The 7 bits of Greek you must have (but don’t need to know) to be a preacher (and why they mean you don’t need a detailed working knowledge of Greek)

Last week two of Aussie Christianity’s biggest brains Con Campbell and John Dickson came together to blow up the internet. These guys seem to belong to some super-human category; both polymaths who are successful at just about everything they apply themselves to; both with IQs that leave most of us in the shade; both incredible gifts to the church… but in this case, I think, both wrong about what life as the church requires of those who would ‘preach’ or even, as they’ve clarified, those who would be the preacher-teacher-pastor in a western church…

Con was giving a speech at the ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) conference in the US, John was in attendance (this already marks them out as different to the rest of us mere mortals and that’s ok; I’ve got a profound appreciation for the work ETS does, and these guys do, for the church). We don’t have all of Con’s presentation; just this bit from John’s Facebook post (I’ll bold the bits the subsequent discussions have focused on and it’s worth reading Stephen McAlpine’s two posts in response (1, 2):

Listening to Con Campbell putting the hard word on pastors, students, academics: If you want to be a preacher, you simply must have a detailed working knowledge of New Testament Greek. Undergraduate historians are expected to have decent Greek and Latin by third year. Doctors must know the inner workings of a cell. Mechanics are to understand all the working parts of a car. Preachers must know and use the language of their primary source.

I don’t think you need a detailed working knowledge of Greek to be a preacher; even of the kind Con and John say they mean. But this suggestion and the understanding of preaching and the ministry of a church underneath it is interesting and important; and as much as I’m able to challenge these two fine minds, and plenty of others, I’d like to offer some gentle pushback (but also a completely different paradigm for church) on the absolute nature of this statement; and on what ‘preaching’ is in the life of the church and thus who a preacher is, and what a preacher does.

I don’t think being a preacher means you personally “must” have a detailed working knowledge of Greek, I do think we need these 7 concepts, that have Greek words attached to them (and come from me at least knowing some Greek). I think preaching is the proclamation of the word of God; specifically the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah (the Gospel) as found in every word of Scripture; by the church (the body) for the church and the world. I think it’s ok to have a paid preaching pastor who primarily sees the church and their role in it as being about preaching not teaching (but in the life of the body we need teachers).

Here’s a cheeky seven Greek words and/or phrases that provide the building blocks for this understanding of what we’re on about as preachers (paid, or not); what a preacher is (and who), and why it’s important for the body to know Greek, but not necessarily every speaking part of the body…

1. θεός (Theos)

Definition: God

You actually don’t need to know that God is ‘theos’ in Greek, in order to be a preacher, but all preaching that is true starts with God (and finds its ‘end’ in God too). Preaching in the ‘reformed tradition’ I belong to is often understood as proclaiming the word of God; to the point that you are speaking God’s word to those listening, and so we need to know what this word is; the question is, do we need Greek to do that?

2. λόγος (Logos)

Definition: a word (as embodying an idea), a statement, a speech

There are some questions about who this word it is proclaimed to and its ends aimed at; whether just to the church, just to the world, or both (and I’m going with both because, as I’ll argue, the same ‘word’ or λόγος is what both believers and non-believers need to hear to know God).

The aim of preaching is ‘theology’ (from θεό- λόγος); the understanding of God. Theology is much more of a ‘must’ for the preacher; because it’s ultimately what guides us in understanding the Bible (in a circular way, because the languages do help us understand God and the word of God). I’m not convinced you need Greek to do theology; some people need Greek in order for theology to happen, certainly, but to suggest that the original languages are essential to truly know God (which nobody is actually explicitly saying, but it’s an implication of the assertion that preachers in the church need Greek) is to rob a significant number of believers (the majority) of the ability to do ‘theology’; to attempt to ‘know God’; in a way that runs counter to the Reformation, and is theologically problematic to the extent that all true knowledge of the infinite and thus-totally-beyond-our-natural-comprehension God actually needs to come from God (via the Spirit as it applies his word to us) as an act of accommodation for our human limitations; putting the Bible in human language to begin with was an act of incarnation and accommodation where words that could only ever really be analogies for the being of God were used to help us understand, but if they’re words with no Spirit, they’re just dead letters, and I’m fairly certain the Holy Spirit speaks english and mandarin too; that, in some sense, is what drives the church to translate the word of God into the language of different peoples of the world in the first place; that they might know and be able to speak truth about God (or preach) via the Spirit working to bring these words to life in our dead hearts.

Paul does some interesting stuff with this; the idea that God can only be truly known (and thus preached) by the Spirit bringing words to life, in 2 Corinthians 3, where he talks about what those words on a page (in Hebrew) did for the Hebrew reading readers without the Spirit…

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:13-18

Ultimately God’s word; the content of our preaching that helps us know God, isn’t simply found in a book originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; but in a person (and of course, the book is where we go to meet the person). But it’s this person who is the centre of our preaching as both the word of God and the one who helps us truly know God; who bridges that gap from the infinite to the finite. I’ll bold the bits where these Greek words feature…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.— John 1:1, 14

If preaching is making God known via his word, then what we’re proclaiming is Jesus; his word; the way he speaks to the world. We’re proclaiming a particular message about him though too. I think Greek can certainly help give us a rich understanding of the written words about the Word-made-flesh, but I’m not sure Greek is essential if we believe that God makes himself known by the Spirit through these written words. If Jesus is God’s definitive word into the world; what else would we preach? I’ll suggest below that any ‘teaching’ from the Bible that is truly about God needs to understand the telos of the Bible more than simply the language the Bible was written in and what a text might have meant in its context apart from God’s revelation of himself in Jesus (note: this Hebrews bit uses different Greek words for ‘word’ and ‘spoke’; but it does describe the substance of the speech of God…)

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. — Hebrews 1:1-3

When the writer of Hebrews does speak of λόγος, in what I think is an argument build from chapter 1 despite using some synonyms, they say:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. — Hebrews 4:12-13

3. κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστός (kurios Jesus Christos)

Definition: kurios: Lord, Iésous: Jesus or Joshua, the name of the Messiah, Christos: the Anointed One, Messiah, Christ,

The substance of the message we preach is caught up in these two words; Greek words that we transliterate (though Jesus is a transliteration of the Hebrew first); “Jesus Christ.” This isn’t simply a name, but what we proclaim; our preaching starts here and cascades into the implications of its truth for knowing things about God, and life in God’s world as part of his kingdom. Or as Peter puts it in Acts 2:

Seeing what was to come, [David] spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah (Christ), that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”’

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” — Acts 2:31-36

That’s a pretty good summary of the Gospel from the first recorded sermon from a post-resurrection preacher. I don’t think you need to know Greek to pull it off… just how the Old Testament anticipates the New; and how the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the Lord who pours out the Spirit and invites us to share in the fruits of Jesus’ defeat of death as we join his kingdom. You don’t need to know the phrase ‘kurios Jesus Christos’; though according to Philippians 2:11 every tongue will one day declare this truth… but even knowing ‘Jesus Christ is Lord” involves knowing 2 must know Greek words that are essential for preaching; so good job.

4. ἁγίου πνεύματος (hagiou pneumatos)

Definition: hagiou: Holy, pneumatos: Spirit

This one has been covered above, but just to explicitly state it; you don’t need to know the Greek words for Holy Spirit to be a preacher of God’s word; but you do need to have the Holy Spirit making God’s word ring true for you, and allowing you to speak the message at the heart of true preaching; that Jesus is Lord and God. Let’s bold all these bits so far again to see just how much important, must-have, Greek we’ve got under the belt now…

Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. — 1 Corinthians 12:3

5. τὸ εὐαγγέλιον κηρύσσω (to euangelion ho kerusso)

Definition: The Gospel I preach: to: the, euangelion: good news/Gospel, ho: I, kerusso: to herald (proclaim); to preach (announce) a message publicly and with conviction (persuasion)

The controversial statement from Con and John, and much of my reaction to it, is caught up in the sense that Greek is a must in order to preach; that our faithfulness to the substantial message of our preaching somehow depends on our knowledge of Greek. I think Con, and then John, have used the wrong word; had they said ‘Bible teacher’ that might have not been quite so controversial… but even then I’d have disagreed with the imperative because of the above; and because of what the Bible’s central message that teaching ought to convey actually is; that Jesus is both Lord and Christ.

There are lots of words translated as ‘preach’ in our english Bibles; but the most common (and the one that gives us the Greek for ‘preacher’ (kerux), is kerusso. A kerux carried the proclamation of a king and spoke with the authority of the king (which works with what the reformed tradition thinks preaching is); the message of the king, as I’ve suggested above is actually the proclamation of the arrival of a king, or the king’s victory over his enemies; when heralds were called kerux and they were people who did this kerusso thing; and their message was a message of a king’s great victory (ie in the Roman empire), the kerux spoke the euangelion; the good news. The kerux, when they did this, might also be called an ‘evangelist’ (when you say ‘evangelism’ you’re speaking Greek). When the word preaching is used in the New Testament it’s used of this sort of task; both when John announces the arrival of Jesus, in the words of Jesus himself, and in the task the church then takes up in our preaching ministry to the world. We’re to be heralds preaching the arrival of our king. I’m not sure that task requires Greek; there are certain types of teaching in the life of the church that might; but our central task is to speak the words of God, from the written word, pointing to the living Word; our Lord and King. If you need Greek for that then we should pack up and move to Athens and start a colonisation project; because somehow knowing the good news of the Gospel requires that…

This sort of preaching is what John the Baptist did as he heralded the arrival of Jesus and his kingdom:

He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. — Luke 3:3

It’s what Jesus did as an outworking of the Spirit’s anointing, while making God known…

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. — Matthew 4:23

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” — Luke 4:18-19

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.— Matthew 9:35

It’s what Jesus said would happen in the ‘end times’ (the time from his crucifixion to his return) when the Gospel to go to all nations…

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.— Matthew 24:14

And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. — Mark 13:10-11

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” — Luke 24:45-49

That last one is interesting because it comes as Jesus both explains how the Old Testament points to the central good news of the Christ… so that ‘preaching’ is possible from the Scriptures (cause that’s what understanding them involves), and links preaching to the Holy Spirit. It explains why Biblical Theology is important, and why when you preach as though the Bible is centred on the arrival of Jesus as the messiah, every sermon should be ‘Gospel’ and should be ‘preaching’ even if it involves teaching, rebuking, correcting, encouraging, and careful instruction… but I’d suggest a sermon is ok; and the life of a church community will be ok, so long as the preaching is grounded in the Gospel and its implications for life as the body of Jesus in a world that desperately needs to hear the word of life. It’s also this proclaimed word; the Gospel; that should help us weigh up all other forms of speaking in church, be it teaching, prophecy, or exhortation.

This preaching of the Gospel is what Paul does (as he explains to the elders in Jerusalem, as described in Galatians…)

I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. — Galatians 2:2

And it’s what Paul tells Timothy to do… to take up this baton, and this activity…

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word (κήρυξον τὸν λόγον); be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. — 2 Timothy 4:1-5

The essence of the message we preach is the good news of Jesus; proclaiming that he is the Christ. It doesn’t take Greek to do that; it might take Greek to ‘teach’ (διδάσκαλος), and there are lots of speaking tasks Paul charges Timothy with… but not all preaching is teaching; and I’m not sure all preachers need to be teachers, or all senior pastors… Especially if good teachers exist who are able to teach both churches and pastors and share the task of proclaiming the Gospel as God’s word to both the church and the world. I suspect Paul gets Timothy to do this stuff because this is part of who God has made Timothy to be, where the ‘your calling’ is specifically a reflection of Timothy’s character, gifts, and the roles God has called him to within the church… I’m not sure all preachers need to be all of Timothy; nor do all people employed or appointed as overseers in the church. Paul, like Timothy, occupies several ‘roles’ that he sees as distinct (which are duplicated in Timothy, and are no doubt a useful combo when there’s an individual (like Con or John) who can preach and teach).

And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.— 2 Timothy 1:11, 13-14

The priesthood of all believers involves, on one level, making all believers preachers; especially corporately as all believers are participants in the body. It’s also the Gospel that is the substance of Paul’s roles here; it’s not like he proclaims one thing and teaches another…

And here’s a bit of a problem borne out of Dickson’s Anglicanism; where the default model of ministry is to have the individual priest-as-overseer, as opposed to a congregational model (like the Presbyterians) where not all elders/presbyters ‘teach’ (or need to know Greek), but perhaps all preach. The implications of the imperative in John Dickson’s post are challenging in a system of church governance that sees elders as teachers, and preachers, but not as the pastor-teacher at the heart of Anglican churches.The quote may work better in that context (though it may also expose some limitations of that context). The Anglican Church in Sydney has a view of the function of the weekly gathering and sermon that seems to be largely, if not exclusively, oriented towards teaching believers (this is called the Knox-Robinson Ecclesiology); not to see it as the body gathered to preach the Gospel to itself (and thus encourage, equip and build up believers for their task as a priesthood of all believers), and to the lost.

If Con’s statement, in its natural reading, suggests that to proclaim the Gospel one must have a detailed working knowledge of Greek, then this is a problem. It’s even, I think, a problem if the argument is ‘to be the pastor of a local church one must have a detailed working knowledge of Greek,’ it might actually be a function of Anglican ecclesiology that their understanding of a preacher-teacher is such that the person occupying that office must have a detailed working knowledge of Greek to do what they are ordained to do; but that’s a fairly narrow theological context. There’s a couple more Greek words to know that’ll help wrap all this up…

6. ήθος (Ethos)

Definition: “character” that is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterise a community, nation, or ideology.

I think beyond holding to the logos of the Gospel, and so the sense that we know things about God (theology) when by the Spirit we see the dead and raised Jesus Christ as Lord and Christ, and this as good news that we’re to believe; the ethos that the Gospel creates in us as the Spirit transforms us into the image of Jesus, is one of the only other real must for a preacher (and for a preacher-pastor, ie one we might appoint as an overseer/elder in our churches as the person with responsibility); and it’s a Greek word.

But it’s a weird one. Because the word ethos is only in the Bible once, and it’s in a quote from a Greek poet (“Bad company corrupts good character.” in 1 Corinthians 15)… but in proclamation or persuasive speech (which preaching is), ethos is all about the character of the speaker; and ethos really matters for preachers; it’s of fundamental importance, more important even than being able to preach (no matter how good your Greek is); if you don’t have the character of a preacher; one where you embody the virtues of your message; you’re disqualified no matter how good your preaching is, or how good your Greek is… When Paul is talking to the preacher-teacher-overseer types he’s trained, Timothy and Titus, and suggesting they go about training and appointing preacher-teacher-overseers as he has, his emphasis is on character; because our preaching lives and dies by our ethos (because our ethos is the demonstration of the Spirit’s work within us, and of us belonging to the kingdom we proclaim)…

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. — 1 Timothy 3:2-7

 

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. — Titus 1:5-8

You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance…

Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. — Titus 2:1-2, 6-8

It’s ethos that shapes the way our presentation of the Gospel is heard; and Paul often appeals to his, both his great love for the people he is speaking to, and his embodying of the way of the Cross (which is his message).

For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you.

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. — 1 Thessalonians 2:3-9

These two bits from 2 Corinthians 4 (within a letter that is ultimately, in one sense, a defence of Paul’s ethos as more important than the impressive ‘pathos’ or ‘ethos’ the Corinthians are looking for, because his posture is shaped by the logos; the message of the crucified king.

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God…

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. — 2 Corinthians 4:2. 7-12

7.σῶμα (soma)

Definition: Body. (also, as a bonus from the passage below in terms of how this body functions as one body, many parts: συμφέρω, to ‘carry with others,’ to help, be profitable, be expedient)

A lot of the weight on the shoulders of the ‘preacher’ as envisaged by Con’s imperative, and John’s defence of it, rest on just how big the body is that Paul is talking about here; whether we emphasise the universal church or the local church; and then how that plays out in how we appoint leaders in different communities. If each local church is a disconnected and largely autonomous body with one paid staff member; then sure, it makes sense to insist that staff member to not just be a generalist, but to specialise in the core bits of teaching, preaching, and overseeing. But I think that’s a big if; especially in the context of ministry within a body that has some oversight (a denomination, like the Anglicans or Presbyterians), where that body takes responsibility for training and appointing (or ordaining) the preacher-teacher, and especially in the context of a denomination where the oversight includes providing and policing a doctrinal framework. It’s really important that some people in these structures know Greek; some of them must. Especially those responsible for educating employed preachers (in theological colleges), and for making decisions or providing insight into doctrinal matters (but even then you need your doctrine experts and church history experts too). Preachers (all of us, and people employed as preacher-pastors) should know why Greek is profoundly important to our ministry (in whatever role we’re in) and that translations always involve some human interpretation; much as we should know why history and theology are important, and we should know who to turn to, in the wider body, for help in understanding and communicating God’s truth to the world; but as a preacher I don’t have to be the ‘body of Christ’ with all its giftings and doing all its roles by myself.

To be part of the church, both local, and universal, is to be part of the body of Jesus together; and so to work together in preaching the Gospel of Jesus to our world. To that end we are equipped, differently, by God so that each member of the body plays its part. The church must know Greek (and Hebrew) and retain that knowledge such that enough people know it to have educated and discerning discussions about the meaning of Greek words; but do preachers in individual churches need to know Greek? I don’t think so. I think to insist on that would be to sign both a missiological death knell, but also to undermine the richness of possible life together where we benefit from hearing one another’s voices… voices employed in the activity of preaching; voices that bring different gifts to the table and who can accommodate the message of the Gospel; thus making God known; for different types of people in our world. If all our churches and ministers are trained the same, to think the same, and preach the same, you’ve got the sort of franchise-like benefit that comes with being able to walk into any McDonalds in Australia and have roughly the same dining experience; but McDonalds isn’t feeding millions of Australians; there’s a quality control that comes from that, but no sense of imagination or adventure or ability to get good nourishing food into new communities. I’m thankful for Con’s voice, and for John’s voice, for precisely this reason; they bring something to the table that I (and most mere mortals) can’t; but for them to push a line that makes a particular gifting an imperative for what is a task for all believers (preaching); and for the body corporately; I think is a terrible and damaging mistake; much better to know just these 7 Greek words than to spend your time pursuing a narrow picture of what the church could be (and is called to be) for the world; much better to hold our gifts in common and find ways to hear many more voices than to narrow the field of voices worth listening to to those who’ve achieved proficiency in an ancient (but not unimportant) language.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good (συμφέρω). To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. — 1 Corinthians 12:4-12

 

 

How to make saying “Jesus is still king” actually something comforting, not something jerky and dismissive

Trump has been president-elect for a week now. And Jesus is still on his throne.

The fallout from the election has been pretty interesting, but perhaps the thing I’ve found most frustrating in it all… apart from the damage Trump’s election may or may not do to Gospel proclamation when it turns out the white evangelical American church was seduced by a narcissist who’d promise them anything and everything so he could get into power, and perhaps that he doesn’t really want to share that power with anyone… apart from that the thing I’ve found most frustrating is the rush to the Spiritual high ground in the midst of genuine lament. Which is what the statement “Jesus is still king” actually feels like (even if its well-intentioned and absolutely true).

One of the great failings of our modern western version of Christianity is the death of lament. I know this because this was one of the things I fought hardest against in college before giving up my objections. I didn’t think lament was important, I thought truth and the enlightenment that comes from it was what should give us comfort in the mess of life and suffering. But that’s terrible and inhumane. I’m now convinced from how we see lament play out in the Bible (in the wisdom literature and the prophets but especially in the words of Jesus on the cross) that lament in itself is part of the process of being human, and being comforted.

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). — Matthew 27:46

This is pure lament. In fact. It’s a quote from one of the Psalms of Lament (Psalm 22). It’s a deep irony that in the moment that Jesus is enthroned; he laments. We’ve lost that paradox. I suspect it might have been of little comfort to Jesus if someone had run up to him at that moment and said “but you are now on your throne” and “this is God’s grand and infinitely complex plan for the salvation of the world”… what sort of jerk would you have to be to do that in his moment of great suffering, in his moment of lament.

There is much to lament about when it comes to Trump’s election, especially if you’re already feeling marginalised in a society that favours the strong and dominant, or if you care deeply about such people, especially perhaps if you’d love more people at the margins of our society to know that the Gospel of Jesus is good news when many spokespeople for the Gospel of Jesus have started also proclaiming the counter-gospel of Trump. And by this I’m meaning ‘gospel’ in the political (and original) sense in which it is good news — the proclamation of the arrival of a king and their kingdom; and by counter-gospel I mean compare everything Trump says and stands for with the Cross and the beatitudes and anything Jesus ever said or did… There’s lots to lament, and perhaps some things to celebrate if you like your Supreme Court judges conservative and if that’s why you voted the way you did…  but that you are celebrating (which 81% of the white evangelical church may well be, though most of them apparently voted while holding their noses) does not give you space to invalidate the lament of others, or to simply proclaim this fundamental truth — the real Gospel — about Jesus being enthroned as though that should pull them from their grief. There are much better ways to make that truth ring out as a comfort to the grieving. Here are two things I think need to happen before people will hear this proclamation in any way that is helpful; those words are a necessary comfort, this isn’t a ‘preach the Gospel, when necessary use words’ thing, but a recognition that preaching is never just words. Ethos and pathos are part of the package of any proclamation of the ‘logos’. That is who we are, and how we say things, will always shape the way what we say is received and whether it is heard and effective.

Listen to, and join, people in their lament.

Evil sucks. Suffering sucks. Lament is a good response to that because the God we lament to does not stand apart from our suffering. Jesus is king, and that is meant to make a difference in the world, starting with the church. I’m as keen as the next person to scoff at the universities who are giving their students playdough and colouring in books to help them through grief… or to think people taking to the streets and looting probably isn’t really helping… that represents our prevailing culture’s paucity of resources when it comes to genuine lament and processing tragedy. And perhaps we’d have a counter-example to offer if we hadn’t systematically beaten lament out of the life of the church in pursuit of nodding head-smart piety. We need to rediscover how to lament; we need to make space for it, which means we need to listen to those voices who haven’t given up lamenting… those people who are suffering, without simply shouting truth into, or over the top of, it. And this, the election of Trump, is an opportunity.

Just because you aren’t lamenting doesn’t make lamenting invalid; maybe the victims of injustice have a better proximity to that injustice to decide how to respond… maybe, for example, white evangelical men (like me) aren’t actually in the best place to assess what Trump’s election means to women, or people of colour. Maybe we should listen to stories like this one about being an abuse survivor in church and reacting to Trump’s election before jumping in with the platitude that Jesus is king. We could also have listened to abuse survivors talking about the detrimental impact of Christian support of Trump before his election too… it wasn’t like there was no warning that a significant portion of our community would feel like this. Maybe we should be listening to the communities at the margins — the non-white communities, the LGBTQI communities, etc, and hearing their concerns — whether they’re in the church or not, before jumping in with proclamations that seem to make no difference to their day to day experience of marginalisation and fear? There is a way to make a difference, I think, and we’ll get to that, but the first step is to listen before we speak. To understand. And to join in the grief and lament we hear from our friends at what is wrong with the world.

What I learned in college, and continue to learn as I pastor people who are suffering, is that sometimes saying technically correct things can be true but unhelpful. Sometimes it’s best just to sit in and share the pain for a while; and to cry out in protest, anger even, to the God who is sovereign and the king who is enthroned. Sometimes you should shut up for a while and listen. Sometimes you should live out a truth in such a way that it allows you to enter suffering because you know it is temporary not just invalidate the reality of that suffering because you know it will pass.  One time where this is true is while people are grieving. And that’s one of the lessons we learn in the book of Job.

Job’s friends are jerks. Some of them say things that are just wrong; they tend to spiritualise a bunch of Ancient Near Eastern wisdom and give Job answers for his suffering that are just totally off base; that he’s being punished for doing wrong. That he’s not the righteous dude he thinks he is. That he’s experiencing retribution from God for sin. But the narrative of the book of Job consistently upholds Job as actually being a righteous man. The first three friends are rebuked for having Job wrong… but there’s this other guy, this other friend, who I think isn’t speaking Ancient Near Eastern truth to Job, but Biblical truth, only I think he’s not speaking this truth in a commendable way, and the narrative helps us get there if we read it carefully. Elihu, says things that are true, but just seems to be not all that much of a comfort or a friend to Job. Elihu is the guy who posts “Jesus is king” the day after Trump is elected. Elihu turns to the lamenting Job (who is lamenting for very good reason) and instead of being a human shoulder to cry on, he claims to speak for God, and he says:

“His eyes are on the ways of mortals;
he sees their every step.
There is no deep shadow, no utter darkness,
where evildoers can hide.
God has no need to examine people further,
that they should come before him for judgment.
Without inquiry he shatters the mighty
and sets up others in their place.
Because he takes note of their deeds,
he overthrows them in the night and they are crushed.
He punishes them for their wickedness
where everyone can see them,
because they turned from following him
and had no regard for any of his ways.
They caused the cry of the poor to come before him,
so that he heard the cry of the needy.
But if he remains silent, who can condemn him?
If he hides his face, who can see him?
Yet he is over individual and nation alike,
to keep the godless from ruling,
from laying snares for the people.” — Job 34

Basically he’s saying: “God rules. You won’t understand what he’s doing but he’s doing something so shut up with your yammering”… the pre-Jesus equivalent of “Jesus is king.”

I read Elihu’s words and think about the scale of tragedy that’s just been inflicted on Job — he’s lost his whole family, his wife, his children… everything. And I think “Elihu, you need to get out more” and many other swear words that I can’t write. When I read the opening of Job I imagine myself in his shoes, and the loss of all those I love… and that’s precisely what his friends should be doing when they approach him. Imagining and empathising. And it’s precisely where they fail… and where we often fail too.

There are plenty of pietistic readings of Job that jump on board with Elihu because he’s a brash, young, truth teller who seems to be doing the Biblically wise thing of starting wisdom with the fear of the Lord and speaking accordingly. But being a brash, young, hothead isn’t typically what a wise person looks like (when wisdom is described in Proverbs), so that Elihu is described as a bit of a hot-head should be a warning sign that all is not well when it comes to his words, even if they’re totally right (for more on this see my friend Arthur’s analysis of how the narrator treats Elihu). Pietism like this often feels like a case of leaving your humanity at the door and being God in a particular situation — seeing the world God’s way — and that’s a problem because we can’t throw our humanity out, and we’re not called to. A significant amount of the Biblical response to God ruling through evil despots is lament at God’s judgment even amidst the knowledge that God’s judgment is just and that God does rule. Habakkuk, for example, opens up his book with lament…

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.” — Habakkuk 1:2-4

He’s totally on board with the idea that what’s going on via powerful foreign kings who don’t stand for God’s kingdom is part of God’s sovereign plan, but he asks this totally legitimate question… And even if this suffering is God’s judgment, that doesn’t mean we just sit on the sidelines while people are suffering because it’s God’s job to judge and our job to be the cheer squad. Our job is to be human, and to love our neighbours. Or, as God condemns those who stand on the sidelines while his judgment is playing out in Obadiah 1… not being moved by the plight of those under judgment earns us judgment…

Because of the violence against your brother Jacob,
    you will be covered with shame;
    you will be destroyed forever.
On the day you stood aloof
    while strangers carried off his wealth
and foreigners entered his gates
    and cast lots for Jerusalem,
    you were like one of them.
You should not gloat over your brother
    in the day of his misfortune,
nor rejoice over the people of Judah
    in the day of their destruction,
nor boast so much
    in the day of their trouble.
You should not march through the gates of my people
    in the day of their disaster,
nor gloat over them in their calamity
    in the day of their disaster,
nor seize their wealth
    in the day of their disaster.
You should not wait at the crossroads
    to cut down their fugitives,
nor hand over their survivors
    in the day of their trouble. — Obadiah 1:10-14

Our job isn’t to jump in to God’s judgment as sword wielding head kickers like a little brother keen to dob on his sister so she gets more anger (and credit to Mark Baddeley from QTC for both pointing this out, and this example), our job is to be brother and sister, to be the friend who comforts our loved one as we see them suffering… whether they deserved the smack or not.

Now back to Job and Elihu… and the question of responding the right way to lament and suffering…

The God of the Bible, the God who speaks to Job, and who Job trusts in, is more than a distant God who sometimes chooses to remain silent. He is a God who lives, and who speaks, and who enters in to our suffering. That’s what Job’s friends should’ve done. Job’s friends — including Elihu — could’ve learned a lot from Jesus who joins us in lament to the point of his crucifixion where he takes those famous words of lament upon his own lips… as he suffers the world with us, and death for us. Jesus both models the human response to suffering, and speaks and lives God’s response to suffering… and it’s not simply platitudes. He gets alongside us in our suffering, and he also joins in the lament… then he does something about it by pointing us to what is good, and true, and beautiful, and eternal.

Cultivate a kingdom-within-the-kingdom where an alternative to Trump is lived out in a compelling and comforting way

When Trump was elected last week there were a bunch of people rushing to be ‘Elihu’; running to the Spiritual high ground to piously speak real truth in the face of genuine lament as though truth alone is enough to pull people from their grief into comfort. The spiritual high ground isn’t actually where Job wants us to end up though… it wants us on the ground looking up at truth about God, next to the grieving, not speaking down at them. The low ground might just be where real spirituality, and real knowledge of God, can be found. Especially if in Jesus we see the face and hands of the God who speaks to Job… and the answer to Job’s confident declaration in the face of his friends’ terrible advice (and terrible friendship).

I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me! — Job 19:25-27

Speaking truth is really important; but so is where you speak it from. Truth without the attachment and emotion that come from empathy doesn’t actually comfort (in my experience giving or receiving it). Life doesn’t work like that. We’re more than simply brains on a stick waiting for a good argument to pull us out of our feelings. Feelings pull us out of feelings. Truth is helpful for this — but we feel truth emotionally as much as we know it intellectually; and providing an intellectual answer to someone who is lamenting, whether you think they should be lamenting or not, is a pretty jerky thing to do.

When we say “Jesus is king” and aren’t really living like it we’re actually undermining the truth of this statement and its power. We’re putting all our persuasive eggs in the basket marked ‘head’… When we say ‘Jesus is king’ to an abuse victim grieving that a bloke who turned abuse into a badge of honour, or worse, simply ‘locker room talk’ is now the most powerful man in the universe but aren’t at the same time creating a church community that thoroughly repudiates that sort of behaviour, well, I’ll let this anonymous storyteller’s words do the job

“So when I hear Donald Trump talking degrading women and talking about using their bodies, that’s not objective for me. He’s the representation of my abuser, writ large on a television screen and given a powerful platform.

However, my abuser wasn’t the only one by whom I felt violated. Christians failed me badly as well. When I revealed what had been going on, my family and I were advised by the pastor to leave the church. In our absence, lies, rumours and accusations circulated the church which were eventually fed back to us. “Everyone knows he’s a bit handsy – why is she being so sensitive?” [Why was the ‘handsy’ guy allowed to be a youth leader if everyone knew?] “Maybe she asked for it.” “It was just once.” [It was 2 years of planned assault, by his own admission.]

So when I hear Donald Trump brag that the women he assaulted enjoyed it, it’s personal, because the same things were said about me. And when I hear others minimise what he did, it’s personal, because my testimony was also despised.”

The way this case was handled is terrible, and we can’t say it’s isolated (nor is it perceived to be isolated). We have a Royal Commission going on in Australia that makes it pretty clear that our house isn’t in order on this stuff. This story is terrible precisely because it represents a failing to live the truth that Jesus is king — the king who came to bring sin to light and destroy it — in such a way that might bring comfort and security to this victim or to others… So when Christians say “Jesus is king” in response to genuine lament, what this person hears is something quite different.

When we say Jesus is king and aren’t living it by pursuing a community that looks like his kingdom (especially if we’re not living it by running to attach ourselves to the centre of worldly kingdoms) the effect is the same on every community marginalised by the community-at-large; and when we respond to tragedy just with these true words, but without pursuing his kingdom with our actions, we’re not actually engaging with where real truth and change and comfort happen. This is a failure of our church to fully imagine the sort of world that this deep truth will ultimately create; that it starts creating through us now.

Imagine a church where abuse victims feel not just heard, but safe. Where their testimonies bring real change because they are taken seriously; where the community is committed to bringing dark things into the light on the big stuff, and that shapes how we approach life together on the small stuff.

Imagine a church that is able to thoroughly, and with real integrity, speak against the abuse happening outside its community because we’re known for taking it so seriously within our community.

Imagine how much more comforting this proclamation would be if our ethos matched our logos; if our community matched our proclamation. If we were a place where the LGBTQI person grappling with their identity and their sense that despite the popular rhetoric they’re oh so very different from their neighbour felt loved and welcomed and safe and able to explore what “Jesus is King” might mean for them?

Imagine if we were a community not just dedicated to treating people as equal regardless of their skin colour, but pursuing justice even at the cost of our own privileged place in the world, and our own comfort.

Imagine if we were trying to tackle racism not just in our affirmation of the image of God in all people at an individual level, but in figuring out what it means for our gatherings and communities to be shaped by different cultures and hearing different voices, not just the dominant white male voice that has tended to make marginalised or minority communities feel like participating in church means becoming white or leaving their own cultural expressions at the door (or not creating the phenomenon of churches that are mono-ethnic and drawn from these minority communities, who create these communities for various reasons that mostly look like our failure to imagine church life together in which the Gospel is plausible for different cultural groups, thus meaning we lose the opportunity to hear their voice).

Imagine the richness of a church community that made space for many voices and many cultures rather than building mono-cultures. Imagine the comfort that’d come from those many voices together proclaiming “Jesus is king.”

Imagine if those words; which are basically the message of the Gospel; were not an empty platitude but a political mantra that described our approach to life in the world; lives dedicated to living out his coming kingdom together.

Imagine if we understood the words “Jesus is king” as where real power lies, and the source of real politics and so didn’t run as fast as we could to attach ourselves to worldly power; be it the democratic process, popularity, or the powerful leader; but instead ran to our suffering neighbours to live with them and comfort them in their suffering, and to the powerful to rebuke them; where in both cases our lives and words model the truth we proclaim.

Imagine how those words “Jesus is king” would be heard then, if they weren’t simply a detached platitude, unmoored from the life we live in the world; or a social media ‘hot take’… the words of young angry hotheads (typically removed from the suffering) who are desperate to tell the world that God really is in control (and he is) in a way that shows how very wise we are.

You may have just imagined what the church should look like. What’s it going to take to get there?

I think it’s going to take less people rushing to be wise like Elihu, and more people responding to suffering and lament, like Jesus. Who joined the chorus while absolutely doing something about it; while securing a lament free future by becoming the enthroned king.

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). — Matthew 27:46

That Jesus is king is a great comfort; but it is made truer and greater still when you sit with the suffering and look up, understanding what’s really at stake, than it is when you stand apart from suffering and look down.

 

The Last of Us, the zombie apocalypse, identity politics, and the Benedict Option: Christian presence in a post-Christian world

Just how much can you learn about being a Christian in the post-Trump secular age of identity politics from playing a video game about the zombie apocalypse? What does survival even look like for Christians? Who knows. But I had fun writing about it.

sam_and_ellie

I just finished playing through the Zombie survival thriller The Last Of Us. Like many other high quality story driven gaming experiences, it really hit me in the feels. Perhaps especially this scene between Ellie and Sam; discussing the soul, or the humanity, of the infected (you can watch the scene here). Note: There’ll be some spoilers in blockquotes throughout this; but they aren’t super essential to this piece.

Sam: How come you’re never scared?

Ellie: Who says I’m never scared?

Sam: What are you scared of?

Ellie: Scorpions are pretty creepy… Being by myself… I’m scared of ending up alone. What about you?

Sam: Those things out there? What if the people are still inside? What if they’re trapped in there without any control of their body? I’m scared of that happening to me.

Ellie: First of all, we’re a team now, we’re going to help each other out, and second, they might still look like people, but that person is not in there anymore.

Sam: Henry says they’ve moved on, that they’re with their families, like in heaven, do you think that’s true?

Ellie: I go back and forth, I mean, I’d like to believe it.

Sam: But you don’t?

Ellie: I guess not.

But it also got me thinking. How would I go about surviving in a world where all my neighbours, the people I live with in my city, seemed determined not just to want to understand me, but wanted to infect me with a deadly, soul stealing, virus in order to make me just like them. And why does modern life often feel like that? Not just when it comes to my faith in Jesus and what life in modern Australia seems to want me to do with that; but with any view I hold that someone else disagrees with? You want a scene that looks like something out of a zombie survival movie where a bunch of people are operating with some sort of narrow-focused hive-minded propensity for violence and the destruction of the brains of another…

Well…

anti-trump-protests
An anti-Trump protest

Sadly I suspect this would’ve looked almost exactly the same if Hilary had won and Trump’s supporters had hit the streets.

Zombies, Trump, Identity Politics, and civilised self

Playing The Last Of Us, thinking about Christianity in a post-Christian world, and watching the fallout to Trump’s victory got me thinking about the way we’re increasingly not individuals in public and social life, but tribes, and about how sometimes this tribalism plays out in what people are calling ‘identity politics’… which has been the subject of some of the more fascinating analysis of both Trump’s victory and the protests in response. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Identity Politics as:

“The laden phrase “identity politics” has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorising founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups. Rather than organising solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalised within its larger context. Members of that constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant oppressive characterisations, with the goal of greater self-determination.”

This is made all the more interesting by this piece reacting to Trump’s victory and the fallout amongst those who practice identity politics in the Stanford Review.

Stanford has come to embrace a particularly narrow definition of identity politics – one that almost exclusively focuses on the struggles faced by racial minorities and that refuses to acknowledge the plight of any group that does not fit in this reductionist narrative.

It’s fair to say identity politics has largely been a plaything of the political left, until Trump.

In The Last Of Us there’s both the meta-tribes of ‘survivor’ and ‘infected’ and the splintered identities within the survivors who look for survival by belonging to different factions or adopting different strategies. These sub-groups don’t like each other much; they pose just as much danger to one another as the infected; and as a result, undermine the human enterprise. It’s the times that people join forces across tribes that provide some of the most poignant moments in the game. It’s a moment like this that brings Ellie and Sam (and their guardians) together; but the conflict across these sub-groups; these tribes; these identities involves people treating other people as something less than human. As you play the game you’re every bit as likely to sink a bullet or an arrow into another person as you are into a zombie; which requires, ultimately, thinking of anyone who opposes your vision for human flourishing as though they are something less than truly human. It’s an identity politics thing; you operate in this wasteland where survival is everything as though your neighbour is your enemy if they don’t belong to your tribe, and those enemies are in competition with you for resources and a threat to your group’s survival because they’ll either steal from you, or lead the infected to you and undermine your whole social enterprise.

Your identity and your understanding of how identity works in the life of others will, and should, inevitably shape the way you approach and understand politics. I approach politics in a way almost totally formed by my Christian convictions and the sense of self and what human flourishing looks like, that comes from this identity. Where identity politics and tribalism get a little dangerous (and combative) happens along the same fissure line in our view of the other that turns The Last Of Us’ Joel and Ellie into human killers, not just zombie killers; it feels like when we’re trying to survive in the cultural wasteland of modern, secular, life every other vision of what the flourishing life looks like has the potential to eat away at the core of my identity; thus the core of myself and my tribe; thus it is a threat that we must guard ourselves against; tribally. I suspect this is, in part, an explanation for the Benedict Option (which I’ll get to below).

As Joel and Ellie travel through the post-infection wilderness they come across several failed utopias, including one where a small breach in the tribal boundaries — in the wall — was enough for the infection to slip by and destroy the community; other communities, particularly the tribe Sam and his brother Henry belonged to, were destroyed by hostile humans who wanted their stuff. Survival in the world of The Last Of Us seems to require keeping your guard up; and it’s this practice that drives the narrative, and the tension, between Joel and Ellie. Joel loses his daughter in the first cut scene of the game, early in the outbreak of the virus; years later he meets Ellie and takes responsibility for her well-being; his nature, hardened by surviving in the post-apocalyptic wilderness, is to remain emotionally buffered; to avoid attachment to Ellie because his own survival depends on it; well, at least that’s what he thinks. There’s a scene where Joel and Ellie are discussing a toy robot she gave to Sam. It does contain major spoilers so maybe skip the quotes.

Ellie: I forgot to leave that stupid robot on his grave. What should I do with it?
Joel: Ellie…
Ellie: What? I want to talk about it.
Joel: No.
Ellie: Why not?
Joel: How many times do we need to go over this? Things happen… and we move on.
Ellie: It’s just…

To say more would be to spoil the game even more; and you should play it; but Joel’s view is not uncommon in the game, or in the real world. In fact; it’s modern, even if we tend to live tribally around shared identity rather than as individuals. We have this sense that letting down our guard enough to understand an other person, or an identity counter to ours, is a threat to our survival, because it undermines our ability to keep the walls up and may lead to some sort of nasty infection where our identity is ripped apart. The modern, secular, human is by nature, at least according to philosopher Charles Taylor, a ‘buffered self,’ and by this he means a few things.

“This term, as I’ve been using it, has in fact a complex meaning… To be a buffered subject, to have closed the porous boundary between inside (thought) and outside (nature, the physical) is partly a matter of living in a disenchanted world. It comes about through… the replacement of a cosmos of spirits and forces by a mechanistic universe, the fading of higher times… but these changes were furthered, and in turn intensified by subjective changes, shifts in identity, like the rise of disengaged reason, and the transformations wrought by disciplined self-remaking, including the narrowing and intensifying of intimacy and Elias’ “civilising process.”” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.

The world of The Last Of Us, like ours, is thoroughly disenchanted. Ellie is haunted by the possibility of an afterlife, but the virus causing the infection is very real, and very scientific (and the attempts to fight it are really playing out in a lab, and via the shotgun). Where in our secular age, at least as Taylor understands it, the ‘buffered’ self is a self cut off from the divine, or from a sense of enchantment, in the post-zombie secular age, the self is also buffered from other people; especially those outside the tribe… the introduction of this horrific and community-destroying infection has undone the ‘civilising process.’ The zombie apocalypse in The Last Of Us is fundamentally uncivilising; all the hallmarks of our civilisation fall apart.  Train stations are abandoned, health care is a thing of the past — you’re left bandaging your wounds with salvaged alcohol and torn off strips of fabric, cars have all fallen into disrepair, and people behave like animals, even to the point of cannibalism. This ‘civilising process’ Taylor cites is a reference to Norbert Elias’ book The Civilising Process (which according to Wikipedia describes a basic evolution in human behaviour over time from ‘uncivilised’ to civilised); that has all come undone simply because an unexpected plague hits, and hits hard. It might not take as much as we think to turn us into savages. The scenes in the world of The Last Of Us aren’t so different from the scenes we see around mass protests where the trains no longer run on time, health systems fall apart to some extent, and people start looting and pillaging… There’s also a risk that if we see the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for rise of Trump, or the rise of ‘identity politics’ or even the rise of secularism where the brainless masses walk the streets wanting to devour people not like them, and it’s a fight for survival, we’ll adopt strategies — like tribalism — that’ll bring about the undoing of civilisation.

The Last Of Us is a sort of warning shot in the days and weeks post Trump as we figure out the role of identity politics and tribalism together… The sort of tribalism that assumes the zombie apocalypse has hit, that everyone outside the tribe is basically the walking dead, and so turns identity politics into a wasteland survival game is deadly to us all. It’s deadly to civilisation, and deadly to the self. There’s a risk that identity politics, both in theory and as practiced, dehumanises the ‘other’ and because it diminishes the humanity of the other, it also comes at a cost to our own humanity. But this risk runs two ways — there’s also a risk that if we don’t listen to those minority voices championing the identity politics movement, that this will be to our own detriment if we’re operating in a position of relative privilege, or operating seeking the safety of our own tribe. When we attempt to silence, or simply dismiss the concerns of those voices our tribe naturally desires to exclude — those who offer an alternative understanding of, or pattern for, humanity — we’re essentially dehumanising them, seeing them as something akin to zombies, or like you see those pesky other humans in The Last Of Us, as a threat standing in the way of our colony’s surviving and thriving.

If there’s anything I learned from reflecting on The Last Of Us it’s that dehumanising the other has a profound impact on our own humanity. I shot lots of non-infected people simply to advance my own cause; survival. I could do that, morally speaking, so long as they were simply other bits of meat standing between me and survival, but Joel and Ellie find a cannibal tribe rightly repugnant, recognising the risk that their approach to other humans taken to an extreme dehumanises everyone; even if, as the game’s protaganists, we didn’t go quite so far, we end up as monsters who take just as many lives as the infected. As I thought about the body count in my quest for survival I considered that I (or Joel/Ellie) would’ve probably been far better to see some sort of dignity and humanity still underneath the skin of the infected, such that the humanity of the person from outside our tribe with a different utopian vision was not in question. There is some sense in which the human villains you stare down the barrel at in The Last Of Us are worse than the zombies; they have all their faculties in place, but are still driven by baser instincts; those pushing for survival at the expense of others. They’re worse because they choose it; and in order to fight back, we choose it too; and so we are all diminished.

This is the cost of identity politics as it plays out now; which is to say identity politics that is conceived adversarially as tribe against tribe. At worst this sort of identity politics involves a vicious cycle of interpersonal destruction; via the dehumanising of the other, and the assertion of the supremacy of my identity over yours, or, like in even the most utopian post-virus view of human identity in The Last Of Us, it requires a walled-in alienation from the rest of humanity (and the infected).

The real shame here is, of course, that some sort of identity politics is vital to survival in a secular, pluralistic, democracy, and in this sort of context, the key to real survival doesn’t lie in wiping out all competing views of identity, but cultivating the type of world where different identities and different visions of human flourishing can truly co-operate.

This means listening to people who own an identity other than your own (ie, for me, non-anglo people); or perhaps whose identity both overlaps and is differentiated from your own (so for me, for example, an anglo woman, or a Christian woman, or a non-anglo Christian), is vital to the human project. By which I mean it’s vital to true politics and to real survival (that isn’t simply predicated on wiping out the other tribes). Listening like this; and really hearing; might mean laying down some of your rights, or privilege, or capacity to wield power, for the sake of these other groups. Nothing illustrates the potentially positive role a type of identity politics, built on listening to the other, has to play in the post-Trump world if we want to avoid de-civilisation like reading this lament about his election. Hear this post. Read it. Consider it. Here’s why identity politics matter, so long as we keep them from being de-civilising and adversarial, because we so often ignore the identity (and issues) of those outside our own tribe, and there’s always a human cost for that, both for those we ignore, and potentially for ourselves in the act of ignoring, or simply not hearing, them.

Whatever your reasons, a vote for Trump required a rationalization.

What he said about “the blacks” is terrible, but…

What he said on mic about sexually assaulting women is awful, but…

How he mocked several people with disabilities isn’t okay, but…

His statement that immigrants are rapists and criminals was out of line, but…

I could keep going. I think you get the idea, though. In order to vote for Trump, something mattered more to you than his mistreatment or discrimination of certain groups. Whatever followed the “but…” is why you voted for him. Maybe it had to do with the economy or the Supreme Court or his anti-establishment vibe or [fill in the blank]. I trust that you had your reasons. Some policy aspect of his was compelling (or of hers was so awful to you that you felt like you had to vote for the person with the best chance of stopping Hillary).

But here’s the deal: Your policy stance followed the “but…” Our personhood preceded it. — Shannon Dingle, I Want To Help You Understand My Lament

It’s weird that a zombie game got me here. I get that…

Zombies, Survival, and the Benedict Option

But let’s talk about how sometimes it feels like being a Christian in the secular age is like being surrounded by zombies who want to eat your brains; and perhaps other religious groups who see you as a threat to their survival. Because this is a mistake it feels like we’re making when assessing the new status quo, and the Christian’s place in it. Just as it’s a mistake for the identity politics driven protesters to take to the streets in protest while burning effigies and like it was a mistake for Trump voters (particularly white voters) to buy into his dehumanising rhetoric about the other without listening. We don’t, as the church, want to model repeating that mistake in our interactions with the world do we? And so contribute to de-civilisation? We’re not a tribe of sole survivors trying to live in a post-apocalyptic wilderness, we’re certainly an apocalyptic, or eschatological, community living in the light of the end of days as we see it in the resurrection of Jesus and showing what a utopian future might look like, but I’m not sure that’s only meant to happen in our little buffered enclaves. It’s meant to be infectious; if anything we’re like the zombies, the infected, the ‘walking living’…

I’m sure just about every identity group who do the identity politics thing can play through The Last Of Us or watch a zombie movie and identify with the survivors… I think thinking this way is deeply problematic, and here is my point, I think at times we think of the church as an island of zombie survivors, a community-as-bunker, that’ll keep us safe if we guard the boundaries to keep us from infection and ride out the waves. And here’s my concern about the popular Benedict Option, even though I’m possibly misrepresenting it, as it seems everyone does, according to founder Rod Dreher.

People who say that I’m talking about everybody running to their bunkers hidden in the mountains need to stop it. It’s not true. — Rod Dreher, Everybody Row Or We’re Going Over The Falls

I don’t think he’s talking about bunkering down in the hills, and there’s lots he says about the sort of thick community he’s after that I think is great, sign me up (though I just call what he’s talking about ‘church’ and think we should be doing it already), but I do think he is talking about a movement that is primarily a defensive response to a sense that the world outside us is full of infected ‘secularists’ who want to destroy our brains and feed on our children. Here’s something Dreher actually said about the Benedict Option.

“There is no question that the Ben Op calls for a much greater sense of withdrawal than the church has today. The idea is not to create a “utopian enclave,” as if that kind of thing could exist, but rather to live within stronger boundaries between the church and the world, for the sake of better Christian formation, both of individuals and local communities. Most of us will continue to have a “faithful presence within” the structures of the world outside the church. The Ben Op intends to shore up the “faithful” part, because the church has failed miserably to do so. The current moment is an “apocalypse” in the strict sense of an “unveiling”: a revelation of the nakedness and powerlessness of the church before the modern world. This is simple reality.” — Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option and Faithful Presence Within

I do think despite his protestation about being misunderstood by all sorts of very smart people (and he’s writing a book that everyone should read obviously), that the Benedict Option will create a more buffered community (and these words suggest that with its ‘stronger boundaries’, rather than a community that is porous (and being porous means probable movement in and out from both directions. There’s a certain amount of theological truth to the fear that there are monsters crouching at the door waiting to turn us from Jesus, obviously; and these ‘monsters’ don’t always look like zombies, it’s much more likely that identity politics and listening sympathetically to the voices and desires of different minorities and the majority view on, say, sexuality, will pull people from Christian community… and Christians do believe that the key to being truly alive is Jesus, and anyone who doesn’t follow him is basically a member of The Walking Dead… but that doesn’t mean we should be building walls and buffering ourselves from the world at large. In part, because a buffered community is a community that doesn’t listen as well as it should to voices and perspectives from outside the community which may contain necessary criticisms for a community to hear in order to survive. But also, because if the church is going to succeed in any age we need to be porous rather than buffered, not just open to the presence of ‘the divine’ but open to the other, so that people can easily come in; we can’t simply be a community within the wider community, a ‘tribe’, or an ‘identity’ where we shore up the faith of believers by defining ourselves against unbelievers, but a community that grows believers and makes new ones. We’re made to be dynamic, to be on the move, to bring a cure to the infected, not to be static while hoping that infected people will simply fall through the gaps of our defences so that we might isolate them and cure them while they’re cut off from the disease. We can’t approach survival in the world as Christians the way Joel and Ellie face it in The Last Of Us.

The Benedict Option (even with the caveat that I might be misunderstanding it) seems to operate on the assumption that those outside the walls are zombies to be kept out, and that defence is the best response from the church to the changing world — it assumes we need to educate our kids in our own institutions, we’ll probably have to get out of the public service and the legal system, etc and we should do this rather than maintaining (and risking) a presence in these institutions calmly listening to others and offering a cure for their virus, even if doing so comes back to bite us.

It seems designed to mitigate against the risk of infection, and as a result, it creates a community that is less porous than it should be; The Last Of Us (and just about every zombie text) provides pretty strong warnings for minority groups wanting to politic on the basis of their identity that it’s important to keep the walls up. And the Benedict Option, though its proponents would claim otherwise, seems to be a defensive, risk-averse (looking internally, rather than considering the ‘risk’ of how society outside the church will treat us) approach to identity politics; predicated on carving out a Christian identity against and apart from the world. Christian community must be risk-taking, with a particular sort of risk in mind.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? — Matthew 16:24-26

The risk of Christian community is that by heading out into a world full of sick people we might get infected by the world (which didn’t worry Jesus so much, and maybe our aim should be to be like him), but it is riskier still to do nothing. The Benedict Option feels too much to me like the guy in the parable of the talents who took everything his master gave him and buried it so he wouldn’t lose anything; where the righteous person took risks with the master’s gifts in order to grow his wealth. That parable contains God’s investment strategy, not for money, but for the church and how we invest ourselves in the world. Porous boundaries are a necessary risk if we want our community to survive and thrive, and if we want to bring real life and hope and cure to the existentially sick beyond our boundaries… I’d also argue it’s actually this task taking up the call to go into the world to make disciples — not simply be in the world trying to make disciples while keeping the infected at bay — that best shores up the faith of Christians. The best form of defence is ‘attack’ (with the obvious caveats that attack for us, following in the footsteps of Jesus, might actually look a lot like losing)…

In The Last Of Us, Joel, the main character, goes on a journey (led by Ellie) where it becomes clear that staying cut off from emotional attachment to anyone (because they might be infected or die at any time) isn’t a great way to live; that being buffered gets in the way of being human. This ultimately leads him to a place of reconciliation with others he’d spurned and scorned; to seeking a greater understanding of life in the world. It’s a beautiful story. He realises survival isn’t just about staying alive, hunkered down away from risk, but about being alive in relationship with others. This is what offers him the hope of a return to civility; in a community that is starting to recapture even some of the technology lost as a result of the arrival of the infection. Our civilisation, in the rise of tribalism and identity politics, isn’t threatened by zombies who can’t be cured, but by humans who are beaten and battered into buffering themselves against everyone not like them; it’d be a mistake for the church to respond to this by forming our own tribe and forging our own identity apart from and against all other comers instead of modelling what it looks like to break down barriers, understand the identity politics of others ,and work towards a civilisation that gives space for all comers, so that we might have a voice to speak of the ultimate cure and the ultimate kingdom, the one that answers the longing of Sam, Ellie and Joel… Even if it bites us.

It’s time for the church to rediscover her prophetic voice; here’s what that might look like

jeremiah

Image: Jeremiah speaking truth to power

There’s a phrase I’ve often heard bandied about in conversations about how the church should engage the world; it’s often said that there’s a place to speak to the world with a ‘prophetic voice’ as though this is somehow different from all other forms of speech to the world. Usually there’s some sort of sense that a prophetic voice is one that speaks judgment to people outside God’s people, particularly for immorality and by immorality what we mean is often ‘judgment for not keeping the Old Testament law’…

I think a prophetic voice is vital; and rediscovering it, especially now, is essential. We’ve lost our way when it comes to our interaction with governments or with worldly power (especially political power) in general. That’s never been clearer than in the last few weeks as prominent Christian leader after prominent Christian leader bent the knee to the new emperor of the United States of America (it does feel a little bit like Trump’s campaign represented a call for the death of the Republic and the beginning of an Empire). White ‘evangelical’ Christians played a significant role in the election of Trump; not just as a rejection of Hillary Clinton, but because he promised us the baubles of ‘conservative Supreme Court Justices’ and something that looked like a return to Christendom, where we’d have some sort of seat at the table of power. He didn’t just ‘court’ the ‘Christian’ vote; he seduced it; and because the Christian Right is now in bed with power, with a particularly abusive, narcissistic, dictatorial form of power, it’s going to be mighty hard for us to speak truth to it, or not be suckered in by the endless promise of turkish delight and hot chocolate (to borrow from that classic scene in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe). This has rightly distressed many from the evangelical camp in the United States, but also globally, nothing undermines a message quicker than destroying the integrity of the messenger… and the speed with which the church undressed itself and popped into bed for a cuddle with someone who embodies and celebrates everything we’re told to avoid simply because we were promised the reward of worldly power has taken our dignity and integrity along with our chastity.

At the moment it feels like the church is the reverse Hosea. Hosea is the Old Testament prophet whose forgiveness of his serially unfaithful wife was a picture of God’s faithful love for Israel. If we keep jumping in to bed with worldly power because of what it promises to deliver us we tell a story with our lives that is counter to the story of God’s power and faithfulness being found in the Cross of Jesus.

We need to rediscover the prophetic voice.

We desperately need to both live and speak prophetically in a way that demonstrates and articulates an alternative understanding of power and empire because we follow an alternative king.

Speaking prophetically requires us to rediscover an understanding of what prophecy is; and of the ‘prophetic message’ we’re called to speak to our world… we need to rediscover who and what the church actually is; that we’re people of an alternative kingdom bowing the knee to an alternative emperor.

Prophets in the Old Testament seem to follow certain patterns; whether its Samuel speaking to Saul and David, Nathan speaking to David, Elijah and Elisha speaking to different kings, Jonah speaking to the King of Nineveh (and I think Jonah is at least in part a parabolic representation of how Israel is meant to speak to the nations around her, just like all the prophets are a picture of ‘ideal Israel’), Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar, or Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Malachi, Obadiah, Amos, Joel, Hosea, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah in their prophetic ministry or writings pre- and post- exile… They are called by God to speak the word of God to God’s people, and often also to the nations surrounding God’s people. Their messages contain elements of judgment, condemnation, mercy, hope, and a call to repentance. It’s a mistake to categorise the prophetic voice as a voice simply of judgment and condemnation. Prophets don’t just analyse the status quo and show how the people they’re speaking to have it wrong. Christian readers of the Old Testament prophets have a bit of bonus insight into the prophetic ministry of these figures whose lives and words are recorded in our Bible; because Jesus says:

“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” — Luke 24:44

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” — John 5:39-40

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” — Matthew 5:11

Somehow this idea from the start of the Sermon on The Mount points to this bit from the end of the same sermon, so that prophecy is somehow geared towards producing Godly behaviour in its hearers:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” — Matthew 7:12

Prophecy doesn’t seem to die in the New Testament either; its ‘end’ or purpose might be caught up in the coming of Jesus, but somehow prophecy continues; it’s both assumed that it happens in our churches (and by our churches, see 1 Corinthians 14), and the book of Revelation itself has widely been understood as both apocalyptic and prophetic (there’s just a lot of questions about exactly where it points).

So here’s what I think we need to keep in mind if we’re going to take up the challenge of speaking prophetically as the church (both institutionally and as members of the body).

1. Know God’s word (hint: it’s Jesus)

“The word of the Lord [that] came to…” — Zechariah 1:1, Hosea 1:1, Joel 1:1, Zephaniah 1:1, Ezekiel 1:3, Jeremiah 1:4, Micah 1:1, Jonah 1:1

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says” — Amos 1:3 (and over and over again in Amos)

“The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi” — Malachi 1:1

“The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.” — Habakkuk 1:1

The prophet in the Old Testament speaks God’s word. They operate as a divine proxy making proclamations from God to people in God’s world about how they are living. They speak words that are inspired and their authority is recognised by God’s people in this way. A prophet is inspired by God and speaks God’s word; his revelation; to the world. They are obviously very engaged with what is happening in the world they speak to and bring some sort of timely message, but if the telos of prophecy is Jesus, then there’s a timelessness to that engaged proclamation too, and a fitting in with God’s Jesus-centered plans for the world.

It would be, at least according to the Bible, a mistake to think that this word [only] comes to someone by some special movement of the Spirit in a vision; it certainly comes by the Spirit’s work on the person or on the institution of the church, because any speech that comes from God is ‘breathed’ this way, but the Bible is pretty clear what God’s spirit-filled word ultimately looks like… What the substantial message of ‘prophecy’ must now involve:

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

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” — Hebrews 1:1-2

There’s been a temptation when others wield a ‘prophetic voice’ to think that it is about what is wrong with the world and the particular sins of people in a particular time; I think prophecy needs to be able to observe where our culture or people are departing from the sort of humanity and worship that God made us for; but the prophetic voice is not a voice that simply raises problems about the world, it is one that speaks of the solution to these problems, to the ultimate telos of the world and of our humanity. God’s word. The Spirit works in us to draw us to Jesus, point us to Jesus, and to conform us into the image of Jesus; so spirit filled words, prophetic words, are also words that point people to Jesus. This is true of the prophets prior to the arrival of Jesus, and true of prophecy now.

The word of God, the Bible, is also ‘spirit inspired’; and it contains the written words of many prophets; when Paul talks about prophecy in the context of the church he doesn’t limit it to the written word of God, but prophecy is limited by the written word of God. It won’t say anything counter to the Spirit inspired written word that points us to the Spirit giving living word (as an aside: there’s a cool relationship in terms of an understanding of the Trinity between God as ‘speaker,’ the Spirit as word-carrying ‘breath’ and the powerful ‘word’ too and we see this in Jesus life which is lived by the Spirit). One of the ways we test prophecy is by seeing how it lines up to the written word of God, and we understand the written word of God according to it’s God given purposes when we read it the way Jesus tells us to; as being about him.

Prophecy points to Jesus; but there is something about prophecy that arises in a particular time and context and is the application of God’s Word to life in God’s world; it calls us to turn to Jesus in the face of God’s nature and by confronting us with the consequences of our nature. This is true of the Old Testament prophets and their messages to both Israel and the nations; and it’s true of what Paul says of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14, where it is for the “strengthening, encouraging and comfort” of believers (1 Cor 14:3), and moving unbelievers to worship God as “they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare.” Prophecy within the church can be reactive, or spontaneous in some way as a response to what is happening, but should be weighed carefully and not be disordered, it seems from Paul’s argument that this means it both stands in line with what is taught about Jesus (including by the prophets), but also in what it produces in the life of the church “for God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:29-33)

Any prophetic voice that is not a proclamation of the word of God — Jesus — is not truly prophetic. Any use of the Old Testament word not caught up in its telos is giving a hollow picture of God; if your prophecy — your presentation of God’s word to the world — could equally be Jewish or Islamic — then it isn’t actually Christian prophecy, even if it observes some true things about the nature of God and the world.

In Revelation, when John wants to bow down before the messenger who brings him the vision he writes, the messenger says:

“At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus.”

The prophetic voice is about Jesus. It’s speaking the message of the kingdom of Jesus to the world and calling people to turn to him from the life people are leading apart from him. It’s not just a call to live a particular way in accord with God’s design; but a call to discover God’s design for humanity in the person and rule of Jesus.

2. Know where the world is; and where it is going (and who people are, and where they’re going)

Prophecy both in the Old Testament and the New doesn’t just point people to Jesus; but it describes their existence in the world in a way that creates a need to be pointed to Jesus in the lives of the hearer. Prophecy is in the 1 Corinthians 14 sense, and throughout the Old Testament, a call to turn from false worship to true worship. It’s a call from idolatry and its fruits to a new way of life. But it isn’t enough simply to observe the idols of a culture and speak against them… nor is it a call to a new way of life without dealing with the idols…. nor is it simply pointing people to the character of God and his judgment…

Prophecy as I think it works consistently throughout the Old Testament, and in the New involves:

  1. Knowing who God is via his word — that he is the source of truth and justice; and that he hates sin, especially the worship of false Gods.
  2. Knowing what the idols of a people are and what it is about their nature (individually and culturally) that pulls people away from truth (whether it’s the nations, or the lure of the nations for God’s people.
  3. Knowing that idols are destructive — that they are folly, but also that they have a sort of power to kill you in the opposite way to God’s power to bring life.
  4. Replacing those idols with knowledge of the true God by living and speaking an alternative way of life that addresses and redirects the part of our humanity that pulls us to idols. The prophets often don’t simply speak to act, they act in a way that speaks (eg Hosea and his marriage, Ezekiel and his weird ‘scroll diet,’ Jonah’s story as an enacted condemnation of Israel and picture of why they’re in exile and what’s wrong with their hearts).
  5. Often this replacement happens in a sort of ‘head to head’ battle with powerful voices from the culture the prophet is addressing; whether it is addressed to the king of God’s people to call them back to God in the face of judgment (ie Samuel and Saul, David and Nathan), or to foreign powers (whether it’s Elijah and the prophets of Baal or Jonah and the King of Nineveh, or other prophet v prophet smackdowns that accompany the rise and fall of kings of Israel or the nations in 1-2 Kings).

It’s a call to the destruction of idols and their total replacement by God; the God we see revealed in Jesus. Too often our modern prophetic voices have only gone down one of these paths. We’ve spoken of the problem of immorality without identifying the idols behind it, we’ve called people to morality without calling them to Jesus… sometimes this is because we’ve identified the prophetic voice of Old Testament prophets as the voices to imitate and missed that they were speaking to Israel, but also missed that the telos of their words, their ‘end’, according to Jesus, is Jesus himself, and that fruitful living flows from the Spirit; it doesn’t lead people to the Spirit.

Interestingly, if this framework is right (and it is a bit of a simplification); it’s also what Paul does in Athens when he engages with the idolatry at the cultural/religious heart of the Roman Empire before he heads off to try to get the Gospel to Caesar, governor by governor, king by king, trial by trial.

3. Speak truth about God’s word and God’s world to God’s people (take the Gospel to the Church)

The Lord warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and seers: “Turn from your evil ways. Observe my commands and decrees, in accordance with the entire Law that I commanded your ancestors to obey and that I delivered to you through my servants the prophets.”

But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their ancestors, who did not trust in the Lord their God. They rejected his decrees and the covenant he had made with their ancestors and the statutes he had warned them to keep. They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the Lord had ordered them, “Do not do as they do.” — 2 Kings 17:13-15

Often when we talk about needing to speak in the prophetic voice what we have in mind is speaking to cultural and political power brokers… but the Bible seems to suggest the prophets had a pretty big role to play in speaking truth to God’s people, and there’s a sense that if God’s people follow the words of the prophet they actually become an enacted example of the prophetic voice to and for the nations and worldly powers to see. A prophetic voice calls God’s people to be different to the world around us; rather than imitating them, and calls us from imitations of worldly power (that’s kind of the point of prophetic interactions with Saul and Solomon, and all the other kings… a call to stop being kings like the kings of the nations and relying on worldly power).

When it comes to the church, and to prophecy pointing to Jesus as God’s king, in response to particular and timely observations about life in the world we live in… this is what Paul says prophecy is, and what it is for:

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified. — 1 Corinthians 14:1-5

In the context of the early church prophecy was to encourage people to be part of a kingdom that was not Rome, to not bow the knee to Caesar (especially when Caesar was using his power against the church), or think that the solution to Caesar’s reign was to be like Caesar against Caesar, or to be like Caesar for their own sake. This is how I think Revelation functions as prophecy; it speaks truth about worldly empires — calling them beastly extensions of Satan’s campaign against Jesus who are ultimately defeated, and in doing so it calls the church not to give in to, or get into bed with, worldly power (with the Pharisees and the crucifixion of Jesus by the agents of the ‘synagogue of Satan’ in Jerusalem-as-proxy-of-Rome as a powerful counter-example of this).

A modern prophetic voice must tell the church the truth about real power (Jesus); and the truth about worldly power, for its strengthening, encouragement, comfort and edification. We must tell people that worldly power very, very, rarely lines up with real power (though it can) and though God appoints and works through worldly powers often in the Bible this is as a means of judgment or to achieve his demonstration of real power as being the opposite of self-serving, Satan-following, empire building (eg Pharaoh, Cyrus, Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar). We must see worldly power as what it is; when power is used for anything but the service of God as an outworking of the love of our neighbours as ourself, and the love of God, following the Word of God in a way that ‘sums up the words of the law and the prophets’ and so treats people as we would have them treat us (Matt 7:12), it is beastly and idolatrous; so we shouldn’t be jumping in to bed with it, even when it promises us delicious fruit that is pleasing to the eye (like the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan in Genesis 3), or life itself, or some semblance of control of the world around us (like the temptation of Jesus by Satan in Matthew 4:8-11). Let’s call what the church has done with Trump what it is… giving in to temptation to have a bit of worldly power… it’s a fall. It’s sin. We need to repent; and we need prophetic voices who call us to do that before we even try to speak to the world.

4. Speak truth to power (take the Gospel to Rome); and truth about worldly power from a position apart from the seat of power

Prophets don’t just speak to God’s kings in the Old Testament. They call all sorts of foreign powers to repent; God’s design for humanity wasn’t simply for Israel, Israel was meant to model it in a way that brought blessing to the nations and the nations to the Temple; but the way to bring the nations to God in ancient times was not convert by convert, but from the top down. Religion was corporate, and cultic, and national — often the kings, or past kings, were not just ‘images of god’ or representatives of a nation’s gods, but gods themselves (Rome did this on steroids with the Imperial Cult where the Caesars, dead and alive, were worshipped, but what they did wasn’t new).  When a prophet called a king to repent they were calling a whole nation to worship God. Perhaps the best example of this is in Nineveh; but it also explains Paul’s mission to the heart of the empire (and why it matters that members of Caesar’s household are following Jesus and he mentions that in Philippians); and it explains what happens with Constantine a few hundred years later.

One thing our modern prophetic voices get right is that they feel called to speak the truth to power; where we misfire, or have tended to, is that we tend to think the solution to the problems we identify is the right application of worldly power to moral issues; so changed laws… where the Gospel requires changed hearts. Our message shouldn’t be confused with worldly power — like lobbying on the basis of votes, or a pursuit of seats at the tables of power — when we speak with a prophetic voice (as individuals or ‘institutionally’ as prophets within the people of God like in 1 Corinthians 14) we must be detached enough from the table of power to be its conscience and to call it to something different; this doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t hold positions in government; but it does seem to speak against the way the religious right operates globally in that it both wants to wield power as a proxy arm of the government (so we see political endorsements from pulpits), and it wants to coerce the government to act not simply based on what governors believe is right for their people, but on what we tell them is right for securing and holding on to power. Christians who are in government — like Erastus in the city of Corinth (Romans 16) have to operate as ‘the sword’ according to their convictions, as members of the church but not seen to be acting totally as the church; or we’ve lost the vital separation between the functions of church and state and suddenly have the church sending us to war or executing people… if you’re occupying a position in the government it makes the prophetic voice very difficult for you; you’re then David, not Nathan. And too often our prophetic voices seem to want to be David, or to be so close to David, as proxies of his reign, that we can no longer be Nathan.

5. Publicly call people to repent (ie to turn to Jesus); but don’t coerce them

Return, Israel, to the Lord your God.
    Your sins have been your downfall!
Take words with you
    and return to the Lord.
Say to him:
    “Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously,
    that we may offer the fruit of our lips — Hosea 1:1-2

Prophets definitely called people to repent. That’s caught up in the prophetic voice both as it is directed to the church and the world. At the moment it feels like our prophetic voices want to force people to act repentant via the wielding of power in a democracy; and it also feels like we’ve misunderstood repentance as being more about turning away from immorality than about turning to God. Neither the Old Testament or New Testament prophets do this; they don’t come to a place and say ‘stop being immoral’ but rather ‘return to God and so stop being immoral.’

Trying to change laws to suit us or to make idolatry difficult is an interesting approach to loving our neighbours; harm minimisation in itself is not a bad thing, and helping people see the potential harm of particular courses of action is a loving thing to do; it just doesn’t seem to be what a prophetic voice does. And if our voice is limited to identifying and stopping harm, all we’re offering is bandaid solutions, or the treating of symptoms rather than addressing the cause, and I’m not sure a doctor who does that is really loving a patient, they’re just starting early palliative care. We’re called to offer more than palliative care to our neighbours; we’re called to bring them the words of eternal life. To bring them Jesus. Identifying the harm of idolatry is part of the prophetic voice; but it’s not all of it; and the prophetic voice outside the people of the kingdom is not a call to obey God in the small stuff, but a call to turn to a life pursuing whole-hearted obedience. A prophetic voice within the church does seem more particularly geared to calling people to act as the people we now are. But if we don’t make the distinction based on who we’re speaking to and how they see God and the world, we’re not being prophetic.

6. Offer an alternative vision of life in the world — of a different kingdom — as living (and dying) examples who do not fear

“But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.” — 1 Corinthians 14:3

There’s a great deal of anxiety in what passes for prophetic voices these days — whether it’s about the rise of the left and their influence on how the world sees marriage, gender, and other things we see as tied to God’s vision for human flourishing… not to mention how much they seem to want to destroy religious freedom and rewrite religion to be some sort of neutered servant of the state, or now about the rise of the hard right and their co-opting of the church for political ends… Prophetic voices should call us not to fear because God is in control; this isn’t to suggest that worldly powers don’t cause real suffering; a prophetic voice will call us to step into the suffering as agents of the kingdom of God and its peace; the kingdom of God is a kingdom oriented towards fighting against the curse of sin and death, and a prophetic voice should bring strength, encouragement and comfort precisely because life in the world is often not good; because their is pain and suffering (and because this pain an suffering is inevitably tied up with the wrong application of human power). A prophetic voice should lead people out of fear — both of man, and God’s judgment, by leading people to Jesus. But this can not be a trite platitude, or a Facebook status; it has to be a thing we are living towards; the prophetic voice always came from an exemplary prophetic life (except with Jonah, but that was the point, Jonah was a jerk, Jonah was a picture of why Israel was tossed into exile — the belly of the whale — the verb used to describe Jonah being hurled into the water and so the whale is the word the prophets use to describe Israel being hurled into exile; it comes after Jonah has attempted to refuse God’s call to speak with the prophetic voice to the nations). Prophets often lamented the state of the world even while understanding that this is a result not just of our sin; but God’s judgment.

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted. — Habakkuk 1:2-4

But these voices do also call us back to God in carrying his answers; and we do see the answer to suffering and pain and injustice in this world in the life, death, resurrection and reign of Jesus; that’s not a call to stand back and point to this truth by words though though, but to step in to the suffering and use our voice to point to where the suffering ultimately ends as we fight against it in small ways.

A prophetic voice calls people to worship God, not idols or the people with worldly powers — those serving ‘the prince of this world,’ Satan. A prophetic voice calls us to Jesus as the true king and the foundation of true living and flourishing in God’s world. It does this in a way that engages with worldly power as we see it being abused in the here and now, both in the political realm but also in the lives of people.

In Revelation, in the midst of the craziness of dragons dying and flailing about, we see these two ‘lampstands’ (the churches from the start of the letter) described as two ‘faithful witnesses’ — they’re a picture of what a faithful and prophetic church looks like in the face of a ‘beastly’ worldly empire — worldly powers that are the anti-thesis of Jesus. This is, in part, what prophecy in this sort of world, serving our sort of king, will involve (and why we’d endure it)…

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

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

These witnesses don’t look like the sort of prophetic voice that cuddles up to, or wields, worldly power. But they do look like Jesus. Being a ‘prophetic voice’ will often involve being hated. Paul seems to speak of himself, and his partners in the Gospel, in prophetic terms (if the above understanding of prophecy holds water) in 2 Corinthians 2…

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.” — 2 Corinthians 2:14-17

The Gospel is political. The prophetic voice is political. But sometimes it is political in creating an explicitly different sort of kingdom to the status quo. One thing a prophetic voice could, and perhaps, should do is seek to limit worldly power and our understanding of what emperors can take responsibility for; to help people see the limits of political power even now. Living and proclaiming an alternative kingdom might actually look like seeing solutions that are political in this kingdom sense, but not an earthly sense, for the destruction of life (whether its abortion or the treatment of refugees), we might see that there are solutions apart from who occupies positions of power or what the law says for tackling all sorts of dilemmas; a prophetic voice might be a voice that imagines and creates alternative political realities and establishments that don’t look like the wielding of worldly power, but look more like the kingdom — as they serve, strengthen, edify and comfort the church so that we don’t go running to Caesar, whether Roman, or orange, for scraps from his table, a quick tumble, and the promise of true love and a share of his power, but hold fast to Jesus, and so be prepared to lay down our lives for the sake of pointing people to real truth about the sort of human power that was wielded, in self interest, to reject God in the garden of Eden, and arrest Jesus and take him to death in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in doing so to point them to real life.

We need prophetic voices because when the church cuddles up with the sort of power that Satan cuddles up to we start to stink of death not life; and that will destroy us when we should be bringing life to a dying world.

We need prophetic voices because our leaders are human; and there is hope for them, and that they might do much good for our neighbours, if they hear the truth and have it shape them, so long as we are shaping our leaders, rather than being shaped by them.

We need prophetic voices because the world needs Jesus much more than it needs Trump, or any other powerful leader promising to make things great again.

We need prophetic voices because while Jesus is on his throne, and governments are appointed by God, sometimes they’re appointed as agents of God’s judgment and that causes pain and destruction to the neighbours we’re called to love; and when we stand idly by while that happens, the Old Testament prophets show us that’s a pretty quick path to facing God’s judgment ourselves.

We need prophetic voices because real hope is found in the politics of Jesus not in the politics of human emperors.

God, Telstra, and the iPhone: What’s going to make your life magic again?

kim-dong-kyu-phone

Illustration by Kim Dong-kyu Based on: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich (1818). From: Technology Nearly Killed Me, Andrew Sullivan, New York Mag, Sep 2016

 

 

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — Arthur C. Clarke

There’s a new Telstra ad that I love because it is beautiful, but that I feel overpromises on what technology can (and does) deliver; in fact, I think it misleads, and invites us to put our hope in the wrong places. But it is a beautiful ad that taps into some deep human desires.

“See? We live in a magical world. We never have to wake up from our dreams. Our restless minds now free to wonder at the wonder of technology; at the magic we’ve created. Possibilities are like stars now infinite constellations fuelled by pure imagination; leading to one destination – to you, to thrive.” — Telstra

The world doesn’t feel as magical as it used to. That’s part of the central thesis of award winning philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Telstra’s marketing gurus seem to have tapped into the haunting sense of loss we have because of the evacuation of magic, or something ‘transcendent’ from our view of the world by suggesting technology itself is the way back; like somehow the answer to our longing for something more than the material is more material, just cleverer, just with the illusion of magic (because part of the evacuation of magic from the world is the belief that anything that looks magical is actually an illusion, which is why we call magicians illusionists now).

It used to be that life was magical; that every thing had some sort of spiritual significance, whether there were gods everywhere behind every event, like a poor harvest or a pregnancy, or in monotheistic cultures everything existed in some way within the life and will of the infinite God; Christians in particular believe that the material world, what Taylor calls the ‘immanent’ world, is somehow given life and significance (or more ultimate meaning) by its connection to the creator, and by Jesus, the creator’s creating and sustaining ‘word’ (transcendent) made flesh (immanent). Colossians 1 has a good example of this view of the world:

For in [Jesus] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” — Colossians 1:16-17

C.S Lewis didn’t just write fairy tales for kids and a bunch of Christian reflections on life; he also published academic work on literature, including a book called The Discarded Image which looked at how older generations viewed the world this way; as enchanted, and how that fuelled their creativity, their art, their literature, and so better answered the longings of the human heart for some sort of enchantment, he argued (in 1964) that we’ve lost something as moderns who have kicked the sense of the transcendent out of our world and settled just for the stuff we can see and taste and touch as ‘reality’ and our source of meaning; C.S Lewis would be a little suspicious of Telstra’s advertising I suspect. Even the best technology — the most luxurious things we can fill our house with — he said were a certain sort of ugly, precisely because of this lack of symbolism, or significance, pointing to anything beyond itself (and so we have modern, and post-modern, art, often wallowing in this milieu, and so soulless and empty).

“Luxury and material splendour in the modern world need be connected with nothing but money and are also, more often than not, very ugly. But what a medieval man saw in royal or feudal courts and imagined as being outstripped in ‘ faerie’ and far outstripped in Heaven, was not so. The architecture, arms, crowns, clothes, horses, and music were nearly all beautiful. They were all symbolical or significant-of sanctity, authority, valour, noble lineage or, at the very worst, of power. They were associated, as modern luxury is not, with graciousness and courtesy. They could therefore be ingenuously admired without degradation for the admirer.” — C.S Lewis, The Discarded Image

 

James K.A. Smith wrote an accessible commentary on Taylor’s massive tome called How (Not) To Be Secular, here are two key ideas from his work:

“It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter…There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power. Things can do stuff.”

 

“Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) to be Secular

The implications of these quotes are interesting when read against Telstra’s ad; a campaign designed to reconnect us with the magic we long for, via machines.

The first is interesting because it explains why we look to technology — machines — to enchant our lives; if matter is all that matters, if everything (the universe) is basically one big machine of cause and effect, filled with little machines (us), who make machines (technology) then we’re now likely to rely on technology to give us any sense of what we’ve lost because they’re the closest we get to matter with a soul; other than us, and we get to program the soul into them so they serve us. The second point explains why we want them to serve us by delivering the experience of ‘magic’; because that’s precisely what we’ve lost, and what we long for, and what we’re haunted by. We want matter to matter more than it does; we want a transcendent reality that stretches beyond us; this might be, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, because God has set eternity on the hearts of humanity, but it might just be that we wish magic was real.

If Taylor is right then I don’t think machines; perhaps especially smartphones and screens; will deliver the answer our haunted selves are looking for, they might actually make the haunting worse; especially if all the science looking at what technology use does to our brains and relationships is true; and on this you should definitely read the Andrew Sullivan piece, Technology Almost Killed Me where that picture at the top of this post comes from; Sullivan is one of the world’s most famous bloggers, he went a year without tech, precisely because he felt he was losing himself into a totally ‘immanent’ way of life, and he wanted some transcendence; he found that silence, not distracting technological bombardment, was where something ‘magical’ could truly be found… he looks at how our western world has progressively killed the silence which used to enchant us, and in doing so have ensure our haunted longings for something more, for the infinite reality that silence throws us towards, are not truly satiated.

“The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise.

And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.

Except, of course, there is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace. From the moment I entered a church in my childhood, I understood that this place was different becauseit was so quiet. The Mass itself was full of silences — those liturgical pauses that would never do in a theater, those minutes of quiet after communion when we were encouraged to get lost in prayer, those liturgical spaces that seemed to insist that we are in no hurry here. And this silence demarcated what we once understood as the sacred, marking a space beyond the secular world of noise and business and shopping.”

The inability for technology to really scratch the haunting itch of the loss of the transcendent, that it doesn’t truly ‘enchant’ our world or make our lives feel magical, has fuelled technologist David Rose, who’s committed to creating enchanting technology because he thinks most technology doesn’t live up to the Arthur C. Clarke quote, he wrote a book called Enchanted Objects trying to articulate a vision for the sort of technology that might do this, it’s a compelling read, particularly (I think) for this analysis on the problem with the ideas that screens can deliver the enchantment Telstra promises.

“I HAVE A recurring nightmare. It is years into the future. All the wonderful everyday objects we once treasured have disappeared, gobbled up by an unstoppable interface: a slim slab of black glass. Books, calculators, clocks, compasses, maps, musical instruments, pencils, and paintbrushes, all are gone. The artifacts, tools, toys, and appliances we love and rely on today have converged into this slice of shiny glass, its face filled with tiny, inscrutable icons that now define and control our lives. In my nightmare the landscape beyond the slab is barren. Desks are decluttered and paperless. Pens are nowhere to be found. We no longer carry wallets or keys or wear watches. Heirloom objects have been digitized and then atomized. Framed photos, sports trophies, lovely cameras with leather straps, creased maps, spinning globes and compasses, even binoculars and books—the signifiers of our past and triggers of our memory—have been consumed by the cold glass interface and blinking search field. Future life looks like a Dwell magazine photo shoot. Rectilinear spaces, devoid of people. No furniture. No objects. Just hard, intersecting planes—Corbusier’s Utopia. The lack of objects has had an icy effect on us. Human relationships, too, have become more transactional, sharply punctuated, thin and curt. Less nostalgic. Fewer objects exist to trigger storytelling—no old photo albums or clumsy watercolors made while traveling someplace in the Caribbean. Marc Andreessen, the inventor of the Netscape browser, said, “Software is eating the world.” Smartphones are the pixelated plates where software dines. Often when I awake from this nightmare, I think of my grandfather Otto and know the future doesn’t have to be dominated by the slab. Grandfather was a meticulous architect and woodworker. His basement workshop had many more tools than a typical iPad has apps…”

… Today’s gadgets are the antithesis of Grandfather Otto’s sharp chisel or Frodo’s knowing sword. The smartphone is a confusing and feature-crammed techno-version of the Swiss Army knife, impressive only because it is so compact. It is awkward to use, impolite, interruptive, and doesn’t offer a good interface for much of anything. The smartphone is a jealous companion, turning us into blue-faced zombies, as we incessantly stare into its screen every waking minute of the day. It took some time for me to understand why the smartphone, while convenient and useful for some tasks, is a dead end as the human-computer interface. The reason, once I saw it, is blindingly obvious: it has little respect for humanity. What enchants the objects of fantasy and folklore, by contrast, is their ability to fulfill human drives with emotional engagement and élan. Frodo does not value Sting simply because it has a good grip and a sharp edge; he values it for safety and protection, perhaps the most primal drive. Dick Tracy was not a guy prone to wasting time and money on expensive personal accessories such as wristwatches, but he valued his two-way wrist communicator because it granted him a degree of telepathy—with it, he could instantly connect with others and do his work better. Stopping crime. Saving lives.

— David Rose, Enchanted Objects

He looked to our ‘enchanted’ stories; stories that have the sort of view of the world that Lewis (and his friend Tolkien) looked back to from the past and created in the more recent past… but it’s possible he missed the heart of what these writers (and J.K Rowling) were doing.

What’s the secret to creating technology that is attuned to the needs and wants of humans? The answer can be found in the popular stories and characters we absorb in childhood and that run through our cultural bloodstream: Greek myths, romantic folktales, comic book heroes, Tolkien’s wizards and elves, Harry Potter’s entourage, Disney’s sorcerers, James Bond, and Dr. Evil. They all employ enchanted tools and objects that help them fulfill fundamental human drives.

He does understand that technology will only work if it speaks to fundamental human desires; he’s not going to these stories as books containing “fanciful, ephemeral wishes, but rather persistent, essential human ones,” which he lists as omniscience, telepathy, safekeeping, immortality, teleportation, and expression. Basically, to use Taylor’s terminology, we’re in want of something that will pull us from the immanent into transcendence. Rose does just enough to kill Telstra’s claims that connectivity via a piece of glass can give us what our haunted hearts desire, and the technology he writes about as alternatives, like a magic cabinet that has a built in screen with a skype connection to a matching cabinet, which glows when the person at the other end of the line is nearby and allows instant and convenient conversation; well, that’s pretty great and does fan some of the flames of my heart (and could one day make my wallet lighter). The problem will always be that immanent objects — the product of coding and engineering — will only ever leave us trapped in the immanent world, the ‘brass heaven,’ haunted by a sense that there might be something more to life and relationships than that which can be encoded in bits and bytes made up of 1s and 0s. The problem will always be that eternity is written on our hearts; if only, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, we knew where to look to scratch that itch. This writer, who after his journey through life trying to sort the immanent out from the transcendent, concluded:

So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.” — Ecclesiastes 9:1-2

He doesn’t take this to the negative sort of place you might expect…

You who are young, be happy while you are young,
    and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
    and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
    God will bring you into judgment.
 So then, banish anxiety from your heart
    and cast off the troubles of your body,
    for youth and vigor are meaningless.

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,

— Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:1

Then he says:

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

— Ecclesiastes 12:6-7

This is what we’re to do in our ‘immanent’ existence; the fleeting ‘breath’ that this writer reflects on time and time again that is unfortunately often translated as ‘meaningless’… we’re meant to reach out towards the God who gave us breath, knowing that as he puts it at the start of his summing up in Ecclesiastes 9: “the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands“… now… If only we knew where to look to see God’s hands. If only there were some way to scratch where we itch… if only there were some way to bridge between the immanent and the transcendent; to satisfy those deep desires that the writer of Ecclesiastes, Telstra and David Rose are searching for — the ability to see the world as meaningful beyond the material, to give us existence beyond ‘breathiness’ so that we become immortal.

Oh that’s right. According to two thousand years of Christians, and the book we live by… We do.

Paul says some more good stuff about Jesus in Colossians 1; about the implications of that time we see the hands of God; hands nailed to ugly planks of wood by barbaric spikes, these hands Paul says hold the cosmos together became very ‘immanent’ and are the ultimate enchanted objects that deliver on our wildest imaginings. Paul says:

And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” — Colossians 1:18-20

That’s more magical than an iThing, as nice as they are, don’t let Telstra, or anyone, sell you short. You can enjoy the sort of life you so deeply desire and are haunted by. You can enjoy life that is more than just immanent, more than just heading towards the dust of the grave, you can enjoy life that’s more than a little bit magical.

 

My letter to Peter Dutton about Australia’s continued detention of Asylum Seekers

letterwriting

Some people asked to see the letter I said I was going to write in my post on how to write to a minister or MP. I’ve sent this to Peter Dutton, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and to my local member (who is a Liberal Party MP).


Dear The Hon. Mr Dutton,

I’m writing to you regarding the ongoing situation of asylum seekers and refugees held in detention by our nation, especially the recent announcements that no refugee currently held offshore will ever receive an Australian Visa. I’m a Presbyterian Minister in Brisbane, and am writing to ask you to consider an alternative way forward, and to offer my assistance, and that of my church community. I want to thank you for the way you serve our nation through managing your complex portfolio and don’t want to pretend these are simple issues; regardless of the way forward, you are in my prayers. I’m thankful for Australia’s generosity when it comes to re-settling refugees through our humanitarian program; but concerned at the huge cost of our continued detention of asylum seekers in off shore detention; not just the financial cost, but the cost to our humanity.

In the words of the poet John Donne, I believe that “no man is an island” so that ‘any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind;’ the way we treat others impacts us because it changes how we participate in humanity globally, and shapes the vision of humanity we live by in our community and as Australian citizens. The bell is tolling, and the evidence that we are causing damage to others (including children), and so to ourselves, is mounting.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky said: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.” How we care for those under our authority who are excluded from our society reflects something about the society they are kept apart from. Continuing to deny vulnerable refugees, especially refugee children, any sense of hope, freedom, or dignity, especially if we’re punishing victims of crime to deter criminals, will not just cause damage to these refugees, but will damage our souls. I don’t mean this exclusively in a spiritual sense, but that it undermines the core of the Australian psyche; teaching us, as citizens, to be more self-interested, and that global problems aren’t also our problems. We may indeed live on an island, but we are not disconnected from the suffering of humans abroad; nor can we detach ourselves from the suffering of those in our care held on smaller islands.

I believe it is time we turn to community-based, not simply political, solutions to lower these costs. It is a sad indictment on modern life that we have politicised everything, and so made this a problem for our political leaders to solve, not for us all. As a believer in small government I’m hoping we might find ways to share the burden created by international humanitarian crises amongst other institutions and communities within the Australian public.

As a church leader, I think the church has a particular opportunity and role to play here; a role it is already playing on a case by case basis; my church in Brisbane is home to a community of Iranian asylum seekers and our love and care for them has enriched our souls, and the life of our community. I’d love to see this experience repeated in churches around our nation as we take the responsibility for living out the call Jesus gave us as his disciples. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus called his followers to look after the poor, the widowed, the oppressed, the prisoner, the hungry and the thirsty — those at the margins — he says:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ — Matthew 25:35-36

He says whatever we do for the “least of these;” whether in caring for them or ignoring their plight; it is as though we are doing it to him. Australia is by no means a Christian nation, but Christians in our nation are concerned to follow the teaching of Jesus, and in doing so to seek the good of our neighbours, be they our global neighbours or the Australian whose spirit is being systematically eroded as vulnerable people are broken in our name.

No man is an island. The bell is tolling; and it is tolling for thee, and me… Can we please stop keeping our vulnerable global neighbours on these small islands and find ways to bring them here, where Australian citizens might take up the challenge, apart from the government, of caring for these neighbours lest our nation’s soul be destroyed? I would like to offer to be involved with exploring ways that the church, and other interested communities or institutions, might play a part in lowering the cost of caring for refugees in our community.

Regards,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” — John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls

How to write to your MP and the relevant government minister about an issue (as a Christian) in 14 not-easy steps

writingtoapolitician

There are lots of good reasons to write to your local member of parliament or the appropriate government minister as a Christian; we have the incredible privilege of being part of a democracy; where each individual and community of individuals is viewed as having an equal say in how our nation is governed, and where individuals and communities should in principle be entitled to participate equally in public life. One way to participate in our democracy is to vote; but our participation shouldn’t end there (nor should we think that participating well in a democracy, or the public life of our nation is limited to the political sphere and how we influence our politicians and vote).

There are lots of issues where Christians are passionate about how our government makes decisions, and the decisions they make. In my pre-vocational-ministry life I worked for a not-for-profit advocacy group and one of my jobs was to come up with and coordinate public campaigns that involved getting people to contact politicians to ask for things (like V8 Supercars races, significant transport infrastructure, or various election commitments); I’ve put some thought into how the principles for that sort of letter or advocacy translates into how I participate in our democracy as a Christian; and here are my thoughts, please note, there are other ways to skin a cat, how you participate is up to you, and some of this advice is more oriented at what writing a letter should do to you, not just to the recipient, so it might actually end up not being the most effective way to secure a result because there are certain types of persuasion or argument that are no go areas for Christians (manipulation, and or power-grabs run counter to the Gospel).

Communication is always an act of some sort from a communicator to a recipient with the aim of achieving some outcome (understanding and action). It’s helpful to approach writing a letter thinking about each of the elements of this equation and how they relate.

If communication feels easy (as easy as belting out a letter when you’re angry about something, or signing a petition feels) then you’re probably doing it wrong. To make these steps as not easy as possible I’ve also linked to some interesting political theology stuff that you could grapple with if you want to make it even harder to write a letter that doesn’t cost you anything.

So here’s 14 difficult steps to take when writing to your local politician or the relevant minister.

1. Remember the humanity of the person you are writing to; our politicians should be afforded the same dignity that anyone made in God’s image is afforded, and are every bit as human as those we advocate for.

So be gracious and charitable.

Nobody wants to be berated, especially if they feel misunderstood or misrepresented. Don’t make the mistake of dehumanising the person you are writing to because what they’re doing —even if it is dehumanising other people — is making you angry. You’re also less likely to persuade someone if all you do is bang them on the head.

2. Remember to listen well so that you represent and are engaging with the best picture of the person you are writing to and their motivation. If you want to be understood, practice understanding.

So don’t engage with a caricature or simply put forward your own view of reality; take seriously the best and most loving explanation offered by the people you are engaging with and explain how you feel the reality might be different.

3. Remember the complexity of politics, and that you’re not always across all the factors in a decision. Don’t always assume a politician is operating out of self-interest, or a hunger for power, or for an evil ideology (but know that these might be factors in their heart as well as in your own).

So be wise and humble.

4. Remember that a politician is someone who has entered that complexity to ‘get their hands dirty’ and work to a particular vision of what life in our ‘public’ should look like.

So offer an alternative vision and be prepared to be part of the solution you offer.

It’s easy to tell politicians to fix our problems — especially complicated ones — if we stand apart from the solution. It’s easy to be idealistic if we stay pure and detached from the business of compromise and the necessity of governing for and representing people who aren’t exactly like us. Politics, especially democracy, involves the compromise of ideological purity; so we need to be prepared to give and take in order to work towards better outcomes; not in a way that stops us articulate the ‘best’ outcome, but in a way that shows we know change requires staying at the table with people we don’t agree with and working with them.

There’s certainly a time when we need to, as Christians, say we will not participate in evil simply because it is a way to work towards good outcomes; but we also need to realise that working towards good outcomes starts with our actions, but also includes the incremental progress that comes from co-operation and compromise with people we disagree with.

This is really tricky, and where political stuff requires wisdom and grace. There’s a great piece by Michael Walzer called Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands that is worth reading and grappling with; one of the implications of his piece might be that your action shouldn’t start and stop with letter writing, but include volunteering for your local MP, or joining a party, and working towards improving things from within the system. If you’re not going to do that, you should at least recognise that being part of the system brings a cost in itself.

5. Remember that politicians (and their staff who will probably have to read your letter and decide what to do with it) are busy.

So keep things short and to the point; don’t waste their time.

People who get these letters say anything over a page won’t really be read, and suggest around 500 words; it’s hard to get all this stuff into 500 words… but that’s ok, because I think part of the value of letter writing is about what it does to you as a sender as the act of communication shapes you and points you to a particular course of right action… but you don’t want to waste someone’s time, so keep things as short and punchy as you can, and put the important stuff first so they don’t have to get to the end to know what you are asking.

6. Remember who you are (as a Christian); an ‘exile’ who belongs to the kingdom of heaven but who is called to love your neighbours and use whatever power you have for the sake of others not yourself.

So don’t try to play a power game by lobbying or speaking out of self-interest.

It’s not our job to sell a decision based on the votes in it; but on the basis of its inherent goodness for our neighbours (including our politicians). We have a role to play by speaking with a ‘prophetic voice’ which I think is a voice that calls people back to the goodness of God and his design for humanity as we see it in Jesus.

7. Remember that the ultimate good you stand for, for both the politician and the public is tied up with the kingdom you belong to.

So articulate the virtues and values of this kingdom and offer them as a better alternative to the values and virtues put forward by whatever it is that has prompted you to write.

It’s ok to talk about Jesus in talking to the secular state; it’s a massive misfire not to because the ideal secular state provides space for all ‘religious’ or ‘political’ views as much as possible; it’s not our job to find common ground between religions, that in many respects, is the state’s job (though we do need to model what this looks like in our relationships with other religious views, including affording space and ‘representation’ in our laws to views that say religion is irrelevant to public life).

8. Remember that politicians make decisions based on what is best for other people; first the people they’re called to represent. Make your correspondence about (these) people (and you are one of them).

So show why what you’re saying — including the Gospel — is better for the people our pollies are representing.

We have to show our representatives why they should care about the people effected by their decisions, but also how their decisions will effect all of us in a positive or negative way. It’s a mistake to buy into the idea that the only goods for our people are security or economic prosperity. Virtue formation is a good end in itself.

It’s actually possible to argue that acting completely out of something other than self-interest is actually good for our society; we don’t need to frame our advocacy as being good for people in any way other than that it is a call for us to do good. Doing good is its own reward. My friend Luke Glanville wrote this great (journal) article called Self Interest and the Distant Vulnerable that is worth a read on this, I especially liked this bit of John Donne that he quotes:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”

9. Remember that as a Christian you have a view of the state and its relationship to God’s plans and purposes (whether the state is an unwitting participant in God’s judgment or an agent of the common good who restrains evil), and that your ultimate calling is to love and pray for those in authority.

So don’t just write to our politicians. Pray for them and be a good neighbour to them.

And tell them you are not to make yourself look Holy (which almost inevitably would make you a hypocrite), but because this is what you are called to do by God. And ask them how you can pray for them; demonstrate a commitment to relationship, and also a belief that their role is one ordained by God so that you’ll respect and submit to them as an act of obedience to him. If letter writing isn’t part of some commitment to a relationship to your representative, and our shared public (our neighbours), then don’t do it; or at least search your heart as to why you are…

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. — 1 Timothy 2:1-3

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, honour the emperor. — 1 Peter 2:13-17

10. Remember that every interaction is a Gospel opportunity and that ultimately it is the Gospel that shapes what you’re asking for and it’s ok to say that; that our democracy is best served by hearing a ‘Christian’ voice, not a ‘one size fits all natural morality’ voice.

So show how your position is a Gospel position and invite people, including the politician you are writing to, to adopt this position by adopting the Gospel; or at the very least to see how your position is part of the practice of your religion and occurs within a community or ‘social institution’ apart from the state.
Paul seemed pretty happy, when he was on trial, to attempt to convert those sitting in judgment over him (Read Acts 24-27).

“Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” — Acts 27:28-29

In a democracy every issue is, in some sense, a trial of competing ideas and our lawmakers are our judges. If you’re going to take an opportunity to speak truth to power, why not also speak the truth to power; part of belonging to God’s kingdom includes belief that the best thing for them (as our neighbour) and for our other neighbours whom they represent is that they come to know Jesus. It’s interesting, and not irrelevant, that almost all ‘prophetic ministry’ in the Old Testament involved God’s spokespeople calling foreign powers to repent by turning to God (eg Jonah); and that when a leader in a culture like this turned, it turned the whole country to God; our western individualism (and our reformed emphasis on salvation as an individual thing) makes this seem less significant; but, you know, read about the Emperor Constantine and the impact of his conversion and Paul doesn’t seem so silly (except that sometimes Christianity gets co-opted as a means to wield worldly power).

11. Remember that ethical speech isn’t free; it’s costly and obliges you to a particular sort of action.

So love with actions; not just words.

There’s a tendency to reduce our participation in the democracy to token activities – like voting (which for many years in many places involved putting your ‘token’ into a particular place to indicate your support), or signing a petition, or writing a letter, and worse, to showing that you’re much better and more ethical than the politician because you’ve done this token thing. This is a particular danger for the left; it seems, in part because often the left turns to the state to solve problems and be an ethical guide, so it is their job to fix stuff. Tokenism is perhaps better than nothing, but it certainly isn’t better than getting your hands dirty and trying to change the situation by acting.

When people were writing textbooks about ethical persuasion in the early years of democracy (in the Roman Republic, or in an attempt to take the Empire back to the Republic) they’d often (think Plato, Cicero, etc) write big books on the ideal politics (eg Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics), on the ideal orator or person (eg ‘Rhetoric’ or Cicero’s De Oratore); these guys almost universally connected the character or ethos of a persuasive participant in the political realm with the arguments they’d need to make to persuade people. Words don’t exist apart from actions in the ethical and persuasive political life. This is certainly true for Christians; Paul’s life, suffering, and chains, were part of his persuasive presentation of the Gospel, and there’s this bit from John which I think should guide how we seek to love our neighbours:

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

12. Remember that not all solutions to complex issues are political, and if you want your letter to be more than empty tokenism you need to be acting already, or committed to public action apart from the political solution you are seeking.

Before you write, ask yourself ‘is there anything I could already be doing, apart from this politician to address this problem and bring about the change I’m looking for’… then if you’re not doing that, start doing it before you write.

If there is something you could be doing, and you’re doing it, that’ll also make your voice worth hearing because of the logos-ethos nexus; true persuasion starts with your character and actions, not your words… but true participation in the public starts in the public realm and with what is already possible, not just in what you would like to make possible.

Laws provide a floor, ethics provide a ceiling; sometimes the law gets in the way of good solutions, and that’s where I think we should be particularly engaged as ethical agents in a democracy. This will also keep you from the tokenism of the left, and from the weird assumption that it’s your representative’s job to fix things, not yours, or ours together.

It’s a mistake of modern life to assume that every issue is the state’s issue to solve; and that political solutions are the ones we should devote our energy to… Christians buy into this often when we assume our real fight begins and ends with the law’s approach to something like gay marriage or abortion, such that we’ve lost if the law doesn’t represent our view, or that winning looks like overturning a law. This is a failure to really imagine what we can do in the world apart from politics, and an accepting of a status quo view that only really serves the interests of the ‘ruling class’ or the political establishment. It’s also boring and depressing.

James Davison Hunter has some really good stuff for how we should think about this politicisation of everything as Christians in his book To Change The World, while this article ‘Killing For The Telephone Company‘ by William Cavanaugh explores the issue further and includes this cracker of a quote from Alisdair MacIntyre about the danger of having no institutions but the state, and having the state be in control of all aspects of public life (and so deciding what is ethical or what the good and flourishing life looks like).

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf… [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.” — Alisdair MacIntyre

 

13. Remember politics, and the job of the politician, is about more than the issues you disagree on, and about more than crisis management.

Why not sometimes write encouraging and thankful things to politicians; perhaps especially to those you are most inclined to disagree with or oppose.

14. Remember that the Gospel — the story of God drawing near and becoming flesh — is one that values face to face relationships over the distance. The best communication breaks down distance to bring people together.

So work towards that in your writing… seek to meet with your local MP in person and work towards a longer term relationship.

Our communication often reinforces the distance between us and the people we are trying to communicate with; physical presence breaks that down. All communication between two separate people is ‘mediated’ but some mediums are more distant (in terms of both time and space) than others; and this distance in space and time makes the distance between us feel bigger… when we’re face to face our communication is immediate, proximate, and personal. Face to face communication with all its non-verbal goodness helps you do communication better and to listen to, love and understand the person you are speaking to better.

22 Theses on the Australian Reformed Evangelical Scene and how we might continue reforming

lutherhammertime

On this day 499 years ago, the reformer Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg. I don’t know why he chose a crass, commercialised American holiday to do this; especially because America as we know it hadn’t been invented yet, but he did.

Luther put forward his theses to invite debate from his colleagues within the church; a church he loved and served and wanted to see grow. This wasn’t an act of rebellion, though we’ve recast it that way since, because he certainly ended up being treated like a rebel; it was an attempt at reformation of the institution he loved.

Lots of protestants, especially reformed protestants, are trying to mark the 500th year in special ways, my senior pastor Steve Cree has had a crack on our church’s blog, in a post I think is provocative and worth reading.

I’m a Presbyterian Minister, which places me firmly in the Reformed Evangelical tradition; I’ve been deeply influenced by the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students, by the ethos of the Sydney Anglican scene (largely through ministers trained at Moore College), and was educated at Queensland Theological College.

I’ve been reflecting on what got me to where I am, and what I’m thankful for when it comes to my heritage, but also on where I think things are going wrong for us as the church in Australia, and where we (these circles and how they’ve shaped me) might be contributing to that. I’m not trying to downplay God’s sovereignty in the mess we find ourselves in, but the church is not succeeding, broadly speaking, in reaching Australia, and even the reformed evangelical stream of the church which seems to record very modest growth while the liberal church shrinks is not growing at the same pace as the population. We need to ask some questions about what we’re doing wrong; and what we might do better; and so, channeling Luther, here are my theses on some of the issues. There are some institutions and churches already operating as counter-examples to the status quo and showing what a way forward might look like, so if you don’t think these apply to you, then maybe they don’t.

I’d love to hear yours… I’m also happy to defend any of these in the comments.

 

Thesis 1. We’ve made repentance more about turning from our sin than about turning to Jesus and his kingdom.

Thesis 2. In focusing on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (which is absolutely true), we’ve downplayed the other aspects of the Cross; the example, the victory, the establishment of the rule of Jesus and the peace he came to bring.

Thesis 3. We’ve tended to kill paradoxes in pursuit of clarity and pragmatic decisions rather than wrestling with them and living in tension and mystery.

Thesis 4. We’ve been confused about the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ and so have an anaemic doctrine of creation, and a poor theology of work…  especially when it comes to what ministry of the kingdom looks like; such that evangelism/proclamation has become the thing we push gifted Christians towards. As a quick example; I was president of our AFES group but not attending class and barely passing; we should push our university students to being excellent contributors in all sorts of industries; particularly, if Christians are going to be excluded from secular establishments (like health and education systems) we should be fostering resilient and imaginative entrepreneurs who will work for the good of their neighbours as a witness, but also be able to make a robust Christian case within a professional field).

Thesis 5. We’ve misunderstood worship and liturgy as being exclusively a Sunday thing; either about music or the sacraments; or not a Sunday thing at all but all of life; and both poles have involved reactive over-corrections against the other; and so we’ve downplayed idolatry and its significance.

Thesis 6. Our anthropology has been ‘head first’ so that we’ve bought into the modernist belief that education of the brain is the primary, even only, way to bring about sanctification; and our approach has been modernist so that we believe the way to bring about this change is via propositional truth and ‘getting the facts’.

Thesis 7. We’ve turned ‘scripture alone’ into ‘literacy alone’ and so excluded or marginalised those who are unable to read; or who don’t want to. Our churches tend to be white, or to assume that Christian culture looks like ‘white culture’ for people from other backgrounds, such that we’ve even created homogenous churches for other ethnicities.

Thesis 8. We’ve individualised salvation and so individualised the journey of the Christian life (think the Footprints poem, we should see our sandy beach as littered with the footprints of other people journeying with us and helping us through trials as God’s agents in our lives, and we should be that for each other).

Thesis 9. We haven’t been clear enough or persuasive enough about how to read and understand the Bible as centred on Jesus in a way that will help Christians engage with strange Old Testament passages and the way they are used in public debate by both Christians and non-Christians. We haven’t provided a robust enough safeguard against a hermeneutic of ‘feelings’…

Thesis 10. We have killed the priest as mediator when it comes to confession, but still see ‘preaching’ as a priestly function to the body, not on behalf of the body to the world. We also see preaching as a monologue by one very educated person.

Thesis 11. We see church as a Sunday gathering, and the gathering as being largely for believers and their edification, rather than being an opportunity for believers to love one another and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus to their particular place, reflecting a community that exists all week.

Thesis 12. What we do when we gather, and the disciplines we call people to adopt during the week in pursuit of their spiritual growth tend to be the product of a particular personality type (often the modernist engineer type, usually the minister). We are suspicious of the emotions, and the imagination, and practices that are embodied or tactile (we’re suspicious of physical responses to music, but this also includes a view or practice of the sacraments that is sometimes totally devoid of significance, beauty or mystery). This leads to the danger that we are making disciples in our image, and making being part of the church, spirituality, and discipleship less plausible for people not like us.

Thesis 13. We’ve believed the plausibility of Christianity rests in good arguments rather than in loving community that imitates Christ (and makes good arguments). The love of Christians for one another is what makes the Gospel plausible.

Thesis 14. We are not very good listeners so fail to diagnose and engage with the problems of the world around us. We especially tend to mostly read people we already agree with who reinforce our views, rather than listening to other people who share our theological convictions from history, or globally, and assessing our practices in response.

Thesis 15. We don’t make very good media; and our use of new media seems to be geared towards reinforcing our circle, not growing it (which would arguably be more bracing for us).

Thesis 16. Our imaginations have largely failed us when it comes to public Christianity; we tend to see solutions to moral issues as being political, and have tended to play the political game on the basis of power and natural law arguments, rather than faithfully articulating our Gospel-soaked alternative in a way that positions the church as an alternative political reality to the world.

Thesis 17. We haven’t really grappled with what it looks like to be joyful optimists who trust in God’s sovereignty through our struggles; and so have failed to be adventurous.

Thesis 18. As a corollary to the last point; we’ve not yet charted a way forward where we actually function as exiles in the post-Christian wilderness, or fully grasped what it looks like to live in a pluralist and secular democracy. This relates in an interesting way to Thesis 16 as well.

Thesis 19. We tend to make change very difficult because we want to conserve our theological distinctives (the stuff the reformers fought for); but that means we’ve held on too tightly to practical things that aren’t working or aren’t right.

Thesis 20. We’ve been too interested in protecting our place in society and our political and social influence to be reaching those who society marginalises (our typically middle class, educated, whiteness is a result of many of the above points too).

Thesis 21. Our disenchanted view of the world; a product of many of the above; means we frame our lives in the world as something other than a fight against Satan and the idols and lies he uses to lure us away from God and to death; it also robs us of the practices and vocabulary that might see us doing something significant to fight against those for our sake and the sake of our neighbours. Instead, we treat life as a battle to think the right things.

Thesis 22. Our ownership of exclusive and expensive church schools that aren’t really preparing the next generation of Christians for engagement in a post-Christian world will be to our shame. The sort of education we provide should be accessible and excellent; fostering the imagination, training in virtue via example and the formation of habits, cultivating desires that run counter to our culture, helping people understand the world and a flourishing life in it (probably via the Liberal Arts), and teaching people to view life in Christ as an adventure. The schools that do this are too expensive, and the Christian schools that are cheap don’t do this.

 

Bonus 5. That I thought were equally, if not more important, than the above.

Thesis 23. We’ve somehow created church decision making processes that don’t really give 50% of the church an opportunity to be involved with the making of decisions as though authority rests in decision making of a bunch of priestly types. Particularly for the Presbyterians the decisions made in our ‘courts’ include a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with eldership even if eldership is what we think it is; that we think this is what the Bible has in view as the way leadership or gender roles play out in the church seems to me to be a total failure to imagine how the Gospel starts unravelling the impact of the curse on relationships between men and women; and a failure to re-capture the meaning of ‘helper’ in Genesis 2 as ‘necessary ally’ and to recognise the way God uses the spoken wisdom of women to leaders to help direct his plans in the world through the Bible (and the way Proverbs depicts wisdom as ‘lady wisdom’…).

Thesis 24.  We’ve imported worldly understandings of leadership and authority into the church; and into how we appoint and identify leaders; and what we expect from them.

Thesis 25. Our expectations of the clergy, and of ourselves as clergy, are unrealistic and reinforce a weird priestly view of ministry.

Thesis 26. As Christians we’ve bought into the trap of measuring success, or fruitfulness, by productivity and so doomed ourselves to being busy and perpetuating many of the problems facing our neighbours within the church.

Thesis 27. We’re inadequately prepared, theologically or practically, for dealing with the rise of mental health issues in part caused by life in the world as it now is; including, amongst other things the impacts of pornography, social media, and the changing pattern of media consumption that all fuel our culture’s rampant individualism, and create disconnection rather than connection between people.

How a weight loss diet has taught me about worship, idolatry, and the Gospel

I’m fat.

I’m not saying this so you’ll say ‘no you’re not’ or whatever. It’s a statement of fact; backed up when I step on the scales.

I’m fat; I don’t really have a body image problem that is driving me to this pronouncement, it’s more a body problem.

I almost always have been. I’ve certainly always felt fat; even when I was a kid and involved in swimming training almost daily and swimming club on Friday nights, I was pudgy. Big. Overweight. Being overweight isn’t much fun; eating is though. I love food. Bad food. KFC. Chocolate. Ice cream. If there was one sin I’d scratch it’d be gluttony. I’d have all of the foods. I comfort eat and I holiday eat. I just like to eat.

The scales tell me I’ve almost always been overweight; I hit the 100kg mark in grade 12 and have only dipped back under it once since. I’m tall so I’m always going to be heavy; but there’s a difference between heavy and fat. I get that. I’m not just heavy though.

I’ve had some sense that fatness is a problem internally for almost the whole time I’ve been fat; I resented it when my weight became an issue in my family, which probably drove me to rebellious comfort eating. Who knows? I’ve also had some sense that my being fat is caused by a lack of self-control; which the Bible says is a ‘fruit of the Spirit’ and the result of gluttony and greed. I also know that being fat stops me doing some of the things I would like to do; it makes sport hard, it makes parenting and chasing small children more taxing than it could be, and it does, despite my best efforts to live in denial about this, make me self-conscious about what I wear and do.

The good thing about being fat is that unlike other problems, I can do something about it. At least that’s what I said to a bloke who sledged me on the soccer field once. I’m in total control of my destiny.

The first time I seriously ‘did something about it’ was a couple of years ago. I was tipping the scales at 113kg. I signed up for the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation Challenge, and 12 weeks later I’d hit 97kg. I felt more confident, skinnier, healthier, but still fat. I also felt the urge to enjoy some of the food I’d had to give up to get under the 1,800 calorie a day mark. Those 12 weeks were interesting though. I had more energy; more pep, and I had a more disciplined approach to all the other aspects of my life, it seemed. Saying no to McDonalds drive-thru on the way home, where once that’d been a detour I’d take on auto-pilot, made it easier to say no to a bunch of other auto-pilot decisions I was making that didn’t fit with who I wanted to be.

One other thing I noticed while in the midst of this 12 weeks of becoming ‘the new me’ was that I became very judgmental of people who were like ‘the old me’… unenlightened me. Unlightened me. People making terrible decisions about what they were eating. I’d walk through the grocery store judging people by what they put in their baskets, their size, or their stop at Donut King on the way to the carpark; when I’d been doing the same thing just weeks before.

I felt proud of the discipline I’d adopted of only buying fresh food, cooking healthy meals with small portions, and religiously counting and recording every calorie. I’d attend to my mass every week at weigh in. And I was thrilled to see steady signs of progress; of me becoming my more ideal self. When I could stomach it, I’d watch Michelle’s videos and read her emails and hear her lay out the core tenets of my new regime. I was irregular in doing that though (perhaps a bit like the Christian who is happy to miss a few weeks of church when they get the gist of what gets said).

One thing the 12WBT did well, that I ignored, was it built an online community of fellow travellers who’d encourage each other in the pursuit of ‘body transformation’ — fashioning ourselves into some ideal image, but doing it together.

I didn’t really let the habits sink in though; I got what I wanted from the program. And moved on. If my ideal self really is the 90kg non-fat self then I didn’t get there and the 12WBT liturgy failed because it did not establish new habits in me, or ultimately transform me.

But it was powerful. The training. The narrative. The new habits. The equipping. Michelle sends you encouragement and gives you the meal plans and recipes you need to succeed. If I’d kept it up; who knows, I probably wouldn’t be fat now.

2 years (and one slightly less-successful return to Michelle Bridges) later, I was tipping the scales at 108kg, and I decided to arrest my return to the old me. But this time I needed a new image of success; a new personal trainer, a new ‘priest’, who’d lead me to a better image of myself.

When you sign up, he sends you this picture to share on social media. This is the image I’m cultivating by my new habits. This is the picture of the ‘flourishing human life’…

nathan-gets-commando-fit
What I’m realising is that it’s very hard to separate the pursuit of this image from idolatry; and that really getting there and keeping there doesn’t simply require discipline but liturgy, or worship. I need to replace my desire to eat delicious comfort food; my love for that food; with the expulsive power of a new affection; I need to not only learn that those foods are toxic and bad for me, but adopt habits that are good for me. I need to take control of my life. I need to change the script I’m living, and adopt a new vision of what my life could be.

One of the reasons idolatry is so powerful is that it has the capacity to deliver results (or we wouldn’t bother), it just can’t deliver real meaning or satisfaction. This is because idolatry doesn’t just work at the heart and our desires and the ‘story’ or vision of life that tugs us through the world and guides our decisions, or in the mind our knowledge and imagination, but in our habits; our actions; and the repetition of actions shapes us. That’s why piano players practice the piano, athletes train, why Gladwell’s 10,000 rule largely holds true, and why diets work when they change your habits. Idolatry isn’t always as destructive as pornography, in the temporal sense, but even good and wise habits; morality, study, budgeting, self-discipline, and dieting can pull you away from Jesus while they shape you into a better version of you. Idolatry of this kind doesn’t just pull you from Jesus though, it also distances you from people who don’t have the same vision of the good life; both as you are transformed, and as they are not. It has the potential to make you as judgmental and insular as any traditionally religious person. It brings a whole new vocabulary and culture, puts you in a new ‘in group’ community… it’s powerful stuff. I went to the mechanic last week, and my mechanic is clearly a man who takes cars very seriously, one might say he lives for them; I felt judged because I don’t look after my car right, he spoke to me in a language and terms I didn’t understand, about new things I would need to do if I wanted my car to give me pleasure rather than pain; and I gained some small insight into my judginess of the other shoppers at the supermarket, and perhaps also how people feel when they join us in Christian community…

I don’t have to go far to find an example of this from the program. I hadn’t read today’s email until I started typing this paragraph and thought I’d check what Commando Steve says… and here are some highlights. He starts with a pitch to encourage us to push beyond the temporary gains; to avoid fad diets and myths; to really buy in to his story of the flourishing human life… not just the “superficial, fast, measurable results” but the fruit that comes from adopting “this new routine, way of life as part of your everyday for the long term.” What he really wants for us; and he repeats this at the end of the email, so it’s important, is for us “to start living a flourishing, meaningful life.”

Sounds like the sort of thing you might hear in church, right? That’s cause it is. He says some of the key ‘dot points’ we need to sort out to make this lasting change include:

  • Identity – Who do I want to be? Where am I going? What do I want to do? These are all questions you must answer. But to do this you must live your answers in the quest to shape your identity and the person you want to become.
  • Education (Knowledge) – Is the means by which we have greater understanding and the ability to make more informed, conscious choices. Are you willing to learn?
  • Our actions are what define and shape the person we want to become (identity). By taking what we learn and experience along our journey, we then implement it into our actions. Through repeated consistency, we begin to forge and reinforce the identity and person we want to become.
  • By taking time to reflect on where it is we have come from, and where it is we are headed, do we then begin to gain insight and understanding about how we have shaped the person we are becoming

And then he says if I’m going to embed the right sort of change, and avoid the fads, I need to ask: “What is my real purpose in life? Why am I doing this? Am I willing to fundamentally change how I think, move and eat for the long term or am I just looking for a quick fix?” And then says: “When you begin to answers to these questions that’s when you will begin to live a meaningful, flourishing life.”

What he could say is I need to ask: “Who do I want to worship my way into being? So what do I need to worship?” These are ultimately questions and observations about the way we’re wired as people; about the way real change happens. We’re mostly profoundly changed by what we worship.

If I really want to buy in to the Commando’s vision of fitness, I need to buy in heart, mind, and body. And I’m sure he’ll deliver. I mean look at him.

And for a fat guy who has pretty much always been fat, that’s tempting. Whether it’s as tempting as a Zinger Stacker Ultimate Burger meal from KFC is an interesting question; but I’m three weeks in and no drive-thru… Temptation doesn’t always come in neon lights and cheap hits to your senses; sometimes it is in the perversion of wisdom where something other than God is organising your life and setting your vision for what humanity should look like.

But dieting works; training works; we become what we behold, and that happens via our habits. This shaping isn’t a good thing if it pulls us from loving God and from loving others. So this time around I’ve been more conscious of not buying into this alternative vision of flourishing; of keeping my eyes fixed on where real purpose is found and why I’m doing this. I don’t want a quick fix; sure, but nor do I want to be so transformed that I lose sight of Jesus and stop seeing God’s image in the people walking next to me in the Supermarket simply because their ‘god,’ or the image their god fashions them into, doesn’t look like the Commando or Michelle. This means I’m working hard not to be judgmental of others; but also cutting myself some slack. I hate dieting, and my approach has been to channel the Commando and be hyper-disciplined and a bit unpleasant. I need to let that go, or I’m cultivating the wrong habits; and I’d be better off fat for my family’s sake.

The Bible doesn’t say heaps about fitness; though greed and gluttony are problems… Paul uses racing and fighting analogies in his letters, and it seems he has some familiarity with the training regimes required for both; then, in his first letter to Timothy, he says:

“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” — 1 Timothy 4:4-8

This should be what shapes my diet and my training regime. Knowing the goodness of God from creation (including food, and wisdom regarding how our bodies process it); thanking him for it and seeing him and his goodness through his creation of good food and intricately woven bodies that need work. Like the Commando, Paul suggests avoiding myths and focusing on training; but his main concern is not healthy habits but godliness. It’s godliness that will flow through to how we approach food and dieting.

Fitness isn’t a bad thing; it’s a natural product of discipline and self control, and probably an inevitable outcome of making decisions to wisely steward what God has given us; and a thing that enables us to love others better (it’s also part of that ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ thing). But it’s not an ultimate thing, and there are much more important measures of true meaning and flourishing than your weight or waistline.

Fitness isn’t a bad thing, but it can be, like other good created things, or other fruits of wise living, if it becomes an ultimate thing, or caught up with an ultimate version of myself that does not look like Jesus. If I look at Commando and I look at Jesus I know whose arms I think are more admirable; those hands that were nailed to a cross are more worthy of my admiration and pursuit than any CrossFit trainer, and his image is a more worthwhile template for my transformation than some bloke with big guns and a diet plan who is helping me shed some weight. As Paul puts it in Colossians:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” — Colossians 1:15-20

The Commando is kinda right in his approach and the questions he asks; his vision of flourishing is a knock-off though; while Jesus offers the Rolex; an alternative vision of flourishing. His image; his habits; his life and death and resurrection as an invitation to flourish. This is where a real and satisfying body image should come from — the ‘physical body’ and life of Jesus an image that might then flow through to how you treat your body and pursue your health. In whatever weight loss program I get caught up in, I need to remember that it’s more important to practice looking like, and being like, Jesus because I want to find my identity in him; not my biceps or waistline. This image is enough for Paul to adopt some new habits. Physical habits, ‘filling up his flesh,’ embodying the Gospel… I do like how this passage emphasises the bodily reality of Paul’s ministry. This; the Gospel; is where the real flourishing life is found. Resurrected and eternal life; we start cultivating that lifestyle and the habits of eternity now.

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation — if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” — Colossians 1:21-24

The suffocating sense of no safe place to ride and how to breathe again

tyler

Tyler: An exit-door procedure at 30.000 feet. Mm-hmm. The illusion of safety. You know why the put oxygen masks on planes?
Narrator: So you can breathe.
Tyler: Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you’re taking giant, panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile, you accept your fate. — Fight Club

The news this week has been awful. It’s awful every week. But this week in particular, for me, because it has reminded me that we exist with what Tyler Durden in Fight Club calls ‘the illusion of safety’… we’re never really safe; and the news this week has so totally robbed me of my sense of safety.

The illusion of safety has been torn from us; and I want an oxygen mask and the euphoric docility it promises. I want to forget the world isn’t safe and to go back to my day to day existence free from fear.

That’s seemed harder this week. First the horrible, tragic, nightmare at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast; and then today, this horrific, awful, heartbreaking story of a Brisbane bus driver whose life was suddenly and dramatically taken while he was sitting in his bus at the bus stop on the street of a suburb very close to mine. The thing that gets me about these stories is not just the experience of the victims and their families; but the witnesses. And in the bus story — the helpless passengers on the bus not only had to experience the trauma of witnessing the attack, but 11 were treated for smoke inhalation as a result…

I don’t really want to leave my home. My wife and daughter are travelling by bus today, it’s so easy for me to imagine them, or me, being on the bus when that senseless, deadly, act of violence took place. It’s terrifying. And that’s the point. It’s easy for us to put ourselves in the passenger seats along with those who witnessed the horror; or in the queue for the ride at Dreamworld… I don’t just feel the shock of grief at the random and pointless destruction of human life; but the fear of witnessing something like that. I don’t want to be confronted with death; I want to stay safe… but more than that, as a parent I definitely don’t want my daughters or son being scarred by witnessing this stuff.

I want to keep them safe.

But I can’t.

I want to ride safely on the bus, or a theme park ride, but I can’t.

Where are the oxygen masks?

When will they drop down to numb this fear; the thing that confronts us when we face up to death and tragedy. I can only imagine the grief being experienced by the family and friends of those killed on that ride, and the bus driver… We can only imagine it, but that is not to say we don’t feel it, the sorrow, the anger, the sense that something is wrong and the world has changed forever through this loss. The imagination is powerful; its how we are able to empathise, but it’s also what makes us feel fear when the world becomes unsafe.

How do we face these realities so that the fear flees? Where do we go to re-capture the illusion of safety? Where’s our oxygen mask? Is there some way to restore the sense that the world is safe, if not make it safe?

The irony is that roller coasters are a sort of controlled environments; or they’re meant to be; a machine made to help us face our fears while being in control. When I heard the story of the tragedy at Dreamworld I had two responses; first, I remembered my one visit to Dreamworld, as a child, and how much our family loved the particular ride. Second, I remembered this obscure interview about how ride designers design rides as stories that I heard on the ABC radio, and this quote about what rides do:

“They are a choreography of movement and emotion. The best coasters know how to pace themselves and pace the rider; not only for the biggest scream, but the biggest highs and lows… Thrill rides are a safe way to do something slightly, seemingly dangerous, even though they’re not. They’re statistically very safe, but they get you close to the feeling of being out of control; the feeling of falling; the feeling of ‘oh no I’m going to die’… Coasters are ‘fear minus death equals thrill’… ” — Dave Cobb, Roller Coaster Designer on 612 ABC Brisbane in January this year.

Statistically very safe. But not totally safe. Sometimes deadly. Sometimes the ride ends in tragedy. Roller Coasters are ‘storytelling machines’ perhaps especially when the statsWhen you get told the risks involved in any medical procedure or activity it’s always ‘1 in x thousand’ and we just write that risk off, but to borrow a line from The Whitlams, if she’s one in a million, then there are five more just in New South Wales.

We live like the passenger on the plane, with the illusion of safety.

And sometimes that illusion comes crashing down.

Well, when we read the news that illusion comes crashing down.

Death sucks. And I mean that both in the ‘it’s terrible’ sense but also in the ‘it’s a black hole that swallows up things that are good’ sense too.

So what do you do when life confronts you with this news; when it feels like it is rubbing your face in it; when you open your browser to your favourite news site and are confronted with death at a theme park, or the senseless killing of a public servant in the middle of a busy suburban street?

Where do we go to feel safe? Is that even possible?

Where are our oxygen masks?

I think there are two real options. Three if you count denial; but I’m not sure empathy really allows that; the sense that it could’ve been me, or I could’ve witnessed it… if we aren’t eye witnesses any more then the media, and social media, is doing a pretty good job of making it just as though we were there; inviting us to relive the moment and take part in a digital post-mortem. There’s CCTV everywhere — and of both incidents. But there are two options. There’s the Tyler Durden option, and there’s the Jesus option.

There’s another pretty big moment in Fight Club where Tyler Durden is training; and breaking; his anarchist recruits. This speech plays over the montage.

“Everything is evolving. Everything is falling apart. This is your life. It doesn’t get any better than this. This is your life and it is ending one minute at a time. You are not a unique and beautiful snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else. We are all part of the same compost heap. We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world. You are not your bank account. You are not the clothes that we wear. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your bowel cancer. You are not your grande latte. You are not the car that you drive. You are not your khakis. You have to give up. You have to know that someday you will die. Until you know that you are useless.” — Tyler Durden.

This is Durden’s version of the oxygen mask. It’s meant to buy him an army of soldiers willing to face death in order to ‘live life to the fullest’; at least as his vision of the full life requires; the life lived free from the fear of death, and free from being defined by your possessions; free to experience unfettered pleasure in the moment before death hits.

This is the approach so many of us modern people take; we’ve cut ourselves off from a sense of meaning beyond the material, and beyond ourselves, which means the only way we can face death is pile all the pleasure we can into the moment we have.

Or as Paul puts it, famously, in 1 Corinthians 15, ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die’…

That’s probably the best chapter of the Bible that points me somewhere safe; an oxygen mask if you like; when it comes to witnessing the suckiness of death and realising that we’re never really safe from its grasp, it could happen any time, even on experiences that are ‘statistically safe’… this is the Jesus option, the one where death doesn’t have the last say.

This bit of the Bible is a good one to turn to after you’ve read the news.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death… — 1 Corinthians 15:20-26

It’s that he believes the truth of this message that allowed Paul to stare death in the face, and to pen these famous words that help us face our own death without the same fear.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?” — 1 Corinthians 15:55

Death still hurts. It still has a massive cost for us; and especially for those most proximate to it. We’re not meant to turn a blind eye to the enormity of it, or to its wrongness; the Tyler Durden approach might feel true but it ultimately leads to us being totally disconnected from the tragedy of death in the lives of others… which is why ‘members of Project Mayhem don’t have names’… and where the Narrator rebels from Tyler’s design by insisting that Robert Paulson does have a name; he’s not quite ready as his alter-ego to buffer himself off from the reality of death. Being confronted with the reality of death doesn’t mean simply accepting it and embracing stoic fatalism, but finding ways to grieve with and love our neighbours — perhaps especially as we’re grieved by death together — because we know there’s something fundamentally wrong with death. We should lament, but we should also offer the real oxygen masks because death doesn’t have to have the final say.

That’s why Paul is motivated to share the news of life with people; because we have an answer to the scourge of death.

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” — 1 Corinthians 15:58

We’re handing out real oxygen masks; and the safety offered through Jesus isn’t just an illusion. The promise of death’s defeat is caught up with the promise of life without death, and with God. This is the vision of the good life held up by the Bible and the cause we live for in response to death; Tyler had project mayhem a project designed to strip the ‘illusion of safety’ away; leaving us with chaos. We have project re-creation; the opportunity to point people to real safety.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:3-5

The prayer of Christians facing death has been the same since he left, promising to return; the words the Bible finishes with in the book of Revelation.

Come Lord Jesus.

It’s a prayer that recognises the awful suckiness of death; that it is a broken version of reality and that we are right to hate it and feel its awful weight, but that also recognises that God has an answer to death and he gives it to us through Jesus; the one who died and was raised.

Come Lord Jesus.

Not just to bring the illusion of safety; or the acceptance of our deathly fate; but to defeat death and truly make us safe from its touch. Both Paul, in 1 Corinthians, and John in Revelation, stake the whole of Christianity on their testimony to the truth of this message. This is where the rubber hits the road.

If you witness or read these news stories, or anything that rips the illusion of safety ripped from your grasp, the place to find it again is in the empty tomb of Jesus and the promise that it is the start of something new happening in the world. Jesus is your oxygen mask, but he doesn’t just offer the illusion of safety; it’s real. I’m betting my life on that anyway.

The Worship Wars (4): How to fight the battles, and the win the war in a world full of worship warriors

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” — Paul, as recorded in Acts 17:22-23
worship-wars

Like first century Athens, we live in a world that is very religious. Only the worshipper next door probably doesn’t think of themselves as a worshipper; we’re taught more to think of ourselves as ‘thinkers’ by our education system, as ‘doers’ by the market, as ‘lovers’ by our popular culture, as ‘meaning makers’ by the self-help industry and as ‘consumers’ by advertisers. But at the heart of all these concepts is the engine of our humanity that gives them their power; we are worshippers. We like to tell ourselves that these pictures of who we are, or some combination of them, is what we need to tap into to become better versions of ourselves. We believe we need more education, better jobs, more fulfilling relationships, we need to create something more meaningful of our world, or we just need to buy better toys, and everything will turn out better. These ideas of what it means to be human don’t just create themselves; they have champions. Worship warriors. Carrying the can for their particular vision of the good life and embodying it. Like the personal trainer who very clearly worships at the gym in pursuit of their idealised body, or the university professor who has a pretty clear view of the ideal educational sausage who should be produced by their institution… where Athens had the gatekeepers to the Parthenon and the temple priests on every corner, we have all sorts of people presenting and promoting all sorts of religious visions of who we are; whether they know we’re worshippers or not.

People of the 21st century, I see that in every way, we are very religious.

We use our heads, our hearts, and our hands, our money, our time, and our energy, to worship. Just like the Athenians; only we don’t tend to make statues or altars. We are as some put it ‘liturgical animals’ — we are shaped into the image of whatever it is we pursue with all these parts of us, and all that we have.

This is the fourth, and perhaps penultimate, post in this series which began by arguing that the ‘traditional’ way the worship wars have been conceived; as a battle for the style of music or service in the Sunday gathering, misses the much bigger enemy because the fundamental truth about us humans is we become what we worshipThe second post suggested that how we worship also shapes us, not simply when it comes to church gatherings but our habits or liturgies that we adopt day-to-day; the implications here were that Sunday isn’t enough when it comes to the worship wars. The third post used pornography as an example of an idolatrous counter-liturgy to test the framework and to show what is at stake. In this post I’m hoping to start to flesh out what the implications are for how we fight in the worship wars.

If you think fighting the worship wars; or being equipped to fight the worship wars; is just about the style of service you put on for an hour and a half on a Sunday, or how often you do the Sacraments, or whether the music you play is contemporary or traditional, you’re actually engaging in a civil war; and the real enemy is winning. If you think worship is just a thing you do on a Sunday, and that’s meant to somehow sustain you for a week of running around in a world saturated with other gods begging for your attention and seducing you; if church is a ‘worship’ event for you, and not a community of worshippers; if you think the answer to our problems as Christians, or the answer for your neighbour, is that we should first know more, think more, work more, love more, earn more, experience more, or buy more then you will lose. And you’ll die. And so often these are the answers we turn to when trying to shore up our faith; they’re all part of what it means to be human, and all at the table when it comes to how we change and grow, but they’re all sub-sets of worship; they’re all part of how we organise our living and our loving around some central idea about what real humanity should look like, and where we should be directed so that we flourish.

1. Fighting the war means knowing who we are and knowing our enemies.

‘Cause we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl — Madonna, Material Girl

It’s an old song now; but Madonna’s Material Girl expresses a perceptive take on reality; on the relationship between us and the world we live in. We’re not consumers so much as conformers.

Our world is not neutral; it shapes us, and it mostly does this subconsciously as we live in it following the script of whatever story we’ve bought into or designed for ourselves about what the good life looks like; which whether we’re religious or not, is ultimately a reflection of the thing we worship, or centre our lives on, as our ‘god’ or ‘gods’… What we do, how we live, how we participate in this world shapes us. You believe the world is material; and it’s matter that matters, then you’ll be a materialistic person; pursuing as much of that matter as you can, probably the sort of matter that delivers you the most pleasure or power. You’ll assess your relationships on the things that ‘matter’ — and that, is it not, is what Madonna’s song is all about?

We live in a world full of scripts; whether it’s the technology we use (where our experience is guided by algorithms on platforms that are guided by commercial imperatives but tell us ‘mythic’ stories about what they might deliver), or the stories we live (religious or just our picture of our own flourishing that guides us), or the media we consume, we’re always taking a next step according to some design (even an attempt at randomness and spontaneity reveals a script of some sort). These scripts shapes us; our world — the stage on which we play — shapes us too. We evolve in a manner shaped by our environment — not just as a species, but as individuals living in our world. This happens as we introduce new tools; a pattern observed in the discipline of media ecology, the founder of this movement, Marshall McLuhan, developed most of his insights from a framework informed by the promise of Psalm 115 that those who worship idols — created things — become like them. McLuhan noticed that our media, in fact, any new technology introduced into an ecosystem, shapes both us and the system (it was McLuhan who coined the term “the media is the message” too). For McLuhan this spiritual and material reality meant no space is neutral; no medium is neutral; everything has the capacity to shape us if we allow it to become our script. Our liturgy (to borrow James K.A. Smith’s insights).

Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. — Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

One of McLuhan’s followers in the media ecology discipline was Father John Culkin, a Jesuit priest and media academic. He said:

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

That’s an axiom that holds when we consider idolatry and neuroscience, and one I quoted earlier in this series. This explains how and why social media changes our brain (the subject of another lengthy series from a few years back).

This is where the key battleground is for the worship wars. Everything in this world has the potential to shape you; because every thing we interact with has its own script; it’s own sense of what the good human life looks like; from Facebook, to pornography, to James K.A Smith’s shopping centre example, to how we do church together; the traditional worship wars weren’t misguided in arguing that how we do church matters; they were just focusing on one battle and missing the war. Fighting the worship wars means first knowing this about ourselves; knowing that we have the potential to be our own worst enemy, that our desires and actions might shape us in ways that take us away from God. You can’t win the war running around blind…

But we’re not the only enemy — the world isn’t neutral, and it’s not just our communication technology or tools that shape us, but our idols, and idols are the tools of the ultimate enemy; Satan. In thinking of ourselves wrongly — as thinking beings or consumers — we’ve thought of the world wrongly; we’ve ignored what’s truly at stake in our interactions with things around us, and in doing so have ignored the reality we can’t see or sense. We’ve so flattened our experience of the world and what we look for — by not thinking of ourselves as worshippers — that we don’t, and can’t, see it. Our ‘disenchanted’ view of the world — and by ‘our’ I don’t just mean humanity collectively, but us Christians too — means we run around looking for flesh and blood enemies or fighting about the very tactile stuff we do, without understanding the Spiritual significance of every moment of our lives. We need to stop fighting amongst ourselves, and start fighting the real war, on two fronts.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. — 1 Peter 5:8

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” — Ephesians 6:12

This is one field that the real worship war is fought on, because this is the field where the real enemy — the enemy of God, and humanity, from the very beginning, is prowling around seeking to devour, captivate, and conscript worship warriors. People who’ll take the fight up to God because they want to worship something else. The Garden of Eden was the first battle ground in this war; Adam and Eve — God’s image bearers — his worshippers — were meant to take the fight up to Satan, only they sided with him; they became false worshippers, and so tasted defeat. Every human life is a battle ground where this war is waged, because the effects of this first loss was to create a second front for the war; it’s now an internal fight, not just an external one… So when Paul writes about choosing between ‘life in Adam’ and ‘life in Jesus’ he talks about our new default; a default where a war rages within us…

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! — Romans 7:21-25

This is us. All of us. Not just post-conversion Paul (in fact not even post-conversion Paul until the last line, and the bit that follows in Romans 8). Not just Jewish Paul under the law. Human Paul. Paul who is just like the Gentiles he’s writing to, as well as being like the Jews. Paul who has been banging on about what it means to follow in the footsteps of Adam and Eve; failed worshippers. He’s talking about the human condition; and about the internal war we’re fighting. It’s the same thing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed when he said:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

My neighbours know what good is, sometimes they even do it. But we all sin, in fact, even when we do ‘good’ things its a product of these divided hearts; hearts at war with themselves. And we’re all lured into sin by being lured into worshipping something other than God, so that sometimes we just choose evil. We all know what goodness is because God’s imprint is still left on us; but we also fight a battle that keeps leading us to the sort of deadly idolatry described in Romans 1. There are plenty of other interpretations of Romans 7 floating around, but I think Paul is talking about what it looks like to be made in the image of God (good), and image of Adam (fallen) awaiting the re-creation he describes the Spirit bringing in Romans 8, the delivery that comes through Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, which allows us to worship God again and will ultimately make us fully good again, better even (and, spoiler, that’s how we win the war).

2. We win by real worship.

Fighting the worship wars — and taking down the real enemies; our sinful idolatrous nature and the serpent — requires us to be proper worshippers. Thomas Chalmers was right when he said real change requires the expulsive power of a new affection. The way to beat idols is to love something more. Winning the war means changing the script (our story); our desires and imagination, and how we operate in the world (our habits). When Paul describes the impact of idolatry in Romans 1 he shows it totally corrupts our imaginations, and our habits; the way back is a renewal of both via a re-connection with God (that he initiates by the Spirit).

“Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.” — Romans 1:28

He comes back to this theme in 8…

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

Where Paul goes in Romans 8 (and what he argues before Romans 7) is that we become true worshippers again; true children of God again; conformed into true images of God; images of Jesus; by the Spirit (Romans 8:27-29).

This is a thread he ties off more deliberately (after dealing with the relationship between Israel and the gentiles) in Romans 12, where he also explores the implications for how we should worship in Romans 12, where he describes real worship as ‘offering your bodies as a living sacrifice’ — the habitual, incremental, reflection of the life and death of Jesus while ‘not being conformed to the pattern of this world’ but ‘being transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:1-2). This is how to fight the worship wars; fix your eyes upon the story of Jesus by participating in it as you let it shape your habits in community (the yous are plural in 12:1-2, and then the stuff about the body and how we sacrificially use our gifts for each other is pretty clearly ‘corporate worship’). Here’s his guide to ‘true worship’ from Romans 12, and then from Colossians 3; the sort of things that might shape our liturgies in our Sunday gatherings and through the week (I’ll get to some really practical ideas in the last post in this series). This sure sounds like worship… 

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 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.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. — Romans 12:9-18

In Colossians 3, Paul opens by calling us to reset our minds, perhaps even our imaginations, and our hearts, or our desires, on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:1-2). Then he tells us to avoid the habits that come from the pursuit of earthly things via our earthly nature (which he calls idolatry), and the list here sounds a lot like Donald Trump, but also a lot like Romans 1… There’s a bunch of stuff Paul tells us to take off — old habits — and some things we’re to put on… and this ‘putting on the new self’ is how we take part in the worship wars against the enemy within, and the enemy without… the practices he calls us to aren’t particularly new (nor should they be) and singing and focusing on the Gospel story are at their heart (because ‘worship’ as we understand it matters), but our habits should flow from and cyclically create-in-us these virtues that seem to reflect our story and the Gospel becoming our story as we set our hearts and minds on things above, and participate in the re-telling of the Gospel together.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-17

This doesn’t sound like a thing Paul just thinks we should be doing on a Sunday though… the whatever you do would seem to push worship beyond the boundaries of a 90 minute church service and into the shared practices of our church community every day.

3. Attack is the best form of defence

One of the most profound that has crystalised for me in my understanding of the Gospel in the last few years came from NT Greek Scholar Peter Bolt when he was talking to our team about Mark’s Gospel. He made the point that we often think of ‘repent’ as a call to turn away from sin, when it probably most correctly (and especially in the way Jesus uses it) is a turning towards Jesus and his kingdom (which produces a turning from sin). If we spend all our time worried about stopping wrong worship and don’t spend our time actively replacing it with true worship, we’re in danger of not turning to the right things. This is why Chalmers’ expulsive power idea is so powerful and so important. It’s no good simply switching idols. From sex to ascetic sexual purity, or from gluttony to the idolatry of fitness so prevalent in our age… we need to replace the worship of created stuff with the worship of the creator — and we meet the creator in the face of Jesus, through the Gospel of Jesus, and the story of the Bible (and the worshipping community it creates).

There’s another passage (well there are lots) that talks specifically about fighting against the devil’s schemes — preparing us to fight against that prowling lion who is out to devour us — the Ephesians 6 description of the armour of God. The tools we need to fight, or worship, our way through the worship wars against our real enemies are these ones… This set of armour is what will help you see God, the world, yourself, and your enemies (the things you are tempted to worship by the Devil and your desires) as they really are, and help you put things in their right place… this is what real worship looks like; whether you sing modern songs or old ones, with acoustic or electric, organs or synth, in sandstone and stain glass or a theatre, with the sacraments every week or quarterly will shape you (and you might pick some stuff according to what you find helpful to fix your heart on Jesus in community with people you love), but this is where the action is (and so is much more important when it comes to the question of how we do church).

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist,with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. — Ephesians 6:10-18

Labor kills the plebiscite (why this might be good news)

I love Eternity News; I think the team at Eternity do a great job of representing the views of the width of the Aussie church, of giving adequate space to complex issues, and of using their platform to tell positive stories about people whose lives have been changed for the better because Jesus has made ‘eternity’ good news rather than a soul-depressing reminder of our smallness, and bad news when it comes to God’s judgment. So I enjoy writing for them and answering questions; even if they have to edit me…

Eternity ran a piece on Labor knocking  the plebiscite on the head which includes some of the reasons I gave for this maybe not being such a bad thing. It was edited, because it had to be. But I quite liked some of the bits they cut so thought I’d post my whole response (I’m not suggesting I was misrepresented or anything silly like that). Also; while I’m billed as being a Presbyterian Minister and from Creek Road (and these things are true), don’t assume I’m speaking for either institution, like you I’m just an idealistic voter with an opinion…

I love liberal democracy; especially when governments made up of elected representatives who are elected for their character and ability to make decisions aim for more than simply holding power by looking after the majority.

I think we should pursue a more idealised version of democracy than the one we’re given and hold our leaders to this sort of standard, that we should call them to govern not just for the liberty of those who voted for them, but for other communities of people within the community who didn’t.

In a secular, pluralistic democracy like ours there are lots of views of human flourishing. As a Christian, who thinks flourishing is ultimately about the Holy Spirit transforming us into the image of Jesus, I have a certain sense of what the ‘good life’ looks like; but I understand that many of my neighbours hold different convictions. Democracy has to be a balancing act where those convictions are held in tension, and people are free to hold them, and work towards them.

I didn’t think the plebiscite was the best mechanism for making a decision about Same Sex Marriage because it is inconsistent with some of the values of a liberal democracy; plebiscites seek to guide decision makers based on what’s popular — they’re the ultimate opinion poll — I’d rather our politicians make decisions based on what’s right; and what maintains our ability to live well with people who disagree with us.

There are many arguments for and against same sex marriage that flow out of different understandings of human flourishing, and the decision is much more complicated than some of our political leaders and Church leaders allow.

There’s a very good case to be made for gay marriage in a secular democracy if we think of it as something akin to a matter of religious freedom for those whose equivalent of God, their object of worship, and their vision of what it means to flourish as a person, is caught up with having as much sex in the context of a loving relationship as possible.

If we want religious freedom and protection from those who think our views are wrong and have no place in public, we should be prepared to offer it to others. There are, of course, very convincing arguments for Christians to maintain God’s definition of marriage as the one flesh relationship between one man and one woman, forsaking all others, for life; personally I’d love us to be able to maintain that definition within our community and in public life, for as long as possible because I believe it is both good for people, and that it’s a picture of the relationship created by the Gospel; I simply don’t expect my neighbours to be convinced of this goodness, nor that legal definitions should reflect my view and not theirs.

One danger of moving away from the plebiscite and potentially moving to the better, more democratic, option of the vote on the floor of parliament is that we lose the discussion that would’ve accompanied it and that the majority view will simply be imposed on different minority views in a different form of populism. The language that Labor leader Bill Shorten is using around those who oppose Same Sex Marriage worries me because it seems intolerant, and it seems to beg the question somewhat; he framing it as a decision about what sort of love our society will accept when those opposed seem much more interested in talking about what marriage itself is, it’d be great for Christians to be able to have good discussions with our neighbours about how marriage is part of God’s design, and ultimately about how it reflects the love God has for his people and the oneness we experience with God when we follow Jesus. Apart from the need to have this conversation robustly, and charitably, I’d love it to happen quickly because I believe this conversation has been a massive distraction from other priorities, and that it has made it look like the good news of Jesus is not good news for our LGBTQI neighbours; there are much bigger issues we should be staring down as God’s people in Australia, and it has also kept us from the priority of confidently and winsomely offering the Gospel — the offer of resurrected life in Jesus — as the best place to understand what it means for people to flourish.

 

How Luke Cage and Daredevil are (good) images and imitators of Jesus (and why the original is still better)

“It costs to be a saviour. Ask Jesus” — Cottonmouth, Luke Cage, Episode 5

Marvel’s partnership with Netflix has produced some of the best and most thought-provoking television of the last two years. When I say this what I really mean is that this partnership has continued the trajectory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in modernising the Epic genre, and that they’ve perhaps been the TV series most deliberately and overtly engaged with Christianity. What I mean is that my thinking has been provoked, because they’re exactly the sort of storytelling I’ve spent tens of thousands of words playing with over the last year… whether in the series exploring how superheroes might help re-enchant our view of the world, or my review of Daredevil Season 2.

Few cultural artefacts have excited my inner-overthinker more than the series released through this partnership: Daredevil (1 & 2), Jessica Jones, and now Luke Cage. Luke Cage has been out for over a week, and I’ve been wanting to write about it for days and days now… so here’s the obligatory spoiler warning.

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Luke Cage is the story of the eponymous hero; an indestructible, hoodied, black man in the New York neighbourhood of Harlem.

Luke Cage differs from Daredevil’s Matt Murdock in certain key ways that play out in their respective Netflix storylines, but that are worth teasing out a little (mostly for funsies).

Murdock is very destructible; so destructible that his cuts and bruises reflect the struggles of his neighbourhood and are the price he pays for his heroism, while bullets bounce of Cage such that he becomes an inspiration for his neighbours in his adopted kingdom. There’s a great point in the season where the people of Harlem start wearing bullet-hole riddled hoodies as a sign of solidarity with Cage; a powerful statement in the #blacklivesmatter era.

Murdock is at home in Hell’s Kitchen, while Cage is an outsider; drawn to Harlem in part by circumstance, but increasingly both because of his mission and his love for what Harlem represents as a beacon for Black culture, and those he seeks to save.

Daredevil’s powers are the result of an accident that left him partly disabled (blind, but hyper-sensitive), Cage’s powers are the result of a scientific experiment that left him super-human.

Daredevil is masked, while Cage is open about his identity (with the exception of his hoodie, which does not so much hide him but identify him with those he protects).

Daredevil’s costume is bulletproof (because his skin isn’t), Cage’s hoodie is bullet riddled (because his skin isn’t).

Cage is black, Murdock is white. This, in itself, is the most significant feature of the series and the one that makes it the most compelling piece of media produced in an America coming face to face with race issues in a time where black men are seemingly routinely shot because of what, to an outsider, looks like deep systemic issues, but as a white Aussie I’m certainly not qualified to write about that stuff, so it’ll only come up tangentially in this post, but I’d highly recommend reading black voices on this stuff because the idea that Luke Cage is racist because its hero, and most of its characters, are black is frankly ridiculous (perhaps even more patently so given that the trajectory of this series is The Defenders where Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage team up).

But, paradoxically, it’s the similarities between the heroes, not the differences, that provide some of the most interesting contrasts. Both are going up against devilish villains hell-bent on the destruction of their idealised visions of their neighbourhood homes, idyllic visions of their place, and thus the sort of heroism required to get there, that they, in a real sense, embody. Daredevil is to Hell’s Kitchen what Cage is to Harlem. Both are trying to bring light to a dark place. Perhaps most profoundly, both are deeply influenced by Christianity. Murdock is a practicing Catholic who routinely spends time in confession and who sees himself as the Good Samaritan, and sees his mission in parallel with the crucifixion of Jesus. Cage is the son of a ‘celebrity’ (at a local level) preacher from a black church in Georgia who draws on Black Liberation Theology’s favourite passage in Luke 4 when choosing his name after his resurrection.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” — Luke 4:18-19

Daredevil paints arch-villain, and Murdock’s arch-rival, Wilson Fisk, as the embodiment of the ‘ill intent’ in the parable of the Good Samaritan, while Luke Cage presents serpentine arch-villains Diamondback and Cottonmouth as personifications of the Devil (with Shades as their Screwtape-esque demon helper who ultimately seems to decide that Mariah is a better devil than both of them).

Daredevil and Luke Cage as images and imitations of Jesus

There’s an expression, the ‘Jesus Juke’ that gets used for jumping to Jesus from cultural texts where it seems tenuous, but these shows make the connection overtly. It doesn’t feel tenuous to look at these heroes and assess them against the mission and heroism of Jesus. In Cage and Murdock’s slightly different presentation of the heroic, ‘messianic,’ incarnate mission to save their people; the neighbours dwelling in the place they are called to serve; we see two elements of the real mission of the real Jesus. In Daredevil we meet the suffering servant who, in an echo of Jesus setting himself towards Jerusalem, deliberately steps in to take, and absorb, the punishment being thrown at his people. In Cage we meet the (mostly) indestructible resurrected saviour, a liberator who feels the call to free his people from the yoke of oppression, then doesn’t just absorb bullets, but turns them aside, and (mostly) crushes the head of the serpent.

Daredevil is, in a sense, the embodiment of two views of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — ‘penal substitutionary atonement’ where Jesus substitutes in to take the punishment those he saves deserve, and the exemplary view of the atonement (Christus Exemplar), where the life and death of Jesus are a moral example for his followers. Cage is almost purely a picture of the victory of Jesus; the victory he proclaims arrives with his kingdom in Luke 4 (Christus Victor).

But these heroes aren’t just Jesus figures; they’re presented as Jesus followers; imitators of the sort of Jesus they seem to follow. This is, in a sense, what separates these stories from others in the Marvel or DC universes. Daredevil’s heroic imitation of Jesus is consistent with the Catholic view of his mission and its implications for those he saves; the Catholic view of the atonement involves penal substitution, but also in the words of Pope John Paul IIacts of reparation, that continue to echo the crucifixion of Jesus: “the unceasing effort to stand beside the endless crosses on which the Son of God continues to be crucified“… this is Daredevil’s understanding of his own mission; a mission deeply informed by his Catholicism. His mission to both be the good samaritan, but also to step in and take the blows aimed at the victim the good samaritan helps. His mission matures between season 1 and 2 from samaritan to martyr. He becomes one who is prepared to lay down his life for his city in order to defeat darkness. This is what motivates Daredevil to keep heading out into the bruising darkness; such that his body is broken time and time again for the sake of those he seeks to save. Being indestructible would actually be antithetical, in some sense, to his view of heroism; it would turn him into an entirely different sort of hero, one imagines, embodying an entirely different sort of Jesus.

The sort of Jesus we see in Luke Cage

The Christus Victor view of the atonement is what drives the sort of Black Liberation Theology Cage apparently adheres to; we have hints of this both in the view of Jesus he subscribes to as he adopts the name ‘Luke Cage’ and the way he conceives of his liberating mission in Harlem. His name is derived from the reference for his favourite passage, and its depiction of a cage being removed. His imperishable resurrected body provides him with the strength and ability to bring about his vision of shalom; the peace and liberation Jesus came to bring to the poor and oppressed.

Cage’s liberation theology represents a softer form of Black Liberation Theology than that advocated by the theologian who founded the movement, James Cone, though it certainly draws from it.

“The task of Black Theology then is to analyze the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the light of oppressed black people – so they will see the gospel as inseparable from their humiliated condition, bestowing on them the necessary power to break the chains of oppression.” — James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

Cone’s theology has been deeply influential in the Liberation Theology movement, but perhaps in a way mirrored by the writers of Luke Cage refusing to make the villains just white, or just the system, modern liberation theologians have rejected some of his more radical views of the white church and how it should be treated. It is interesting that Luke Cage faces up to ‘anti-Christ’ type figures who are also black; who ultimately side with the oppressive system out of self-interest, or simply motivated by baser desires like the desire for vengeance.

“Theology is always identified with a particular community. It is either identified with those who inflict oppression or with those who are its victims. A theology of the latter is authentic Christian theology, and a theology of the former is the theology of the anti-Christ.” — James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

This makes the ‘theology’ of Cage’s friend-turned-brother-turned-nemesis, Diamondback, particularly interesting. Diamondback has a snake-like ability to twist the words of God and use them to his own ends. He is the personification of the Genesis 3 serpent (both Diamondbacks and Cottonmouths are types of snake). He is an anti-Christ in precisely the manner Cone describes, but also because he is the enemy of the Christlike figure in the narrative… And he’s the ultimate opponent of Luke Cage not just directly but in his willingness to prop up a corrupt system opposed to the oppressed people Cage has come to liberate; simply because he is hell-bent on the destruction of Cage; and the death of hope.

He’s not particularly interested in the fate of Harlem, he promises Mariah Dillard that he’ll disappear when Cage is finished, but it turns out that Dillard isn’t really interested in a renaissance for Harlem, not in any meaningful sense. She is interested in being in control of Harlem and its citizens. She wants to be its oppressor — another anti-christ — and we see this in her decision to join the existing oppressors and to arm them with Cage-destroying weaponry; carrying the aptly named ‘Judas’ bullets.

But Cage cannot be killed so easily. Cage won’t let the oppressors win. Cage is not afraid of Death, and not even a Judas can ultimately get rid of him. In Liberation Theology generally, but Cone’s Black Liberation Theology specifically, the resurrection is not just a conceptual thing but a paradigm for how to live when staring at oppression in the present; and this, perhaps, serves as something of a description for Luke Cage’s modus operandi.

“[Jesus’] resurrection is the disclosure that God is not defeated by oppression but transforms it into the possibility of freedom. For men and women who live in an oppressive society this means they do not have to behave as if death were the ultimate. God in Christ has set us free from death, and we can now live without fear of social ostracism, economic insecurity, or political tyranny.”— James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

There are no doubt some problems with Black Liberation Theology, especially as Cone conceived of it many years ago, but this is, in a sense, a description of Luke Cage. Freed from death and physical pain, after his resurrection, Luke Cage is able to tackle oppression in Harlem fearlessly. Mostly. His mission isn’t resolved after one season, nor is the job complete, but he is the liberator; and ultimately there’s little doubt that he’ll be the victor (that’s not even a spoiler).

There’s obviously a lot more going on in the series — figures like Shades and Mariah Dillard are complex personifications of different sorts of evil, temptation, and the cyclical, self-perpetuating nature of brokenness and sin. Diamondback is both Satan and Cain, and Cage both Jesus and Abel — which gets a little confusing, though it works quite nicely if you think of both Abel and Jesus as descendants of Adam who don’t act like sinful Adam, and Cage and Diamondback as brothers who both have to decide how they’re shaped by the sin of their forebear.

There’s also something interesting about the character Claire Temple, the Night Nurse, who features in all three Netflix/Marvel franchises as a willing helper of the hero who doesn’t just patch them up when they fall, but pushes them towards their divine calling. If Cage and Daredevil are different visions of Jesus, Claire Temple is their ‘paraclete,’ their Holy Spirit, who keeps them focused on the mission and picks them up when they fall, she’s also a voice who calls other characters to buy into the ‘messianic’ vision of the hero. There’s an interesting contrast that seems to suggest that Claire is more bought into Cage’s ability to save, the victor model, than the suffering servant model of heroism; not simply evident in her romantic entanglement with Cage being far deeper than her involvement with Murdock, but because where she keeps pushing Cage towards the fight, she tries to convince Murdock, at one point, to abandon it lest it cost him those he is trying to save.

“Maybe you need to start thinking about climbing down from that cross of yours and spending some time with us normal people for a change…” — Claire Temple to Daredevil, Daredevil, Season 2

It’s Claire who calls our heroes to stay on mission and to keep their feet firmly planted amongst those they’ve come to save; to find the happy medium and avoid the temptation that threatens to derail their messianic calling. This is another fundamental similarity and difference between Cage and Daredevil. Cage’s temptation is always to disconnect from the people at the heart of his mission by leaving the fight, though he is indestructible, to not take up the call to heroism, so Claire calls him back to it; Daredevil’s temptation is to so embrace the fight, though he is destructible, such that he disconnects from his people who have to witness his destruction and is destroyed without truly being able to save them; Claire calls him back to these people he’s meant to be fighting for, to keep him from losing himself and becoming the darkness he fights.

Luke Cage and Daredevil live in, and fight for, the same city; coming from neighbourhoods separated physically by Central Park, and both confronted by devils and demons who they’ll continue to battle in future seasons (ultimately they’ll join forces in The Defenders); they’re both living in a world scarred by the sort of ‘heroism’ behind ‘the incident’ (the destruction of New York as the Avengers saved the planet). They’re both counter-examples to the sort of heroes who are detached from the suburban reality of life; the ‘hero from above’ — and in this there’s an implicit criticism of the type of leaders in our world who want to be the saviour without any connection to the cost of salvation; both Daredevil and Cage show that true heroism requires skin (even bulletproof) skin in the game; that it requires going head to head with darkness and seeking to bring light, and in this they’re commendable examples.

Why Jesus is still better than Daredevil and Luke Cage

I love these series; I get suckered in to both the binge watching “I must finish this series in less than a week” and the overthinking “I must write thousands of words about this” parts of the experience. I love the visions of heroism on offer here and the rich exploration of different traditions of Christianity they supply in order to help people think about living heroically in the modern world. As viewers we’re not really called to pick a favourite between Cage and Daredevil, but to appreciate both, and I think that is a valuable exercise for us Christians.

We get the best version of Jesus from these two series; these two heroes; if we combine them. 

So often our vision of the cross has been deeply framed by our own circumstances — this is true of the rampant individualism of the Protestant church (which tends to make penal substitution — the salvation of the individual — the core part of the Gospel), it’s true of the minds behind the Black Liberation Theology movement whose first hand experience of systemic oppression drives their reading of the Gospel, and it’s true of Catholicism where our morality, or Christlikeness (especially as it reflects the cross), is part of what saves us.

These two series have served us well by presenting us with multiple visions of heroism reflecting on Jesus, visions of heroism linked in the same world, ultimately featuring heroes who’re on the same team, and guided by the same voice (Temple). We’re presented with an interesting opportunity to consider that our relatively narrow and culturally shaped views of what’s happening at the Cross might indeed be too simplistic, and as a result might distort what’s actually going on.

The good news is that Jesus, the incarnate saviour, is a bit like the visions of heroism put forward by Marvel in both Daredevil and Luke Cage. The better news is that he’s a complete hero, while these visions offer different facets of heroism and show different aspects of his mission that come together to present a much more compelling picture for those of us who aren’t heroes. We are, in fact, villains by nature; people who too easily give in to temptation or seek to control our world.

In seeing both the strengths, and limitations, of these heroes built on one or two particular views of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus from different traditions, we’re invited to expand our picture of his heroism. Jesus is a suffering servant who took our punishment for us; the cost of sin is death and his death paid our debt and this heroism does save people. He’s also a moral exemplar both in his life and in his death and resurrection; he does call us to take up our cross and follow him. He knows the pain and suffering of the broken world and does not stand apart from it. Daredevil is like Jesus. Jesus also knows that we’re not, on our own, worthy of saving, and that we don’t take up our cross or act as ‘saviours’ on our own steam; that we’re all Fisks and Diamonbacks at heart, wanting to kill heroes who threaten to get in our way, and yet he lays down his life for us, and in this his heroism is greater than Daredevil’s, and Cage’s because he teaches us to love our enemies. This is part of the call to take up our cross, not to destroy our enemies but to lay down our lives for them…  our crosses don’t save us, or others, and Jesus isn’t killed over and over again ad nauseam; we’re not called to make acts of reparation for he has made the ultimate heroic act.

Jesus is also victor and king (Christus Rex); he did come to bring peace, and will return to bring the sort of shalom that liberation theology seeks now (we should, as people following him, stand against oppression here and now too). But to limit that peace to human fault-lines like the white/black, good/evil, oppressor/oppressed fault lines is to see the fruit and miss the tree. Yes; God is fundamentally against oppression, but it’s also true that given the opportunity all of us are fundamentally oppressors, and the real freedom and peace Jesus came to bring was to bring us freedom from the bondage of sin and peace with God. It’s that freedom and that peace that’ll ultimately stop us enslaving and objectifying our fellow humans. Yes; we are called to live life now as though we have been raised with Christ, as people of his kingdom who desire liberation for all people, but the ultimate goal of this liberation can’t simply be social, economic, or political; we should desire that they too be liberated from death, to share with Jesus in his heroic victory over the enemies of God’s people: Satan, sin, and death.

Both Daredevil and Luke Cage show valuable glimpses of what it looks like to take up a facet of the sort of heroism we see in Jesus and imitate it for the sake of those around us.

In Daredevil we’re invited to see that really loving others requires pain and sacrifice; which is the sort of love, and the example, Jesus demonstrates at the Cross. Those of us who follow Jesus see this act as both what frees us to love others without feeling like we’re paying off our sin and earning our salvation, and also shows us what that love looks like.

In Luke Cage we’re invited to see that resurrection in an indestructible body frees us from fear; which is what happens for us because of the resurrection of Jesus, and his ultimate defeat of death and the devil. Those of us who follow Jesus believe we’re, in a sense, eternally bulletproof. So we’re free to stand up and fight against oppression for the sake of our neighbours when we see it now.

This doesn’t necessarily make Jesus true. Of course. But it does, at the very least, make him a better hero (in a better story) than Daredevil or Luke Cage, and maybe that alone should be enough reason for you to check out the stories of his heroism; the Gospels.

 

“It costs to be a saviour. Ask Jesus” — Cottonmouth, Luke Cage, Episode 5

 

Some ‘F’ Words: Footy, Fifita, Foran, Friendship and Forgiveness — what the NRL’s culture problems reveal about life together

It seems you can learn about real friendship from the most unlikely people.

fifita

Image credit: ABC News

I was pretty devastated last year when my team’s (the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles) clean-skin five-eighth, a prodigious talent, and potential future captain, Kieran Foran walked out of the club to join arch-rivals Parramatta.

There’s a long history of players switching between these clubs — usually in our favour, like the great Jamie Lyon, but this one hurt. Foran was said to be a family man, a humble and patient bloke who was widely respected by his peers and the press. He was not a boofhead. He was polite and well-spoken, not a boor. He was not like those other players who generate negative headlines for the game. Even in leaving, the headlines being generated were positive ones about him and the game. He was not, in any sense, like Andrew Fifita from the Cronulla Sharks, a gifted footballer whose career, many suggest, will be limited by the disruption he brings by bringing his larger-than-life character wherever he goes. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be saying the game needed less Kieran Foran’s and more Andrew Fifitas, I’d have laughed in your face.

A year later and things have unravelled somewhat for Kieran Foran. His reputation is in tatters; his new club tore up his contract because it turns out he’s not the messiah, nor even the golden haired child they thought he’d be. And it is clear he’s battling a whole range of demons. Mental illness is a terrible scourge for those experiencing it. It has reportedly been a tough year for Foran and for those who love him. I’m not at all writing this to judge him, or to comment on his decisions; life for him, and for many others, is complicated, and he’s made some mistakes and done some stupid things; and it’d be amazing if he were able to pull his life together, or have it pieced back together for him. Nobody is unredeemable. As I write about this year and reflect on his fall, I’m praying for him. Personally I reckon it’d be especially good for him if he found Jesus in all this; it seems Jesus isn’t far from an NRL field most weekends.

What is clear is that Foran needs new friends. It’s become apparent that one of his closest friends is at the heart of match-fixing allegations surrounding the NRL; specifically surrounding games involving Foran. This friend is an undesirable sort of character who has brought Foran’s reputation into question by doing such stupid things as trying to deposit gambling winnings into Foran’s account. This undesirable friend has mixed in circles with NRL players for years to get access to inside information; keeping them close using methods as morally questionable as providing free sex for NRL players and jockeys in a brothel he ran in Sydney. This undesirable claimed in a bizarro press conference this week that if it wasn’t for him, Foran wouldn’t be alive, and perhaps that’s true; but he is also cutting off his relationship with Foran so that he can pursue a return to the football field. I’m no expert, but from the outside (and from the inside perspective of Foran’s ex-partner) this undesirable has not actually been a good friend to Foran; and his undesirability has rubbed off on Foran’s reputation.

What are friends for?

Another friend of Foran’s, his god-father, Don Mackinnon is stepping in to help pick up the pieces; he’s described as a father-figure (Foran’s father lives in the U.S where he’s the CEO of Walmart), and he’s been doing what friends should do; standing with Foran and encouraging him to pick up the pieces of his life, and his career. The media love him for it because he’s doing something positive for Foran, and, for the game that makes us feel like we’re stakeholders in Foran’s life decisions; the footy. This sort of thing is apparently what friends are for. Making us better people. Friends who make us worse, or who cost us something, are to be cut-off.

Is that real friendship?

Clearly you’re not being a friend if you’re using and destroying on the person you claim to love for your own ends; as it seems is the case with Mr Undesirable; but what should a friend be doing for someone who has done the destroying themselves?

Enter Andrew Fifita.

Andrew Fifita has also had a rough year and apparently been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He’s done some stupid stuff in the past, like badgering a referee at a junior football game, and this year has continued to do some questionable things; he, is, in some corners of the media, painted as a walking undesirable; a blight on the game.  It’s been suggested that he also needs new friends after he wore an armband bearing the letters F.K.L; apparently in support of his childhood friend ‘K.L,’ who is in jail for a coward punch killing. This friend is rightly paying for a stupid mistake that had deadly consequences. Fifita, despite all the advice he has received suggesting he do otherwise, is standing by his friend. He’s not just doing the token thing with some letters on his wrist, but has made multiple visits to his friend in prison. Apparently the authorities in both the game, and the government — the NRL’s Integrity Unit, and the New South Wales Police — don’t want our footballers consorting with this sort of character. This friendship doesn’t appear to gain him anything; in fact, Fifita seems to know that it costs him. If there’s one thing Fifita does seem to be, it’s loyal to his childhood friends; that was his explanation for running across the field to join a fight in State of Origin this year that saw him head to the sin bin. Sure. He’s done some dumb stuff. But there’s some sort of virtue there in the background. And it’s there when it comes to his costly support of his undesirable friend. People are worried that continuing to support his friend; visiting him in jail and wearing the letters on his wrist, brings both Fifita and the game into disrepute. Fifita has been pilloried from pillar to post by the media and the game’s hierarchy for daring to stand by his undesirable friend.

There’s been lots of speculation about what the “F” on his wristband stood for; and a widespread belief that he was calling for his friend to be freed; which would be insensitive for the family of the victim, and would fly in the face of campaigns against alcohol fuelled violence. A bunch of former-players-turned-media-pundits and NRL CEO Todd Greenberg piled in on Fifita; rightly concerned about the family of K.L’s victim. Greenberg told the media:

“Players are generally free to support any person or cause they like. But in circumstances such as these, they cannot use our game as a platform to do that.

We understand players have a life outside their club and the game and that may include mixing with people who have gone down the wrong path in life. But players must ensure they do not engage in any activity which damages our game… Arm guards can often be used for messages of support for family, sick children and other worthy causes and we would prefer not to get in the way of that.”

But it seems the F stands for the thing at the heart of real friendship. Perhaps this is a worthy cause. Perhaps it teaches us something true about friendship. A lesson the NRL might need if Foran’s undesirable friend has connections, as it seems, that run wide, not just deeply into the life of the Foran family.

It seems Fifita might actually be a guy the NRL (and its public) could learn from (though he’s still a boof-head and this is quite a specific thing to learn). It seems Fifita understands that real friendship crosses the boundaries of desirability at one’s personal cost; that real friendship isn’t just for fair weather, or for your own benefit. It seems he knows that the way to cross the boundary is via the toughest virtues of all.

First, a few weeks back, Fifita made it clear that he wasn’t downplaying the cost K.L’s actions had for the Kelly family (and they have been incredibly costly) — or calling for K.L, Kieran Loveridge, to be freed. He is simply humanising Kieran in a world that wants to use shame and guilt to dehumanise people when they make mistakes. One of the quickest ways to dehumanise someone is to cut them off from friendships and relationships. We’re wired to need relationships. And Fifita seems to get this… he said:

“… I think about the Kelly family when I think about Kieran. My support for Kieran is there because he is sitting without a glimmer of hope and I want to give him some hope. There are very few people who are going to support him and my bond with him runs deep.

“But to say that I think he should be free is just so wrong. It upsets me that people would think that. He has to do his time because he did the wrong thing, but I can’t ignore a bloke who grew up with me as family.”

Then, yesterday’s Danny Weidler column in the Sun Herald contained this little bit of info (which is consistent with what Fifita has suggested since the scandal broke, not just a convenient excuse to make up after the fact).

“What is also of interest is the “F” in the infamous “FKL” acronym worn by Fifita earlier this season was not “Free” or “For”. This column understands it’s “Forgive” – something Fifita wrote after two years of trying to find forgiveness for a mate who did the wrong thing.

It was something he struggled with and still does because he knows how brutal Kieran Loveridge’s act was. It is my understanding Fifita doesn’t want the world to forgive the one-punch killer. He’s not silly enough to push that down people’s throats. He wasn’t pushing it on to teammates or anyone else, it was a reminder to look for that in himself.”

 

Forgiveness is hard especially when the sin in question makes a person particularly undesirable. There’s a reason Jesus gets called ‘friend of sinners’ — and it’s not just that he spent time with undesirables like prostitutes and tax-collectors — it’s because his mission in life was to forgive people at his cost (the cost of his life, and death) in order to make us his friends. Just after Luke’s Gospel, where the Pharisees have been having a go at Jesus for hanging out with undesirables, Jesus says:

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.” — Luke 7:34

Just after he says this, Luke tells a story about an undesirable woman approaches him to wash his feet with expensive perfume (which she’s no doubt purchased with the money she made from her undesirable labours), the Pharisees think Jesus should cut off contact with her because she is a “sinner,” and he shows that Fifita is pretty on the money when it comes to friendship, while the NRL and the footy-loving media, might have something to learn. Jesus smashes the pharisees, while giving hope and friendship to this undesirable woman.

Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” — Luke 7:44-50

You could also easily go to the parable of the Good Samaritan here and its final question: ‘who was this [undesirable] man’s neighbour?’ — the example of Jesus is the example of extending friendship to someone, via forgiveness, at your own cost.

We can learn something Biblical from Foran’s story too; “bad company corrupts” (1 Corinthians 15:33), and that’s what happens if we take our lead from undesirables rather than seeing friendship as a costly outworking of the Gospel. The thing about the story of the Bible is that it becomes pretty clear that we’re actually all corrupted and undesirable; some of us are just better at hiding it than others, while some of us are more hypocritical than others (there’s a great irony to me that the line of pundits stepping forward to condemn Andrew Fifita includes Matthew Johns). The danger Paul is speaking about in 1 Corinthians 15 is the danger of forgetting that Jesus calls us to leave our old ways, but not our old friends, behind. We can love people without being corrupted by them; and this, too, is where Foran went wrong. Jesus managed to do this friendship thing without being corrupted — but he did it with compassion, and for people who nobody else wanted to see as human or give any sort of hope to — just like Fifita, and ultimately this will require a degree of forgiveness.

There’s something that people who want to follow Jesus and live in response to his vision of costly friendship for undesirables (us) can learn from Fifita here, inasmuch as his approach to friendship looks like Jesus’ approach to friendship. Forgiveness is hard. And yet Paul, who’d been greatly undesirable, a killer of Christians, before being forgiven, says it’s at the heart of our new life following Jesus:

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” — Colossians 3:12-14

Don’t Panic: The sky is not falling in in Victoria; it already fell and Jesus is both Lord and king

The last thing we Christians need right now is ‘think pieces’ making us afraid of our world.

Big Splash Rubber Duckie

Sometimes when my kids are playing in the bath I get their rubber ducks, hold them high above their heads, and pelt them down into the bathtub. It’s like the sky is falling in. It creates massive shock waves in the tiny bath.

The kids laugh. They rejoice. They know a falling rubber duck presents no real danger, and the splashes, which might cause temporary pain if the soap gets in their eyes, aren’t permanent and are part of the game.

Smarter people than I are deeply concerned about what’s happening in Victoria, especially those who live there like Murray Campbell and Michael Bird.

Writing for the Gospel Coalition (in a piece originally from his blog) titled Victoria Prepares to Pull the Plug on Religious Freedom, Murray Campbell says:

Schools, Churches, Synagogues, Temples, and hundreds of organisations, will be required to pass a test, demonstrating to the Government that advertised positions inherently require an employee to affirm the beliefs and practices of that institution. The tribunal will then have authority to decide what is religious and what is not, and which roles require a person to hold to the beliefs of the organisation and not; a pontifex maximus for Victoria!

Soon there will be all manner of religious organisations lining up outside a brick Government building, waiting to prove that their employees ought to be on the same page as their school or charity.

Yes, I know, all this sounds like one crazy dream built on an evening of Roquefort and Sauternes, or perhaps the plot line for a whacky comedy. But no, this is real and it is serious.

Michael Bird wrote a piece whose heading I barely comprehend, but which sounds bad, titled The Secularized Erastianism of the Daniel Andrews Government in Victoria (I do like it a lot, and think he’s right in his reading of the culture and the implications, and the systemic problems with a decision like this). I think these guys are reading what is going on well; and pointing out some troubling implications that go way beyond Christianity; but there’s potential that a whole lot of us are going to read about how bad the world is getting for Christians and respond in a totally natural and understandable way: panic.

I read these, and my first response is to want to head for the hills; to start some sort of monastic order till it all blows over or collapses, as it inevitably will, under the weight of its own over-reach.

My second response, one that I believe has better perspective to it; is not to worry, but to steel myself (and perhaps  others) to endure what’s coming…

I’m just not that concerned about Daniel Andrews, not because I don’t live in Victoria (I think they’ll permeate), but because Jesus is king and God is sovereign.

Look, I’m sure there’s an insidious anti-religion, even anti-Christian, agenda playing out in Victoria, I don’t want to downplay that. I think we should take some advice from the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy though. Always take a towel and then, more importantly: Don’t Panic!

If I was going to target religious freedom, this isn’t really the way I’d do it. It will be incredibly hard for anyone accusing the church of discrimination to prove it. This is a blunt instrument if it is setting out to damage the church. Blunt instruments hurt. Sure. And it appears we can choose to let ’em hit us, or we can choose to help ’em sharpen their swords. Which sounds like cause to sound the alert and head to panic stations.

But I’m not so sure. I’m sticking with the “Don’t Panic” option.

Firstly because the laws are dumb.

It’s so bland and will ultimately be ineffective unless employers commit themselves to a purely objective process of hiring staff; which has not been the case for any job I’ve applied for… In the same way that marriage celebrants who choose to marry only heterosexual couples will be able to say something like “I chose not to use my time for that” or “I did not think the marriage would last so exercised my discretion” or any number of things in the real world that are capable of being true and legal (I mean, I’d just say “this person didn’t seem a good fit for our organisational culture”). Plus, the employment market at the moment is more competitive than ever. People advertising employment positions are inundated with applications they never look at, let alone interview. Is it really going to be that hard just to maintain the status quo? I don’t think so.

Secondly, because we’d probably be dumb not to abide by them. Firstly, why would you do anything but hire the right person for the job anyway? Which in a Christian organisation probably will mean sharing the ethos and goals of the organisation? But there’s also a good case for hiring non-Christians some times. I’m not sure I’d bother with any of these ‘technically true’ workarounds. If your Christian culture within your organisation is strong; why wouldn’t you hire non-Christians? We use non-Christian contractors all the time to do our electrical work, and manage our printing, and all sorts of day to day operational issues.

Creek Road South Bank, where I’m the pastor, meets in a theatre at the Queensland Theatre Company. As part of our hire arrangement we’re provided two (rotating and rostered, but regular) QTC staff every week. We’ve built great relationships with these staff, one of whom interacts with all our newcomers in the course of serving them at the bar after the service, and I’ve not doubt they’ve heard the Gospel as a result.

This whole thing seems a pretty convoluted way to take down the church (but is definitely part of a broader secularist agenda, don’t hear me denying that). Honestly, we’re complaining publicly at being marginalised by some sort of worldly power. We seem so afraid; in part, we seem afraid of losing our privileged position in society.

Where is our confidence? And when we wring our hands and complain what does that say about where we put our confidence?

Are we really afraid of Daniel Andrews? Are we really, in a broader sense, afraid of gay marriage or Australian society or any worldly agenda? Is your confidence so caught up in the things of this world?

Don’t panic!

No doubt this decision in Victoria will inflict bad stuff on some people, like all kingdoms other than the kingdom of God ultimately will. It’s also terribly undemocratic in a profound sense. But what do we communicate when we’re wringing our hands, running around thinking the sky is falling. What account of the world and our place in it are we believing?

The sky has already fallen — it’s been ripped open, but that happened in our favour. It happens when Jesus is baptised, and the sky is violently torn apart.

“At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” — Mark 1:9-11

This is a big tearing of the sky. The world as we humans know it falls apart here. THE WORD OF GOD THAT SPOKE THE UNIVERSE INTO EXISTENCE BECAME A MAN. THE SON OF GOD, A PERSON OF THE TRIUNE GOD, STEPPED INTO THE STORY OF HUMAN HISTORY AND RE-WROTE IT.

I capitalise this because we’re worried about a piddling little thing like the Premier of the State of Victoria; not exactly a global superpower. Who might, if he feels particularly capricious, be responsible for some financial pain or imprisonment. This little story doesn’t even pale in comparison with the Christian story, he’s not even an impressive villain. Murray Campbell draws comparisons between Vladimir Putin, then Julius Caesar’s campaign into Gaul, and Henry VIII proclaiming himself head of the church, with this new legislation. But Andrews is so far off the radar when it comes to real, significant, villainy that he’s almost a pantomime villain; but he doesn’t even fit that bill. He’s a democratically elected leader in a small state, in a small country, serving up piddling consequences for disobeying stupid laws. Christians were killed, and are still killed, for much smaller ‘crimes’ than failing to employ non-Christians in their state-subsidised institutions.

We’re worried the sky is falling on us when the one who is ultimately opposed to us, the real villain, has already fallen and we’re just riding out the shock waves on a boat we should know will hold us. The cross beat’s Noah’s ark as a vessel for salvation, and the judgment we’re facing is not a divine flood, but a man made wave, the sort you make when you throw your rubber duck into the bathtub for your kids. It’ll only hurt us if we think we’re puny ants or something, not people caught up in the hands of THE GOD WHO HOLDS THE ENTIRE COSMOS TOGETHER. Sorry. Getting shouty again.

See, there is a real villain. And Jesus beat him.

When Jesus sent out 70 people into the world in Luke’s Gospel and they returned amazed by what they’d done in service to him, he said:

“He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” — Luke 10:18-20

This victory is secured at the Cross. John records Jesus pointing forward to the events of the cross. The prince of this world is the real villain. And he dies.

Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. — John 12:31-33

This moment is the second time Mark records the sky tears open. Mark records God reaching down to rip the temple curtain in half from top to bottom; God won’t be containing his presence to a little room in the Temple anymore.

“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” — Mark 15:37-39

The fate of villains in this story is secure; because the sky fell. The fabric of the world as we know it was ripped as Jesus entered the world, and the ripping open of that order was completed and this recognised symbolically as the curtain tore. In Narnian terms, Aslan is on the move. Everything has changed. And we’re worried about a Premier and his minions?

Have you ever stopped to think about how much of what we read in the New Testament is written from prison? And how much of the Old Testament is written or compiled by a nation in exile, essentially a form or prison and slavery? And we’re meant to be afraid? We read think pieces online written from the comfort of the cafe or the couch. In a democratic west. Where our ministers are paid in a system, built by the government, to be generous to them, and our churches receive beneficial tax arrangements as well…

Consistently, in the Gospels and then throughout the New Testament (eg Colossians 2:13-15, 1 Peter 4, the entire book of Revelation), we’re told about what’s coming from the ‘rulers of our age’ while being pointed to this ultimate victory. The Cross.  Where the ruler of this age, Satan, via the rulers of this age (the government), thought he’d managed to kill off God; but where he actually his own death warrant.

Christians don’t need more think pieces telling us to be afraid. It’s not us who should be afraid, ultimately it’s Daniel Andrews and others who want to side with the loser of the cosmic battle and have the sky land on them. See, Jesus himself says the government will put us on trial…

“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. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. — Matthew 10:16-20

But really, ultimately, just like at the trial of Jesus it’s not Jesus who is really on trial IN HIM ALL THINGS HOLD TOGETHER. Even at that moment. It’s the people putting him on trial. And that should give us pause; and confidence, whether we’re writing think-pieces or just living in the world.

“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 10:24-28

Jesus has already won the greater battle. This sort of suffering at the hands of the authorities or worldly powers lashing out cause they’ve lost isn’t a sort of optional extra for those of us who want to follow a crucified king. It’s mandated. You’re in the bathtub. You’re not an ant. Ride out the waves. The sky has fallen. Jesus has won.

Don’t panic (unless you’re on team Daniel Andrews, or team Satan).

Rejoice and be glad.