end for anyone but the very wealthy.

Smith’s talk, summarised below, won’t be new to those who’ve read his books or watched other talks on YouTube, but it’s always nice to hear someone in the flesh, and, when meeting them, to find out they’re both humble and willing to speak to people who approach them (even it it’s for weird ‘selfie’ requests).

Any bits of this summary that don’t make sense are a failure of my fingers to keep pace, and lots of this is as close as possible to direct quotes, while other bits are summaries.

Higher Education: What’s love got to do with it? Longings, desires and human flourishing. 

Smith’s ‘axiom’: Every pedagogy implicitly assumes an anthropology.

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

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

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

This is not what universities were meant for. It’s not why they started. And we’re free to challenge this model. This model has been ratified by government bureaucracies as ‘the way a university should be’…

The university had a very different beginning, and a very different anthropology. It assumed a very different model of what learners were. The Desire for God and the Love of Learning a good book — a history of the pre-modern foundations of the university. Takes the history of Jesuit influences on education in Paris, and shows that it was meant to be an incubator for hearts and minds to learn to love the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons. To make people lovers of God who become image bearers in and for the world around them.

If we’re going to push back against the paradigms of the university because we have history on our side. There is an older version of the university we’re trying to recover.

A more biblical anthropology

Instead of imagining that humans are a static brain on the stick waiting for an information dump.

Let’s imagine that there’s a dynamic orienting of ourselves to some other thing — we’re always aimed at something, we’re always clawing our way towards some ends, some goal, some ultimate vision of the good life. There’s an existential dynamism about us. To be human is to be ‘after’ something. This is a very ancient picture of the human person. Certainly Aristotelian. Every human being is oriented towards a telos. Oriented to an ultimate end.

Augustine captures this as well. The ancient Greek heritage is seized upon by the church. The ‘centrality of the heart’ as the fulcrum of this drive towards something else.

“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” — Augustine, Confessions

Augustine makes a normative ‘design’ claim — we are made ‘for’ something. Human flourishing is found when we find our flourishing and end in the one who made us and is calling us. To be human is to become creatures whose hearts find rest in the one who has made us and is calling us; finding what you are made for.

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

The seat for this is not just the intellect. He doesn’t say ‘our minds are puzzled until they know you’ — it’s about the heart. Throughout his corpus Augustine emphasizes the ‘seat’ of the heart, because formation is not just a question of knowledge, but of love. The most holistic form of education will help us love what we’re made to love. The centre of the human person is the heart.

Desire = love

Love, learning, longing, craving: are synonyms.

We need to get over the distinction between eros and agape.

The problem isn’t desire per say, but the direction of it. Agape might be best understood as rightly directed eros. Christian agape is the right orientation of our ‘erotic’ centre, which is actually made for God.

This restlessness — every human creature is created as a lover. With this engine of desire that drives us towards something ultimate. But that’s no guarantee that they find their end in the one that has made them. The effect of the fall; of sin; brokenness, is not that we turn off love, but that we start loving the wrong things in the wrong way. We take created things and vault them up as if they were the creator. We absolutise them and seize upon them as if they were something ultimate. Idolatry. The dynamics of idolatry are not primarily intellectual; they are erotic. We desire the wrong things in the wrong way. These things aren’t wrong in themselves. If you love them in a way ordered by your love for the creator, that’s ‘rightly ordered love’…

How do I learn to love?

If I am what I love, and if you are what you love, then the crucial question is how does my heart get aimed? How does this orientation happen?

We’ve not always had the best resources at our disposal in the protestant tradition. You learn to love by practice. Your ultimate longings are not just the outcome of ideas and beliefs deposited in your mind. They are more like habits that you acquire through being immersed in rituals and routines that train your loves at an unconscious level.

Your loves are more ‘caught’ than ‘taught’ — there’s a problem with this expression that we have a narrow view of what teaching is.

What would teaching look like if we did it like this?

The indexing of our desires towards something ultimate is not just about what you know or believe, it’s a disposition that arrives from the rituals and practices that you are immersed in. They find your way to your heart through your body. You are conscripted into ways of life that come from your practices.

We’re taught to love in all sorts of places that are not schools. This kind of learning of a passion — this acquisition of a heart’s disposition happens in a holistic experience where we are immersed in a story of what the good life looks like; of what flourishing looks like.

All kinds of institutions and practices are ‘pedagogies of desire’ that are training us to love something that is not ultimate. These things get hold of us in tactile, visceral, experiences that conscript our hearts without us realising.

The competition for Christian education is not public education, it’s less the other sorts of institutions, it’s an array of cultural institutions and practices that we didn’t even realize are pedagogies of desire that are teaching them to long for pedagogies of desire. Secular liturgies.

Every time Smith’s kids ask to go to the mall they ask to go to the temple. Which means his ideas, in some small way, are sinking in for his kids… The mall is one of the most religious sites in the city. It wants you to love something ultimate. The mall pictures for you a vision of the good life that captures your imagination and your longings; you don’t even realise you’ve been conscripted to the vision of the good life based on ‘stuff’; the gospel of consumerism. Nobody thinks their way into consumerism, there’s no good argument for it. You are conscripted into it. The mall has a model of outreach called ‘marketing’ — marketing knows that you’re lovers and desirers. Marketing doesn’t give you information. It’s hard to watch an ad about a product and acquire information about it; what happens is you see a product embedded in a story. This story pictures for you a vision of the good life, and you start, over time, to picture yourself in that life. You don’t even realise you’re learning to love something else. The repetition, the immersion, conscripts you into a rival gospel. If I ask you — there’s a disconnect between what we know and what we love — if I ask you “what do you love” — you’ll give me the right answer: “I love God”… there can be a gap between what we know we believe because we underestimate the impact our desires have, and our conscription to other desires, that get in the way.

What we’re really talking about is rehabituation. Love as we’re describing it here isn’t an emotion, or a feeling, it’s a habit.

We use the word ‘habit’ in a way that is different to the philosophers, and how it has been used historically; the habit is actually the internal disposition/the inclination to some end, we acquire through different rhythms and routines. Putting the left sock on first every time is a practice, a ritual, they inscribe in you a habitual disposition; you become the kind of person whose default leans in that direction. To have a habit is to be so disposed towards doing something that you do it without even thinking about it.

Your loves, your most fundamental inclinations of your heart, aren’t just trickled down, but are caught bottom up from something that inscribes in you a disposition. Secular liturgies teach us to love certain goods; Christian education should be about a rehabituation of the heart. You can’t think your way to new habits. If I’ve acquired disoriented habits of love and longing because they were caught through the practices I’ve been involved in, I can’t think my way out; I have to practice them. This lecture won’t give you new habits, a book won’t give you a new habit; the best that might happen is an idea might become the catalyst to a commitment to a new habituation that will move you towards a love of God.

If your fundamental loves are shaped by the practices you are immersed in; we need to realize you can be being habituated without realising it. Realising that the world is not a neutral place can be the beginning of the rehabituation. You can be acquiring dispositions without recognizing it. How does this affect those who teach? What are the ways we pick up habits that shape us as we teach.

We are creatures of habit, who are made to love, and our loves are shaped and acquired through the rhythms and practices we are immersed in; none of this is a surprise to God. What does God do? He’s an incarnating God who meets us where we are and comes to us not just with a message, or the information that we need, we see that the Gospel is an invitation for us to find ourselves anew in a community, which is the body of Christ, an invitation to be welcomed into a reforming body; a reforming community of practice, animated by the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us new rituals by which we might habituate ourselves into a new way of living in the world.

If we have a negative take on rituals and liturgies; the devil gets all the good ones. Cultures are more than happy to offer us rituals. You can’t undo the deformative power of cultural practices by giving people new ideas. It won’t work. We’re desirers, not just thinking things. One of the ways we’ve gone wrong is that we thought the way to fight the fire of cultural deformation was through intellectual formation. What you need is Christ-oriented, spirited, reformation. Fighting fire with fire. Inviting people into communities of practice and liturgies that are reforming our hearts. It has to be an invitation for the whole person to learn to love again; it has to meet us as whole creatures.

Worldview? Smith has two cheers for the concept of world view…

The goal of a gospel centered approach to education isn’t just a narrow focus on soul rescue, or a particular understanding of ministry; God’s concern is as wide as the world itself. There is no learning that isn’t animated by some confession, outlook, or perspective on things. A Christian education brings the Gospel to bear on all of creation; there is no education that isn’t confessional. I’m all for that.

My only pushback on worldview paradigms; it tends to do all this in an intellectualist way; equipping people with a view, and ideas, to see the world so they can act in it in a particular way. It has tended to miss all of the dynamics of habituation, deformation and reformation of habit. We need more than ‘worldview’ — with all of that right emphasis in place, we need to see that a holistic, radical, Christian education will also take into consideration the heart. Reformation is a shift in our centre of gravity.

Scandal of the Evangelical Mind — Mark Noll — what happened in that movement was that nothing pushed back on the basic Germanic model of education. It basically said Christians can play that game too. We did. Plantinga, Wolterstorff, etc. A bunch of scholars showed we could play that game, but this isn’t entirely the game we should want to play, even if we value research.

A shift in the centre of gravity that expands from informational perspectives so that the scope of our concern includes the gut.

We’re remembering something about the university that the university forgot in modernity.

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive” — Iraneus.

Packer once co-authored a book Christianity: The True Humanism. The power of the Gospel is that we learn how to be human again. Jesus shows us what it looks like to be human. A Christian education should be a way to realise human flourishing. In our age the opportunity may be that Christian colleges and universities are the last outpost to remind us how to be human.

The practices of worship have a missional power about them. It’s important that we frame them so they don’t become superstitious. If these practices are animated by the Spirit there can be certain virtue in going through the emotions.

The kind of liturgies; there’s always going to be something about words. Posture, bodily posture, captures and teaches us something. Practices can have a dynamic that we don’t realise.

Q&A

If we know all this, in Christian schools, how do we not ‘indoctrinate’ so that we engage with the free will of the person?

We need to be honest and up front about why we do what we do, and what we’re inviting people into. The freedom moment is in choosing to come here, where you’ll be committing yourself to these practices… there’s a lot of room to work out ‘Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief’…

Practice hospitality. Really, really, important. What does it look like for us to welcome other faiths into what is an unapologetically Christian project?

Indoctrination is a particularly ‘intellectual’ project. It’s a risk of every mode of education. That sort of institution is less inclined to be upfront and honest about what you’re being inducted into.

How do we physically shape our learning institutions to enable the sort of ‘learning’ in community that you spoke about?

Architecture: the material environments of where we learn will foster the way we see the world, the way we do community, etc. Thinking about how the material conditions of a space foster community would be one thing. Micro-rituals have macro significance. The university might have a thousand different routines that collectively constitute an ethos. It has to be a concert between all the teaching and cultural spaces; they have to be animated by the same story so people don’t feel like they’re inhabiting different worlds as they move around, but nor should things just ‘repeat’ — there’s no ‘extra curricular’ there’s just ‘co curricular’… nothing in here is meant to undercut curriculum. All the gears of an institution, ideally, move in concert with each other.

Learning the Aussie (and spiritual) virtue of hospitality from and for the outsider

Halal_Snack_Pack_served_on_ceramic_plate

Image Credit: Wikipedia article on Halal Snack Packs

On election night in Australia, in the midst of the chaos and the commercial networks clamouring for ‘worst possible election graphic/metaphor’ and Laurie Oakes’ tie-switching gazumping of the gambling industry there was a moment of pure beauty; a beauty that some may have interpreted as political pointscoring if it were disingenuous, but that I choose to see as a glimmer of something both transcendent and fundamentally human; a reminder that we, as Aussies, whatever our differences, should be able to share something in common. A literal, and metaphorical, place at the same multi-cultural, multi-faith table. Part of being Australian, I think, is operating in the realisation that hospitality is a central virtue, and in the practice of hospitality we’re to be both hosts and guests; and that nothing kills hospitality as fast as fear.

This revelatory moment came when Labor senator Sam Dastyari, of Iranian heritage, invited the newly (re-)elected Pauline Hanson, famous for her anti-Islam ‘no halal’ platform, to join him for a halal snack pack in the western suburbs of Sydney. According to the SMH story on the invitation, “a ‘HSP’ is a styrofoam box filled with kebab meat, cheese and chips covered in chilli, garlic and either barbecue sauce or hummus.”

I’ve never eaten an halal snack pack, but his guide to making the perfect pack makes this invitation particularly inviting.

Hospitality: a lost Aussie virtue

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair. — Advance Australia Fair, Verse 2

Dastyari’s offer was an attempt to practice the foundational ‘Aussie’ virtue of hospitality; one we no longer sing about in our anthem because we don’t sing the second verse, but that is there nonetheless (an ironic ‘foundational’ virtue in some way when white settlers ignore the way we forced first Australians to show us ‘hospitality’, but I’ll get to that).

Hanson rebuffed his invitation. She committed what I think is a cardinal Aussie sin, she rejected his offer of hospitality and mateship, an offer to share in part of his vision for human flourishing — not the snack pack itself, but the hospitality he offered. The invitation to share a meal at a shared table. To share life. To understand each other. This sort of hospitality is so vital to life in a multi-cultural context. Our nation will fall — it won’t possibly be one nation — without a rediscovery of the cardinal Aussie virtue of hospitality; of being able to share a table with those who are different. And this is extra true for Christians — because it’s not just an Aussie virtue, but a Christian one; and we’ve got a particular interest, as Christians, in both taking up the invitations of others, and inviting those whom society can’t find a place for at the table to join us.

There are implications in this pursuit of hospitality, in the context of Islam in Australia, for how we think of such things as enabling the building of religious space for Muslims as an extension of our desire for religious freedom, what we think of halal food and its place in Australia (and our pantries, which I’ve written about elsewhere), but also for how we think of what it really means to ‘belong’ in Australia (which I’ve also written about elsewhere); what we unite around as Australians.

There’s lots at stake here, because Pauline Hanson has a view of what our unity as Australians should be found in and that view now has a place at the table in the parliament, which ostensibly legislates towards particular views of what being ‘Australian’ looks like. Hanson’s view, a reaction to terror and change sounds so appealing to those of us who are looking at the pace of change in our world, and our nation, and who are afraid. Fear is a totally understandable response to change (and ‘terror’ the intended response to acts of ‘terrorism’), and she taps into it, and has built a platform that, in a circular way, escalates the fear as she speaks the fear into reality for many other people, while offering solutions that cause fear for others. I think it explains much of Hanson’s popularity, but it also explains much of the damage Hanson is doing, whether deliberately or as collateral. Her appearance on Q&A last night, and the associated contributions to the discussion by Muslims in the audience, and Dastyari who shared the platform with her, shows that we can’t take her lightly. She’s been elected by a constituency who share some of her fears (and proposed solutions), and she (and they) have a right to have their fears heard.

The antidote to these fears, where they’re unfounded, is hospitality.

This is the answer for both Hanson (and voters who back her), and the Muslim community. The answer is rediscovering the virtue of hospitality; generous hospitality that seeks to make a place for and to understand the other that will allay Australia’s fears about the Muslim neighbours we have nothing to fear from (and might help us identify those we do, should they not be interested in the exercise of hospitality), and hospitality that will allay our Muslim neighbours’ fears about whether they belong in the Australian community or not.

If we want ‘one nation’ we need to practice hospitality as both guests and hosts. Which is interesting, because for white Aussies like me, that’s what I am, historically. I’m both a guest — in that I am a descendant of those who settled having ‘come across the seas’; and a host, in that my family has been here for generations and I’m now in a position to show hospitality to others. One might say I’m morally obliged to do that either because of the (largely ‘inherited’) cultural wealth I enjoy as an Aussie in a world where such wealth is rare, or the story I participate in as an Aussie enjoying the boundless plains I did not create, or just that I have more wealth to share than most people alive today. I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with welcome to country ceremonies at public events because they remind me of some truth that this isn’t really my home, or that it wasn’t first my home, but another peoples’; but this extension of a welcome, an act of generosity from another Australian people — our ‘first Australians’ — should model something to me that I then pass on to others. It’s the articulation of a fundamental Aussie virtue that stands in the face of past fear, injustice, and terror — the stuff that European settlers perpetrated on others, and if we can’t learn from this welcome as modern Australians and be true to our national anthem, then we’ve lost any hope of being ‘one nation’ as others join us from across the seas. My discomfort in welcome to country ceremonies — the discomfort of feeling a sense of forgiveness and hospitality in the face of inherited guilt — is a powerful reminder that we are all, as people, both guests and hosts in this nation, and this world. In a sense, as Christians, we also understand first nation people to be guests in God’s land, as an extension of our role as God’s image bearing stewards who are placed in an embodied sense, in his world, to do the work of caring for it (in a Genesis 1 sense)… or as Paul puts it in Acts:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ — Acts 17:26-28

We are both guests and hosts. 

This is part of the Australian story — because it is a part of every Australian story, from the first Australians whose relationship with the land was predicated on some sense of being guests and stewards, to all those who have joined in the call to share our ‘boundless plains’ with others — being an Aussie means being both guest and host; hospitality is a foundational Aussie virtue, if not the foundational Aussie virtue. And fear is the enemy of hospitality. It leads us to put up walls, to build ghettos, to demarcate the ‘other’, to attempt, as Hanson, Andrew Bolt, and TV host Sonia Kruger have, to limit the extent of our national hospitality to those who don’t bring anything new or different (or dangerous, because all danger is apparently found in this difference) to the table. Ultimately a failure to practice this virtue leads us, as a nation, and individual Aussies, to practice exclusion rather than embrace. And both our past and our future have to be built on embrace if we’re to survive as a multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-ethnic nation. It’s simply too late to return to ‘white Australia’ and Australia was never really white to begin with…

The way for us to recapture a lost virtue, and to be schooled in it, is to practice it. We have to recover this practice in our homes in order for it to be recaptured in our parliament. This starts with you. If you think this stuff matters — you need to practice it.

If you don’t like what Hanson is on about, or the politics of fear, if you want Australia to be defined by what it is or could be — a truly hospitable nation — not by what it isn’t, then start habitually practicing hospitality. Not just as a host, but as a guest. Get out to Western Sydney. In this we have much to learn from both the welcome to country we’re offered by the indigenous communities at public events; and from ‘new Australians’ like Sam Dastyari and other Muslim Australians who have responded to the rhetoric of fear and exclusion with hospitable invitations. Just like on election night, the moment that stood out for me on Q&A last night (apart from Hanson’s apparent epiphany that Dastyari is actually a Muslim), was not the Muslim voices who expressed how deep the cost of this rhetoric is for their community (though that was striking) but the hopeful invitation a young Muslim man extended Hanson, not to eat a halal meal (on his terms), but simply to eat with him and seek common understanding.

My name is Mohammed.
I love my religion Islam and have been to more mosques than I have the supermarket. Perhaps the greatest influence for our family members to becoming hard working and focusing on education and hoping to be good citizens was the emphasis placed on it by Islam.
I believe the best way to increase understanding and mutual respect, is through interaction. Would you be willing to take my offer to inviting you for lunch or dinner, whichever suits you, with me and my Muslim family? And in respect to you and your beliefs, while we have something halal, we will ensure your food is not halal.
Would you accept this invitation now? — Mohammad Attai, Q&A

We won’t have one nation without practicing this sort of virtue.

We are both guests and hosts.

This guy, and Sam Dastyari re-taught me a truth that I should know both as an Aussie, and as a Christian. Hospitality is a virtue, and our survival as a nation (and as a church within a nation) depends on it.

So, I’ll be looking for Brisbane’s best Halal Snack Pack, if anyone has any recommendations.

But I also have to step up my hosting game, not just hosting those in my church community (though we have to do this as Christians if we’re going to live out our Christian story and display the Christian virtue of hospitality in our communities), but hosting those who are not like me, especially those from the margins; and those who live in fear in our changing world — both the Muslim community, and the One Nation voter, because hospitality isn’t just an Aussie virtue, it’s a core Christian virtue too. It’s part of us living our story.

Hospitality: A lost Christian virtue

Hospitality is at the heart of the Christian story — which begins with the hospitable God making a place for us, a beautiful world, and a place for us to enjoy a relationship with him. But our fear, and our failure to be hospitable — guest or host — is also at the heart of the Christian story. We fail to be good guests, as humans, when we live as though God isn’t hosting us, as though the world isn’t his. We behave like bad tenants, or terrible guests in a hotel room who trash the joint, or worse, like a house guest who comes over the threshold of your home and systematically attempts to eradicate any trace of your ownership, your life, or your existence until you’re driven from your house. That’s what we’ve done to God. That’s the story of sin; our act of remaking God’s place — the world — comfortable for us, by removing him. We aren’t great guests. And, as John puts it, as a result, we humans are terrible hosts…

 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:10-11

This is, in a sense, John’s summary of the parable of the wicked tenants — the parable where the owner of a place that has been trashed sends his representatives, and finally his son, to talk to the inhospitable tenants, who kill the owner’s son. This story — and this statement in John — is about the Cross. The word who made the world became human flesh — a guest of the world — we hosted him here in ‘our world’ and we killed him. The story of the Gospel is that God is the great and generous host, but that we, by our own god-rejecting nature, are bad hosts and bad guests. There’s something in the image of God that still remains in us that means, by his grace, we are still hospitable to others even if we’re not deliberately following him, but this characteristic — this divine virtue —is something we take up anew when we take up the invitation to be his people in a hostile world. We become the representatives of the great host; but we also realise that we live in a world that is hostile to him — the world that killed Jesus — and that part of the invitation extended to us in being his people is an invitation into the new creation; where the hospitable God will again make a place for us, even after we trashed the last one. This new creation is so new that the world now isn’t actually our home… and so we live as guests. Peter captures this tension in his first letter:

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

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. — 1 Peter 2:9-12

This letter is one of many parts of the New Testament that expresses the connection between the hospitality God shows us — the mercy we’ve received changes the way we treat each other, and the other. So Peter says:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. — 1 Peter 4:8-10

This isn’t just to be love that we show to other Christians, but to strangers and the marginalised, this is a Christian virtue, one that participating in this story and remembering the Cross, points us to over and over again. Hospitality is a Christian virtue. A way of living out who we now are. We are both guest and host. We model this in the way we love each other as brothers and sisters, but also in the way we love our world, free from fear.

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” — Hebrews 13:1-3

Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. — Romans 12:13-16

The hospitality will go far beyond eating with others, but it will essentially include that — both as guests and hosts.

I think the logic of 1 Corinthians and especially the outworking of what it means for Paul to ‘be all things to all people’, Paul also wants Christians to receive hospitality — especially to eat with — from those who are living out different stories in our world — the ‘other’ — our neighbours. There’s some good stuff I’ve cut out in this passage about food sacrificed to idols that I think is relevant to the halal thing, but it’s worth reading what Paul wants Christians to do with their eating and drinking…

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience… So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. — 1 Corinthians 10:27, 31-33

Are you practicing and receiving this sort of hospitality?

Because our Muslim neighbours, like Sam Dastyari and Mohammad Attai, are inviting us to (Attai specifically invited ‘anyone’)?

If you’re not, what is stopping you? Is it fear? That’s actually a failure to love, or its an indicator that you fear people and what they might do to you more than you fear God, and that’s a problem because as Christians, those who stand with Jesus, relying on his hospitality, and so following his way of love, we’ve got no reason to fear those who might hurt us (Matthew 10:28-29), or the God who judges us (for trashing his world and killing his son).

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. — 1 John 4:16-19

Hospitality — giving or receiving it — is not just a powerful antidote to hate and fear, but a powerful testimony to our story.

Hospitality is a virtue, because hospitality is an act of love. It’s an antidote to fear — the fear of God, or the fear of the unknown ‘other’ (be they someone not to fear or someone who might ‘hurt’ us). Practicing these virtues will teach us who we are, and continue to make us who we are, people who are like Jesus (who, in his life, kept getting into trouble for eating with people the ‘religious establishment’ didn’t like).

So, where is Brisbane’s best Halal Snack Pack? Anyone got a lead?

 

 

How not to vote (3): Three more reasons not to just vote to secure a plebiscite, and one secular reason to vote for same sex marriage

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I’ve posted a guide to voting as a Christian in this election, and some initial summary reasons that a plebiscite might be a bad idea, and specifically why voting for a plebiscite as a means to securing freedom of religion or speech is a bad idea. Here are three more reasons not to vote just for a plebiscite. Again, and particularly for this post; the standard disclaimer applies. I’m speaking as an individual, a Christian, looking to figure out how we live well in our society through to this election, a potential plebiscite, and beyond. I’m not speaking for my church, denomination, Christians everywhere, or whatever… And I’m quite open to being persuaded that I’m wrong or have missed something.

1. Don’t vote for a plebiscite because you fear a changing world

There’s plenty of fear operating in the conservative community, both inside and outside the church, because the world is changing very, very, quickly. Or rather, it has changed pretty slowly but like the frog in a boiled-from-cold pot of water, we’ve only just realised the temperature has hit boiling point.

These changes have been coming for a long time — changes in how we understand democracy, how we disagree, the role the media plays in fuelling disagreement, changes in the place of religion, and Christianity, in the public square, a change in the ultimate common objects of love in our community so that sexual freedom is the ultimate good, and it trumps all other considerations; all of these changes are significant in and of themselves, and all of them are frightening for a bunch of Christian voices. Some of these voices are now seeing marriage, and its definition, as the final frontier (others are seeing it as some sort of last bastion to fight for before they come for what we really treasure: free speech).

Christians aren’t meant to fear the world. We have no good reason to fear the world, and good reasons not to, and we also have good reasons to believe that the world will cause us temporary pain. We are citizens of God’s kingdom before we’re citizens of earth, and that controls our destiny. We’re followers of Jesus — who the world hated and crucified, and yet he was raised from the dead and said, in talking about how we’d be treated by the world:

“What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” — Matthew 10:27-28

2. Don’t vote for a plebiscite because you think it is ‘democratic’

A plebiscite is not the answer. It might feel democratic — and its a form of democracy — but its not a good form of democracy. It’s the form that isn’t about a government protecting the freedoms and difference of the communities and individuals it governs for; it’s the form of government that isn’t about leaders who embody certain virtues making decisions with wisdom; it’s the form of democracy where majority rules and where persuasion and manipulation win out.

And so, these voices that tell us how to vote at this election because it is different are telling us not to rely on the principles of our liberal democracy but populism — we realise that the principles of liberal democracy almost necessarily lead to a community-within-our-community — the gay and lesbian community — having their voice heard on the definition of marriage so that it would include their relationships, so we want to turn to a different form of democracy. One where the majority might rule in our favour if we’re able to say just the right things. Populism. Majority rules.

This is a dangerous version of democracy. It isn’t about giving everybody equal standing under the law, and an equal share of the public life. It’s about giving the most popular position a disproportionate amount of power over public life — total control. And this will be dangerous for Christians for the other 2.5 years of a 3 year term, or for the future. Direct democracy, which is becoming popular because the internet allows it, is a stupid, stupid, idea.

If we want majority to rule, and so argue for a plebiscite as a good way to do serious and important political decision-making, then we need to carefully figure out why this issue is worth it and other issues are not. Adopting a blanket rule that populism is how we want government to happen (and its bad enough when its the opinion polls shaping our policy platforms), we also risk doing significant damage to our increasingly marginal position in the community if we want to make populism the way democracy happens because it might suit us now. It’s a live by the sword, die by the sword deal.

Do you really want the tides of populism turning on the church? Especially if in the plebiscite we manage to offend everyone by assuming they’ll listen to arguments from the 1960s, and we fail to understand what people are actually asking for? Especially if we’re seen as wanting God’s law to rule a secular nation (a legitimate criticism, though it’s because we believe it is good for society) or not loving gay people.

3. Don’t vote for a plebiscite because you think defending marriage is the way to love your neighbours

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre talks about what happens to ‘morality’ when we shift looking at other people as ‘ends’ in themselves, and start treating them as a ‘means to an ends’ — he suggests there’s no morality outside of seeing other people as their own ends. In a plebiscite, where we Christians are told to seek a particular result and to try to persuade people to vote the same way, there’s almost no chance we’ll be using our speech to do anything but treat other people as a means to this greater end — securing the result we want.

And in the process, we risk turning our neighbours into objects to argue with and persuade (rather than people to understand and love), and further run the risk of marginalising already marginalised people in our community — gay and lesbian people — both in the wider community, and in those in our Christian community-within-the-community who are seeking to live faithfully for Jesus. We straight married people have the tendency to see the world, sexuality, and marriage, through the grid of our own normal experience and so take certain ‘realities’ for granted. We don’t know when we’re going to say things that our same sex attracted brothers and sisters find soul crushing and debilitating, unless we let them take the lead a little on this.

This is a pastoral minefield that we’re encouraging people to shut their eyes and run around in hoping to secure a particular result in the political minefield a plebiscite presents.

I’m particularly worried about the way we speak about marriage being idolatrous and being pastorally damaging. As Christians we don’t believe marriage is the best unit for a flourishing society; or for our children: a village of people following Jesus is.

Marriage is a good thing, and especially good within that community where people are loving each other as a reflection of Jesus’ love for his church. Marriage can’t bear the weight we put on it, socially or individually.

We’re also going to open up the idea, intentionally or otherwise, that we so loathe the gay community that we don’t believe they have the same rights to be heard and accommodated in our secular liberal democratic state.

If we engage in the plebiscite because we think its essential to protect our religious freedom we’re missing the point that for a society that worships at the altar of personal sexual liberation, we’re trying to curtail the religious freedom of others.

The chief good for our neighbours is not found in a broken worldly institution of heterosexual marriage — as much as it is a testimony to the goodness of God’s created design for people — it’s found in the one who will restore and renovate creation, and who invites us to be part of his kingdom.

We can’t confuse the act of arguing for lesser goods with securing this chief good; we might in the logic of 1 Peter 2, by robustly living out the goodness of the lesser goods, secure a hearing from people about the goodness of the Gospel, the chief good. But the chief good is the chief good because it re-orders how we approach and understand all other goods. It, as Augustine says, rightly orders our loves for the things in this world. People who don’t primarily love Jesus and serve him as Lord can’t and won’t approach other goods the way Jesus calls them to.

We should probably put lots of energy into making marriages within the church remarkably different and better than marriages outside the church, and keep teaching people about the goodness of marriage as God designed it (by marrying them and so teaching them about God’s goodness and chief goodness in the process).

Why there might be good secular reasons for Christians to support same sex marriage

There are good reasons to not change our definition of marriage within the church; Biblical reasons and an understanding of God’s design for humanity and sex. These reasons make no sense to an idolatrous world that hasn’t just rejected God, but has had God change the way they see the world (Romans 1:18-28). These reasons are bad reasons for a world where people now worship sexual freedom, such that when we speak against same sex marriage we are speaking against a particular form of religious freedom.

There are good reasons in terms of understanding how our post-modern public square works, and to keep having a voice of integrity within it, to vote against our own interests and beliefs to allow others to practice their interests and beliefs freely, because a liberal secular democracy falls apart if it becomes a case of majority rules.

Others believe integrity requires not compromising how we see the world because others see it differently; I think real integrity requires being clear about what we think and believe, speaking for that, but then compromising because we know that is how the world works, and we expect others to compromise for us. If we want religious freedom, freedom to be Christian as a community-within-a-community, freedom to disagree with the majority, then we need to give this freedom to others.

The argument about protecting children at this point would’ve been a plausible argument had we not already socially de-coupled children from marriage ages ago, and if there weren’t already things in place to allow gay couples to give birth to, and raise, children. I personally don’t even think the argument that marriage is for children bears much weight; I think marriage — as the one flesh union between a man and a woman — is an end in itself, not a means to an end.

There’s also the question of not just how we are seen to love the gay community, but how we actually love them — especially if they are as Romans 1 suggests “their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” because “God gave them over in the sinful desires” — how is it loving to tell people not to live the way God is making them live? Sure, the reason God gives people over to sinful desires is because we worship created things in his place… but the kicker in Romans when you’re getting all judgy about these awful idolaters who sin lots is in chapter 2:

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” — Romans 2:1

We don’t love the gay community by trying to make them live a way that God is preventing; we don’t love them (or others in our community) by insisting people see marriage the way we do, as a created thing that reveals the divine nature and character of God (Romans 1:20).

If our vision for their flourishing is that they come to know Jesus and perhaps rethink where their sexuality fits into their identity as a result (which it is, not that they become heterosexual).

We love the gay community, absolutely, by presenting them with the chance to know Jesus — that’s consistent with our ultimate vision of human flourishing — their chief good — their ultimate telos. If they don’t, and can’t, see or pursue that telos on their own steam, if they need the Spirit (Romans 8), via the Gospel (Romans 1:16); is it actually loving to limit how a liberal, secular, democracy defines marriage for its citizens because we can possibly get the votes to enshrine our view as the majority view?

Is it truly democratic?

Is it loving to prevent their freedom to define their relationships the way they see fit because we see things differently by the grace of God? If sexual freedom is, itself, an idol — a created thing — that people worship in the place of God, whether they know it or now then is this not a question of religious freedom too?

Gay marriages won’t be good for people in the sense of their created telos — what is good for people is being transformed into the image of Christ…

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

This is what ultimate good looks like, but there will be smaller, secular, goods for our gay neighbours consistent with the desires and other temporal benefits that come from long term committed relationships. If our neighbours — gay or straight — aren’t going to change the pursuit of their gods, or of sex and love and happiness without Jesus — then perhaps the most loving thing we can do, while proclaiming Jesus to them, is maximise the good and virtuous things these relationships produce; rather than seeking to limit vice. I guess other people will see this differently; I get that. And they’ll see the fabric of our society being torn apart and changing and damaging all sorts of people; I get that too. I just don’t see it that way. Because the fabric of our society has fundamentally been torn apart already. Years ago. We’re grasping after a shadow.

I’m not sure at that point that we can consistently oppose same sex marriage in a secular frame, to do it requires people seeing the world through the lens provided by the Spirit, which is why we need to get better at getting our own house in order within the church; so that our good marriages are part of our testimony to the ultimate good.

 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” — Ephesians 5:31-32

How not to vote (2): Don’t vote for a plebiscite to protect your religious freedom or freedom of speech

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One of the big arguments I’ve read on opposing the plebiscite is that this is the defining moment in the fight for religious freedom and for freedom of speech. The plebiscite will only be this if we religious people make it so; and especially if we make it a defining fight about Christian religious freedom and our picture of religious freedom is based on the yester-years of Christendom; not on what religious freedom looks like in a pluralist, secular, post-Christian, liberal democracy.

Publicly calling for the plebiscite because it is the last battleground where we might secure religious freedom or defend free speech is a bad idea. Especially when we Christians have also called for a ‘no holds barred’ public conversation where people can deliberately say offensive things. It’s too hard for us to differentiate Christian voices in the public square for an audience who don’t care about nuance, unless we’re going to say remarkably different things. But these ideas are out there now. And they’re going to hurt our witness.

Free speech doesn’t guarantee us a hearing for the Gospel

It’s one thing to have ‘free speech’ — it’s an entirely different thing to have a voice people will listen to. Securing the former at the expense of the latter is a terrible strategy.

We, as Christians, are citizens of God’s Kingdom whose shared task — whose ‘great commission’ — is to preach the Gospel so as to make disciples of Jesus. We shouldn’t be so cheaply sacrificing being heard by our neighbours to ‘secure’ freedom to speak. And that’s what this debate represents — its a chance for us to so stridently argue against our neighbours and how they view the world, and what it means to flourish in it, in the name of free speech that they’ll push us to the margins and not listen to what we have to say, or its a chance to model the sort of listening to others that will, at times, result in us being heard.

Free speech and religious freedom are good things, but I’m not willing to compromise my responsibility to speak with love and understanding, and the free practice of my religion — following a saviour crucified by the empire and the religious establishment — to win a fight for things the secular government can’t actually take away.

We might be given speech freely, but being listened to is something we’ve got to earn. We should be much more interested in having our voice actually heard, than in the freedom to speak loudly and obnoxiously in the public square. Earning a hearing is costly, and our core business, as Christians, is to be people who speak words at our cost. The core of our message is the crucified Word. We know more than anyone else that if speech is worth hearing it is incredibly expensive to the speaker. Free speech is for wimps.

We preach a message that is so at odds with the way people around us see our world, and it produces such cost in itself from the world, that Paul has to keep pointing out to his friends that he’s not ashamed of our crucified king, Jesus, and that his chains are a small price to pay.

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

The secular world isn’t equipped to respond to the Gospel as truth without the Spirit

Paul says these words just before he describes the world we live in — an unrighteous world where people live by the flesh, and they do that because God has given them over to a particular way of seeing things because we humans reject him (Romans 1:18-28).

This theological reality has significant implications for a plebiscite; implications that mean our political campaigning will probably be a waste of time and energy better spent elsewhere, and if our ‘free speech’ isn’t used to proclaim the Gospel, and if the ears that hear it aren’t moved by God’s Spirit, we have little chance of changing what people worship, and so changing how they see the world.

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” — Romans 8:5

Barring a miraculous event where more than 50% of Australia suddenly converts to Christianity and so sees the idol of ‘sexual freedom’ through the lens of the Holy Spirit, the only way we’re going to see a majority of Aussies voting against Same Sex Marriage is if we adopt ‘fleshy’ natural arguments, putting forward a bunch of alternative counterfeit gods to shape the way our neighbours vote. We’ll have to rely on arguments that attempt to put freedom, nature and procreation and other ‘created things’ at the heart of someone’s response to the issue when they enter the voting booth for the plebiscite.

Even if a plebiscite does go this way, if people vote against Same Sex Marriage, we’re kidding ourselves if we think majority rules is a win for the free proclamation of the Gospel, especially if it comes at the expense of us wielding worldly power and appealing to people’s idolatrous ‘natural’ vision of the world, or at the expense of Gospel clarity.

Our job is to hold out the Gospel, speaking at our cost. Just like Paul. Come what may. Come whatever changes the world might bring.

Our job is also to earn a hearing for our expensive message. Here’s what Peter says to the early church, a church living without free speech and with the knowledge that they needed to earn the right to be heard if they were going to fulfil the Great Commission:

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. — 1 Peter 2:11-17

In order to earn a hearing for the Gospel we might first need to use our free speech to redefine what ‘good’ is, rather than seeking to legislate our vision of good

There’s a difference between doing good ourselves and being known for doing it, and seeking to have our laws established as good for others; especially when nobody really shares an understanding of what good is for humans anymore.

The Christian account of what is good for people is tied to a created telos, or purpose, for humanity; something that we might become if we live with a particular vision of good in mind. This isn’t an exclusively Christian thing, Aristotle was pretty big on this idea too. It is, however,  something we’ve lost in our secular age as we’ve collapsed the ‘transcendent’ spiritual reality that people used to assume existed, into a purely immanent material framework for knowing about and experiencing the world.

In After Virtue, Alisdair MacIntyre makes the observation that modern (and post-modern) secular morality has no sense of a purpose or telos outside of material existence for humanity — no good beyond the idea of ‘being what you are’ — so a very different understanding of good is operating in our world, and being legislated for by our secular government. We’ll talk past each other if we don’t understand the secular world we live in now and its ethics.

I think there’s a good case to be made that loving our neighbours means participating in the political realm and seeking their good. But we’ve got to know the moral field has changed. Our task is first to argue for a different kind of good — which we do via the Gospel — and we do this by both proclaiming the Gospel and investing our lives in the persuasive, costly, pursuit of the sort of good we want to legislate for, to demonstrate its goodness. We can’t achieve good in any real sense just pursuing a Christian moral framework for those “ruled by the flesh,” whose sense of good is limited to the natural world and what is, not a divine sense of what ought to be for humans.

Freedom of religion and our use of free speech need to be pointed at addressing this new secular sense of goodness, not trying to defend the moral framework our world is rapidly walking away from. The gap in understanding what good is between us, and our neighbours, is growing fast, but it’s a mistake to think this wider gap means we need to shout louder; rather than meaning we need to do some bridge-building before we listen to and speak to our neighbours. If we don’t realise why things were the way they were, why they’re not anymore, and what has been lost in our shared life as a result of this change; we won’t be able to speak across this gap. What has been lost, fundamentally, is a sense of both a divine being who made humanity, and any sense of a divine good purpose or telos for our humanity. We can’t argue that people should accept this purpose when they no longer accept the premise. And I don’t think Romans 1 leaves us with any grounds to assume that will work.

The world has, for some time, been influenced by a Christian moral vision, or a man-made religious framework that looked a lot like ‘righteousness’ — and that has worked, in some ways, for the good of many (but it hasn’t necessarily been for the ultimate good of many people if that is caught up with knowing and following Jesus). But the world is shifting, and the way to shift it back is not by trying to maintain a particular moral framework, by some use of the law, against the desires of those in our community, but by listening to Paul and Peter — preaching the Gospel, and living it, free from fear of the changes around us and the costs they might involve for us.

The sort of religious persecution we face in Australia is the ultimate #firstworldproblem; people might mock us, scorn us, fine us, arrest us, take our property in lieu of payments of those fines or in law suits, and they’ll push us further to the margins of our society; but they’re highly unlikely to throw us to lions, burn us alive, or stone us for our beliefs.

We’re not meant to live by the sword; we’re meant to live by the Cross. We’re meant to know that the world isn’t a comfortable place that guarantees our freedom. The world isn’t ‘safe’ for us. Somewhat ironically, the same people getting mad at marginal groups who ask for ‘safe spaces’ in our universities and community spaces are now asking for the whole public sphere to be ‘safe’ for us to safely speak. We get safety to speak and believe freely by extending that same protection to others, not by seeking to curtail it.

How not to vote (1): Don’t vote just to secure a plebiscite

howtovote

In the first post in this election week series I wrote about how I think we should be discharging the responsibility of voting this weekend, now I turn to a specific reason not to base your vote on in this election; and it’s important, and the reasons are many, so it’ll take a few posts (rather than one mega post).

There are many, many, Christian voices telling us that this election is different from every election that has come before it.

We’re told there is lots at stake in our vote; so much at stake, that we might even have to give up on liberal democracy and its values — and the freedoms it should be providing us as a minority group — in order to attempt to enshrine our view as the popular one.

I’ve read a handful of blog posts and opinion pieces now that say Christians must vote for the Liberals or the National Party in order to secure the electoral Holy Grail — a plebiscite on Same Sex Marriage — that will allow us to protect our view of marriage (with the caveat that we believe it really is the best relational unit to enable humans to flourish).

I’ve read a couple that very strongly infer it but then stop short of endorsing a party because it’s not only marriage at stake but our religious freedom, and freedom of speech.

My own denomination stopped short of telling us exactly who to vote for in a public statement, but did state that it is our duty to vote for the definition of marriage to remain unchanged should a plebiscite happen, and further, that churches should be involved in the campaign for this particular result in a hypothetical plebiscite.

I believe if this is your sole reason for voting for the Liberal Party then it is a bad reason to vote for them. There are perhaps many good reasons to vote for them, and many good people standing for election with them.

I believe a plebiscite is a bad idea and will be bad for our country (though not really for the reasons the same sex marriage advocates say it will be), and that it will be bad for our Gospel witness to our country if we actively campaign for a plebiscite, or in a plebiscite. Clearly it’s too late to stop the former…

Further, I believe those pushing for a plebiscite and those arguing against same sex marriage are holding onto a modernist (old fashioned) view of law and Australian society, and this view in an of itself will become increasingly damaging to the Gospel. A modernist Christian approach to the public life of our secular country will lead to fear, disappointment, and discouragement for Christians, and will have us fighting battles on the wrong front. It’ll lead to isolation, and misunderstanding of what Jesus desires, for non-Christians.

We need to reframe the way we think about politics, and more importantly, about being the church: God’s Kingdom of people following King Jesus, as citizens in a post-modern, secular, world.

In a later post, but in order to flag where things are going now, I’ll suggest that if we want people meeting Jesus to be the chief good we stand for in our nation, then pushing for a plebiscite is a bad idea, and so too, potentially, is opposing Same Sex Marriage (though practicing marriage as Christians are called to practice it within our counter-cultural ‘kingdom’ will be an important part of our witness to the chief good).

Life as a Christian in post-modern Australia

Here are a couple of not uncommon scenarios, that are, in fact, real. They’re not just real in an isolated sense either; they’re real in that they happen in Australian communities all over the place.

There’s a Christian who loves the gay community in his small town and is seeking to build relationships with them in order for them to experience the love of Jesus in action, and to hear the Gospel. This Christian meets with this couple who tell him of their great desire to marry as an expression of their freedom to be who they are. This couple might not realise what the Christian perceives as the spiritual reality behind this desire; which is a function of putting sex and marriage as the chief love and aim of this couple’s humanity, a spot we believe belongs ultimately to Jesus; but this desire is real. It is fundamentally as religious as the Christian’s desire to love and worship Jesus in Australia. The Christian wants to hire a public space at the local pub to run a course on Christianity, and is relying on a shared belief in religious freedom, to make that booking a reality.

There’s another Christian family who lives on a street full of friendly people. They talk about politics regularly, and religion sometimes. They love each other, lend a hand, and do life together. One couple on the street are men who wish to marry. The people on the street see the love and commitment these men have for one another, and they see the love the Christian family has for those who live on the street; they struggle to reconcile a consistency between these people who want to live following Jesus and their speech about love and freedom, with what Christians say about the relationship they witness in the house down the road. If the Christian’s rationale for denying these men who already have children the object of their desires is: that it is unnatural, that marriage is for raising and protecting children, or that a God they don’t believe in, or a 2,000 year old book says it is wrong, this fails to adequately address the humanity and experience of the couple on the street in a way that works for their neighbours.

Both these Christians desperately want their neighbours — gay and straight — to hear about Jesus. They both want religious freedom and the freedom to speak about Jesus, but this freedom, in a secular post-modern world of competing truths and differing moral visions, is earned, not an inherent right, it is earned by extending the same freedom to others.

These realities are our post-modern, post-Christian, secular realities. They’re not easy scenarios, but we need to be careful that in our desire to proclaim the Gospel in this context we don’t keep hold of old strategies that didn’t really work. The moral framework of the 1950s may have had a bunch of people living like they were Christians, and ticking a box on the census that indicated a Christian identity, but it didn’t do a great job of forming people as disciples of Jesus. And holding on to the idea that Godly morality will deliver anything for the Gospel, or that resisting a shifting public moral framework is what will win us religious freedom just seems quaint and old fashioned. And it’s entirely the wrong question for Christians to be grappling with.

It is, to borrow an Australian expression “arse about” — people won’t meet Jesus because they’re told not to gay marry, or that gay marriage is wrong; they might, if they meet Jesus and put him at the centre of reality — their own reality, and the cosmic reality of the universe — understand marriage in a different way and approach it differently in their own lives.

What we should be spending our intellectual energy on as Christians is what to do if after they get married these couples, their children, and their neighbours, turn up in church wanting to hear about Jesus. How do they then live in the light of the Gospel?

A plebiscite, whatever the result, and for various reasons that I’ll elaborate on in future posts, denies the complexity of reality in post-modern, post-Christian, secular Australia. It’s a bad idea foisted on us by the very conservative wing of a political party as a last ditch attempt to defend a good thing that our society has walked away from. Marriage as God created it is remarkably good. It is almost all the things people campaigning for it say that it is — but the campaign is falling on deaf ears because the arguments being mounted are the arguments of modernist, nominally Christian, Australia. And most of our neighbours don’t live there any more.

Don’t vote just to secure a plebiscite. Vote for three years of government, not 6 months of uncertainty, and an uncertain and by no means final outcome.

Why choosing how to vote just on the basis of a plebiscite is a bad idea

Making the plebiscite your single issue this election is a bad idea. It’s probably not great to tell Christians that it’s their duty to vote a particular way either to secure a plebiscite, or in a plebiscite either — but that’s the subject of one of the next posts.

You’re going to vote to give government to a party you may or may not agree with on a bunch of other moral issues over one issue that will be voted on and legislated in the first six months of government where all the evidence suggests the result is a foregone conclusion?

What about the next 3.5 years? What about all the other defining moral issues of our times? It might be that you can have your cake and eat it to on that front if you believe the Liberal and National Party platforms deal well with these issues, and if their candidates are well equipped to govern with wisdom and virtue. That’s good.

Is that period of government so unimportant, or same sex marriage so important that all other considerations about ethical and good government are irrelevant? Vote for the person in the party who is going to make decisions with the most wisdom and virtue.

Even if it isn’t, a plebiscite in and of itself is a bad thing in our form of democracy and will come back to bite us if we further enshrine a belief that democracy is a combination of populism and majority rules.

A plebiscite in particular is a bad reason to vote for a party; and I believe (though I understand others will differ) that support for same sex marriage is a bad reason to vote against a party in a secular liberal democracy. I’ll unpack this in two subsequent, longer posts, unpacking some of the rationales I’ve heard from Christians in support of a plebiscite.

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

howtovote

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

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

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

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

How to vote as a Christian in 11 steps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 Questions for those advocating Presbyterian withdrawal from civil marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the deliverances proposed by C&N:

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

And:

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

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

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

From the deliverance again:

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

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

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

The C&N report says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19. Why are we not pursuing the European option?

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

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

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

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

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

Overthinking Noah: The Movie

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOAH AS ART. NOAH AS TEXT. NOAH AS STORY

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

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

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

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

READING NOAH AS A TEXT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INTERPRETING TEXTS (LIKE NOAH) WITH THE WRITER IN MIND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USING NOAH AS A TEXT, AS CHRISTIANS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENGAGING WITH NOAH’S THEOLOGY

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

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

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO “BE A (HU)MAN?”

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

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

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

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

So God created mankind in his own image,

    in the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PARADISE LOST – THE RETURN TO EDEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

There is always an agenda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our agendas are set by our worship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The persecution complex: Ware the carrot more than the stick

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Image Credit: Mark Stivers

There’s always an easy way out.

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

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

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

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

There’s always a carrot.

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

This was true in Daniel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He refused. Over and over again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Be like Jesus. Pursue the real carrot.

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

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

An interview with James KA Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACS Leaders Retreat

Program and Registration details —ACS Leaders Retreat 2016

Learning and Loves: Re-Imagining Christian Education

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Dear The Hon Kate Jones MP,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regards,

Rev. Nathan Campbell,

Pastor, Creek Road Presbyterian Church, South Bank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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