Category Archives: Christianity

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Returning to the table: on being the church, and disagreement, in an inhospitable age

There’s a beautiful metaphor of unity in the Gospels.

The table.

This is a particular thread in Luke’s Gospel where we witness Jesus going as a guest into the house of sinners, feeding people abundantly, and eating with his disciples and offering bread and wine as a picture of our participation in his death and resurrection and being made children of God who can eat at his heavenly table. The table, and who has access to it, has been a powerful picture of belonging in church history — different church traditions have different approaches to the table, some open it to all, as an invitation to be part of God’s family — an altar call of sorts, others ‘fence’ it, offering it to those members of the community the leaders of the community know to be Christians — taking seriously Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about ‘discerning the body’ in the meal (and understanding that both being about discerning the body of Jesus in the bread, and the body of Jesus being the community one shares the meal with — believing a person must be able to do both to truly be celebrating unity with Christ and his people).

There’s a backstory to this idea of sharing at the table that goes right back to the Garden at the start of the story of the Bible; the Garden where God as host declared all the fruit of the trees he’d put in the garden ‘good for food’ — except for one tree — and Adam and Eve decided that despite God’s prohibition, despite God being the good and generous host of an abundant table, they would declare what he called evil “good for food,” and they took it, and they ate it, and they were expelled from the table. God’s abundant provision of hospitality and a feast was celebrated through Israel’s history in various ways, including at the temple and through feasts and festivals, and Psalm 23 is a poetic picture of God’s abundant, overflowing, hospitality that must surely have had Israel salivating when they too found themselves cut off from God’s table during exile. Jesus restoring people to God’s table is a big deal; a deal the tables we operate in our churches points to — a return from being banished from the garden and exiled from God.

The table is a powerful picture of God’s hospitality to his family. But it’s also a powerful picture of relationships where difference is acknowledged. The tables Jesus eats at in Luke — those of the pharisees and tax collectors — are not the table Jesus operates as host. His presence there does not make the people he eats with part of God’s family, but it makes them people he loves and wants to eat with in order to love his neighbours and his enemies and invite them to the greater feast. This culminates, of course, with Zacchaeus, the lost tax collector who comes home to God as he invites Jesus to eat at his table. This difference is a really significant feature; we Christians sit at tables with different people at different times and express different things in that sitting; the table I eat with my church family and the table I share with my family in our home, and the tables I host with my friends, and the tables I am hosted at in public place, or the tables in the homes of other people all mean different things, and I occupy a different seat and a different role each time. To invite someone into my home, or to share in the Lord’s Supper (or communion) in church, is to invite people into the life of my family or the family of God, and the latter is in a different way to the way we might invite people to share dinner with us at church.

I wrote a few things during the debate about same sex marriage in Australia, and around the position the church was occupying as scandals around church abuse and domestic violence broke in the media to make the point that Christians now don’t occupy the place of honour at the public table we might have once assumed. We need to relearn the art of receiving hospitality in the Australian community, and indeed, it’s possible we’re now so on the nose, and that our social capital is so low, that we might need to learn what it looks like to be excluded from that table all together; it’s not a table that operates with the same grace that our Lord’s table operates with, we actually might need to earn our place at the ‘public table’ in the public square.

The table also has some interesting dynamics in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church beyond how Christians treat the table when it comes to sharing dinner and sharing the Lord’s Supper (or communion, or the Eucharist, depending on your theological tradition) (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The sorts of tables Christians eat at as guests matter; how joining a table is perceived and what it represents to others, and for themselves, matters.

Christians are not to eat in idol temples or share at tables of idol temples in Corinth because they belong to God and his kingdom; to eat at an idol’s table is to unite yourself, to commune, with that idol — or to be seen to by others, whether the idol is nothing (which is why Paul is happy to eat meat bought in the markets that had been sacrificed to idols), or there is something more substantial going on (which is why Paul says not to ‘share in the cup of demons’ in the idol temple). Christians shouldn’t participate in the hospitality of other gods, and eat at their tables — both because of whatever Spiritual reality is at play, and the perception that would create about the exclusivity of Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:16-21) — but they should enjoy the hospitality of those who follow other gods, their neighbours. We’re also to put the unity experienced at God’s table above all other forms of unity — his table shapes our approach to all other tables. We’re not to eat at tables we might feel free to if it destroys the conscience of the members of the body of Christ who share God’s table with us (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). So Paul expects Corinthian Christians to eat in the homes of their neighbours as guests and do so freely until their host tries to make the table a table belonging to an idol, so that to eat is to participate in idolatry, or express a ‘belonging’ to that god’s table (1 Corinthians 10:27-28). We’re not, with our table manners or our eating to call evil “good” with our actions, but nor should we call what God has declared good “evil.” This is the line Jesus trod so artfully as he ate with sinners, despite the Pharisees believing that ‘bad company’ corrupted. Israel had some pretty intense table fellowship laws that ruled out ever eating with gentiles and especially ever eating ‘unclean’ or idol food.

David Fitch has this really great picture of three types of table we Christians participate in as individuals, that maps nicely onto a corporate metaphor of the table — how we run tables, and participate at them in a more ‘institutional’ way. In his book Faithful Presence: Seven habits that will shape your church for mission, He talks about this in terms of ‘circles’

The first table

He talks about our churches operating the table where the Lord’s Supper is served as a practice that forms us as Christians, where we invite people to put their trust in Jesus, return from exile from God, and receive his hospitality as children. It’s like Jesus holding the Last Supper with his people, those who belonged to him who share in his body and blood and will share in the heavenly table. There’s a picture in the Gospel of someone who is grumpy at just how far the invitation to this first table extends — the older brother in the story of the prodigal son who grumbles that the father will let anybody who comes home and is recognised as part of the family eat, no matter how far into the world of exile they’ve wandered (partying it up in gentile cities and then wanting to eat pig food is about as far from Eden or the promised land as it gets).

The second table

This formative practice of sharing at what is essentially God’s table, where we extend his hospitality, then shapes how we operate the tables in our homes, or the meals we conduct as hosts. We get caught up in the hospitality of God and generously invite all comers to our tables, not just those who might give us something (like increased status — which was a sort of Roman hospitality practice the Corinthians were falling into), but those who can’t, and not just those who belong to our household or family (another Corinthian practice) but those who don’t. This table though doesn’t mark out the people of God; it marks out the people we extend love to and invite; it’s perhaps more like Jesus feeding the 5,000 as a picture of being the good shepherd who ends exile. It isn’t really just our neighbours either, the great act of Christian love is that we, like Jesus, invite our enemies to the table with us, to practice hospitality at this table is to invite all comers, to not draw lines or boundaries, to not exclude but to welcome, include, and to feed. There’s a picture in Luke’s Gospel of the sort of person who refuses to share this sort of table with others who belong — the Pharisees who mutter and complain that Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, or that he lets an immoral woman wash his feet. They don’t want this sort of relationship building with others to happen. This doesn’t mean turning our guests into co-hosts though, that’s a different sort of table.

Everybody worships; everybody has a ‘temple,’ but not every table is a temple; not every meal is an ‘idol feast’ — not every one of our meals is ‘the Lord’s supper’ — we are called to share a table with all sorts of people. Like Jesus did.

The third table

Fitch says our practices at these first two tables also shape how we operate in situations where we are guests — and I’d suggest where we are co-hosts (those times where it is not so clear that hospitality is being extended, but where participation at a table is mutual). When we eat as guests, with our neighbours, like Jesus with both the Pharisees and the tax collectors, our eating does not signify that we belong to their ways of seeing the world, we eat as those who belong to another table, bringing the virtues and values shaped by experiencing that love and hospitality, and being prepared to lovingly challenge the sin of those we eat with, but also to invite them to enjoy a taste of God’s hospitality at the other two tables.

The tables and the institutional church

When it comes to public, institutional, Christianity. Church institutions or organisations decide who and how the first table operates — whether it is open to all without prior expression of faith and an indication of belonging to God’s people, or fenced normally requiring baptism or membership in a particular community. Church institutions, through their leadership and history (depending on the structure of the church), “discern the body” and decide what marks out someone as ‘included’ in the body or not — this can be justified along the lines of the church having the keys to the kingdom, or the table, and if we’re to have any sort of institutional church, which has arisen as the church has developed through history, someone or some set of rules, ends up holding those keys. Different church communities, and different denominations, apply all sorts of different standards on who is seen to be part of the body — the line is drawn through discernment. This seems to be a totally normal function of our creaturely limits and church history. There are significant disagreements within the church — amongst Christians — around significant questions such that some churches would not let me share at their table, while I am given (by ‘ordination’) the ability to decide who gets to participate at this table in our community. The first table, Biblically, is one that it is right to limit to Christians because of what we participate in as we eat (but I think it is legitimate to invite people to express their trust in Jesus and participation in the Gospel by sharing in the Lord’s supper as a first step, and to wrap baptism up in this sacramental package). This means that churches have to decide who they believe is a part of the body, and who isn’t. Again, different churches have different ways of drawing this line — different understandings of the Gospel and the way it works to unite people to Jesus, and different understandings of the sort of maturity required before one participates in the sacraments (so lots of Christians don’t baptise infants, and don’t invite them to participate at the table for various theological reasons). Those I am prepared to share at this first table with are those I consider to be Christians eating at the Lord’s table, not idolaters sharing in idol worship. This, too, requires discernment. My Presbyterian tradition (and the broader Protestant tradition) considered the Catholic Mass and the Catholic Eucharist to be in the latter category; if I were to visit an Anglican, Pentecostal, or Baptist church while communion were being taken, and I was invited, I would participate, just as I invite people from traditions outside of Presbyterianism to participate, based on an articulation of the Gospel, if they come to our table.

The church also participates in ‘second tables’ — and where it gets tricky is that we participate at second tables with each other, through ecumenical partnerships in politics, mission, or just seeking to acknowledge unity in the Gospel that might be expressed in something other than the table we run in our churches. To host, or participate at, a ‘second table’ doesn’t say anything substantial about the faith of the other, or whether they belong to God’s table or not. Such a table should be, if it is shaped by the Gospel, broad and inclusive. We don’t do anything to fence the dinners we host at our church every week; we invite all comers — we show that we are ‘hosts’ though by giving thanks to God for the food we receive and share. When I’m eating, and praying with, my friends who pastor Baptist, Uniting, and Anglican churches in Brisbane’s city I don’t lose my Presbyterian distinctives nor do I insist they become like me; there is differentiation and there is a pluralism at play in such gatherings that is not present when I invite people to table 1 at church. If we were jointly operating a ‘table 1’ type deal in some sort of combined service we could only do that (I think) if we agreed on some of the parameters; some parts of the ecumenical movement, historically, have — I think — failed because they failed to realise that these commonalities couldn’t be assumed and were legitimate distinctives. To that extent I think ecumenical cross-denominational boundaries fellowship should operate at ‘table 2’ acknowledging the capacity for many of us to share relationships at table 1 in different circumstances. We can also share table 2 with people who are not Christians at all — and indeed we should, but our operation of table 2 as hosts which is alway shaped by our table 1 practice should also have table 1 as its telos; we should want people joining with us in union with God. The ultimate expression of Table 1 is not in the church gathering, but in the heavenly feast those gatherings anticipate.

The institutional church can still sometimes participate in ‘third tables’ — examples are when institutional leaders speak ‘institutionally’ into public discussions, like contributions to debates about political issues. Sometimes third party groups — like lobby groups — represent a sort of ‘table 2’ Christianity; whether that’s a good idea or not depends on how deep the unity is, and how much such a contribution inevitably eradicates important distinctions and ends up pretending there’s a table 1 unity on political or social or moral issues where there is not (and where there isn’t even a table 2 type unity). Churches, and Christians, can sometimes even host third tables and invite other churches, and other neighbours, to participate at this table as guests, this happens when the emphasis of the table is not that the Christians are hosting as Christians, but as citizens — with some sort of ‘political’ ends not oriented (directly) to the heavenly table.

Our time’s table problems

We are, as Christians, and society at large, facing some major problems operating around various tables. Our society increasingly buys into a sort of ‘cancel culture’ such that people running table 2 and table 3 type tables are very prone to exclude others from the table where those others don’t buy into a particular way of seeing the world. There is no ecumenical spirit outside the church even with public catch cries of ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusivity’ — these are extended so long as people obey the table manners our age expects.

The question of hospitality and who it is extended to is used to exclude when a Rugby player shares a religious meme consistent with his sectarian views and is excluded from the ‘table’ of the national Rugby team, or when a TV talk show host goes to a football match with a former U.S President (who some believe should be tried for war crimes), or when a U.S political aide is asked to leave a restaurant as a result of her politics, or when a football player’s cousin is removed from employment from a religious institution he calls a synagogue of Satan, or when a religious school wants to hire or fire staff based on their personal convictions and behaviour, or when a Christian political lobby invites said Rugby player to share their public platform when that player explicitly denies the Trinity, or when an Archbishop of a diocese gives $1 million to a campaign about who our society will recognise as married, or when that same Archbishop asks people within his denomination who wish to change the platform to keep with public pressure to leave and start their own table… the issue is that in each of these issues, especially as they relate to how Christian relate to others (whether other Christians, or those we don’t consider to be Christians as we discern the body), there’s a different sort of ‘table’ at play and there are different principles governing who should and shouldn’t participate.

When Israel Folau instagrammed his meme I had an argument with a progressive Christian friend about whether or not it was legitimate for the National Rugby League (note, a different code) to pre-emptively refuse to register him as a player again on the basis of its ‘inclusivity policy’ while they were happy to re-register a player convicted of serious violence against women (Matt Lodge). I had an argument with a conservative Christian friend about whether or not Israel’s stance on the Trinity was a significant issue. In both cases those friends ‘cancelled’ me — blocking and unfollowing me — or uninviting me from a certain sort of table (a virtual table 2). I believe both would still welcome me at a table 1 situation if they were operating as host, but I suspect both would like me also not to have a seat at the ‘public’ table, sharing my particular views on the matter in the public square (given that the conflict arose in both cases because I did so, not because of the merit of the actual point I was making in each case). I would, for what it’s worth on the Folau case, exclude Israel Folau from my ‘Table 1’ scenario (because he denies the Trinity), invite him to ‘Table 2,’ and am happy for him to have a seat at Table 3 (in the Rugby team and on social media), so long as it isn’t labelled ‘Representative of Christianity.’

What happens in these virtual, personal, relationships happens on a wider, tribal, scale when it comes to denominations, but also theological movements — progressive and conservative — within denominations. Conservative denominations seem to be responding to pressure from outside their bounds by tightening the boundaries, while some people within such denominations — either because they see this change happening and want to preserve something good, or because they are compelled to change for reasons of progress or reform — are looking to push for change. Both forms involve change to who gets a seat at the table. Progressives in positions of power in denominations have often silenced, excluded, or expelled those with conservative convictions; or, in the course of progress, made belonging so untenable or a lack of welcome so clear, that more conservative people and churches have been pushed out. Conservatives do the same. There’s, though painful, a legitimate Table 1 reason to push for such change, and opposing parties, would, I believe, be better off generously parting ways, and sharing table 2 relationships (pluralism) rather than having different approaches to God (polytheism) under the same umbrella (which at times might be tantamount to creating circumstances that are the equivalent of ‘sharing the cup’ in idol temples — and I’ve seen plenty of rhetoric from progressive Christians suggesting Davies and the Sydney Anglicans have departed from the Gospel).

When Glenn Davies gave $1 million to the No Campaign it was, I believe, a bad decision because it was a decision that seemed to me to be seeking to hold a position close to the head of table 3; a position Christians no longer occupy in a post-royal commission world. It was a decision to invest not just financial capital, but social capital, in a cause that sought to exclude people from a type of table 3 (the public institution of marriage), in a way that communicated such people were not welcome at table 2, or table 1. It prevented the problem, in many cases, of having to navigate table 1 fellowship with the LGBTIQ+ community — whether married or single — by functionally communicating a lack of welcome. The Anglican church does historically have a place at Table 3 in a Commonwealth nation that other denominations do not; it is an establishment church. The Queen is its head. I think this was a mistake because it was essentially an act of inhospitality in those tables that are not closed off to the people of God, or invitations for people to join the people of God. Tables 2 and 3 should be, as a matter of participating in a civil way in a pluralist society, as open, inclusive, and hospitable as possible and we should model that. Table 1, on the other hand, should be welcoming in a way that is not as inclusive because it excludes those who are not part of the body of Jesus.

For me the way I think this paradigm plays out, where Table 1 shapes one’s participation in table 2 and 3 (and where one does not participate), I think ‘Table 1’ is a feast for God’s family, with an invitation to come home. Not all are included. Table 2 is a feast for all to ‘taste and see’ that God is loving and hospitable, and all are not just welcomed but included at the table. Table 3, which isn’t our table to host, is our table to serve not to run, and where we have power or influence our job is to look to those being excluded and find ways to include them at that table, by giving them space at our table 2s (this is why I think the line the institutional churches in Australia ran in the postal survey, on the back of a history of Christians excluding LGBTIQ+ people, particularly in terms of legal recognition and protection, was such a problem). Where there is disagreement amongst those operating table 1s it is a matter of discernment; we have a responsible to be part of a table 1 that we believe ‘discerns the body’ appropriately, and leaders have a responsibility to set clear boundaries (by teaching and shepherding), and also by identifying ‘idol temples’ (like, for example, Folau’s church). Where one discerns that a ‘table 1’ is not an expression of the body, one must not share ‘table 1’ type fellowship, but one must still share table 2 and 3 type fellowship (Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors).

The Anglican church is often described as a ‘communion’ — and that presents interesting challenges when it comes to the question of table 1 and the discerning of the body. Lines have to be drawn. I’m much more sympathetic to Archbishop Davies in the furore around his speech to synod which I believe was a (clumsy) attempt to ‘fence’ table 1 in a particular way, consistent with his appointed duties, and appropriately in a table 1 setting. Davies, as Archbishop, occupies a challenging position in that he has a sort of authority invested in him when he speaks on Table 1 matters for his diocese, that might communicate things about who he (and they) are prepared to sit down with in table 2 scenarios (as hosts or guests), and what tables they might avoid in table 1 scenarios as ‘idol temples.’ He also, for good or for ill, is often an authoritative, representative, Christian voice in table 3 settings — like the $1 million donation scenario — and that inevitably frames how his public proclamations about Table 1 are heard.

The challenge for the rest of us in parsing the reaction to Davies’ Synod speech on social media is that there are lots of different denominations and even local communities who operate their ‘table 1’ in very different ways to the Anglican communion, and it’s easy to apply our own standards to him and his speech in ways that might exclude him from any table. I recognise too, that his speech is a pitch to run the Anglican table — at least in Australia — in a particular way (one that is narrower than currently seems to be its mode). It’s not just that we hear him excluding vulnerable others from tables 1-3 as host — and he has been heard that way — others both inside and outside the Anglican communion have since turned around and sought to exclude him from tables 2 and 3. Davies has a particular responsibility for ‘his table,’ and it is within that responsibility, and the discerning of the body, that he made the speech he made. The reaction from the more progressive wing of Christianity has been stunning to me; mirroring the reaction to Ellen for daring share a table with Bush (and I’m sympathetic to the idea that Bush, in exercising the office of President, did some things that office required of him that were evil, I’m just not sure you can occupy any sort of office in a modern military state and not commit evil), perhaps because part of the progressive view of the world is seeing reality in systemic rather than individual terms, hospitality is something offered categorically rather than personally, there’s also an echo in the progressive celebration of a restaurant in the U.S refusing to serve Trump staffer Sarah Huckabee Sanders. There were think pieces pondering whether Jesus would eat with Sanders (I believe he would, at the very least in a table 2 and 3 way), and whether it’s ever right to share hospitality with an ideological enemy (it is if you’re a Christian so that person is also your neighbour). The New Yorker ran a piece asking ‘Who deserves a place at the table’ (the nice thing about Christianity is it starts with the assumption that nobody does). It noted:

“Jesus—at least as he is reported, or invented, by the author of the Gospel of Mark—was the Kropotkin of commensality, blowing up the long history of Jewish food rules by feasting with publicans and tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners of all kinds. It was nearly the whole point of his ministry.”

It’s a piece that ultimately explores the paradox of tolerance, and lands on the solution proposed by the political theorist who proposed it, that a tolerant society cannot tolerate — or make space at the table for — the intolerant. I’m not sure the Gospel conforms to that paradox. Jesus did, indeed, blow up the food rules and eat with everybody — both pharisees, and tax collectors and sinners. But he also established a table that had boundary markers; the people who put their faith and trust in him and so received a spot at the father’s heavenly table, and those who don’t. He broke Jewish table fellowship rules in order to create a table that included gentiles; but it excluded plenty of Jews (the Pharisees, for example), and gentile idolaters. It’d be a mistake to see Jesus’ dining practices solely in terms of eating with sinners and tax collectors; he ate with people previously excluded to show they might be included in his kingdom by grace. Table 1 sets the agenda for Table 2, and Table 2 practices are a gateway to Table 1, but they are not the same table.

I’m also not suggesting Conservatives are better at hospitality; they tend to run ‘Table 2’ institutions as though they are ‘Table 1’ ones and to occupy positions of influence in Table 3 scenarios that don’t match up with reality (the ACL has a particular approach to this that could be its own post). I’m also not suggesting that Table 2 type hospitality is about denying difference or patching over serious disagreement; civility is not the goal, persuasion is, love is, unity is, and civility is the means. To not sit at the table together, whether for the pursuit of common cause, or to hear one another, is guaranteed to entrench polarised communities of ‘others.’ If, for example, Bush is a war criminal who should repent and be tried, but he belongs to a tribe that views him as a champion, how will his views about himself ever change without hearing voices outside his tribe in a context that recognises his humanity?

For the record, I don’t think Davies was telling LGBTIQ+ parishioners to leave, unless they are part of the movement to shift the boundaries the Anglican communion has traditionally established for those who can participate at table 1. Those outside the Anglican communion who practice a broader table 1 than Davies does (or than I would) have already made the decision Davies called for; there’s also a movement in Australia that has taken almost exactly the step Davies is now encouraging members of the Anglican church to take; one that absolutely fits an inclusive ethos that merges tables 1 and 2 — the Uniting Church. I’ve read comments from a stack of Baptists and Anglicans this week that basically just boil down to a wish for their denominations to become the Uniting Church, and were they all to do that, leaving those who want a distinction between tables 1 and 2 maintained, you know what they’d get… Presbyterians (just with worse forms of government). I don’t think Davies was telling LGBTIQ+ members to leave, because I’ll take him at his word — but I can’t help but agree with those hurt by his words that there is a context that frames them particularly negatively and compounds the hurt they cause.

Lots of my progressive Christian friends commenting on the Davies speech on Facebook seem to want ‘table 2’ type fellowship operating in a table 1 scenario; a broader unity and an extension of charity that goes beyond one’s (or an institution’s) discerning of the body; an eradication of a particular sort of discernment in favour of unity. There’s a danger there, at least from Corinthians, that believers eat and drink judgment on themselves, or participate in ‘the cup of idols.’ Table 2 fellowship amongst Christians of different traditions is a beautiful thing, and it’s a beautiful thing precisely when it is properly differentiated and we can discern areas of disagreement, and listen well to ideas that challenge us to be humble and broader than we might otherwise be at Table 1. Table 2 gatherings of Christians won’t work if we start insisting, or trying to, that table 1 should be shaped by the hospitality we’d like to see extended in the public space of table 3, or in our private gatherings around table 2s. Table 2s will collapse under that pressure; and the formative direction of the table, for Christians, is only really meant to work one way (though we might be formed to see the beauty and welcome of Table 1 by experiencing it at other tables). How we understand the Gospel, and the Jesus it reveals, should shape how we host and participate in tables beyond his; the tables we eat at in the world aren’t meant to cause us to revise our understanding of Jesus. The idea that ‘Table 1’ type fellowship should happen at Table 2 is cut from the same cloth as the ecumenical movement; we might, for eternity, eat and drink from the same table and we should be open to that possibility and rejoice, but the worst thing we could do is convince someone that is the case and then spend an eternity separated from them because we never challenged someone outside the body to move inside it.

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Why Special Religious Instruction should stay in secular public schools

On Wednesday afternoons each week during school term I head along to a local public school and teach a bunch of public school students about Christianity in curriculum time. I had been quite reluctant to do this initially because I know the curriculum is jam packed, and though I think helping kids grapple with religion is important, I do think that in a secular context we should be helping kids navigate pluralism without defaulting to atheism or polytheism; that is, we should help kids understand and live with difference, not eradicate difference. But I’ve been convinced more recently about the goodness of special rather than general religious instruction, especially through some research put together by an academic from Israel, Zehavit Gross, and one from Australia, Suzanne Rutland, which has led to a multifaith body here in Queensland coming together to support special religious education (or instruction).

Religious instruction and its place in public schools in in the news again this week because there’s a sustained campaign to scrap it from a lobby group of parents here in Queensland; they’re echoing similar campaigns in other states, and there are polls being operated by various media outlets. There was a piece a couple of weeks ago by Anna Halahoff, and Gary Bouma on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal that argued that the important role religious difference plays in a multi-faith society means that government institutions have almost a moral obligation to ensure children are exposed to religious traditions outside their own. As a public school parent, a pastor, and a special religious instruction teacher in a local primary school, deeply committed to a secular, and multi-faith Australia, and public education, I agree with them. However, in this piece, Halahoff and Bouma argued against special religious education in public schools and for general religious education.This is the line the “secular” lobby groups are now running with. I think there use of the label ‘secular’ is problematic. Halahoff and Bouma said “young Australians can attend religious schools, or religious children’s and youth groups before or after school or on weekends to assist with religious identity formation. This is not the role of public education.”

In secular, post-Christian (certainly post-church) Australia it’s an increasingly romantic notion that children (and parents) will choose such activities outside school time. It’s possible that my self-interest as a minister of religion makes me inclined to cling to any foothold still offered where the bar for opting in and out of religious instruction does not require crossing some threshold into ‘religious’ or ‘sacred’ space; but I do think religious education is part of the role of a well-rounded public education, even a secular one, especially with the ends of personal formation, well-being, social cohesion and pluralism in view. There’s also a strong educational case to be made that understanding religion, and the role it has played in society, is vital for understanding history, not simply western, or Australian history, and that such an understanding is richer when students grasp the particulars of different religious systems. Again, this is why I agree with Halahoff and Bouma that there is a place for general religious education in our schools, but I think there’s actually a good case to be made for both special and general religious education; whether they share the same slot in curriculum time with some sort of split, or extra time gets made, would then be up for grabs.

Christianity has, of course, played a particular role in Australian history post-European settlement, even in the founding of Australian schooling; until the denominational schooling bodies from the Catholic and Anglican churches reached an agreement with the government in the 1840s, schooling in Australia was exclusively conducted by churches. This meant schooling was sectarian. There were Catholic Schools and there were Anglican Schools. These schools would form good Catholic citizens and good Protestant citizens; fuelling sectarianism in society at large rather than secularism or pluralism. The transition of education to the states, and to a secular model where religious instruction or education was given space in the curriculum was a positive move. Special religious instruction or education is a product of secularism, not opposed to it.

The word ‘secular’ means different things to different people; its definition is contested, the sense in which I am using it is in the sense that I believe most would understand it — the idea of a separation between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred,’ but particularly here the question is about sovereignty; whether the state, or the church, is in charge. Where multiple faith options, and the option of no faith at all, exist together in a community the state either has to be neutral on questions of religion, or religious with varying degrees of accommodation. Most religious people, particularly monotheistic people, believe that their God’s sovereignty and authority is not limited to the ‘religious’ sphere, but that the state functions within God’s world. This means ‘secularity’ is always a kind of concession from the religious, an acceptance of plurality of options, this is not to argue that religious groups occupy positions of power today, certainly not any longer, but secularism, and pluralism, arose when the church was a much more powerful source of authority in the west. Secularity in the west is ultimately a concept that emerged historically both from a Christian experience of the world, and from Christian ideas about the sacred and the profane. British historian Tom Holland made this point in his new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, arguing that we’ve increasingly bought into a falsity that secularism emerged as a product of science and atheism.

In A Secular Age, Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor provides multiple definitions of ‘secularity’ operating in contemporary society. Secularity1 is the belief that public, secular, space is closed off to religious matters; that it must purely consider questions of material reality, such that church and state are separate because one is private and the other public. Church and state are also separate, in this view, to stop religious views shaping the public life of those who don’t share them. Secularity2 is the belief that religion is dead; that in the triumph of science and material explanations of reality, religion will fade into obscurity; we don’t need to make space for religion because religion is no longer a factor. Secularity3, Taylor’s version, recognises that religious belief and practice is declining in the west, specifically monolithic commitment to Christianity and the authority of the Church has collapsed not because ‘God is dead’ but because we now have more religious options than ever before, and the public square is not the singular domain of the Christian church, but a contested, pluralist, space; the decline of Christianity is not just the rise of ‘science’ and materialism, but the rise of choice. Religion is still a factor in public life in this sort of secularity because religious communities still persist as part of society, and a ‘secular’ approach to the public square is non-sectarian; the separation of church and state is to protect religious believers from each other, not just non-religious people from religious people, and it is to protect churches or religious institutions from the power of the state (whether sectarian, or atheist).

To be secular, then, is not to be non-religious, or to exclude religion from any place in public life or public institutions, it is to not have a sovereign power that is exclusively religious or sectarian, it is to remain value neutral on questions of the substance of religious belief, rather than to see no value.

Taylor’s account of how the conditions of belief have changed to allow this secular age to dawn aligns somewhat with the history of education, or schooling, in the west and in Australia in particular. Christians have long been supporters of schooling; one of the fruits of the Reformation and its ‘priesthood of all believers’ was a desire for literacy amongst men and women (and boys and girls), but churches have also long educated children as part of a deliberate strategy to ‘catechise,’ or raise children ‘in the faith,’ there’s some obvious truth in the Jesuit maxim ‘give me a child before seven and I will give you the adult.’ Education, or schooling, is a path to human formation, and to liberation from a restrictive social order — this, again, is a fruit of the Reformation, one charted by Taylor.

The historical development of special religious instruction as a product both of religious involvement with establishing schooling and secularism is not, in itself, an argument for keeping multi-faith special religious instruction, it is, rather, an argument that you cannot simply remove multi-faith special religious instruction from schools and call it “secularism.” The case for special religious instruction remaining in public schools, not simply withdrawing to sectarian private schools, or being abolished altogether is an educational one.Bouma and Halahoff made strong case for the place of religious education in public schools on the basis that it forms the types of citizens required for life in a multi-faith, multi-cultural, Australia. They propose a way forward for religious education that involves “more teaching about diverse religions in all schools taught by qualified and trained teachers” and this “meaningfully incorporated into the Australian curriculum.” A fantastic proposal! Until late last year, even as a religious education teacher, I found the case for generalised religious education more compelling than specialised. As a pastor in a Christian church part of my support for the idea is that it would expose more people to the Gospel of Jesus, which I believe stacks up against other religious truth claims. As a parent, I want my children exposed to the beliefs of their neighbours, and to be having neighbourly conversations with people holding different views to our family. As a religious educator being careful not to infringe upon the school’s hospitality I found the pressure not to proselytise difficult to navigate when answering questions from the children, I was attempting to provide something like a ‘general’ account of Christianity to children whose parents had opted them in to receive ‘special’ religious education, that is, to be taught as though they are Christians.

The ends of special religious education are fostering belief and practice because such belief and practice is demonstrably beneficial for individual students, and the tenets of each religion taught in school, if taught and adhered to according to approved curriculum, promote a pluralist schoolyard where children practice both differentiation from others and compassion for others, these are worthwhile educational outcomes (that children may also learn spiritual truths that are actually true is a question the state must remain neutral on lest it favour one ‘sect’ over another). The ends of general religious or worldview education are to foster understanding and empathy, rather than adherence.

My position on the place of special religious instruction, in addition to general religious instruction, shifted when I read the 2018 report ‘How in-faith religious education strengthens social cohesion in multicultural Australia’ by professor Zehavit Gross, the UNESCO Chair in Education for Human Values, and Suzanne D. Rutland, a professor emeriti in the Department of Hebrew Studies at the University of Sydney. This paper made the case for the benefit of both special and general religious instruction in forming children for a secular, multi-faith, Australia. It highlights particular benefits children receive not just from religious ‘instruction’ but from belief and practice; benefits I’ve observed as the Buddhist class next to my rowdy grade 5 Christians practice meditation and mindfulness. General Religious education cannot produce these outcomes, because they must disconnect religious information from religious practices, and, by adopting the secular frame, must default to a detached, objective, agnostic approach to the spiritual dimension of religious belief. Some of the benefits of religion are directly connected to actually holding religious beliefs. Religious belief and practice is connected to human flourishing. A 2018 Harvard Study by Ying Chen and Tyler VanderWeele found that a religious upbringing involving ‘religious participation’ (not just knowledge) is associated with “greater subsequent psychological well-being, character strengths, and lower risks of mental illness and several health behaviours.” These are formative benefits for our future citizens, and thus for society. These benefits come from a sort of education that already has a place in the curriculum. It seems a case must be made against these benefits as worthy, or for other more worthy educational outcomes.

If “worldviews education” is as beneficial to producing well-rounded participants in a multi-faith society as Halafoff and Bouma argue, and I believe this to be the case, then why not both? Why not recognise the personal and social value of religious belief and practice, and the knowledge of other religions, in a secular, multi-faith world? Why not recognise the fundamental place religion has in the fabric of our society and the individuals in it and devote adequate curriculum time to forming our junior citizens with a vision of flourishing that goes beyond seeing children simply as future cogs in an economic machine?

Schools inevitably form children with some vision of the good, and curriculum selection is always ideological, and in some sense always ‘religious’ in nature. The academic and author, David Foster Wallace, a man reportedly haunted by the question of what place religion, or the transcendent, should occupy in his life famously observed “everybody worships something,” and that the only choice we get in this life is the choice about what to worship. Our schools, whether or not special or general religious education are part of the curriculum, are already forming and churning out worshippers. They were built to do this very thing in a previous, more explicitly religious, age, it would be a shame (and bad for our pluralist, multifaith, society) for our schools to so favour the Gods of economic production, technological development, and wealth that there was no space left in the curriculum for children to learn about the place of religion and worldviews generally in our society, and to explore the belief and practice of one or more of these faiths particularly. I purchased a copy or replica ‘school readers’ from the early 20th century at an op shop, and was shocked by how deeply religious the content was; one (available online) features a story about Jesus titled “Our Best Friend.” These readers aimed to foster not just reading but values; to form children. State schools have recently been encouraged to purchase Suzie the Scientist readers that will teach literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) at the same time. This doesn’t represent the end of teaching values, but changed values in the curriculum. The case for more STEM and less religion in the curriculum is not religiously neutral, it represents the triumph of a modern religion in capturing our shared imagination and orienting us towards a vision of the good life built purely on making cool stuff, and getting wealthy, in material terms.

A secular state, and its educational arm, is not sectarian, theocratic, or ‘atheistic’, but nor does it exist to promote bland agnosticism towards religious questions. A secular state might reasonably, in the face of the evidence, recognise the vitality and goodness of religion. The individual and social benefits either come purely from the ‘immanent frame’ (as philosopher Charles Taylor describes the ‘here and now’) and limited to psychological benefits and wellbeing, or found through connection to a transcendent reality, whether that is the Christian God who reveals himself in Jesus, Allah and Mohammad as his prophet, or the pursuit of Nirvana via the teachings of the Budda. The secular state in a pluralist context is called to remain value neutral and non-sectarian on the latter questions, but not the former question about whether or not religious beliefs, practices and religious institutions are a civic good and part of the fabric of our society. It cannot be neutral on the question of the goodness of religion itself because the quest for some divine truth does not just seem hard-wired into us, but also into the DNA of the western world, producing schooling as we know it, and many of the values we cherish — including secularism and pluralism. Societies that choose to reject the place of the religious quest tend towards totalitarianism rather than pluralism. It is societies that truly value the freedom to pursue religious truth that allow more than one option on the table. Our schools might be places that reflect that, and to continue the metaphor of hospitality, they are perhaps best to do this with courses prepared by chefs conversant with the textures of their own cultural practices; offering a menu for students and their parents, rather than some sort of fusion dish prepared by a generalist, that seeks to value all flavours but ends up unrecognisably muddled.

Public schools are a great breeding ground for a pluralist, civic, democractic society where we learn to listen, empathise, and navigate genuine difference. The worst thing possible for such a goal is religious parents withdrawing their children into religious enclaves; a return to sectarian schooling. Such schools can be designed either to protect children from other religious ideas, or, increasingly because of a belief that these schools, with a commitment both to special and general religious instruction, and a vision of human flourishing that goes beyond the here and now. As a proud public school graduate I’ve unashamedly been devoted to the good of secular public education for the sake of pluralism, and exposing my children to ideas and influence foreign to those practiced in our family and our church, both through curriculum time, and relationships with children and their families whose values, or worldviews, differ from my own. I find this conviction wavering in recent times as I’ve perceived the common definition of ‘secular’ shifting from ‘non-sectarian but open to religious belief and practice’ to ‘closed off from religious belief and practice.’ Ironically, I find myself drawn to the sort of schools that offer both general religious instruction and special religious instruction (albeit typically of an exclusively Christian variety). The danger of enclaves, whatever brand of religion they form around, is that in the absence of multiple perspectives and a commitment to a pluralist vision of life across difference, such enclaves have the capacity to foster various forms of radicalism of the sort that demand a public sphere that is not multifaith, but monotheistic; not secular, but sectarian. A secular education in a multifaith, pluralist, society will involve both special and general religious education, there might even be time left in the curriculum for STEM.

Play as Re-Creation

This is the second of two talks I gave at our church’s weekend away which we called Re-Creation. It’s on the way play is an act of formation, or discipleship, or a spiritual discipline that is also part of our witness to an overly busy world that takes itself too seriously. I’ve written about play as a disruptive witness previously, but since giving these talks I enjoyed this piece from Awkward Asian Theologian and this news story about a cathedral that installed a playground on the inside not the outside.

What is Play?

Jurgen Moltmann wrote a book called A Theology of Play back in the 1970s. He opens by talking about our innate burning desire for happiness and enjoyment. He says: “to be happy, to enjoy ourselves, we must above all be free… we enjoy ourselves, we laugh, when our burdens are removed, when fetters are falling, pressures yield and obstructions give way…” he says that when this happens we “gain distance from ourselves and our plans move forward in a natural, unforced, way.” He talks about humanity as ‘homo ludens’ (the playing man).

Play is different to work — which comes with different limits and a certain sort of burden, but it is also different to rest. It has similarities with both — work, because it involves using God’s good creation, and our energy, to certain ends, rest, because it is ‘recreative’ and not connected to particular ends beyond the activity itself and the pleasure it produces for us. Play is an ends in itself, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t do things to us, and through us — or that it has to be ‘non-productive,’ it’s just that the things it produces are a bi-product of the activity — so someone could ‘play music’ for fun and produce music, or do woodwork and create something beautiful, but the product (while you may pursue beauty and goodness as part of the ‘play’) is secondary to the effort. Moltmann says, of ‘games’ that the game must “appear useless and purposeless from an outside point of view” to be meaningfully ‘play’ — to ‘ask for the purpose’ makes one a “spoilsport.”

Education academics and philosophers are increasingly convinced about the formative power of play — and not just for children. Play as ‘pedagogy’ isn’t a new idea, it’s almost self-evident that children play their way to an understanding of the world, and people as old and wise as Plato have recognised the formative, educative, power of play. We’re hard-wired to play, and through play, to come to know not just the world and ourselves as they are, but also as they could be. Play is the seedbed of the imagination. Plato’s approach to learning was built on the idea that the way we play appears ‘harmless’ but “little by little” the way we play “penetrates into manners and customs; whence, issuing with greater force, it invades contracts between man and man, and from contracts goes on to laws and constitutions” and so can ultimately totally overthrow the system, though he saw rightly ordered play becomes a ‘habit’ that leads to good ordering of society as well (Plato’s Republic, book 4).

That play does things to us as we play — that it has a utility — can’t be the ‘reason’ that we play — if play is forced it loses some of its essence, but it is a reason to not take ourselves so seriously that we never play.

Moltmann, writing when he did, noticed a then ‘modern’ (now old) tendency for ‘playfulness’ to be “banned from the realm of labour as mere foolishness” as we have been forced by the industrial revolution to shift our views of what it means to be human. He saw this creating a haunting sense of loss and our desire for ‘play’ as something beyond our reach as part of a “melancholy criticism of our modern culture and its alleged loss of childlike innocence, of ancient good and religious values.” Moltmann notes that the Reformation, and especially the values of the Puritans, “abolished the holidays, games, and safety valves” of the Medieval society it reformed. Charles Taylor, writing much later in the piece in A Secular Age notes how much of the public religious life of old was ‘festive’ — filled with feasts and celebrations that have been removed from our disenchanted, disembodied (excarnated), head-focused, modern religion  that no longer marks ‘spiritual time’ or a liturgical calendar, but treats all time the same; such that our calendars or schedules are dominated by a different ‘immanent’ understanding of life that prioritises work and the pursuit of pleasure through economic productivity and security. The sort of modern myth that Brian Walsh identifies in The Subversive Image (quoted in the post on rest). Work and play do relate — though the balance has been tipped somewhat in modern thinking (perhaps Protestant thinking, connected to the ‘protestant work ethic’) so that our rest is oriented towards making us ‘more productive units’ rather than rest being the thing we enjoy as the fruit of our labour (or, in fact, both being true).

Moltmann notes that the world of the 70s made ‘vacation’ a servant of ‘vocation’… where we “get away for a time to become better achievers and more willing workers” our other past times that pass as ‘leisure’ — like watching TV — have become forms of escaping a monotonous world, a world particularly devoid of ‘adventure’. Moltmann argues that “these areas reserved for free play are of considerable importance to the structures of authority and labour and their respective disciplines and moral systems” — the way the system has us ‘play’ and ‘systematised play’ itself is geared to reinforce the economic/industrial status quo. This is a fascinating point that lines up with more recent observations about the place of ‘mindfulness’ in the corporate world in a book I’m reading titled McMindfulness by Ronald Purser (read some more about it here). Play then becomes ‘enslaving’ rather than ‘liberating’ — if ‘play’ is re-creation though; and something to pursue as a spiritual discipline or part of Sabbathing, then we need to change the way we play, and consciously be formed by our play in ways that liberate us from false worship and false stories about humanity; play, like rest and work, is part of how we worship. Moltmann suggests that play is serious business — and that as a result we should “wrest control” of games from “the ruling interests” that enslave and “change them into games of freedom which prepare people for a more liberated society…” and more than that, he sees, like Plato, any effective revolution starting not with the economic structures of a society but in its play.

“We enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo.” — Moltmann.

This idea is echoed in the book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. He says:

“Each epoch dreams the one to follow, creates it in dreaming,” the French historian Michelet wrote in 1839. More often than not, those dreams do not unfold within the grown-up world of work or war or governance. Instead, they emerge from a different kind of space: a space of wonder and delight where the normal rules have been suspended, where people are free to explore the spontaneous, unpredictable, and immensely creative work of play. You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” — Steven Johnson

C.S Lewis also makes the point that how we play is significant. That our choices about re-creation matter because they form us: “our leisure, even our play, is a matter of serious concern. There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan … It is a serious matter to choose wholesome recreations.”

Play in the Bible

In the beginning, God makes a good and beautiful world. Our Jesus Storybook Bible gives a beautiful sense of God delighting in his good creation, that at least some part of his joyful declaration “it is good” at the end of each day is not just the satisfaction of an engineer but an artist; that there is ‘play’ involved in his imagination and creativity. He doesn’t ‘create’ because he has to to complete some deficiency in himself, but rather as an outpouring of his love and character. Some part, then, of our ‘image bearing’ task is to take up this playful, delighting, creative role — this is part of the call to “be fruitful and multiply” (a command often called the “cultural mandate”).

God is also hospitable. He puts Adam and then Eve in a garden that is delightful. A garden that is a feast for the senses where even the forbidden fruit is “pleasing to the eye”. He invites them to eat and enjoy his good provision in relationship with him — he is the God who walks in the garden in the cool of the day. Part of the ‘cultural mandate’ in the Genesis narrative is the task of spreading this hospitality of the garden — expanding it — across the face of the world (Adam is tasked with ‘cultivating and keeping’ the garden in Genesis 2). This is a task of spreading beauty and a creation that is to be enjoyed; and while there is work involved here, it seems that work is held in balance with enjoyment of the fruit of one’s labours (frustrated by the curse) and with rest. Some part of a Biblical definition of play is connected to our created purpose — we embodied creatures are hardwired for pleasure and created to enjoy relationship with our good creator. We are tasked with imagining and creating new realities (the raw materials for such creativity are there in Eden and highlighted for us as readers). Pre-fall the lines between work and play seem more blurry than they are now, because there is no oppressive social order and no frustration of our work. Play, at this point, seems to, by inference, involve enjoying creation as creatures in relationship with our creator – including enjoying our bodies and our senses – and through our senses, so feasting, and dancing, and laughter, and sex, and making art, and music, and sport, and imagining new worlds, and telling stories, and experiencing stories… not all of this disappears with the disordering of the fall, all of these are ‘play’ – and all of them are at their best when somehow they’re connected not just to those things as ‘an end in themselves’ but to God, either as an extension of our human call to live as his image bearers, in a deliberate engaging with these things with thanksgiving and to glorify God, so that we see in these things something of his ‘divine nature and character’ (Romans 1:20, 1 Timothy 4:4-5). Work is similar in many ways, in that we are cultivate things, but there’s something more consciously ‘utilitarian’ in our work; it has a purpose in itself that play doesn’t, which isn’t to say play doesn’t have a function, or a purpose, or that it doesn’t do anything, but when you try to make it do that thing it loses its essence. Nobody likes ‘forced fun’ or ‘going through the motions’… which is an interesting phrase with play, especially when it relates to professions that are professional versions of things we play at… whether its music, where a musician ‘plays’ until their instrument becomes an extension of the self, and the capacity to produce music shifts, or runs the risk of shifting, to being a ‘craft’ or ‘work’ rather than simply an ‘art’ or ‘play.’

As well as being a writer who wrote fantastic things about tennis and beauty (see his essay on Federer), David Foster Wallace was a capable junior tennis player who understood the strange overlap of play and work, where some things we mere mortals might ‘play at’ become serious business. In his magnum opus, the novel Infinite Jest, DFW follows the career of a junior tennis prodigy in an academy where players are encouraged to eat, sleep, and breathe tennis. To ‘go through the motions’ — playing — until the game becomes muscle memory; until they are hard wired ‘tennis machines’ — the risk here is that a player who habituates themselves into this machine-like existence disconnects the processes from their love for the game. Play has a certain liturgical quality — and Wallace makes this point because his book is ultimately about worship and the idea that we become what we love. We see this sort of disconnect in liturgical churches who ‘forsake their first love’ and go through the motions of liturgy without their hearts and hands being animated by the love of God and the desire to participate in the story of the Gospel, and we see it in tennis players who have been hard-wired into skillful machines but who hate the game, like Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic — both see tennis as a ‘means to an ends’ — whereas, someone like Federer plays the game because he loves it (which perhaps allows him to be an artist rather than an automaton).

Play forms us, and it does have an interesting relationship with work that seems to somehow work best when play informs and transforms the way we work, because it transforms what we love and the new possibilities we are able to imagine. Play can be ‘re-creative’ or ‘de-creative’ — it can be ‘transforming’ or ‘de-forming’ — the fall itself is an act of ‘playful’ rebellion; the pursuit of enjoyment of a good and beautiful thing apart from God. Part of this dynamic, whether with music, tennis, or the fruit in the garden, is a loss of the ‘purpose’ or ‘telos’ of the created thing we are enjoying; we should, in our play, be able to ‘look along’ the things of this world towards God, and so glorify him — but they become idolatrous when we either become fixated on the created thing itself, or on ourselves and what the thing produces for us. This sort of ‘looking through’ the objects of our play has the capacity to prevent those things becoming ‘ultimate’ for us whether as objects of delight or drudgery — it stops us becoming mastered or enslaved (the way Tomic and Kyrgios might feel enslaved by tennis).

Play is frustrated by the fall both because it becomes the grounds for idolatry, because work itself is frustrated (and frustrating), and so too is all of creation (Romans 8). The time for play, then, is reduced by the thorns and thistles the ground now produces, its connection to the creator is more tenuous or less obvious for us ‘outside the garden,’ and the way we play often becomes idolatrous. Even as the effects of the curse start to bite, play continues. The genealogy in Genesis 4 lists people who make tools (for work) and musical instruments (for play). Play is a narrative theme of the Old Testament. Culture is still being created. People are spreading — it’s just a question of whether people are spreading ‘garden like’ conditions, or curse, or a mix of both. The Old Testament is full of the tension between people who are ‘lovers of the world’ who still feast and make music and do lots of ‘appealing’ stuff with leisure and pleasure; who are given over to sensuality… and with Israel’s own counter-cultural sensual practices of self-denial (bacon) and festivals and feasting in a land flowing with milk and honey…

Play under the sun

The wise man in Ecclesiastes; at least in his exploration of life ‘under the sun’ is the human trying to live in Charles Taylor’s ‘closed system’ – as a ‘buffered self’ — he’s exploring a world without God, and decides that a world with God is essential for meaning. In chapter 2 he describes a ‘re-creation’ project; an attempt to build an Eden like life without curse; the #BLESSED life. He starts by declaring ‘pleasure’ itself “meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3) and then turns to work and its relationship to pleasure.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. — Ecclesiastes 2:4-11

Nothing is gained, because all of this is frustrated. Especially because we are temporary; we are but breath. You’ve got to be careful with that phrasing right… it sounds like “butt breath” – but that’s actually kinda what he’s saying… The word rendered ‘meaningless’ in the NIV is the Hebrew word הֶבֶל (‘hebel’), which is a word that captures the ‘fleetingness’ or ‘breathiness’ of existence. It more literally means ‘breath’ or ‘vapour.’

He particularly decides that a life that is all work and no play, no goodness, no joy, is meaningless; it keeps us despairing. Especially because work is pointless because life is fleeting; we don’t enjoy the fruit of our labour, we give it to those who come after us who haven’t worked to earn it. Our lives are marked by days of work that are “grief and pain” and nights where our “minds do not rest”. So his verdict is we may as well work and ‘play’:

“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” — Ecclesiastes 2:25-26

Everything “under the sun” in a disenchanted world is temporary. Work. Life. Play. All are meaningless if all they do is confront us with the reality of this temporaryness; but there is a chance that play — that ‘enjoyment’ of the fruit of our labour — might throw us towards God. The writer of Ecclesiastes doesn’t find much hope ‘under the sun,’ but he does start to connect meaning to God and to an ‘enchanted’ view of life and reality. If life is connected not just to ‘immanence’ (Taylor’s term) or our ‘under the sun’ experience, but to the God who has set eternity on our hearts, then play throws us towards something our hearts are created to long for: the eternal… joy… the heart of God.

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:-13

That longing for the eternal is innate, and play can either numb us to it as we ‘escape’ that reality by atomising ourselves or conforming to patterns of this world or “status quos” that immunise us to this ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as David Foster Wallace describes it in This Is Water), or liberate us, as Moltmann suggests. It’s interesting at this point to consider how much our ‘play’ is dominated by ‘screens’ that operate as portals for us into fictional worlds where space and time are suspended; where once we had a liturgical calendar that measured the seasons around Christian holidays, we now have TV seasons and lives dictated by what’s just dropped on Netflix or the latest video game. Unless we curate our art really carefully; unless we’re careful about what stories we allow to shape our imagination, these forms of ‘escape’ don’t pull us from the real world at all; they keep us trapped there. J.R.R Tolkien has some fascinating points to make on the necessity of fantasy being ‘real escape’ into worlds where the status quo does not reflect our own in order for stories to work to capture and re-create our imaginations. In his On Fairy Stories, Tolkien says stories have a redemptive capacity not just the capacity to enslave, and that participating in them (and creating them) is part of our calling as humans; a necessity for us as image bearers of the story-creating God:

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen. Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum (wrong use does not negate right use). Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. — Tolkien

Tolkien sees fantasy, or stories, as offering recovery, escape, or consolation. The closer the stories are to our reality the more the best they can offer is simply a renewed way of seeing the world as it is, the more we are pulled into an alternative world the more we are free to question the ‘status quo’ we find ourselves operating in. Great fantasy operates in parallel with ‘great play’ — it allows us to rediscover the ‘divine nature and character’ of God through seeing the things he has made more clearly. Recovering sight like the blind man Jesus heals who first sees people moving as trees, and then as people — Tolkien says that it is in fantasy (think ‘play’) that “I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” Escape is, for Tolkien, the sort of response a wise person has to the predicament caused by having eternity written on their hearts and the crushing reality of life and toil under the sun being so fleeting. He says “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” — the danger with our means of ‘play’ — our consumption of stories via screens is not that they are escapist, it is that they are not escapist enough; we simply open the doors of our prison cell to find ourselves in the prison yard; still imprisoned by the world as it is, just with the illusion of new horizons. For Tolkien it is consolation that is the true purpose of fairy stories — and by analogy, of play. Consolation refers to the way stories and our experience of them throws us towards the eternal; towards the ‘happy ending’ where the desires of our heart are met by the God who made us and implanted such eternal desires in our heart.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”

For Tolkien this ‘good catastrophe’ (or eucatastrophe) — this ‘happy ending’ — this ‘fleeting taste of joy’ — which is analogous to what we hope to experience through play — throws us towards the heavenly reality and reveals something of God’s character as the God who creates the ultimate fairy story; the God who plays. Our fairy stories, like our play, are where we enact the ‘liberating story’ of the Gospel — not just the suffering or the work of service and renewal that the Gospel calls us to participate in, but a taste of the kingdom that Jesus came to bring. The ‘liberating story’ we enact as we play is one of resurrection, redemption, and renewal. Play ‘re-creates’ us as characters in this story; those re-created by the Spirit to be part of God’s kingdom. Those who do not simply live ‘under the sun’ but ‘under the son’…

Play under the son

Did Jesus play? It’d be hard to declare some sort of ‘imperative’ for us to play as a Spiritual practice in the absence of evidence that Jesus himself played — and not just as a child, but as an adult. It’s interesting to consider the ways that play might be described in the life of Jesus in ways that we take for granted; there’s a certain playfulness in his confounding of his ‘serious’ interlocutors — the representatives of the all too serious status quo — the Pharisees — through the telling of imaginative stories that build new worlds. And it’s clear when we read through the Gospels, perhaps especially Luke, that Jesus spends lots of time at dinner parties. In fact, he is accused of partying too hard. Of having too much fun. Of too much play — his first miracle is at a wedding, where he turns water into wine, with a similar sort of delight that you imagine from his father in Genesis 1…

But it’s possible he also encourages us to play as his followers because play is a natural part of being a child. His instruction to ‘let children come to him’ as an expression of the nature of the kingdom is interesting to ponder at this point; especially if play is a necessary way to cultivate the sort of imagination that might allow us to escape forms of slavery and find ourselves liberated. This isn’t to say the Spirit isn’t at work by convicting us of the truth of the Gospel and the emptiness of the patterns of this world, but rather that the renewing of our minds might happen through the sorts of pedagogical behaviours, led by the Spirit, that form us as God’s children. Children play. We don’t have to teach children to play (we might, if Plato is right, and if this thesis is right) be best to guide play towards constructive ‘formative’ ends rather than deforming ones, because play does ‘re-create’ us into a certain sort of image, or person. Play is the natural way children learn. Play is not work, but it teaches us how to approach our work.

We impose structures on children to churn them out as cogs to serve an immanent ‘machine like’ economic reality built on science and technology as little ‘worker bees’  to toil under the sun; who aren’t given the sort of education setting that fosters the imagination… and we do the same in our churches and church programs that imitate school classrooms. But children learn to innovate and imagine through play… so do adults… We beat play out of children in the name of ‘education’ because of our idolatry of work, and because we’re too serious about life, and don’t see play and joy as good and essential things to pursue; perhaps especially as (protestant) Christians who have inherited a protestant work ethic and a sense that our awe and reverence for God is best expressed through seriousness, not through coming to God as our good father wanting to play with him (and you know, there’s that famous book that says a life spent playing and enjoying God’s good creation, and bringing that goodness before God in the form of a shell collection is “a wasted life”… that doesn’t help).

What if play, like fairy stories, isn’t just for children? C.S Lewis in several essays bemoans the way we moderns banished fairy stories to the children’s section of the library because like Tolkien, he saw these stories as essential for us in expanding our horizon.

What if we have bought into the ‘status quo’ lies of an industrialised, economy mad, world so we see play either as trivial ‘not work’ or simply as the means by which we self-medicate in order to do our work better?

What if we’ve bought into a work ethic that comes from our theological tradition that emphasises the ‘heady’ nature of learning at the expense of embodied experience where play might actually be a better tool for forming us as people than teaching that feels like hard work?

What if all this conspires to disenchant and thus deform us so that we aren’t living as people liberated to enjoy being part of God’s kingdom, but rather we keep living as people enslaved by the worship of the things of this world?

What if we don’t take play seriously enough and we keep trying to be like the ‘grown ups’ who can’t get back to Narnia anymore, rather than the children whose eyes are opened to the goodness and bigness of God and his world as it really is. What if Jesus calls us to be childlike and thus to be more playful?

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:2-4

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there. – Matthew 19:14-15

What if play is not just a type of formative or ‘re-creating’ behaviour that orients us towards the kingdom; but one of the ways we bear witness to that kingdom in our lives? What if cultural change actually does happen better through influencing the way people play rather than the way they work?

If these ‘what ifs’ are true we need to re-learn how to play in a way that is different to the play served up for us by the world; to play in a way that marks us out and teaches us that we have been liberated from the status quo offered up by the world by a king who calls us to come to him as children. Maybe we could start with collecting shells?

As Steven Johnson puts it in Wonderland, “Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms.” If we want to transform not just ourselves, but our world, as we live and play the liberating story of the Gospel, play becomes part of our ‘disruptive witness’ providing an alternative vision for life to the ‘under the sun’ status quo. Alan Noble’s excellent Disruptive Witness, hints in this direction as he calls us for ‘habits of presence’ that help us recover the way we see reality, but also ‘console’ us in Tolkien’s terms by giving us meaning in a way that satisfies our desire for transcendence.

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence… Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.” — Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

What would it take for our church communities to be known for the way we play? Both together and in our own lives? For us to be serious about playing together being one of the best ways to grow together as characters in God’s grand story? I like this quote from Robert Hotchkins:

“Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We all ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the fun there is and being a Christian.”

How’s that for a vision for ‘re-creation’? Maybe, despite the condemnation they earned from people closer to my theological tradition, those churches that built playgrounds inside Cathedrals — buildings that are meant to throw us towards God through their very design — maybe those churches were actually on to something after all.

Your body as a temple: an essay on Charles Taylor and Tinder (and other ways technology “excarnates” our human experience)

I dipped my toes back into the world of study this year with a masters subject on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age taught by Rory Shiner and Stephen McAlpine. My first essay was on how Taylor’s work shapes a modern approach to sexuality and gender. It’s not the style of writing typical in these here parts, but it was interesting to explore how Taylor’s work and subsequent shifts in technology present challenges to Christianity (and humanity in general) and the markers’ comments implied that I should put it up here, so you can read it as a PDF.

Here’s the abstract.


In A Secular Age, Philosopher Charles Taylor describes a set of conditions for modern life that one sees at play in contemporary approaches to human identity, gender, and sexuality. The conditions he identifies are the result of ‘subtraction story’ that leads to a disenchanted, immanent, universe, that gives rise to a ‘buffered self,’ producing an individualism where people are freed from a transcendent ordering of the cosmos to pursue their desired authentic ‘identity’ through personal choice. Taylor suggests our buffered selves are left seeking ‘fullness’ in this immanent frame, while haunted by what has been subtracted. One way he describes the experience of this haunting is as a ‘frisson’ — a ‘skin orgasm.’

This paper argues that in the technological age of Grindr, Tinder and pornography; things are worse than A Secular Age suggests; that technology amplifies the immanent reality of the ‘buffered self’ and leaves individuals using their bodies to pursue an ‘authentic’ self that cannot satisfy; where sexual ‘frisson’ is increasingly disconnected from ‘fullness’ or any sense of the transcendent.

This essay argues that a Christian response to the contemporary debate around sexuality and gender informed by Taylor’s is to seek to re-enchant our bodies by creating a new social imaginary, by living and telling an enchanted, subversive, counter-narrative that orients us as embodied characters within the divinely ordered cosmos, where our lives — and sex itself — have a sacramental quality and a transcendent telos. In this story, our bodies are temples where the transcendent and immanent come together as we, in communion, ‘image’ Christ, telling and living his story.

On rest as re-creation

Last weekend our church had a weekend away. Our theme for the year was ‘Re-Creation’ — I gave two talk type things. One on rest and one on play. Here’s the one on Rest. The one on play will need slightly more tidying up to be in anything like article format. But I’ll post it eventually. We read Matthew 11:25-12:14.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” — Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus starts by talking about God’s sovereignty and control (Matthew 11:25-27); God reveals what he reveals and calls who he calls; but part of what we’re called to is rest that satisfies and restores our souls.

There’s a little bit of Psalm 23 in here; and Psalm 23 is in some ways a re-creation Psalm; a good shepherd — God — restoring life to a people who have been exiled — if you were here for Doug Green’s talk last year you might remember that he reads this as being about Israel and Exile, and about Jesus and the resurrection and ascension being the fulfillment of that — but in a bigger sense it’s also the story of our humanity — Adam and Eve were given life by water in a garden when the Sabbath was created; made to rest with God… the good shepherd in the Psalm promises a restoration of that, and here Jesus says he will provide that rest… he is Lord of the Sabbath.

We often think of the Sabbath as legalism; a law we don’t have to keep because of Jesus… but maybe a Sabbath is part of experiencing God’s kingdom; literally a chance to be ‘re-created’ — to get a taste of Eden (as much as is possible) and a taste of our eternal, glorious, future.

Rest has been damaged in two directions by us Christians; Christians in the ‘reformed’ or protestant tradition… first because we have treated the Sabbath as a law; as part of the moral law that has to be obeyed in order for us to be righteous… and then second, the ‘Protestant work ethic’ — which was developed by making all work sacred — not just the priesthood — a product of the Reformation where Luther famously says:

“A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means.”

This ended up making work holy, which it is, but so holy that we forget to rest, or we devalue rest by over-valuing work.

The 24/7 hyper-connected disenchanted working world we live in and the challenge for Christians

The Reformation had some unexpected knock on effects to a bunch of things — not all of them good… we Reformed types tend to be less sacramental than our Catholic neighbours; less likely to see spiritual realities overlapping physical ones even though we’ve declared all reality spiritual or sacred (with the priesthood of all believers). We’re less likely to see our bodies as significant because we tend to focus on the brain — on faith as belief from the head alone (and not so much on participation in rituals and practices), unless we jump to a sort of law-based legalism or morality. There’s a philosopher, Charles Taylor, who talks lots about the modern conditions of life in a book called A Secular Age. He — I think rightly — sees the Reformation contributing to what he calls a ‘disenchanted’ world; a world that has closed in so that only the here and now matter; a world that ultimately said that if the sacred isn’t present in a special way on the Sabbath or in ‘priests’ then it really isn’t anywhere… we want to say the sacred or spiritual realm is everywhere and that we are witnesses to that; that we’re a people who have restored souls because we have come to follow the Lord of the Sabbath.

One of the other things that has emerged through the Protestant work ethic — and an individualism that came as people stopped believing our lives are divinely ordered and that we’re born into a sort of caste system — where kings and queens give birth to kings and queens and cobblers give birth to cobblers — where we’re free to work hard to make ourselves — and we have the rise of the ‘self made’ man or woman instead of the God givenness of reality — is a sort of market approach to the self that rewards hard work and ability; it creates this drive to be constantly working to make yourself; to be in control; we all become ‘kings and queens’ and so have to build and defend our little kingdoms of independence.

The world we live in now is hyper-connected; 24-7 and disenchanted. Our challenge is, as Paul puts it in Romans 12 — to ‘not conform’ to the patterns of the world, but to be ‘transformed’ by the renewing of our minds; and rest is part of this; part of both resisting and being formed, or re-created.

Here’s an interesting thing about the way stories in the Old Testament worked alongside practices; the whole Old Testament law is designed to have Israel perform a different story to the nations around them. They are embodied ‘image bearers’ of what it means to be God’s priestly people; the food laws, the ceremonies… and the Sabbath were what marked them out as different. Now these were important while Israel was in the land; they were meant to be part of what drew the nations in to worship God at the temple…

But they’re arguably even more important in exile; lots of Old Testament scholars think exile is when Israel’s stories are finally written down as a unit, not just collections of different books, or stories that have been passed on and retold in the feasts and on the Sabbath; Sabbath was important in Israel, but there everybody did it; it’s even more important in Babylon where the pressure to be like the nations is greatest. I quoted Brian Walsh’s book Subversive Christianity last Sunday… here’s a little more from him after he talks about our buy in to the myths or religious stories about progress, and science and technology, and the economy… he says for Christians being shaped by those stories about what’s good and what it means to be human:

“Our experience is in many ways not unlike the experience of exile for the Jews in sixth-century BC. We live in Babylon. Babylonian definitions of reality; Babylonian patterns of life, Babylonian views of labour, and Babylonian economic structures dominate our waking and our sleeping. And, like the exiled Jews, we find it very tempting to think that all of this is normal…”

We’re in danger of being sucked in to the Babylonian vision of what it means to be human — the vision shaped by exile from God… so our stories and practices are meant to be counter cultural; not just a culture of our own; but distinct and different… Here’s more from Brian Walsh:

“This was also the central problem for the exiled Jews in Babylon. One of the ways in which they dealt with this problem was by constantly reminding each other of who they really were. In the face of Babylonian stories and myths, Jews told and retold their own stories. In fact, it was most likely at this time that they first wrote down one of their most foundational stories—the creation story.”

Justin Earley is a lawyer who runs a ministry called The Common Rule — which focuses on practices and habits that might form us — he’s got a book of the same name, he says when it comes to modern life we think:

“We can work our way to significance. This is what we’re doing when we prove our busyness to ourselves and each other; we’re trying to show that we matter, that the world wants us, that the world depends on us.”

I don’t know if that resonates with you; but I think even our leisure time is often rushed and busy — especially if you’ve got kids and you’re starting to structure your weekends around extra-curricular formative activities likes sport and music (which we might come back to tonight on play).

The world we live in bounces between busyness (and business) and restlessness — even our ‘down time’ is full. We have silence and blank space. You might’ve seen this story from blogger Andrew Sullivan. He was one of the world’s biggest tech bloggers, a hyper-connected internet junkie until he realised it was killing him, his technology addiction was hard-wiring him towards restlessness.

This restlessness comes from our disconnection from God, from the garden, and from Sabbath — it’s a restlessness answered by the Lord of the Sabbath and what he gives us — as Augustine said once his ‘heart was restless until he found his rest’ in Jesus. Sabbath — Rest — then is part of how we show ourselves, and others, that we have been restored; it’s both restorative and formative and performative. It’s also how we teach ourselves that we are not Lord, but Jesus is. Justin Earley says:

“Practicing sabbath is supposed to make us feel like we can’t get it all done because that is the way reality is. We can’t do it all. Sabbath protects us from acting out the lie that we can. Sabbath helps us discover the restless soul of which Augustine wrote.”

He also says:

“None of us like our limits. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we are not content to be like God; we want to be God. The weekly habit of sabbath is to remind us that God is God and we are not.”

The Sabbath as a way out of the disenchanted world

The Sabbath — Rest — is part of how we show that we worship — and serve (or serve — it’s the same word in Greek) the “Lord of the Sabbath” not the gods of this world; or the things of this world. It’s a way we say “I don’t have to be in control” or “I am not the king or queen of my own little world”… it’s how we disconnect from the idolatry of our age and form ourselves, but also part of how we hold out an oxygen mask to our neighbours because the idolatrous air is toxic. We were made to rest and without rest we’re not living our ‘best life’ — and we will die. Idolatry kills.

Alan Noble wrote a book called Disruptive Witness, it’s one that I’d highly recommend — he talks about rest or Sabbath as a ‘disruptive’ practice that stops us being formed by the world, but also that offers an alternative vision of life and work and God… he says:

“Setting aside the Sabbath for fellowship, rest, and acts of service deeply contradicts the standard way we understand the modern world. Thus it works to cut through the buffers we are inclined to erect as participants in modern culture, and presents a disruptive witness of the Christian faith… the Sabbath is actually an imposition on our modern lives, in which we work fervently to flatten the distinction between all days. When no days are holy — set apart — then each day and each moment is raw material for us to do as we will… ”

He says this practice of keeping the Sabbath teaches us that time has a meaning; it’s not just a resource that we use for our own ends — and especially it denies ‘the dominant cultural belief that we must always be working and doing…’ he says “a Sabbath rest is an act of spiritual defiance against the ideal of ‘justification through production and consumption.’

We want to say every day is holy; just as we want to say every Christian is a priest… but we end up offering ourselves as sacrifices to the world and its patterns. So deliberate rest — a Sabbath — is part of countering this; and it’s not just a day of doing nothing that does this; that doesn’t push us out of the ‘here and now’ bubble; it’s a day of rest ordered towards the reality that God is sovereign and Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath who came to give us rest and restore our souls. Rest has a purpose beyond just recharging our physical batteries; it is to recharge our bodies and our soul.

One issue with how Christians have sometimes legislated the Lord’s Day and the idea of church being part of what you do is that church becomes another sort of work; a proper approach to rest will resist that.

It’s worth saying too that part of rest is actually the daily practice of sleep; the temptation our world serves up — whether in the name of rest or leisure — is to sacrifice sleep for the sake of distraction; sleep feels like missing out. There’s a book I read a while back on burnout in ministry — and that’s a real thing — but I think the 24/7 hyper-connected world we live in means burnout is a thing for all of us; whether because we’re over-stimulated (and research shows that’s creating all sorts of mental health dramas), addicted to the dopamine hits we get through our screens — whether through gaming, social media, constant new information, Youtube videos, or porn… or just work emails, taking work home, being available after hours… burnout is a real risk… anyway, Christopher Ash who wrote Zeal Without Burnout has two key practices for ministers, that are true for all of us, maybe because we’re all priests.

One. We need sleep. And two: we need a Sabbath.

Ash points to Psalm 121 which reminds us that God does not sleep, and to Psalm 127 that reminds us that we do, and that sleep is a gift from God.

He says both sleep and Sabbath are designed to remind us that there is lots in this world happening beyond our control; that God is at work in every moment. They are practices that remind us that we aren’t king or queen, and that the world is not mechanical — that it is enchanted; or that things are held together in God’s hands — not ours.

There’s something about the way technology reinforces disenchantment and works against both sleep and rest that is interesting too; as we think about what this might look like. Technology — especially phones — stop us resting by keeping us constantly stimulated and distracted. The blue light our screens emit stop our brains shutting down properly when we try to sleep… From the moment we wake until the moment we sleep — this is a point Alan Noble makes in Disruptive Witness — he says the age we live in is both ‘secular’ and ‘distracted’ — and we need practices that deal with both, because both stop us doing the ‘deep spiritual formation’ that is required for us to be a different sort of people to what we might call ‘Babylon’ or the world… if we’re always distracted we don’t or won’t notice that we aren’t different to the world around us.

That blogger I mentioned earlier — Andrew Sullivan — found himself longing for disconnection from the 24/7 world and reconnection with something enchanted, or spiritual… and he sees technology and its constant ‘connection’ as part of what did away with the Sabbath in our cultural rhythms…

“But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.”

He has some ideas about how to respond that are a challenge for how we think about being the church and what we do as we gather on our ‘Sabbath’…

“If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary…”

Alan Noble makes some really similar points — that if we adopt the tools of distraction and make them how we rest we’re actually not resting; we’re just maintaining the stimulating busyness we experience outside the church.

What rest looks like

Our practices are formative and our practices — whether alone, or together — are performative — they teach us and others something about who we are and what story we live in.

The Goal here in busy, distracted, work and productivity worshipping Babylon is to be an alternative community with an alternative king. To come to Jesus and receive the goodness of the rest he offers. It’s for us to be a community that realises that we are creatures, that we have senses for a reason, that we have bodies that get tired and need restoration — and souls that long to be broken free of the limits of a ‘disenchanted’ machine like existence; we, and everything we, do have a ‘telos’ — a purpose — existence is shot through with the supernatural world. Whether that’s work, rest, or play…

Some tips.

Allocate time for Sleep.
Even if sleep doesn’t come straight away, you won’t sleep at all if you don’t make time for it… Christopher Ash says:

“It is worth considering how best to wind down later in the evenings, perhaps avoiding stimulants before bed, keeping away from flickering screens, caffeine or things that stimulate the mind and heart too much. Just as a runner winds down after a race, so we need to wind down after the day, to commit people and troubles that are on our minds to the One who does not sleep, and then to go to rest.”

Disconnect.
Physically make space that is technology free, not just time. Here’s Sullivan:

“That Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.

Imagine if more secular places responded in kind: restaurants where smartphones must be surrendered upon entering, or coffee shops that marketed their non-Wi-Fi safe space? Or, more practical: more meals where we agree to put our gadgets in a box while we talk to one another? Or lunch where the first person to use their phone pays the whole bill? We can, if we want, re-create a digital Sabbath each week — just one day in which we live for 24 hours without checking our phones. Or we can simply turn off our notifications.”

And some more from Disruptive Witness:

“We might choose to rest from screens or just smartphones and computers, and so create space for contemplation, reflection, and conversation. Alternatively we might restrict our screen time to activities that are intentionally communal: watching a movie together, playing a game together, sharing photos and memories, or video chatting with family.”

Connect rest to the love of God and his work sustaining all things. It’s not a law, it’s just good for us…

What we do as we rest should not just be pointed at the thing we’re doing itself, but we should be able to ‘look along’ our inactivity and remind ourselves that God is at work; that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.

Place habits before love, and you will be full of legalism, but place love before habits, and you will be full of the gospel. God’s love for us really can change the way we live, but the way we live will never change God’s love for us.

Deliberately see rest as an important habit that will form you against the busyness the world commands.

“In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. Such an act of resistance requires enormous intentionality and communal reinforcement amid the barrage of seductive pressures from the insatiable insistences of the market, with its intrusion into every part of our life from the family to the national budget. . . . But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is alternative. It is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertising… The alternative on offer is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.” — Walter Brueggemann

Set routine to begin with. Get ‘in a rut.’ Plan your rest.

“One of the first things we learned was that proper sabbathing is much more about doing than not doing. It’s about doing restful things… An ideal sabbath looked like this: sleep in, worship, long lunch with friends, go home and rest, maybe nap, maybe make love, go out and explore some part of the city we hadn’t been to yet or take a walk in a park, and bring a book that is pure pleasure reading. What all these things had in common was not that they involve “not doing” but rather that they involved doing worshipful or engaging activities. They were things that drew us closer to God and others. The rest I needed was not only more sleep, but it was also the rest that comes with unfolding in good friendships or sitting still in God’s creation.”

Rest by doing the opposite of how you work…

Justin Earley quotes rabbi Abraham Heschel, who says: “A person who works with their mind should sabbath with their hands, and a person who works with their hands should sabbath with their mind.

This has implications too, for parents… figuring out how to rest as parents is very difficult, which means Earley suggests:

Balance between resting alone and resting in community.

“You can’t just take a break from children. Consequently we’ve realized two things. First, there are seasons of sabbath. There are seasons when a sick parent, a newborn, a tough new job, or something else will make sabbathing really hard. But remember, one of the most important things to be done in the pursuit of habit is to focus more on the rule than on the exceptions. Developing the background rhythm of sabbath is the foundation. That means that the tough times—where we get out of our routines—become the unusual times, not the norm. However, it’s really important to pursue sabbath precisely in those tough times, for those are the times we’re most likely to run ourselves ragged. Second, communal sabbaths change everything. Community can help you bear burdens in tough seasons so that you can sabbath even though a human life depends on you (for example, new moms). When Lauren and I didn’t have kids, communal sabbaths often meant having a big meal with friends and lingering long to talk.”

Manage ‘togetherness’ in ways that allow extroverts to recharge in company, and introverts to withdraw (this might allow introvert parents some time to re-charge kid free).

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The ACL and Luther’s “Theology of the Cross v Theology of Glory”

Be careful what you wish for…

I’m starting to think I liked it better when the Australian Christian Lobby never mentioned Jesus.

The ACL’s website describes the organisation’s mission in the following terms:

“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. Proverbs 14:34

To this end, Christian institutions are being undermined. Churches are being pressured by new moral and legal norms. Individuals who speak or live consistent with truth are made a prey.

To stand for truth in public as a relentless, unquieted, and effective voice, is a leadership role that is desperately needed. It requires divinely inspired courage, wisdom, and endurance.

But the courage of one inspires the courage of others. And the truth, whenever it is spoken, will yield fruit.”

It also says:

“Isaiah 59 records God’s displeasure at the paradigm in Israel which so closely mirrors the concerns articulated in Australia. In particular, the Lord marvelled that “there was no one to intercede.”

ACL seeks to ensure that such a statement cannot be made of modern Australia. To intercede for the cause of truth, righteousness, and justice in the public squares is our burden and our core business. This includes interceding for the cause of those who are made a prey.”

And finally:

“We want to see Christian principles and ethics accepted and influencing the way we are governed, do business and relate as a society. We want Australia to become a more just and compassionate nation.”

Now. These might sound like noble aims; the sort of thing that most Christians would want to get on board with out of love for our neighbour. This courageous standing for righteousness in the public square sounds like a tremendous thing to do, and the ‘leadership’ it involves sounds positively heroic. Glorious even.

It sounds a lot like Rodger Ramjet. Now, whenever I read anything by the ACL I’m going to be singing this theme song in my head.

Martyn Iles now likes to dish out his wisdom and leadership via his video blog and his Facebook Page. Now, I’m not really in a position to judge; I have a blog, after all. And a Facebook page. But I did read this missive from  Sunday night, reflecting on the sort of leadership the yoof of todayTM require, the sort of leadership or example the ACL and its head hero would like to bring to the public square in pursuit of truth, justice, and the Christendom way.

Iles says:

I am constantly asked questions along the lines of “how can we reach young people?”

One thing I have learned over the last decade is, if you are a man, today’s young person will be drawn to your:

1) Strength
2) Wisdom
3) Goodness

Put simply, they are searching for people to look up to; people who tower over them.

Stop trying to be their bestie and their equal. Stop living like an apology to them. They don’t want friends and equals – they have people their own age for that, who will always be better at it.

They want trustworthy leaders and examples.

And here’s the tragedy: they often don’t find them.

People just need to know where to look for this sort of leader. One who stands above the fray and fixes problems not by being a ‘bestie’ to those they’re leading, or their equal…

… But by being ‘trustworthy’ — you know, not slandering women who come forward with embarrassing information that your new bestie and equal is someone you’re not equally yoked with because they deny the fundamental tenets of your faith… like the Trinity, and even your own salvation because you were presumably baptised in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit… Trustworthy, like coming forward and saying “yes, this is true, Israel’s beliefs put him outside the Christian church as we understand it, but we support his rights to hold religious beliefs we profoundly disagree with.” Instead of attacking someone as “having an axe to grind”…

I just want to very briefly unpack the problems with both the ACL’s ‘about’ page, and Martyn’s logic in this Facebook post, just for a moment.

The ACL has a strong track record of making natural law arguments and wisdom arguments for public and private morality and righteousness in the Australian cultural frame; and I tend to agree that natural law and wisdom are good things because they tend to be oriented towards the intended telos of all created things — they reflect the divine nature and character of God; nature is ordered to grace. God has two books of revelation — the natural world, and his revealed word, which culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the word made flesh (John 1:1-18, Hebrews 1, Luke 24, etc). But here’s the thing; the ACL wants their leadership on moral and political issues to influence Australia, and they seek to exercise this leadership through wisdom and natural law arguments, and often through political power and legislation (they are a political lobby group, after all). Their approach to social change is ‘top down’ though they are a grass roots organisation (so they’re attempting to change the top down approach from the bottom up). Confused? Good. It gets worse.

The Bible suggests there might be a problem with this approach; the human heart. Romans 1 says that rather than creation being ordered towards grace in the human heart, creation is ordered towards self; while all things that have been made were made to ‘reveal the divine nature and character of God,’ we humans take creation and worship it in God’s place (Romans 1:20, 25). This does things to our capacity to recognise wisdom, and, in fact, we humans become fools. Romans has an answer for this foolishness; the new hearts that come through the Gospel, which Paul calls the power of God (Romans 1:16). The Gospel reveals the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God is actually revealed not in the law — whether natural or Old Testament moral law; but in Jesus, through the Gospel (Romans 1:17). The law, the Old Testament variety, actually reveals our unrighteousness (Romans 3:20), it isn’t so much a guide for righteousness but a pointer to its fulfilment (the same logic from Matthew 5, and Luke 24 — the law and the prophets point to and are fulfilled in Jesus). The ACL wants a more righteous Australia, but Paul says that righteousness comes from only one source, he says: But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22).

Without the Gospel our attempts at righteousness will come to naught and our claims of wisdom will be foolishness in God’s sight. Paul makes a similar argument about the Cross being the wisdom of God, but foolishness to the world in 1 Corinthians 1. Without the Gospel we do not receive God’s Spirit which unites us in Christ, and so gives us God’s righteousness. Without the Gospel of the crucified Jesus — God’s wisdom — and the transformation we receive by faith, there is no righteousness. Paul says this sort of endeavour is pointless.

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. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:5-8)

Campaigning for righteousness without the Gospel, as Christians, doesn’t make you Roger Ramjet; it makes you a kamikaze Don Quixote; flying planes into windmills.

Which brings me back to Martyn Iles and the tall man syndrome on display in his post; he has observed a pattern in creation (wisdom), whereby the ‘yoof of todayTM‘ require “strength, wisdom, goodness” and a towering presence; a Roger Ramjet like figure. Trustworthy leaders and examples who will stand strong against the dragons (possibly windmills) of modern life. Leaders like himTM who happen to be tall and chiseled; not that there is anything wrong with being tall. I am tall. There’s a bit of Jordan Peterson’s upright, shoulders back, top lobster in Iles’ observation — his suggestion that the sort of person the world wants, the type who might lead the sort of charge the ACL wants led, will be a person “who tower[s] over” others. A towering leaderly type who is strong, and wise and good. Now strength, and wisdom, and goodness are all virtues. But this towering righteous figure of courage; this dragon slayer; who is going to set an example — he’s going to have to do that in one of two ways. He can do it Ramjet style, and seek to bring righteousness to the public square through law and order (not the TV show), through politics and power, through ‘towering strength’ while people look up to them… standing up against anyone — even Christian women concerned about the Trinity — who’ll get in the way of truth, justice, and the Christendom way; or he can do it like the Apostle Paul, as he imitated the Lord Jesus Christ.

These two choices are choices Martin Luther described as the choice between adopting a “theology of glory” or a “theology of the cross”… Paul had a particular understanding of the posture Jesus took towards others; it wasn’t one of ‘towering over’ but of sacrificial service; of lowering and letting go of status; to the point of humiliating death on the cross; Jesus went as low as could be (Philippians 2). This was the example Paul followed; he saw the cross as God’s wisdom, which meant he didn’t come into the public square as a burnished up champion in armour riding a steed in triumph, towering above all, but as the vanquished captive at the end of the procession. The humiliated loser. He contrasts himself with a Corinthian church who perhaps think they’re campaigning for a more righteous Corinth, but really they’re campaigning for a more worldly Jesus; the Corinthian church is obsessed with worldly power and status and influence. And Paul wants to turn their whole world upside down by pointing them to the cross.

“For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.” — 1 Corinthians‬ ‭4:9-13

And when it comes to the example Paul thinks he is following in this posture — one that shapes his ‘becoming all things’ including a servant, to all people, is the example of Jesus; the Jesus he describes in Philippians 2. He says to the Corinthians:

“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” — ‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭11:1‬ ‭

And if it’s not clear that he means the crucified Jesus he’s been preaching about — as he has resolved to know nothing but Jesus and him crucified; preaching the Gospel — the power of God — when he writes a return letter to the church in Corinth after they’ve signed up a bunch of Roger Ramjet type Super Apostles who keep attracting people to themselves by being tall, and wise, and eloquent and all the things the Corinthians wish Paul was… he returns fire with:

“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” — ‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭11:30‬

‭And then describes his calling, from God, and his understanding of the rationale for delighting in the world treating him the way it treated Jesus.

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” — ‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭12:9-10‬ ‭

Paul doesn’t sound like the sort of figure who towers over others and who is looked up to; instead he follows the Lord who lowered himself.

Look, like the ACL, I’d love to see a more righteous and compassionate Australia; a more just nation. Unlike the ACL, I’d like to see those desires extend to policies that deal with refugees and asylum seekers, and to our first nations people, and to how we justly participate in the use of natural resource for life and our enjoyment and that of future generations… not just religious freedom, the Lord’s Prayer in parliament (and not even that), abortion, etc.

Like Martyn Iles I’d like to see lots of examples of Christian leadership raised up. I’d just like to see them raised up to testify to Jesus in the public square and reveal the source of God’s righteousness; and to do that by making it clear that God is revealed not in Roger Ramjets jawline and muscular heroism, but in the mess and blood and sacrificial humiliation of the cross. We’re not just tilting at windmills; there is a dragon. Satan. A dragon defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus who still has followers who like to wield beastly worldly power to fight against God’s kingdom; this is John’s apocalyptic vision of the economic and political power wielded by the Roman empire. John describes the witness of the faithful church — the ‘two lampstands’ of Revelation — and its results.

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. — Revelation 11:7-8

The inhabitants of the world look on and gloat, but then, in the very next chapter John reminds us that the dragon was defeated; that Jesus dealt him a death blow in his crucifixion and now he’s thrashing about mortally wounded. The cosmic, apocalyptic, victory has already been won; when the curtains are pulled back on the heavenly significance of Jesus’ humiliating death we see the destruction of unrighteouness secured through “the blood of the lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:7-17).

So by all means, let’s call for courageous leadership in the public square; but that looks like testifying to Jesus Christ, not calling people to law and order. The call to law and order will fail to produce the righteousness the ACL desires; their own handbook, the Bible, suggests theirs is a fool’s errand. They are bringing a ‘theology of glory’ approach to a fight that requires a ‘theology of the cross.’ Luther coined these categories in The Heidelberg Disputations, a public debate about theology (the sort the ACL tells us, or at least Martyn does, that we shouldn’t be having in public). Luther condemns those who seek to produce righteousness by ‘works of man’ — whether that be leadership, or the creation of laws or policies, or even the preaching of the law without grace — and says the works of God always appear ugly and foolish like the cross; lowly rather than towering. He notes that just recognising good and virtuous things in the world does not make one worthy and wise, or a theologian; a true theologian “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” A true theologian; a true leader who might point us towards righteousness, is one who frames his understanding of righteousness not through the wisdom and power of the world — looking for towering leaders, but through the folly and weakness of the cross, looking for self-effacing, servant leaders.

Luther says:

“A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18), for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are dethroned and the “old Adam,” who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his “good works” unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.

That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened. This has already been said. Because men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on.”

We don’t need a generation of towering heroes, or Roger Ramjets, crashing their planes into whatever looks like a dragon. We need a generation of self-emptying theologians of the cross who model service and suffering for the sake of others; weakness not strength — who truly see the cross as the power and wisdom of God, not some thing to be moved past and overcome as we seek to bring God’s kingdom of righteousness through our own power, but as the very key to the kingdom and the demonstration of its ethos and power. God’s glory and righteousness is revealed in the weakness of Christ on the cross; and in his power to resurrect even in the face of those evil powers who would seek to silence the testimony of his witnesses; the church.

If you want a more righteous Australia, preach the Gospel to more Australians and trust that it is God’s power for salvation for all who believe.

Truth made public? Izzy, the ACL, and the smoking gun…

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) re-branded recently. It adopted the tagline “Truth Made Public.” New chief, Martyn Iles, has successfully reintroduced religious language into the ACL’s public platform, and has set about creating a new approach to politics that saw the organisation focus its energies on marginal seats, which meant publishing election materials that promoted One Nation, and then defending that position on the basis that the party provides better access to the political process for the ACL (and thus its “Christian constituency” than other parties, and that it had clearer policies on the ACL’s ‘big ticket’ Christian priorities, which included the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament, and religious freedom).

The ACL is enjoying a post-plebiscite moment in the sun thanks to the Israel Folau saga. The organisation stepped in after Folau’s crowd sourcing fundraiser was deplatformed by GoFundMe, donated $100,000, and raised $2.2 million on the basis that Folau’s situation with Rugby Australia was a result of a Christian expressing his Christian beliefs and losing his job as a result. The fundraising page contains a statement from Mr Folau that says:

“I am also a Christian. My faith is the most important thing in my life. I try to live my life according to the Bible and I believe it is my duty to share the word of the Bible.”

Israel Folau has a religious history as complicated as his sporting code history. He grew up in the Mormon church, with his family, left that church (changed codes), with his family, joined the pentecostal church (Hillsong specifically), left that church (changed codes again), with his family, and now is part of the Truth of Jesus Christ Church in Sydney, with his family — specifically his father Eni Folau is the pastor of that church, and he and his cousin Josiah often preach at the church (videos of their sermons are posted on the church’s Facebook page).

After leaving Hillsong, in 2018, the Folaus were caught up in the ‘oneness pentecostalism’ of Gino Jennings. In 2018 Israel Folau tweeted:

“To be born again you MUST, repent of your sins, be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and then prayed upon asking God to receive the holy spirit. If you’ve done it a different way from this then you aren’t born again. John 3:3,5 Acts 2:38 Acts 19:1-6

Jesus Christ was the vessel of God, God is a spirit. He formed the body of Jesus Christ and was in him. And the holy spirit is the characteristics or functions of God. But it’s not 3 or the trinity but just him alone. Isaiah 43:10

There’s nothing in the bible that says anything about a trinity.”

There is nothing hidden about these tweets, and no reason from Folau’s stream of public Christianity since, or the publicly available teachings of the Truth of Jesus Christ Church (including Israel’s own sermons) that suggest he has changed his position.

These are the sort of tweets that might have a Christian lobby group doing some due diligence before posting a testimony to their website with the footballer claiming to be a Christian.

Because here’s the thing; theology is fundamentally integrated. What a person believes about the nature of God will shape how they understand the person and work of Jesus, and so will frame how somebody understands the Gospel. There’s actually a particularity to Folau’s expressed views on baptism here; like other ‘oneness’ co-religionists, Folau (and his church) believe that if you are baptised following a formula based on Matthew 28:18-20 (in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit), then you are not born again; you must, indeed, be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ.

Watch enough of the sermons on the Truth of Jesus Christ Facebook page and you’ll see some deliberately strange terminology being used around the Trinity. There is “one God, and his name is Jesus Christ.” The sort of belief the Folaus espouse has a fancy label ‘modalistic monarchianism‘; it ends up with a wonky Christology because ultimately Jesus, the son, does not remain incarnate and human and ascended to heaven as the first fruits of our resurrection, he goes back to being God the Spirit, and people are meant to switch to praying to him as ‘father’. How that works with, say, Jesus interceding for us, or redeeming us, or many other parts of how ‘Christology’ works gets very messy very quickly (because theology is integrated). It’s hard to say at this point that the words ‘Jesus is Lord’; given by Paul as a sort of litmus test for the presence of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12) has the same content or meaning as you’d find in the Bible (not just emerging in the history of the church).

There are a few historic creeds that all Christian denominations recognise. And these creeds are often used as a framework for assessing whether or not a person who claims to be a Christian is a Christian. These are the reason that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also deny the Trinity, are not considered to be “Christians.” These creeds universally uphold the Trinity. I really like this bloke in church history named Athanasius. He wrote lots about the incarnation of Jesus; that he was God’s eternal word made flesh. I remember my mind being blown when I realised that the incarnation of the word doesn’t end with the ascension of Jesus; that Jesus remaining ‘in the flesh’ means that the sacrifice of the incarnation goes way beyond the cross and the Easter event, and continues for eternity as Jesus, though in very nature God, remains fully human and fully divine. That’s a big deal for the way God’s dealing with humanity works in an ongoing sense — the divine human Jesus in heaven interceding for us as we pray, the efficacy of his sacrifice on our behalf and the mystery of our union with him, by the Spirit (which he and the Father pour out on us) such that he is able to stand in our place. Theology is integrated; and the Christian Gospel requires a fully divine Jesus, and a fully human Jesus, and prior to that, a Triune God. The way Athanasius drew threads of the story of the Bible together to help us grasp this picture was recorded in ‘The Athanasian Creed’ (though probably not by him). Here are some quotes:

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith unless every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.”

And:

“Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works.”

There is of course the earlier (and more widely authoritative) Apostles’ Creed (390AD) which is Trinitarian in its structure, and content, and before that, the Nicene Creed (325AD), which is essentially, explicitly, a statement about the Trinity and the way the Triune God works in the world and in salvation. It also contains the following statement.

“But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’ — they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church”

The word ‘catholic’ here simply means universal; these creeds were formulated before the schism between the eastern and western churches, and before the protestant reformation. The Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant churches all uphold belief in the Trinity as essential. Mysterious and difficult, certainly. But essential to knowing God.

When the Folau family and their theological buddy Gino Jennings stand against the Trinity they stand not only against the Scriptures, and the tradition of the church, but also against intellectual giants like Athanasius. They are choosing to position themselves at odds with these statements of belief, and so, drawing a clear line. They are staking their salvation on the idea that they are right about God, but almost the entirety of church history is wrong. In fact, their bet is that the Mormons and JWs are closer in their understanding of God than the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions.

Because theology is integrated and Israel Folau’s view of personal salvation (shared by his church) involves a particular form of baptism, and particular beliefs about God, we shouldn’t be surprised that his proclamation of what he believes is the “good news” takes a particular form that feels different to the Christian Gospel. Because the Folau’s church insists that they derive their doctrine from ‘the Bible alone’ but they also rule out the Trinity, we should expect the church to have a different, idiosyncratic, interpretive grid. It shouldn’t surprise us when they take hard, literal, interpretation, for example, to the english word ‘homosexual’ without considering what the words might mean in the greek; language study is, for them, a move from the ‘plain reading’ of the Scriptures.

Over the weekend the Sydney Morning Herald published a story about Folau’s beliefs (or the beliefs of his father’s church). Celebrated journalist Kate McClymont spent weeks investigating this piece and validating the testimony of her sources. I know this because I was a source for the story, or, more particularly, because the story is built on the testimony of a ‘concerned mum’ of an up and coming Rugby player, and I know this mum, who sought my advice on some of the theology being espoused by Folau’s church. She reached out to me a few weeks ago and we have since become friends. We had coffee yesterday. She is a real person. She is who she says she is: a mother of a Rugby player, and a Christian who worked for some time in Christian ministry. She’ll be sharing more of her story in coming days, but I’ve seen her evidence from an undercover trip to the Folau’s church, where Israel’s father, Eni, laid out the church’s position on the Trinity. They told her that there is one God in heaven, whose name is Jesus Christ (you’ll also find this in their published sermons), and that when Jesus was alive on earth it was God the father inhabiting a body, and that after his resurrection he returned to be Jesus Christ, the father. When my friend asked how this fit with the Lord’s prayer and Jesus’ instruction to pray to the father he was talking about prayer when he goes back to the title “father,” when he goes back to heaven. My friend also has message transcripts from her contact with the church and its representative (Israel’s cousin) on Facebook.

The publication of this story clarified what was already public knowledge from Israel’s tweets. The Truth of Jesus Christ Church, pastored by Israel’s father Eni, that rents space of a Uniting Church and meets midweek in the Folau family home (where my friend was offered baptism in the backyard pool), is heterodox. It is not a Christian church in any meaningful sense.

When this story broke instead of issuing a mea culpa, acknowledging that Folau’s position puts him outside the Christian constituency, the constituency the ACL turned to to raise financial support for Israel’s trial on the basis that Israel was a fellow Christian being persecuted for expressing Christian beliefs, the ACL’s Martyn Iles doubled down and attacked both the mum, and a multi-award winning investigative journalist. Instead of saying ‘we didn’t do our due diligence on Folau, and we apologise for the confusion caused by presenting him as a Christian, but his legal plight is a matter of religious freedom and we still believe this to be important’… He did a Donald Trump. He played the ‘fake news’ card. He sought to undermine the public’s confidence in the sort of institutions our democracy needs to function by attacking the story; and he did this by bringing Folau closer to the fold. He showed that for the ACL correct politics — or political advantage — is more important than correct doctrine (just as he did in the election when endorsing One Nation because they’d give his organisation better political access).

Mr Iles is quoted in the Herald piece saying:

“I have never heard from him anything which contradicts mainstream Christian belief. That is not to say there is no disagreement – I am sure there is – but some disagreement is normal between Christian denominations.”

Whether or not the Trinity is real definitely contradicts mainstream Christian belief and is not simply the type of disagreement that is “normal between Christian denominations” it is what separates “Christian denominations” from other religions; like Judaism, and Islam.

His Facebook statement said:

“His [Israel’s] alleged beliefs are largely unsourced and unreferenced.

It is written by hostile journalists who have been listening to a woman with an axe to grind against Izzy’s family (who won’t identify herself and has been trying to make trouble for a while now).

Izzy’s people asked to include a comment in the article, even if only one sentence, and was refused.

I can’t claim to know all of Israel’s theology, but I have spoken with him and friends of his enough to know that what’s written contains errors.”

It seems unbelievable to me that Iles did no checking into Folau’s theology before endorsing him on their website (and in his video blog) as a Christian. Folau had been a Mormon, and his tweet about the Trinity became part of the coverage of his first foray into social media controversy. But this is not the smoking gun. It is, however, classic ‘culture war’ stuff; it’s a playbook Trump perfected. You play to your base. You deny. You redirect the attack back to the ‘other’… The “Real Mark Latham” chimed in on Twitter to suggest that this mum, my friend, is a fake.

A day later Iles shared the Folau’s statement, again on Facebook.

“We are extremely disappointed the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont did not seek comment from Israel, his family or his church, for her story focussed on Israel’s church and its doctrine.

The story carried a number of factual inaccuracies which could have been avoided had Ms McClymont simply followed standard journalism practice and approached us for comment.

The story appears to be based predominantly on quotes from a single anonymous source who has been acting in concert with Rugby Australia. Any suggestion that Israel would stand in judgment of another person is incorrect.”

This is an interesting ‘clarification’ that elucidates nothing; there is no identifying of what claim is inaccurate, and given that my friend tells me the claims in the story were predominantly copied and pasted from messages sent to her by Folau’s church, and the story claims to be representing the views of the church, these seem pretty watertight; and consistent with what was said to my friend in her visit to the church.

So here’s the smoking gun.

The ACL’s tagline is “truth made public”.

The truth is that this mum, my friend, brought the content of the story; the beliefs of Folau’s church, to Martyn Iles attention, directly, over the phone, in the first week in July. She did this because she was concerned about the doctrines Folau holds, having seen his influence in the Rugby community. She was concerned that Folau’s beliefs fell outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity, and that the ACL needed to know the truth (and communicate it). She withheld her name in that conversation because she wants to protect her son from repercussions or reprisals, but she was connected to Martyn by mutual friends who knew her identity. For him to turn on her the way he has, for political gain, is diabolical.

The truth is that Martyn knows she is not “a single anonymous source who has been acting in concert with Rugby Australia” who “has an axe to grind against Israel’s family,” but a Christian mum concerned about the Gospel. The connection she has to Rugby Australia is as the mother of a player contracted to Rugby Australia. Very few people are discrediting Alan Jones and his arguments on this situation because he ‘has an axe to grind’ against Rugby Australia because he missed a board position, or the ACL for supporting Folau because they have an ‘axe to grind’ with Qantas and the cause of religious freedom.

There are lots of motives at play for every actor in this situation, and lots of opportunities to play the man or woman. The accusation that she “has been trying to make trouble for a while now” is strange and non-specific; how long? She has been trying to ensure the ACL (and Iles in particular) possessed the truth about the Folaus and their beliefs; and that is only trouble making if the truth is a threat to some political agenda the ACL holds dear. She tried to make contact with him over a month ago to do this, and then spoke to him a week after that, that doesn’t sound like trouble making to me? It sounds like truth telling.

Either what the stories reveal about the beliefs of the Folau’s church is true, or it isn’t. I know, from the evidence available publicly, and revealed to me privately by my friend, that the claims are true.

The truth is that Folau’s beliefs, or the beliefs of his church, are also well documented and directly sourced from his tweets, and the sermons posted on Facebook; beliefs that put him (and them) outside the bounds of the church.

The truth is you can fight to defend Israel Folau’s religious freedom without calling Israel a Christian; and the ACL should have been more careful to do this from the beginning, and they had the opportunity to correct the record very early, when my friend raised her evidence with them — and they didn’t. And now they are doubling down and attacking her in order to defend their cash cow; their golden calf. That’s what idol will do to you, they’ll turn you from the truth, and turn you against those faithful messengers who speak it.

The truth is that Christians should’ve been more carefully nuanced with Israel’s instagram post right from the beginning; its fatal flaws were deep and wide. He sourced it from a hate group. It distorts, rather than quoting, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. It is unhelpfully unclear about what that passage says about homosexual — using a word understood as describing orientation, or attraction, rather than action. Israel’s understanding of ‘repentance’ is built on a false picture of God and a false Gospel. There was nothing Christian about his meme.

It was religious; Israel is a religious person; his religious freedoms should be protected and he shouldn’t have been sacked for holding or expressing religious beliefs. But Israel is not a Christian, and to co-opt him into a Christian war against the culture is only going to end badly.

That’s the truth.

The truth is that Martyn Iles will probably double down on this until the cash cow comes home to roost, but the evidence behind these claims is out there, and truth loves becoming public.

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When true Israel speaks before the courts it costs him everything (why speech is costly, not free)

True Israel came before the court committed to speaking truth with love.

True Israel boldly spoke truth to power; an exclusive truth that had significant political ramifications — it was a profound challenge to the status quo. It threatened to topple the high and mighty and elevate the humble and excluded. It was speech, and a trial, that would eventually change the character of an empire, and even the world. It felt like true Israel was on trial — but really, the whole world was.

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.” — Matthew 26:63-65

True Israel, when he’s before Rome, doesn’t even speak — he lets his opponents — the government — condemn themselves with costly words and actions. They crucify God’s king, on the weight of this testimony.

Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. — Matthew 27:11-14

This speech cost true Israel everything.

It cost true Israel his life.

There was no GoFundMe page; no reneging on a promise to walk away from his rights in order to not destroy relationships.

True Israel was a model of ethical, loving, truth-speaking — courageous truth speaking performed on the basis that speech matters; that it does things — that it gives life, or kills; that it creates or destroys. True Israel spoke knowing that in the history of the world depends and came through speech connected to the imagination, life, and witness of the speaker. That the God who created the world by speaking sustains all things by his powerful word, and that the ‘true Israel’ was God’s word incarnate; made flesh in order to speak God’s word to a world that rejected him (and it).

True Israel was executed, crucified, because the government of his day did not believe in free speech, and neither did Fake Israel.

False Israel was standing by during this execution, accusing true Israel of false speech; not willing to pay the cost to be different but cosying up to the beastly regime like a harlot on the back of the beast (again, see Revelation), conspiring. False Israel wanted to be free to make ‘religious speech’ without the beast biting, but was willing to forfeit its soul, and the ‘ethos’ that should’ve matched that speech, in order to protect this right to say their own things in their own country without consequences. Fake Israel paid the price, because they went down the path of ‘gaining the whole world’ of free speech, but giving up their soul.

For Christians, those grafted in to “true Israel” as heirs of God’s promise who are united ‘in’ God’s word and called to continue speaking God’s word in the world; pointing people to true Israel, speech matters. Speech is important. Speech is costly.

When the empire shifted; when Christians occupied positions of worldly power, we knew the importance of speech. We knew that speaking words mattered, whether in prayer, or the making of covenants or promises, or simply committing ourselves to certain visions of the future life and society we wanted to create through our lives; and we knew, especially in the Reformed tradition, that speech compelled by powerful authorities — whether church, or state — is a bad thing, so wherever possible speech should be ‘free’. But Christians have also always grappled with situations in the world where we have not been in positions of influence, or control; where speech has not been free.

And perhaps Australia is increasingly that sort of context, and perhaps that’s, in part, because we’ve actually sought to limit the free expression, or speech, of others in our own self interest or according to our agendas — whether people speaking up to make accusations about abuse at the hands of church leaders with power, whenever we speak against a platform being given to people we disagree with (like the creators of My Little Pony), or when we Christians banded together to stop others calling their relationships ‘marriage’…

We Christians in Australia need to come to terms with the reality that despite the Prime Minister being a Christian… and despite the Lord’s Prayer being prayed in parliament… and despite our white establishment infrastructure still being nominally and historically “Christian” (from the monarch down)… real power in our nation isn’t ‘political’ but ‘cultural’ and ‘economic’ or ‘corporate’. This means that when our speech challenges beastly power, it will come at a cost not just politically, but also culturally, or economically.

Oh, that we would embrace costly speech.

Oh, that we would recognise that martyrdom isn’t martyrdom if it doesn’t cost us; that sacrifice isn’t sacrifice if we give up nothing.

Oh, that we would stop trying to wield political power on cultural and economic institutions in order to pay less cost.

Oh, that we would not see ourselves as combatants in a culture war, but as peacemakers who are called by our king, true Israel, to turn the other cheek, or take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Oh, that we would find ways to count the cost together, and carry one another’s burdens, that don’t inflict the cost on others.

Oh, that those who feel called to preach the Gospel wouldn’t be suckered in to wearing luxury sneakers, or pursuing a public platform in order to wield power and influence.

Oh, that we wouldn’t have photo opportunities with ‘Proud Boys’ who spread hate, but that we would be seen with those nobody else wants to point a camera at.

Oh, that we would repent, genuinely, for the failures of the institutional church, whether its with the abuse scandal, in our dealings with first nations people, in the way we’ve caused genuine hurt and harm as we’ve sought to turn our ethical position — modelled for us in Christ, given to us by the Spirit, into law, or where we’ve sought to wield economic or cultural power in beastly ways that have destroyed others.

Oh, that we would distance ourselves from Rome, rather than playing the harlot. Or live as exiles who are a ‘faithful presence’ like Daniel in Babylon, or Joseph in Egypt, rather than Herod and the Pharisees in first century Rome. That we would be ‘true Israel’ not ‘fake Israel’.

Oh, that we would speak more costly words against more than simply the way our culture has fixated itself on sexual identity and liberation from the power of Christian morality imposed by law or culture, without the Spirit.

Oh, that we could recognise where our speech is condemned for being hateful against where it is condemned for being faithful.

To speak, as Christians, should be costly. To say the words “Jesus is Lord” should be costly — because it commits us to taking up our cross in the world that crucified our Lord. It commits us to a community who’ll help carry that cost with us, certainly, but I’m not sure we’re meant to seek compensation from the world for the cost of discipleship.

Those who’ve taken up the call to vocational ministry, to be freed from the affairs of the world and supported by a community of believers, or by “tent-making” recognise that true speech has a cost; when Paul talks about this in his letter to the Corinthian church, he makes it clear that his speech has a cost, but that he doesn’t want them to pay it, so he works to support himself (1 Corinthians 9). For Paul the way a Gospel preacher, or speaker, goes about speaking the Gospel — their ethos — is to be shaped by their message (note the way his ‘giving up of rights’ becoming a slave for Christ in 1 Corinthians 9, mirrors the pattern of the incarnation of Jesus in Philippians 2). Gospel preachers have long avoided government grants for their speech — for the principled reason that the separation of church and state cuts both ways; the Gospel can not be co-opted to or coterminous with worldly power, no matter how righteous that power (this is, of course, for consistency’s sake should apply to government funding for school chaplains, and is why churches should fund chaplains if we believe in the program).

Perhaps we need to lean less on the sense that speech is best ‘free’ — though never free of consequences in terms of relationships, or what it commits us to in terms of an ethical life, where our ‘logos’ (words) are meant to align with our life and character (ethos). Perhaps we need to relearn that speech should be costly. And perhaps another Israel is teaching us this.

Perhaps this Israel should ponder what happens to faithful Christians, like our king, when they go up against worldly power.

Perhaps this Israel should, if he is going to be a preacher, pay the cost of no longer being an elite athlete; the cost of submitting to the discipline of study and financial cost of this career change.

Perhaps this Israel should ‘turn the other cheek,’ give Rugby Australia his cloak — or his jersey — and ask his brothers and sisters to invest in an education, rather than a court case to ‘test’ the law and wield the sword against his enemies at Rugby Australia. Perhaps he might be an example to us about what it looks like to be a non-anxious presence in an anxious world.

Perhaps this Israel should ponder whether he is being persecuted for his faithful discharge of his calling to preach the Gospel, or for sharing an awful bit of hate propaganda and disguising it as the Gospel.

Perhaps this Israel should ask if his ‘preaching’ was more at home with the Pharisees, who sought to impose law without the Spirit, or Jesus, who, despite talking lots about sin and judgment (whether against fake Israel, or the beastly powers of the world), offered the hope of an eternal kingdom and birth from above and living water that truly satisfies, and saw condemnation not being for ‘particular’ sins like homosexual sex. Particular sins, in, say, the Sermon on the Mount, seem to be an expression, in word or desire, of our wilful, rebellious, inability to imitate God, and be perfect and holy. We’re condemned for the whole package — but primarily for rejecting God and his word, and so putting his word-made-flesh, True Israel, to death. We’re saved not by turning from sin — we can turn from all sorts of sin all the time; we’re saved by turning to Jesus and having our desires and words and actions transformed.

And perhaps those are actually ideas for all of us Christians to grapple with; perhaps Israel is the ‘everyman’ — perhaps in him, and his example, we might ponder whether we’re standing with True Israel, Jesus, or the fake Israel. And perhaps one of the distinctions is whether we primarily see our speech as costly, or as free.

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The alt-right brony Christian conspiracy theory

When you’re fighting a culture war it seems that your enemy’s enemies become your friends.

Also when you’re fighting a culture war it seems any ammunition served up to further your cause should be fired without question.

This makes for really strange bedfellows.

My Little Pony is a cult TV cartoon phenomenon — based on the line of toys. This show is also popular amongst adults, perhaps feeling nostalgic, perhaps those who believe ‘friendship is magic’. A male who loves My Little Pony is often called a ‘brony’ — a delightful little portmanteau of ‘bro’ and ‘pony’… The show is big on inclusivity, and recently introduced its first lesbian pony couple. There’s a well documented subset of bronies in the alt-right; neo-nazi bronies. They have a chat room called ‘The Horse Reich” (content warning of course). There are a couple of stories covering this cultural movement over the last few years at Vice and Medium — and lest these articles feel like they’re from the left, you can get a bit more insight straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, from the Alt-Right Brony page on Facebook, or check out this truly ‘DeviantArt’ tribute to My Little Pony.

The Alt-Right has been working its way into western democracies for a few years now, and it enjoys an interesting relationship with Christianity because of the profound impact Christianity has had on western culture (especially institutional Christianity which has established significant western institutions like schools, universities, and hospitals, and even provided the building blocks for democracy, especially post-Reformation). Its presence in Australia has felt more ‘fringy’ to the conversation than influential — consider, for example, the almost universal condemnation of ex-senator Fraser Anning, both after his maiden speech and his response to the Christchurch massacre. This doesn’t mean the Alt-Right is not an issue, its influence is growing and will continue to grow so long as we (either from the left, or the right) buy in to the ‘culture war’ approach to politics; where the Alt-Right are either allies because they’re our enemy’s enemy, or they are friends. Given the interesting relationship the Alt-Right has to Christianity, we Christians need to be particularly discerning about how we approach people who may, at times, share some cultural convictions we hold as a result of our faith (the Alt-Right is vocally opposed to abortion, and to the ‘LGBTQI+ agenda’ and the boogey man of ‘cultural marxism’ — which is a label that is in itself an alt-right conspiracy that has a racist (anti-semitic) heritage), the Alt-Right also tends to be racist; though some of its ‘thought leaders’ have been shifting to ‘pro-western’ rhetoric rather than ‘pro-white’ — so people of other than European heritage can join in if they love “western values”; the Christchurch shooter was, according to his manifesto, not attacking a mosque because of the ethnicity of the worshippers, but rather, as part of a pro-European act; a very real example of shots being fired in a ‘culture war’ — a war that starts in political rhetoric, that eventually produces action.

There’s nothing Christian about the Alt-Right. The political vision of the Kingdom of God is people from every tribe, and tongue, and nation, gathered in the throne room of God worshipping the God of all creation, and the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus. The Kingdom of God is not ‘western’ — though the west does owe lots to the faithful presence of Christians within its institutions. Christendom did produce some good stuff, even if seeing the church and state as coterminous is increasingly a pretty obvious historical and geographical anomaly, and a theologically questionable exercise — a properly Christian ‘political theology’ needs to work as well in a small town in China in 1300 as it does in Australia in 2019. Because Christianity is neither ‘white’ nor ‘western’ we Christians need to be careful about our relationship with the Alt-Right; it’s not symbiotic. They are parasites; seeking to suck the good from Christianity to prop up a racist or ‘western’ ideology at the expense of all others. This is why the ACL choosing to endorse One Nation in its how to vote card is such a problem. But it’s also why this week has seen a fascinating display from one of Australia’s leading proponents of the culture war narrative; the Australian Conservative’s Lyle Shelton. Lyle, of course, was the former Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, and the leader of Australia’s official campaign against Same Sex Marriage. He failed in his bid to win a senate seat, which means he has more time on his hands now, as communications director of the Australian Conservatives, to tweet random grenades in a culture war that nobody else seems interested in fighting… but every time he does that, because of his prominence as a “Christian” voice in politics he further entrenches the relationship between Christianity and the Alt-Right; and the problem with parasites — like ticks — is they don’t just get sustenance from the host body, they’ll eventually kill the host, or, like mosquitos, they’ll leave the host with a bunch of strange diseases that might lie undiagnosed if the symptoms aren’t recognised.

Here are two tweets from Lyle from this week. They’re screenshots in case at some point in history they are removed (so far Lyle has doubled down on the Proud Boys one).

Now. I could write a whole post on the oddness of Lyle’s logic in the My Little Ponies one. Firstly, gay couples existed before same sex marriage; and existed in cultural texts before same sex marriage. In fact, most people who are good at politics — unlike Lyle — recognise that politics sits downstream from culture, and it’s not same sex marriage that has produced gay characters in television programs, but gay characters in television programs that led to same sex marriage being acceptable in the electorate. This means, if you were outraged by this, you’d be better off devoting your energy to producing popular cultural texts that represent Christianity well, not, as Lyle suggests, that you’d jump into the political fray aka the Culture War TM. This is very much a ‘call to arms’ — and, sadly, it’s the kind of call to arms that leads to violent people in the Alt-Right taking up arms (ala Christchurch, and several shootings in the U.S). What’s also odd is that the implication of Lyle’s argument that same sex couples and families should not be represented in popular television programs leads to weird extrapolations about the place of such couples or families in societies. It’s a dog whistle. It’s a terrible one. I have regular conversations with my kids about the kids in their classes, or at their schools, who have two mums or two dads — having these families represented on television is a blessing, not a curse, for Christian parents who understand that it’s our job to form or indoctrinate our kids; not the state’s. Using ‘indoctrination’ as a pejorative is, for a Christian, a very odd thing — especially because Lyle is a fan of Christian education as an alternative and possible stream for Christians who want to approach the world like he does (who can also use their religious freedom to keep the atmosphere ‘pure’ from any families who might threaten the nice little monastic walls he wants built around our kids to free them from the indoctrinating power of culture and the state. Let’s, instead, focus our energy on teaching our kids to be part of the Kingdom of God, to follow the Lord Jesus as their example because they worship God and find human flourishing, or fullness, in that relationship. Let’s be parents who use TV and schooling as an aid for our parenting, rather than a substitute…

But then, the second tweet, where Lyle is pictured with a bunch of blokes from the Proud Boys — an Alt-Right group whose leader was banned from visiting Australia earlier this year. What’s worse is that the ‘Proud Boys’ are proudly making ‘white power’ hand symbols. It’s also not just Lyle Shelton caught up in this mess; Bob Katter made the news this week for his ‘larrikin’ pledge of allegiance to the Proud Boys. It’s not clear to me if it’s worse for a Christian involved in politics to share an ideology with the Proud Boys and the neo-nazi Alt-Right, so that a photo like this is a meeting of the minds, or to see them as allies in the Culture War and so lend credence to their platform rather than deliberately and clearly disavowing the movement. Lyle did neither. After a tweetstorm (and a deleting of the photo on Facebook), Lyle issued this ‘non apology’ to clarify his position.

“I’m skeptical when the Left brand people Nazis, haters etc. So when a group of “Proud Boys” invited me for a drink, I was happy to have a chat. I share their disdain for PC. If there are elements of white supremacy or advocacy of violence in the PBs, I obviously reject this. As a target of violence from the Left (my office was bombed, meetings disrupted, family home address placed on the internet, death threats etc), I abhor violence. I also campaign against eugenics as practiced in Australia against disabled & female unborn babies. I’m no Nazi.”

Now, some will see this as the sort of disavowal required; but I don’t think so. Lyle might claim he rejects ‘white supremacy’ and any of it associated with the Proud Boys; but there’s very much a ‘the enemy of my enemy’ (the politically correct left) thing going on here, and the sort of non-apology/non-condemnation that allows him to have his cake and eat it too. He can pander to the political support of the Alt-Right while maintaining some sort of clean-skin mainstream ‘rightness’. No thanks. Let me say it again; there is nothing Christian about ‘white supremacy’, dogmatic nationalism, or using ‘anti-PC’ as a way to disguise hate speech. So Christians have to call this out for same reason it’s worth calling out the hateful origins of Israel Folau’s meme, and the ACL’s endorsement of One Nation, and the ‘culture wars’ as a phenomenon; legitimising hateful words in the name of one’s ideology scoring points in a culture war leads people to take up arms; the Christchurch shooter made the same hand symbol the Proud Boys do in this photo. There’s no place for this in any politics that claims to be Christian. It’s definitely possible to be a conservative who loves good things about the west and wants to hold on to them; but not like this. Lyle doesn’t need to ally himself with these lads in order to win some ‘greater’ victory; to do so is a loss for the Gospel, and as Jesus said “what good is it to gain the whole world and yet forfeit your soul’. Proud Boys or members of the Alt-Right who find themselves in our churches because they share a conservative political ideology and love for the fruits of Christianity in the western world need to be clear about where that fruit comes from — the Holy Spirit being poured out on people of every tribe and tongue and nation, going to the ends of the earth, as people put their trust in the victory and rule of the resurrected Lord Jesus. The fruit without the tree is poisonous.

But maybe this is actually all quite innocent; maybe Lyle was at the Mount Gravatt Bowls Club with the Proud Boys for a Brony convention. Maybe he’s a closet brony and it’s more socially acceptable to be a racist than be outed that way. That might explain his anger at the new couple on My Little Pony. Maybe it’s actually My Little Pony fans, not Christians, who should be up in arms about their ‘identity’ being co-opted and destroyed in the name of some culture war. Strange bedfellows indeed; but it kinda makes more sense to me than trying to fuse the worship of a crucified Jewish man, put to death by the western state (Rome), in the non-western world (Jerusalem) with white supremacy or the defence of ‘the west’ and its values.

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The church of the excluded middle

If there’s one thing we learned in the recent Australian election, just one ‘take home’ message, it’s that there aren’t just deep fault lines between religious and non-religious Australians, but, increasingly, there are fault lines running through the Christian community. I’m not sure ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Australian politics — or within the Australian church — have ever been more polarised. But then, I am still reasonably young…

The stakes seemed pretty high for religious Aussies, what with lobby groups like the ACL doubling down on ‘religious freedom’ and ‘keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament’ as two of their top five areas of policy concern for Christians’ (which led them to hand out how to vote cards that supported One Nation in certain ‘battleground’ seats (for what it’s worth, Tony Abbott’s pugilistic campaign page ‘battlelines.com.au’ seems to have been a misfire)). The Labor Party’s policy on abortion was also an issue of widespread concern amongst Christian voters — but that tends to be one that crosses the right/left divide amongst Christians in lots of cases. Meanwhile, my friends on the left seemed keen to play down religious freedom as an issue (especially as it connects to the ongoing imbroglio surrounding ex-Wallaby Israel Folau), even as Labor Party insider after insider comes out flagellating the party for ‘disconnecting’ itself from the average religious punter (and, for what it’s worth, in my little bit of political punditry in my previously linked piece on abortion, I suggested Labor’s platform revealed they believed the Christian constituency to be so insignificant a force that they could not just ignore it, but trash it and ‘wedge’ Christian conservatives as the ‘bad guys’, turns out if that’s the strategy, they were wrong, and I remain curious about the impact Israel Folau had on this misread)… That said, my friends on the left are dismayed by the failure for, in Abbott’s words, the issue of climate change to be treated as a moral issue not an economic one, for a lack of movement in Australia’s generosity via foreign aid, and for many of us with friends who sought asylum in Australia there’s a particular grief about more years of limbo and dispassionate dehumanisation of these vulnerable members of our community (calculated dispassion at this point seems morally worse to me than passionate objection to the issue — plus, if boat turnbacks have “stopped the boats,” the whole rationale for keeping people from settling in Australia permanently is gone; either that policy is working or it isn’t). 

The stakes seem high for fellowship amongst Christians who are ideologically convicted or partisan, or even just ‘centrist’ (and not in the sense of trying to find a synthesis between every policy issue, but rather, in the sense of recognising that where the right tends to focus on individual responsibility and a conservative impulse, and the left tends to focus on systemic issues and solutions, and a progressive narrative, there’s actually truth and wisdom to be found in holding those poles in tension). People on either pole seem keen to take to Twitter to disavow the political other — to pull the church in a political direction based on an ideological assumption of ‘Gospel truth’ linking up with a particular stance, and in doing so, to dismiss the good faith reasons their brothers and sisters in Christ give for holding different convictions as matters of liberty, wisdom, and an application of our limited, creaturely, ability to actually know how to tackle incredibly complex questions in an increasingly globalised world. 

At the same time as political questions get treated as though the answers must be found at the ‘poles’; theological questions are also being resolved in the same way; ‘tension’, ‘mystery’ or ‘paradox’ are increasingly terms to be viewed with suspicion. Where once unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things might was an ‘ideal’ — it has been replaced with a sort of philosophy that looks like:  ‘unity is essential, charity towards those who disagree with us is unnecessary and perhaps unfaithful’. This seems to come from a growing fear that our churches are like the lifeboats dropping off the sinking Titanic of Christendom which has just crashed into the iceberg of secularism — means everybody is clamouring to clearly mark out their space. The way this plays out is in a phenomenon observed by James Davison Hunter in his To Change The World; he was writing about the polarising nature of public life once everything in public life is ‘politicised’ — where we outsource all major decisions and recognition of what matters to law makers — but this observation is also true of the institutional church as it adopts the ‘politics’ of the world around it. Hunter says:

“If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicisation is the turn toward law and politics—the instrumentality of the state—to find solutions to public problems. The biggest problem is how to create or reinforce social consensus where little exists or none could be generated organically. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that the amount of law that exists in any society is always inversely related to the coherence and stability of its common culture: law increases as cultural consensus decreases.” — James Davison Hunter

In a time where we feel a need for certainty within our church structures — the sort you want when you jump in a lifeboat hoping it will hold up your weight — our churches seem to be turning to writing ‘policies’ or ‘statements’ (or feeling the pressure to sign up to competing statements like the Nashville Statement or the Revoice Statement on sexual ethics) where once there was liberty. We’re running to the poles and creating ‘laws’ or ‘lines’ or ‘boundaries’ on questions where uncertainty might not have been such a bad thing; partly this is a pressure placed on the church by external political forces — the more our civic life is subject to legislation around what behaviour and expression is welcome in public, the more clearly we will be compelled to outline our ‘doctrinal positions’ in the face of legal action, like, for example, whether or not a Christian school’s treatment of a same sex attracted staff member or transgender student is an expression of its doctrine; that these questions are now viewed through a political or legal lens rather than a pastoral one is one of the great failings of the church as we’ve been co-opted into this new reality. 

Hunter sees this ‘politicisation’ emerging as a result of an increasing trend for people to process truth through the shortcut of their ideological framework. We no longer have shared beliefs about much of what was once held in ‘common’ which means everything is contested; and if truth is contested, especially in the public, and especially where the ‘public’ is the same as ‘the political’ — you’re better off being a ‘winner’ than a ‘loser’; and ultimately we lose (as we seek to find) our ‘self’ as it becomes subsumed into an ‘ideology’ and then an ‘identity,’ he says:

“Politicisation is most visibly manifested in the role that ideology has come to play in public life; the well-established predisposition to interpret all of public life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and attachments. How does this come about? My contention is that in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn toward politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity. But politicisation provides a framework of expectations and action and very little substantive content. In a diverse society, ideological polarisation is a natural expression of the contest to provide that content.

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics.” — James Davison Hunter

In his book The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says there’s a ‘religious’ fervour at the heart of polarisation in the west; he sees it as a product of a political Manichaeism — where ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are polar opposites at war with one another and the ‘good life’ or ‘good society’ is about victory over evil, not compromise. His model of human behaviour — where ‘the rider’ (our reason), tries to control but is ultimately pulled about by ‘the elephant’ (our emotions and desires), suggests attempts to negate polarisation without tackling this ‘religious’ elephanty disposition towards combat will be pointless. He also says that in this climate using reason alone in political (or theological) disagreements won’t persuade the other, because discussions in this context will feel, and often be, combative. 

“If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.” It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”

He, like Hunter, sees polarisation coming as a result of ideology — and his book makes interesting observations about the different moral foundations brought to bear by the left and the right on each issue (and Christians can readily affirm each category). The catch is, those different foundations gear us to respond differently to the same facts — and our view of what is ‘true’ in areas of dispute will be affected by these foundations not just our theological system. Haidt says:

Several studies have documented the “attitude polarization” effect that happens when you give a single body of information to people with differing partisan leanings. Liberals and conservatives actually move further apart when they read about research on whether the death penalty deters crime, or when they rate the quality of arguments made by candidates in a presidential debate, or when they evaluate arguments about affirmative action or gun control.

As this politicisation, polarisation, and move to ‘lawmaking’ plays out at a ‘structural’ level in the institutional church, it also hits home in the local church. I can speak from personal experience that to either deliberately not adopt a position (as our church did during the plebiscite), or to adopt a ‘nuanced’ theological position (as our church does on the question of same sex attraction — where our public teaching has been more aligned with Revoice than with Nashville in that particular part of an inter-nicene ‘culture war’ (I am way prouder of that pun than I should be), comes at a cost. People leave. People want the certainty of a floating lifeboat with high rigid walls, not a rubber dinghy that might get tossed about a bit, but that might also allow a few more people to cling to the sides because it’s closer to the waterline. This too, is a failing of the modern church — a failing to understand who we are called to be; and what sort of community we are meant to be united in Christ, by his Spirit, maintaining fellowship as our chief expression of that unity when it comes to ‘disputable matters’ (note Paul’s ethical approach in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10-11). To leave a community over a political issue or an attempt to be accommodating to people with multiple views is to tear apart the body of Christ that the Spirit of God is knitting together and taking towards maturity; and this maturity is the sort that comes from bumping into one another; from disagreement with a commitment to relationship in Christ above our political concerns, or even matters of disputable doctrine in areas where our knowledge or certainty is limited, like, for example, if intersex people are intersex because their bodies have both male and female characteristics, and we are forced to accommodate such a reality in our theology, how is this definitively different not so much from the ‘psychological’ reality of a transgender person but the physical and neurological realities that we can observe with brain scans? How can we speak with dogmatic certainty on that issue, or, like the current debate around the language of ‘gay Christian’ adopted by same sex attracted people who hold to a traditional Biblical teaching on sexual ethics, but nonetheless want to make claims about their experience without making a claim about their ‘identity’ or ‘ontology’ (a group explicitly excluded by the Nashville Statement, and a position championed by Revoice (which has now been rejected by the Central Carolina Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of America whose panel again (which included the Gospel Coalition’s Kevin DeYoung), seems to have brought their conclusions to the table before listening to the people they’re engaging with on ‘their’ terms).

Why must we draw ‘lines’ on these issues? What purpose does such line drawing serve except to move more into the ‘essential’ category, bound by ‘laws’ that suddenly exclude those previously included in liberty or treated with charity?

There’s a law in logic, that when falsely applied creates a fallacy — the law of the ‘excluded middle‘. 

“In logic, the law of excluded middle (or the principle of excluded middle) states that for any proposition, either that proposition is true or its negation is true”

When we reduce our beliefs to propositional statements; to ‘law’; we don’t just codify a position, we negate other positions. Nashville does this with a series of ‘we affirm’… ‘we deny’ statements; but even simply by affirming a particular propositional truth and not bringing the denial to the table we necessarily exclude. 

The ‘fallacy of the excluded middle’ kicks in where a propositional statement creates a false dilemma; where we create ‘poles’ where no poles were necessary and declare the other pole ‘negated’. It’s this rush to the poles that is excluding so many Aussies in the political process, so that many of us report being disenfranchised and disillusioned; but it’s a similar rush to the poles that is destroying unity and fellowship the same way a mad rush for the lifeboats at the expense of all one’s fellow travellers ‘excludes’ those who don’t get a berth. 

So many of our present political and theological dilemmas are built on false dilemmas; on zero sum games that simply fail to imagine third options. Talk to people occupying those positions — like those in the Revoice Movement, or other ‘celibate gay Christians’ and you’ll hear they feel stuck in the middle of the full blown ‘affirming’ movement — the iceberg — when it comes to questions of sexual ethics and desire, and the ‘negative’ movement which has us running to the life boats on the HMAS Christendom. Not just ‘stuck in the middle’ — but ‘excluded in the middle’; and this seems true in my experience of so many other ‘flashpoint’ issues in our churches and especially in the church’s relationship to worldly power and politics. 

It is hard to be a ‘church of the excluded middle’ — because both poles don’t want to make space for you; nobody is sure if you’re an ally or an enemy. You catch friendly fire and unfriendly fire, and it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. People flee the ‘uncertainty’ of no man’s land for the trenches on either side of the culture war, when it’s actually drawing combatants from either side together in no man’s land that might create the conditions for a cease fire in the culture wars, not a ‘total defeat’ of the other, but a figuring out how to live side by side, peacefully, in disagreement. It’s precisely those who don’t have a ‘polarised’ position (and the centre probably is a pole all of its own) who might actually help persuade your ideological enemy of the benefits of your position, if they can draw you from your ideologies long enough to talk to one another.  

Here’s my hunch though; and it’s one that I’d say is a driving philosophy behind how we’re trying to approach being the post-secular-iceberg church — a ‘church of the excluded middle’, one that rejects the push to polarisation and to ‘legislating’ on issues of liberty is better placed for both discipleship and evangelism. It’ll keep more people afloat by being less brittle or rigid, and it’ll allow more people to cling to the sides before pulling themselves on board. A group of churches — or Christians — functioning this way will also be the sort of group that can accommodate people who have ideological convictions built from different moral foundations that would otherwise throw them to the poles; and this will be for the good of our shared moral vision. But more than this, a church of the ‘excluded middle’ that is clear on the essentials will cling to Jesus as the author and perfecter of our faith; it will see unity in Christ and in the truth of God’s word as timeless, and so be less shaken by the winds and waves of the freezing and deadly water we now navigate. It will listen to those voices that might otherwise be swamped — like those occupying the middle ground in the sexuality debate who are clinging both to Jesus and the traditional teachings of the Church seeking to faithfully interpret the Bible. It will conserve what should be conserved as conservative voices are heard charitably, and will reform what needs to be reformed as progressive voices call for change. It’s a utopian vision, to be sure, an ideal of its own; an ideology to be pursued in ways that might ultimately also exclude ‘truth’ or certainty. But it might just be the sort of community that Paul is imagining in 1 Corinthians 12 as he’s just outlined some real issues around the disputable matter of idol food in the city of Corinth; the sort of community that is to find its unity in Christ, by the Spirit, and use that unity as a foundation, or corrective, in all their disputes (like those Paul addresses in the rest of the letter) as they grow towards maturity and the most excellent way of love (1 Corinthians 13). This necessarily requires people living together in disagreement and working out how to love one another in disagreement not just running to lifeboats where you agree with everyone else on board. 

This is also the picture Haidt paints of the sort of community that might escape the destructive ‘religious’ spirit of our age; and the sort that might be not a lifeboat escaping an iceberg, but a lighthouse pointing people from it; the sort that might model an alternative to the politicisation of everything and the reduction of each person to a combatant — enemy or ally — in some culture war. Here’s Haidt:

“Each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).”

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Folau did not quote the Bible (and who actually made the content that Izzy shared?)

Israel Folau did not quote the Bible.

Israel Folau shared a ‘meme’.

The meme, as demonstrated below, comes from a street preaching circle in the United States that one could legitimately describe as a non-Biblical ‘hate preaching’ ministry that has a track record of distorting the Gospel and cherry-picking the sins it features to condemn the sexual proclivity of the modern west, but that has significant blindspots that lead to a distorted representation of the Biblical source material. The ‘ministry,’ like Folau’s meme, conveniently ignores an equally pressing besetting sin of the western world, and at least one of the preachers in question: greed.

The ‘meme,’ pictured above, paraphrased the Bible but also flips its audience from Christian to non-Christian, and misrepresents the text in question. The image Folau shared comes from a context (this street preaching group) that determined what parts of the Bible passage were highlighted. The list of sins in the image comes from, but does not quote, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” — 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (NIV)

Folau’s social media presence reveals a tendency to quote the King James Version of the Bible, which, is, of itself an interesting phenomenon within the church — the KJV is a favourite volume of those who are suspicious of ‘modern’ ‘human’ re-writers of the Bible, which is a deep irony built on a reasonable amount of ignorance around Bible translation and history. The KJV translates these verses in this way:

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. — 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (KJV)

The original, or earliest, rendering of this text from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we have, used in english Bible translation is:

ἢ οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι ἄδικοι θεοῦ βασιλείαν οὐ κληρονομήσουσιν; μὴ πλανᾶσθε: οὔτε πόρνοι οὔτε εἰδωλολάτραι οὔτε μοιχοὶ οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται οὔτε κλέπται οὔτε πλεονέκται, οὐ μέθυσοι, οὐλοίδοροι, οὐχ ἅρπαγες βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομήσουσιν.

And this isn’t a point I’m making lightly – because those who want to make a simple ‘black and white’ case that Folau quoted the Bible and so is being persecuted for being a faithful Christian need to ponder how helpfully his meme renders the words μαλακοὶ and ἀρσενοκοῖται, which are the two words for homosexual sex (behaviour) combined in the NIV translation, or separated as ‘effeminate’ and ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ in the KJV. Whether these map carefully and accurately onto the modern word ‘homosexual’ is an important discussion to consider when determining how much the meme accurately represents the Bible. I don’t think it does. I believe, and have a long track record of arguing that ‘homosexuality’ as a label describes a person’s orientation to the world, their sexual attraction, their proclivity to ‘lust’, and that these for people ultimately (often) end up in same sex sexual activity of the sort Paul prohibits. The Bible doesn’t directly speak to orientation or attraction, but it does talk about behaviour in a way that people with any orientation or attraction have to take on board when submitting to the authority or rule of Jesus and the re-ordering of our hearts and lives when we move from “worshipping created things” as Paul describes our sinful state, to “worshipping the creator.” The meme  misrepresents the relationship between ‘sinners’ and ‘sin’ established by Paul, who is emphasising sinful activity or action, not an orientation or desire (though in 1 Corinthians 6:11 he does say ‘such as some of you were’ and our orientation, attraction, desires, lusts, and actions are often integrated so that actions are an expression of orientation. For anybody who becomes a Christian, gay or straight, the call to repent and turn to Jesus is the call to re-orient ourselves in the world and so moderate our attractions, desires, and behaviour accordingly.

So, that’s one strike against the idea that Folau ‘quoted the Bible’ via this image (at least in this image, it doesn’t seem to me that he’s in trouble for quoting Galatians in the text attached to this image in his post). Another strike would be that in the context of Corinthians, Paul has just spoken about how the church in Corinth should engage with the world, and how they should respond to sexual immorality — he says they’re to keep themselves pure, exercising judgment on sexual morality in the church, but leave judging those outside the church to God (1 Corinthians 5). I’m not one to quote Matthew 7:1 as though it should stop us seeing behaviours that are against the express revealed will of God as ‘not sinful’ or some sort of wishy washy revisionism, but I am going to point out that there’s a difference between writing to Christians telling them not to behave like the world, and writing to the world telling them to behave like Christians and taking the position of God when doing so — judging them — it is not for me to declare that ‘hell awaits’ anybody; it’s for me to declare the Gospel of Jesus, and him crucified (as was Paul’s description of his practice in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 1-2, a message he summarises to include the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15).

This is a second strike; the third is to reframe Paul’s statement about ‘inheriting the kingdom of God’ to ‘hell awaits’ the other. It’s not that judgment isn’t a thing, Biblically, it’s that a causal link between these particular sins — that are symptoms — and judgment, is not a point Paul is making in this text. Also, when Paul does get to 1 Corinthians 15 his argument isn’t ‘heaven v hell’ but ‘death and dust in Adam’ v ‘life and imperishability’ in Jesus. We tend not to be super careful about making a distinction between Hades and the lake of fire reserved for Satan, his minions, death and hades, and those who reject Jesus; and I’m not convinced a person whose flesh has not been made imperishable by the Spirit of God (ala 1 Corinthians 15) lasts for very long in Revelation’s lake of fire… but this is a much more contested point than the one I’m making with this third strike against the meme; that the Bible as a whole, and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in particular, don’t make judgment about particular sins, or particular types of sinner, but about whether one accepts Jesus as Lord and receives the Spirit, and life, or whether one rejects Jesus.

This is a point made by Jesus himself about what earns judgment, in, for example, John 3. Where ‘seeing’ the Kingdom of God requires being ‘born of the Spirit,’ which comes through believing in Jesus (John 3:3-16), but death comes as the ongoing result of not being born again and judgment comes on the pivotal question not of what sins I commit as a result of rejecting Jesus, but on the question of whether or not I reject Jesus.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.  — John 3:17-18

So that’s three strikes. I’m not sure you can say someone ‘quotes’ the Bible if they take a message from the Bible written to Christians, that has a particular context within a letter, and then turn it around to say something else to non-Christians, in an apparent direct contradiction with the verses from right next door (1 Corinthians 5). It’s not ‘quoting the Bible’ if you obscure in your translation decision what the original makes clear (the move from ‘homosexual sex’ to ‘homosexuals’). It’s misquoting the Bible. ‘Quoting the Bible’ is also not the ‘shibboleth’ test Christians seem to be treating it as — it’s possible to quote, say, Job’s friends or Satan as he is tempting Jesus, without the literary context, and to say very untrue things about the world.

But here’s two more questions to raise about Folau’s post (and this is not to say Folau should have lost his job for sharing his religious beliefs publicly, but rather to say, Folau did not lose his job for quoting the Bible).

  1. Is it wise to try to reduce the teaching of the Bible into memes, or even just into single verses to pump out via social media devoid of the context both of the Bible as a coherent whole, and a real relationship with the person you are communicating to? And;
  2. Where did this meme actually come from, and to what extent should that frame questions about how helpful and Biblical its content is?

The first one is one where people will no doubt reach different convictions based on communication theory and an understanding of the ‘content’ of a proclamation of the Gospel; ie what ‘communicating’ the Gospel as a message involves in terms of content, and how this ‘content’ should shape the context we give it as communicators. How much does our ‘message’ need to inform and shape ‘our mediums’. I wrote a thesis on this question, basically, so I won’t revisit that here…

But the second question is quite instructive. Google’s ‘reverse image’ function reveals there’s no public, track record of this image being shared online (this doesn’t mean it’s not been shared and circulated on systems that might be closed to Google’s image search function (like Instagram)). Its presence on the web in the form Folau used it, directly coincides with Folau’s publication of the image; and correlation is causation in this case.

I also waded through, thanks to reverse image searching some of his other posts, Pinterest boards of other images Folau has shared on Twitter and Instagram over the last 12 months, and it appears he gets images from a wide variety of sources. He has a penchant for criticising prosperity preaching (and Joel Osteen and Hillsong cop his ire regularly). In the fallout of last year’s similar controversy, he shared a video from David Wilkerson (the guy who wrote The Cross and The Switchblade), who is popular amongst a certain corner of the Christian ‘dark’ web — those who believe the church, in its current form, have compromised and that faithful preaching looks a lot like taking to the street with placards. Folau is getting his content from somewhere, and he got this image from somewhere, and where it came from (both when he found it, and originally) is not irrelevant; especially not in the realm of ‘memes’ and how they are circulated and distributed.

In the early days of the Folau controversy I asked what the difference between his ‘quotes’ from the Bible and the quotes from the Bible featured on Westboro Baptist signs were, because there is more to faithful proclamation of the Gospel than just taking bits of the Bible that name specific sinful behaviours, convicting people of that, and telling them to make some sort of belief transfer to Jesus; there’s more to ‘evangelism’ than just holding up a placard and shouting. But I wasn’t sure there was a legitimate link between a Westboro sign and Folau’s meme; as a result of a reasonably deep dive into the source of Folau’s image, now I’m not so convinced the comparison isn’t apt; and that rather than the picture being ‘quoting the Bible’ it isn’t a certain form or re-appropriating the Bible for a ‘hate speech’ based approach to preaching.

My reservations about Folau’s communication strategy on social media are much the same as my reservations about Westboro; though I don’t think he is a ‘teacher’ in a church in the same way Fred Phelps is, so I think his actions are well intended and wrong, rather than the horrid actions of a false preacher; Folau’s post is the fruit of that sort of false preaching and wrong use of the Bible taking hold in the lives of real people searching for a coherent truth about the world, and sin, and Jesus. Folau’s post is the product of a tradition that puts the emphasis on those ‘blocks’ in all the wrong places in a way that distorts the truth and misrepresents it to a world ill equipped to have conversations about sin and judgment (especially when it comes to the way it tackles the sexuality issue).

Folau did, however, source this image from somewhere. Because the image does exist in a variety of forms, with some variations. It is used by a couple of street preaching ministries in the United States, appearing both in the ‘Bulldog Ministries’ (bulldogministries.com) ‘evangelism’ of David Stokes in Texas and surrounds, and the ‘ChristianInterviews.com’ (site now defunct) ministry of Aden Rusfeldt in Philadelphia. Both seem affiliated with OfficialStreetPreachers.com; which features images linking to ‘ChristianInterviews’ and is linked to by Bulldog Ministries. Official Street Preachers features this charming assembly of some of their signs (an earlier version of this post had this image as the header, which led to some confusion and concern on social media, the header image has now been changed).

Here’s the Facebook page and YouTube channel for Rusfeldt’s ministry, and a gallery of public preaching from both sites featuring signs identical to, similar to, and from the same ‘family’ as Folau’s meme.

From what I can tell, the earliest use of these signs that are the source material for Folau’s memes come from Stokes, in that this news article from 2012 describes the graphic pretty well.

“The first thing that really draws the eye, though, is the enormous sign he’s carrying.

“WARNING,” it reads, in five-inch high orange letters. “Drunks, homosexuals, abortionist [sic], adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, witches, idolaters, HELL AWAITS YOU.”

More recently, in Philadelphia, the sign has been part of an array used by Aden Rusfeldt. Here’s a fascinating profile of his mission strategy in Philadelphia, containing some interesting data that brings into question the decision to not, include greed in the ‘ChristianInterviews’ placards.

“And Pastor Aden knows what it’s like have your soul saved. He, too, used to be a seemingly hopeless sinner. Pastor Aden had sex before marriage. He used to drink heavily. He polluted his body with marijuana.

That’s the stuff that Pastor Aden tells you about when he gives you his “testimony,” as Christians call it — the story of their salvation.

But he leaves some stuff off of that list.

Pastor Aden has been fined millions of dollars by the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission over investment schemes he ran as far back as 2005 and as recently as 2015. According to the government, he was known as “Big A” to many of the people whose money he took. The CFTC found that he “defrauded customers.”

And a few weeks ago, the Internal Revenue Service filed an $800,000-plus federal income tax lien against Pastor Aden and his wife in Bucks County, where they may or may not live.”

That’s not the only place Rusfeldt (and others) choose to leave greed off the list. It’s also interesting to ponder why ‘slanderers’ or ‘revilers’ don’t make the graphics, given that 1 Corinthians 6 is their origin. The dropping off of ‘greed’ from a list of sins in order to emphasise the sexual deviancy of the western world is a distortion of the difference between lust and greed; both are about false worship of created things (sex, or money and possessions). It’s not a cheap rhetorical move to ask why the guy being paid a million bucks a year shares an image that doesn’t mention it, it’s pointing to a massive cultural blindspot within Christian responses to the west. We’re great at throwing rocks at people who don’t match our sexual ethic, but not great at seeing where our economic ethic marches in lockstep with the world — or in the case of one of the promulgators of the meme Folau shared, where we’re running ahead of the world into swindly theft built from greed and carefully retelling our story to avoid that while living in a mansion.

And it’s not a ‘genetic fallacy’ thing to trace the source of this meme back to this petrie dish of hate preaching. Folau saw this image somewhere. It’s not circulating on the regular internet in obvious places. He has made a deliberate decision to pass on a meme — the study of ‘memetics’ is all about how memes function a bit like genes; that ideas transmit through different networks in particular and connected ways. The area of memetics is interesting and a bit disputed (and comes from Richard Dawkins, and is built on evolutionary science, which might poison the well for some Christians). But when we say ‘Folau just shared a meme’ we’re buying into a certain sort of idea transmission and communication theory that says that meme is connected by heritage to what came before, and remains connected as it evolves. Whether the Gospel is, itself, something like a meme — or whether it can be reduced to an internet meme — is another question; but what’s instructive in this case is that the origin of our communication material will shape what is communicated, and that will shape how the communication is received and the reaction it earns; and at this point Christians can rest a little easier, because Folau didn’t just quote the Bible, and had he just quoted the Bible we can’t know what the reaction might have been. He shared an image that has been used by people reducing the Bible to a message of hate, targetting an ‘other’ that those people hate and see as corrupting the world, while being oblivious to their own corruption (in the area of greed), and promoting an ongoing ignorance to that issue.

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How the future of religion in Australia might require a truly multi-ethnic, post-western, community (and how we might get that from migration and why that makes the Australian Christian Lobby’s how to vote card even worse than you thought)

Here are eleven things that are interesting and more connected than you might think that have happened in the last few months.

  1. A radicalised white man from Australia, with European heritage, walked into a mosque in Christchurch during prayer time and shot 51 people dead (the death toll rose 6 days ago).
  2. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, an atheist (who grew up Mormon) in an expression of solidarity with the Muslim community wore a hijab and called for a united vision of what it means to be human and thus, a citizen of New Zealand, built around unity and compassion.
  3. Polynesian Rugby Union player Israel Folau instagrammed a meme that says “Hell awaits homosexuals (and several other categories of sinner lifted from the New Testament). Several Polynesian Rugby Union players find themselves embroiled in the controversy for liking Folau’s Instagram post. “Tongan Thor” a fellow Wallaby, makes a statement that the ARU might as well sack all Polynesian players who share Folau’s views.
  4. The Australian Rugby Union, in partnership with major sponsor, Qantas, who embody a certain sort of corporate social activism (the sort where you throw your weight around on social issues locally, to turn a dollar, but also partner with nationalised airlines from around the world from regimes that kill homosexuals, also to turn a dollar), threatened to sack Folau, and are now most of the way through their internal proceedings to achieve that outcome. They say the tweet goes against their inclusion policy (which includes sexuality, ethnic background, and religion), and that he should thus be excluded. The NRL and its managing figures pre-emptively expressed the view that Folau would also not be re-welcomed, or included, should he cross codes again. A few people make the observation that religion and ethnicity are deeply intertwined in the Polynesian experience and identity (including me, Stephen McAlpine, and a gay polynesian journalist), some of us asking questions about the legitimacy of corporate, white, upper class people ruling on the validity of opinions expressed from an identity outside their experience, in the name of “inclusion.” Anthony Mundine condemns the treatment of Folau as racist.
  5. Journalists reporting on the Folau story consistently ‘mediate’ it to the wider populace reinforcing the narrative of the harm Folau’s posts do to the gay community, but making fundamental errors about Folau’s religious commitment, some including photos of Folau in front of a Mormon temple as though that is still his religion, others unable to reconcile his actions in support of gay inclusion on the football field with his theological beliefs, others calling protestant church services ‘mass’, all while arguing that this is a critical moment in the conversation about religious freedom in the post-Christian west, specifically in Australia.
  6. Bombings in Sri Lanka target worshippers in church for Easter services, those condemning the attacks, from the ‘post-religious’ west (specifically from America) call the victims gathered in church ‘Easter Worshippers’ rather than Christians, leading to several conspiracy theories about sinister motives.
  7. New Zealand Prime Minister, and former Mormon, Jacinda Ardern, condemned Folau, another former Mormon, who is married to a New Zealand representative netball player.
  8. Former Wallabies coach, turned media personality, Alan Jones, and a bunch of other media commentators, have made this case a religious freedom and freedom of speech case.
  9. Former Wallabies player (under Jones), turned media personality and proud/belligerent atheist, Peter Fitzsimmons has been prosecuting the case against Folau on the basis that his tweets “vilify” the gay community and that the spectre of hell and judgment from religious players (in the junior ranks) contribute to the suicide rate amongst gay teenagers. He writes an article scoffing at religious freedom arguments, and projecting his particular views about the substance and meaning of Folau’s religious beliefs (specifically his position on Hell) into the situation; other journalists and media opinion shapers (not always journalists) express bewilderment that Folau would say such obviously hurtful things.
  10. Former Wallabies captain, Nick Farr Jones, also a Christian, meets with Israel Folau to encourage him to apologise, and comes away supporting Folau’s character and intent. Suggesting he is not homophobic and has been misunderstood by the public at large, and by the administrators at the ARU.
  11. The Australian Christian Lobby produce an election checklist for the upcoming Federal Election in Australia that essentially endorses the Australian Conservatives and One Nation on the basis of a five issue platform, and justify the elevation of One Nation on the basis of the access they give to Christian voices into the political process.

Before I try to weave a thread or two between these events, it’s clear that life in the modern west is still complicated, and despite aggressive secularisation theories, religion is still part of the fabric of life — public life even — in the west. It’s clear that modern life is super complex, and the intersection and overlap between different systems of religious belief and the modern western world is a pretty difficult thing to get your head around. It’s also clear that the western, post-Christian, world simply does not understand the nature of the religious belief it finds itself removed from. The reason people (like Jacinda Ardern, or Peter Fitzsimmons — though I’m less sure of his background) move from some sort of religious conviction or upbringing, to non-religious convictions, does not always seem to include a robust understanding of what is left behind not just from particular religious belief or expression, but from the view of the world that comes with the belief of God or gods. The modern, secular, post-religious, west — and by that I mean the section of the world deeply influenced by the European experience — including Canada, the United States, and Australia (and who knows if European includes England anymore, but for now they’re in that label) — no longer has the categories embedded in our “social imaginary” (as Charles Taylor calls it) or shared architecture for understanding religious beliefs and conversations. By this I mean that conversations that happen amongst people who do not share basic foundational views of the world (religious or non-religious) no longer have the shared scaffolding embedded in those conversations as the framework we use to give words meaning and significance. When a religious footballer tweets about hell, and its significance, a post-religious or non-religious journalist, opinion columnist, or ‘mediator of the public square’ is not equipped to substantially understand what is meant; but neither is a member of the gay community (or any other community targeted by such a post). This is as true of Alan Jones and his making this issue about “freedom of speech” as it is Peter Fitzsimmons and his making the issue about vilification of vulnerable people in gay community.

There’s a fascinating sub-thread around the different way the post-Christian world understands ‘our’ western religious heritage, Christianity (or assume we do), such that it gets misrepresented and treated as a ‘thin’ conviction where you just tick a box in the census and get on with life, and you might be an ‘Easter worshipper’ and how our mediating institutions (the media and politicians, especially post-religious politicians) engage with the non-western, Muslim, experience (fascinating too, that Anthony Mundine, an indigenous Aussie convert to Islam, defies the easy categorisation our media is comfortable with, so that his comments about race can be more readily dismissed as conspiracy). I’ve noted elsewhere that it was interesting seeing how this idea that religion is like a bit of clothing, bling, or flair, that you add to your expression, or performance, of your self, might play out with politicians wearing religious garb in ‘solidarity’ — while, actually, the deep and thick religious convictions of Muslims is actually more directly related to the experience of the deep and thick religious convictions of Christians. A ‘religious’ view of the world — one where the world is not a ‘closed system’ of material reality, but where there’s a spiritual reality or an ‘enchanted’ overlay on our everyday lives — is one we share in common, and one still commonly shared outside the western world; it’s the majority view of the world presently, and historically, and so the onus should actually lie on those in the west who want to exclude religious convictions about spiritual matters from public conversations because of their material effects, but somehow, at least in the west, this has flipped around so that religious people have to justify our place at the table in public conversations, and then the inclusion of ‘spiritual’ or ‘non-secular’ views in the conversation. This is a game we’ve now played for so long as Christians in the secular west that we’ve mostly forgotten alternatives and our titular ‘Christian Lobby’ have so thoroughly adopted the rules of the game that they create ‘political tools’ during election season that are meant to pry open the doors to the table not to make religious arguments about a wide range of policies, but to preserve our space in the world.

How we understand the cause of ‘secularisation’ in the western world, or why we’re ‘post Christian’ (or post-religious) will shape how we understand what is happening in every one of those threads. There are two thinkers I think give us pretty good grounds for understanding the landscape here. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose A Secular Age I’ve often quoted here, and C.S Lewis. Lewis’ academic magnum opus was a book called The Discarded Image, it’s an account of how the religious backcloth of the medieval world — where all art and stories and life itself were ‘shot through’ with supernatural significance — has been abandoned in favour of a more mechanical, finite, view of reality. In his first lecture at Cambridge University, Lewis accounted for the decline of religious belief in the modern west as, in part, a turn to a more mechanical experience of life. I’ll quote him at length, because I think it’s great.

I have already argued that this change surpasses that which Europe underwent at its conversion. It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are “relapsing into Paganism”. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

Lastly, I play my trump card. Between Jane Austen and us, but not between her and Shakespeare, Chaucer, Alfred, Virgil, Homer, or the Pharaohs, comes the birth of the machines. This lifts us at once into a region of change far above all that we have hitherto considered. For this is parallel to the great changes by which we divide epochs of pre-history. This is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. The theme has been celebrated till we are all sick of it, so I will here say nothing about its economic and social consequences, immeasurable though they are. What concerns us more is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation”, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”? Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort.”
“But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage. But whether from this cause or from some other, assuredly that approach to life which has left these footprints on our language is the thing that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world. Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.”

This maps neatly, with a few interesting insights, onto Taylor’s secularisation theory. In a short, Taylor describes the move towards secularisation as we experience it in the west as not just being about the rise of science, or modernity, but also the subtraction of a sense of a God who provides a cosmic ordering; we’ve turned from an ‘enchanted’ or religious view of reality — a backdrop where talking about angels and hell makes sense, and operates with certain shared understandings about reality, to a disenchanted world, where belief is contested but the default is a closed version of what he calls the ‘immanent frame’ — a view of the world that excludes God or gods from the picture, and so makes conversations about hell purely about how we treat one another here and now (and so the conversation in the secular media is, understandably, just about the impact of Folau’s words and his ‘villification’ of a vulnerable community; we don’t have to parse out what belief that a certain sort of behaviour leads to Hell if we don’t believe in Hell). Taylor also says it isn’t just ‘science’ that has done away with religion, and that, in part, the impulse comes from our visions of ‘fullness’ or the good life shifting away from God or from being characters in an ‘enchanted cosmos’… part of the deconversion stories of Ardern, and the aggressive atheism of Fitzsimmons, isn’t just ‘science disproves God’ but ‘the full human life doesn’t lie with an ancient conception of God.’

If Lewis and Taylor are right the West operates with this belief about progress, that it involves leaving Christianity behind, that it’s driven by a machine like, or ‘disenchanted’ view of reality, but this is supported by technological advances and the way they fuel a ‘progress’ narrative that celebrates the new and denigrates the old.

Cory Bernadi from the Australian Conservatives, the party most heartily endorsed by the ACL, has been beating the anti-immigration drum for a while, and while it’s not specifically targeted racially in the words in this particular article, check out the images that support those words.

“The Conservative Party has long called for a halving of Australia’s immigration rate along with a radical reform of all of the visa, immigration and welfare rorts that allow hundreds of thousands more people into the country every year, initially on visas for education and employment.”

There’s also a strange sort of dog-whistling thing going on in Bernadi’s ‘condemnation’ of Fraser Anning’s maiden speech. At this link there are significant chunks of search-engine recognisable quotes from Anning’s speech followed by a non-search engine recognisable video file where Bernadi specifically rejects the White Australia policy. But who can forget Pauline Hanson’s famous 2017 remarks about Islam. Here’s a reminder:

“Let me put it in this analogy – we have a disease, we vaccinate ourselves against it, Islam is a disease; we need to vaccinate ourselves against that.” — Pauline Hanson, One Nation

And remember. These are the parties the Australian Christian Lobby are suggesting we vote for to uphold freedom of speech and to make sure we Christians don’t further lose political influence or a place in society, or even so that our beliefs and convictions about the world are both free to be expressed and more likely to be understood. Make of that what you will, except, recognise that the way we white western people might come at these remarks, in a climate where a white, western person spouting a sort of European ideology, shot people he differed from dead in a place of prayer (and more recently, a member of a Reformed church in the United States opened fire in a synagogue). We’ve got to realise that the ‘disenchanting’ of language includes the de-spiritualising of the significance of words like ‘hell’; it flattens reality so that all battles for truth and supremacy are fought in real time and real space, not just left in the hands of something more cosmic (which isn’t to say that an enchanted view of the world doesn’t produce ‘holy war’ — see the Crusades — but that unholy war is equally terrible and a path to piece might be recognising the potential to sit at a common ‘civic’ table while maintaining our own religious ones in our more sacred spaces).

Here’s my controversial thesis — despite the western world having Christian heritage, such that many of the things we know and love in the west are directly the result of Christianity being practised as a thick religious conviction against a shared consensus that there’s a spiritual dimension to reality, part of dismissing that reality as we turned to a harder secularism in the west means no longer understanding the convictions that drive religious people; no longer recognising the links between belief and action, and severing ourselves, as a society, from the roots that have produced and sustained life. Those roots are pre-western, not western. Those roots are from first century Jerusalem (having come from the ‘BC’ era in a particular part of the non-western world. The way we Christians see the world has much more in common with our Muslim neighbours than our post-Christian, hard-secular neighbours who are now trying to set the rules by which we all live together — including people who live together in religious disagreement. If we want Christianity to truly have a place at the table in the public square we don’t need a whiter, more European, Australia — we need a more multicultural, non-western, religious, table. We need the ‘Asian century’; we need ‘more migration’ from outside of secular Europe, and we need to keep confronting the reality that we aren’t citizens of a western country that gets everything right in pursuit of liberation and progress — fuelled by the infallible churches of capitalism and liberal democracy and the ex cathedra announcements of their popes and mediators (a priestly media), otherwise the deck is stacked, and will become increasingly stacked, against an enchanted view of the world, where one can talk about hell or judgment or spirituality without only being heard on the basis those words might have on other people in the ‘here and now’. The advice to vote for parties who are specifically arrayed against that vision of our nation won’t improve Christianity’s foothold in the west, but destroy it. Bring on non-western immigration — Christian, or otherwise — that’s our best chance at re-enchanting Australia’s vision of the world, and bringing a legitimate pluralism to our public conversations; we won’t get it while post-Christian ‘liberated’ progressive thinkers from the white establishment are setting the rules (or lobbying for them to change). Churches, then, have to get serious about training and platforming non-white, European, leaders who think in non-white, European ways about the world, and how to engage with the political process and public life.

There’s no going back to a purely European, western, ‘Christendom’ (and nor should we want that, probably). There’s very little chance of re-enchanting the western world from within; what it might take is the western world hearing voices from “without” — or bringing those voices and views in and hearing, clearly, about the convictions that drive and shape the majority world towards a different vision of progress. We might colonise other countries with democracy and capitalism, and modernity, but if it comes with the necessity of ‘disenchantment’ — of seeing this world as all there is — then I’m not sure how successful that will be, but we’ll also, essentially, be reprising the role of Satan in the garden, telling people who experience life in a world where God or gods exist as divine beings that they, and they alone, are divine — and all they should be concerned about is what can be grasped here and now.

A grief observed… online

Rachel Held Evans was something of an internet phenomenon; a voice of a generation of Christians, especially women, who felt sidelined and marginalised by an institutional church and a form of Christianity many have struggled to reconcile with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. She took twists and turns that made many (including me) uncomfortable, but her desire (whether you think she got there or not) to take Christianity back towards the heart and example of Jesus was undeniable, so too, her impact on the broader church, especially women and other people the status quo of how the church operates (especially in America). I’m reminded, in moments like these, that it is by grace, through faith in Jesus, that people are part of God’s kingdom, not (mercifully for me, and others) by ticking the correct doctrinal boxes. One just has to glance at the hashtag #BecauseofRHE to see this. She’s an interesting and powerful testimony to the way the internet destabilises the status quo in the church in a similar way to the printing press, giving a voice, and power, to those our structures might exclude.

Rachel Held Evans went to hospital for an apparently routine matter, and complications in the procedures, or with the medication, left her in a pretty dire, ultimately fatal, set of circumstances. The story about her health broke on twitter when an acquaintance published a private Facebook post, without permission, which led to a Twitter wide prayer vigil, and an incredible outpouring of support. The internet collapsed our creaturely separation from these events. Medical procedures happening a world away, to one individual, were suddenly occupying the attention of people around the globe; me included. I refreshed the page updating her condition daily; praying as I did. A new ‘daily office’ of sorts that compartmentalised a small part of my attention; and thus my embodied life, placing it in a virtual hospital waiting room a world away. It did this for many people. One life, a life I have no creaturely, physical connection to, a person I do not know, occupying attention that is limited, and probably has prior claims put on it by those in my more immediate, embodied, orbit.

And then Rachel died. Those updates and the outpouring of prayer and support changed, and there’s now an outpouring of genuine grief; the vast majority of this grief is being expressed by people who had no physical connection to Rachel Held Evans, but rather a spiritual connection. A sense of a connection to her built by her writing, in her questions, in her activism — in what she represents in terms of a challenging of status quos — she represents so many others, especially women who are often deplatformed by the evangelical status quo (and so turn to the Internet for a sense of community and a space to talk, and question, and be recognised). For good or for ill, for most of us grieving, we are grieving the loss of a persona as much as a person, because for many of us, our access to Rachel was always mediated by pixels and in words. All interactions with all people are mediated and the idea of getting an intimate knowledge of who a person truly is requires not simply embodiment, but vulnerability; Rachel’s writing and her approach to the internet in general, has been celebrated as being exemplary human, and vulnerable. Her impact on the church is real, even if virtual. Her loss is being felt by many — even those who had sharp theological disagreements with her online. The questions she confronted us with are not just questions of the content of our beliefs — where I was as likely to disagree with things she said as I was to agree — but with questions about our forms and practices, both in the physical church community, and the virtual space we now occupy.

What’s clear is that while many people are grieving the loss of Rachel Held Evan’s presence, mediated online, there’s a family — especially a husband and two very young children — and friends, for whom this loss, this grief, is more palpable; more tangible; the hole left by this tragedy will not be filled by hashtags or pixelated stories.

Grief is a strange thing to observe; and the internet makes it stranger. In the outpouring of grief around the death of one loved persona we’re seeing the best of the Internet, but also the weirdness of our increasingly disembodied, ‘excarnated’ age — where a local community of believers has, in many cases, for many people outside the norms, been a disappointment, such that comfort, community, and the sense of being known and loved has led many online, and many to voices like Rachel’s. It would be a tragedy for us, as the church, not to learn something from the expressions of grief from around the world, especially from women, and those our communities marginalise (including those seeking to reconcile their faith in Jesus with their sexuality), and to ask questions about where we might have failed locally; where there might be other women like Rachel, or who felt championed by her, in our midst; and where we might need ongoing reform of our church practices — our forms — to align them with our content.

As I’ve spent my emotional energy watching the reaction to this tragedy roll out around the Internet, reading far too many awful, negative, ‘gotcha,’ pieces alongside the genuine expressions of lament, and loss, and connection to Rachel Held Evan’s and what she meant to real people, I’ve felt a little like an outsider; not to the expressions of grief, but to its embodied reality. I’ve felt like one affected by the loss of a persona rather than a person. I’ve been detached enough to start asking questions about the nature of grief, of personhood, of spiritual community, and of the Internet, I’ve not been able to escape the title of C.S Lewis’ writings about grief: A Grief Observed, and wondering if Lewis has much to say about how the Internet and this grief might be doing strange things to our personhood. I’m not without empathy; the thought of Rachel’s husband Dan having to publicly mediate his wife’s last few weeks to a legion of fans, while working through the medical process, and his personal grief, and now the thought of him raising two children who may forget their mother hits me pretty hard; harder than the loss of Rachel Held Evan’s voice — which will live on not just in the mediated pixels of the internet, but in the way her thoughts and experience were ‘incarnated’ into her books. But I also feel like a stranger who has walked in to the back of a church during a funeral service, or who has wandered into a wake and been handed a drink and caught up in what is quite a human experience that properly requires a body and some deep connection to a physical person who is now gone.

In A Grief Observed, Lewis, writing about his wife, H, reflects on how quickly in the absence of her embodied presence, he is left grieving — and recreating in his mind — an image of his wife; a persona, rather than the real person. And how much the reality of a person’s presence overwhelms the versions of them we create in our imagination.

“I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts—real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman. Founded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t). But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.”

How much more will this phenomenon be exaggerated by the Internet? How much more will our re-creation or re-imagination of a lost person be accelerated so that they become a sort of avatar if we’ve not been physically connected to a person? These questions aren’t to deny the attachment to Rachel Held Evans, or the reality of the grief, or the deep reality of a spiritual connection shared across time and space by those who have the Spirit of God dwelling in them — but to ask questions about how healthy, or human, such attachments are, and to ponder if this virtual reformation prompted by pioneers like Evans would best happen locally, with those our systems marginalise but who are still in our midst?

Lewis ponders this some more in the same chapter:

“Today I had to meet a man I haven’t seen for ten years. And all that time I had thought I was remembering him well—how he looked and spoke and the sort of things he said. The first five minutes of the real man shattered the image completely. Not that he had changed. On the contrary. I kept on thinking, ‘Yes, of course, of course. I’d forgotten that he thought that—or disliked this, or knew so-and-so—or jerked his head back that way.’ I had known all these things once and I recognized them the moment I met them again. But they had all faded out of my mental picture of him, and when they were all replaced by his actual presence the total effect was quite astonishingly different from the image I had carried about with me for those ten years. How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H? That it is not happening already? Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.”

Love, in some sense, is, and must be, bodily, not simply imagined or excarnate. When the Apostle Paul speaks about love in that most famous of passages, 1 Corinthians 13, he describes not just the physical, expressed, characteristics of love from one person to another; but paints a vision of love as being completely known, not simply imagined by another, not simply a reflection or a persona, but known. This is a picture that describes a future — the renewing of all things, the hope of the new creation.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” — 1 Corinthians 13:12

Until that time all our knowing of an other, all our loving, is mediated — we encounter personas who are on the journey of becoming persons to us; the hope of those of us who believe in the resurrection is that, in the course of eternity, those we know now only virtually will be made real to us, and we to them. There’s certainly a longing for this to be true being expressed by those grieving the death of Rachel Held Evans this week; but also in all our grief.

But I wonder how healthy it is for us, as humans, to pour so much attention and affection — so much love — into pixelated personas; into people across the world where our hope for deeper connection is to be eternally, rather than temporally, realised? I wonder if the accounts I’ve read — and my own experience — feeling gut punched by this tragedy a world away might be time, emotion, and attention better spent locally, in my own (or your own) embodied, incarnate, existence.

As well as talking wisely about grief, C.S Lewis talked about how the invention of the car and the proliferation of international news via the newspaper, had a profound destablilising affect on our human experience — and not always for the better. In Surprised By Joy he wrote about how new technology — the car — led to the ‘annihilation of space’ — a breaking down of our embodied creatureliness and natural barriers; how much more is this true of the Internet? And how much should we be concerned by how that might disintegrate our attention and thus our affections and our relationships, so that we find our ‘deepest’ sense of being known with people we are not meeting face to face. Lewis said, of the car:

“I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while yet most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a drive. This meant that all these distant objects could be visited just enough to clothe them with memories and not impossible desires, while yet they remained ordinarily as inaccessible as the Moon. The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed ‘infinite riches’ in what would have been to motorists ‘a little room’. The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it ‘annihilates space’. It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from travelling ten. Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.”

Distance is an essential part of being human; but also of our ethic — of our ability to love well. In a letter to a friend, Bede Griffiths, Lewis talks about the affect of the newspaper — the way news and views from across the globe suddenly, and more immediately, occupy our attention, first because of the connectivity brought about by the telephone, and telegraph — connecting newsrooms around the globe, but now on steroids via the Internet, the 24 hour news cycle, and the citizen journalism of the Internet. Is it healthy or helpful for me to obsessively refresh health updates about a woman across the globe when surrounded by the sick and dying in my city? Or to give attention to Rachel Held Evan’s family not just at the expense of my own, but at the expense of families in my community? These are, perhaps, questions that in our increasingly excarnate age, fuelled by the “annihilation of space,” that we need to keep asking ourselves lest we be lost; disintegrated, broken up into pixels that fly around the world, mediated by glass screens. Lewis said:

“It is one of the evils of rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know). A great many people (not you) do now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is in itself meritorious. I don’t think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our lives for others: but even while we’re doing it, I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds song and the frosty sunrise. As about the distant, so about the future. It is very dark: but there’s usually light enough for the next step or so. Pray for me always.”

Sound advice in an age not just of outrage, but where the suffering of others we have no embodied connection with is beamed into not just our lounge room, or our study, but our pockets. As the philosopher Iris Murdoch suggests, virtue lies in deciding what to give attention to; and then in how we act; the internet makes the stakes different in this, it brings us closer to those who are far away, but at risk of making us further away from those who are near. The question ‘who is my neighbour’ has always been a vexxing one when it comes to suffering around the globe, and to not ‘annihilate space’ but live a hyper-local life seems to be just as problematic in reinforcing our blindness, but I wonder if the right use of the Internet rests in something like C.S Lewis’ affirmation of the goodness of the car; a chance to journey to far off places, but not forget where home is, a chance to, in our travels to meet ideas and people “clothe them with memories and not impossible desires,” to recognise the power of these ‘memories’ or ‘ideas’ to unite us and make us feel recognised and so not to minimise them, but also to remember that a persona is something slightly different to a person to us and more of a person to those in their proximity, for whom they are embodied.

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Hey ACL: If your “Christian Values” endorse One Nation, you’re doing it wrong

It’s election time in Australia, which means its time for various Christian pundits and thought leaders to put out their ‘how to vote’ guides, because, clearly, most of us can’t possibly work out how to participate in the democratic process without some sort of pre-packaged checklist highlighting where the parties stand on the issues we’re told we should care about. If you’re after advice from me I’ll stand by my how to vote in (not) easy steps post from the 2016 election, and leave you trying to work things out.

Long time readers (if there are any) of this blog (if that’s even what this is) will know I’ve been a strident critic of the Australian Christian Lobby for various reasons; but mostly because they, historically, never spoke about Jesus, or about why a particular policy direction they took was a particularly Christian approach. There were some observable changes when former chief Christian, Lyle Shelton, left to fight for marriage with the Coalition For Marriage, and then to run for the Australian Conservatives. The new chief Christian, Martyn Iles, has been doing a creditable job making Christian arguments for various (conservative) positions on various issues, he even made promises to broaden the platform a little (as the former chief did when tackling penalty rates). The change has been, I think, a breath of fresh air and represents at least a desire to enter the political realm or public square in a pluralist, secular, democracy as Christians, rather than as people who neuter ourselves and argue for and from status quo assumptions given to us by a hard secularism that assumes religion doesn’t belong in the public life of any individual or society.

The breath of fresh air turned fetid and stale overnight, for me, when the ACL issued its ‘how to vote’ card for the May election. They’ve picked five, that’s right, just five, ‘key’ battleground issues for Christians in this election. And there are certain issues that seem particularly self-serving for Christians, which then frames how our positions on issues like abortion and euthanasia might be understood (that we care more about being in control than being considered as a voice in the mix). The ACL’s “Policy Analysis” considers abortion and reproductive health, euthanasia, religious freedom (specifically for Christian schools), sexual orientation and gender identity, and keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament. Picking just these five issues seems an interesting narrow cast; and perhaps it’s because on all the other big issues all the parties are exactly the same? Maybe that’s it? But given the ‘wings’ of this table are ‘all green ticks’ and ‘all red crosses’ it does appear at least to be about contrasting the ‘Christian’ options (the Australian Conservatives) and the ‘non-Christian’ options (the Greens). It’s weird to devote so much column space to Derryn Hinch, and not the many, many, minor parties throwing hats into the ring this election. But what’s perhaps most beyond the pale for me is that picking such a narrow agenda ends up not just endorsing Bernardi and Shelton’s Australian Conservatives, but Hanson’s One Nation Party.

I’m going to put it out there that if your policy platform ends up endorsing Pauline Hanson’s One Nation as a ‘Christian vote’ in the current climate, there’s probably a problem with how you’re defining your platform. Especially if you don’t prosecute a party’s platform, persona, or character beyond those issues that serve your own interest — or worse, beyond the way that party promises you access to the political process. This is the mistake evangelical Americans have made as they’ve been co-opted by the Trump administration in the U.S; a failure to maintain a distinct sense of Christian character and virtue beyond what is politically expedient, and what is happening to the church in America. These politically active Christian conservatives in the ‘religious right’  have done significant, measurable, damage to the reputation of Jesus amongst the general populace of the United States (and possibly globally) because of the way they’ve jumped into bed with a bloke who literally embodies the vice list in Colossians 3 just because it’s politically expedient to do so; because we Christians, like our neighbours, have bought into an ethic detached from a ‘telos’ or from life in a cosmos where God and his nature defines what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and started pursuing politics like good little utilitarians; jumping on board whatever train will deliver our political ends, no matter what that means.

When I pressed Martyn Iles about this expression of a ‘preference’ for One Nation on Facebook, he justified the position with the following remark:

“…their doors are far, far wider open to Christians than most of the groups listed. They are easy to deal with, are often convinced to do the right thing, and they happen to line up on the social policy issues listed here.

I am pretty happy to defend where they’ve landed in our flyer just on the basis of how willingly their elected politicians work with Christians.

I get it that they have their problems (including serious ones, like their support of euthanasia), but I’ll take 10 One Nation Senators over Palmer, Hinch, or the Greens any day of the week.”

Their relationship to One Nation is, then, analogous to the relationship between the big end of town and the major parties, and the sort of insidious relationship we keep seeing exposed between foreign ‘soft power’ and our parties; the kind that leads people to suggest banning political donations from such quarters. Votes for access is a terrible pathway to the worst kind of democracy; the craven type where elected representatives act based on what will secure votes, rather than what is good, true, and beautiful, and where lobby groups that aim to distort the process for the sake of special interests urge for votes not based on what is best for all, but what is best for them — measured, predominantly, by questions of power and access.

If you chuck virtue and character out the window when assessing what party to vote for, in the name of results, you are making a bed that the rest of us have to lie in. If you end up platforming a party whose leader consistently appeals to the worst ‘angels’ of our nature; who promotes conspiracy theories rather than truth at every turn, who blames the media when her chosen representatives are exposed as degenerates, whose party cosied up with the NRA to try to soften Australia’s gun laws, whose positions on issues affecting the most marginalised members of our society or the global community are well documented, and who moved a motion in the Australian senate using a phrase (“it’s OK to be white” typically used by white supremacists). Hanson is a climate change denier (and the Australian Conservatives come pretty close), she is opposed to foreign aid (in all its forms). The party can’t seem to keep an elected representative in its folds, let alone in parliament. And according to the Australian Christian Lobby they’re the party who’re the second most deserving of your vote, because of what we Christians might get from the deal. Donald Trump might embody the vices in Colossians 3 solo, One Nation’s candidates prefer a cooperative approach.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.  You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other… — Colossians 3:5-9

I’m not suggesting that One Nation’s elected representatives should behave like Christians, or that we should expect them to… but I do think Christians should behave like Christians and exercise our participation in the political process as Christians who are ambassadors for Christ — and so not endorse vice for the sake of being closer to worldly power. I’m suggesting that virtue matters for us (and that it’d be nice to elect politicians who display virtue rather than vice, or to call for those sorts of standards rather than pure utility). A Christian vote is not about how they behave, so much as how we behave, and about what it is we express is important. There is no current political party that exhaustively embodies “Christian Values” (even the ones that have Christian in their name), which means a ‘Christian’ vote is not about who we vote for, but how one votes (and participates in political life) as a Christian.  Here’s what should mark our participation in public life.

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

If you want to “vote for Christian values” then those are the values, or virtues, you might want to see on display in the people you’re electing and expressed by their policies. What’s tricky, in the way politics happens in the modern world, is that these virtues are thoroughly embedded in a life where a community ‘lets the message of Christ dwell among them richly’… And perhaps a better way of framing our participation in politics (beyond just the ballot box) — a politics built from “Christian values” — would be for us to push for Christians to deliberately and transparently bring Christian virtues into public life. The problem is we’d be bringing them into a “public” that has largely rejected virtue for the sake of utility, and where the key, distinctive, Christian idea that virtue comes not just dispassionately from ‘nature,’ but from a relationship with God is even more remote. To embrace a politics of utility enforces this chasm, which is the very chasm our Christian witness seeks to close.

In his work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor makes this observation about the ‘field’ public life, including politics, now takes part on, or at least about the way we think about how we should live as people in the modern world.

“The dominant philosophical ethics today… conceive of morality as determining through some criterion what an agent ought to do. They are rather hostile to an ethics of virtue or the good, such as that of Aristotle. And a Christian conception, where the highest way of life can’t be explained in terms of rules, but rather is rooted in a certain relation to God, is entirely off the screen.”

Taylor suggests the stakes of playing the game with these rules and assumptions are high; they reinforce the view that reality is a ‘closed system’ or an “immanent frame” that excludes God from the picture. There’s a real danger that the way we do politics, if we embrace ‘utility’ or the idea that being good is about obeying certain rules, or having a certain moral framework, rather than imitating the character of God, actually serves to reinforce the assumption that God isn’t in the picture, Taylor says that promoting a morality (or politics) that arises from ‘an impersonal law” or “impersonal order” — rather than from “a personal relation” is a problem for Christians. He says: “All these forms of impersonal order: the natural, the political and the ethical can be made to speak together against orthodox Christianity, and its understanding of God as personal agent.” Playing the political game this way, as Christians, takes the game further and further away from a Christian view of reality.

“On one level, we have the natural order, the universe, purged of enchantment, and freed from miraculous interventions and special providences from God, operating by universal, unrespondent causal laws. On another level, we have a social order, designed for us, which we have to come to discern by reason, and establish by constructive activity and discipline. Finally the Law which defines this order, whether as political/constitutional law, or ethical norms, can be expressed in rational codes, which can be grasped quite independent of any special relationship we might establish with God, and by extension with each other. The human relationships which matter are those prescribed in the codes (e.g., Natural Law, the Utilitarian principle, the Categorical Imperative).”

Christian values are going to be the ones that push back on the idea that we should make political decisions simply about what’s going to be convenient for certain groups — including us — here and now, they’re going to be the ones that say there’s more to life than just political success, or lawmaking, or winning, they’re going to be the ones that point to an actual, not just mechanical, relationship with God being at the heart of reality. And while keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament could be a nod to this higher ordering of reality, I’m not sure that having a bunch of politicians pray the Lord’s Prayer — including the line ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’ (which is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come, and for the sort of kingdom ethics expressed in the Sermon On The Mount, where the prayer is found, to be lived) — who are then going to do their best to do the opposite — is the sort of pushing back on this closing of the system that’s required. Hypocrisy is not a “Christian value” and I think we should avoid the enshrining of ironic hypocrisy, especially given how Jesus opens up his teaching on prayer when he teaches the Lord’s Prayer: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5). If we’re going to ask our politicians to keep praying the Lord’s Prayer, we’ve also got to ask them to both believe it, and mean it, and to turn their attention to the sort of ethical vision and kingdom that the prayer entails.

I’m not going to cast my vote just to secure an ‘open door’ and a few key ‘ticks’ on policy areas that serve my interests. A Christian vote is not the vote that secures the best possible result for us on certain positions, or the best access to those in power, no matter the cost. A Christian vote is the one that looks to our relationship with Jesus as Lord, to his example, and to his commands, where we vote with integrity and character and virtue — the highest of those virtues being love. This will certainly mean that Christians consider the elderly, the sick, and the unborn in our political matrix — but also the refugee, the foreigner not on our shores, the widow, the poor, the not yet born (whose natural environment our decisions affect), and just about any ‘other’ — given that they all fall into the category of ‘neighbour’ or ‘enemy’ and Jesus calls us to love both (but first to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength). Here’s the paradigm that’s meant to mark our politics as Christians because it’s what it looks like to be a citizen in the kingdom of God — the kingdom Jesus launched in his death and resurrection, at the cross.

“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? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” — Matthew 16:24-27

Cosying up to One Nation might gain us the whole world in terms of political access and power (it probably won’t); but what if the cost is not just our soul, but our witness to our crucified king? Is it worth it? Or is it the equivalent of trading our birthright in God’s family of promise for a bowl of gruel?

UPDATE: A friend connected to the ACL has reached out to suggest the take put forward by this piece on the flyer is less than charitable, and that a statement posted by Martyn Iles might clear up what the aim of the flyer is. Iles says:

“There is an important difference between an education resource and a political tool.

A political tool has to effectively appeal to people who are disengaged and influence them.

An education resource is for people who are engaged, and it takes them on a much bigger journey.

If our flyer were primarily an education resource, it would include all parties and all conceivable “Christian” issues (which I do care about – anyone who follows my vlogs and blogs will know that). It would also have a small distribution, targeted to rusted-on Christians.

But it is not.

(Actually, it wouldn’t be a flyer at all – it’d be a website).

There are a number of good resources of that kind already available, which most people who are that engaged will already have seen.

The flyer is for middle-Australia, marginal seat, politically disengaged, Christian-sympathising voters. It has a mass distribution.

It’s for a target that other groups are simply not reaching. It is for a target that is not in yours or my mindset.”

I’m not sure I understand how this makes my post unreasonable, I’ll let you be the judge. There’s a little more in his post.

I will say, briefly, that I think this explanation makes things worse, not better. If this is designed to present a ‘Christian values’ approach to politics to people who are largely not actually Christian, but might share some Christian values, then this misrepresents the heart of Christianity (and Christian political concerns). It might be politically expedient (or utilitarian), but it is not helpful for the wider mission of the church (or the Kingdom of God, of which the ACL is, universally, a part). I’d also point out that there is a website that goes with the flyer, and lots of opportunities for the ACL to be clearer in its repudiation of One Nation, especially for the sake of those who receive this flyer in the mail who might be confused about how Christians stand with regards to that political party.

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Is James Faulkner going to Hell? Or are we?

Aussie cricketer James Faulkner set tongues wagging this morning with an instagram post; a post that in many ways may have initially seemed a breath of fresh air from the Folau controversy, but, that ultimately will just further entrench the axiom that our athletes probably should get off social media, or we should stop holding them up as champion representatives of some ‘ideology’ or ‘ideal’ rather than just as representative players of sports.

Faulkner posted a picture from his birthday celebration with his mother and “boyfriend” — and the internet (including some teammates) went gangbusters seeing this language not in the way that women can talk about each other as ‘girlfriends’ without it being immediately sexualised, but as a coming out; this reading was especially fed by his hashtag #togetherfor5years. Faulkner seemed to initially seek to bring clarity and to temper the reaction when he edited the post a few hours later to add the words “(“best friend”)” next to boyfriend.

One of the conditions of our hyper-sexualised age is that we don’t do platonic relationships; every relationship is shot through with sexual tension and re-interpreted through that grid. This gives rise to, for example, the ‘Billy Graham Rule’ where men won’t be in a room alone with a woman because the sexual tension will be impossible to overcome, and to the re-reading of historical same sex friendships as homosexual (think David and Jonathan in the Bible, or Jesus and the disciple he loved — or Jesus and Mary Magdalene). This view of the world is fed by a culture of objectification and pornography that does turn any innocent scenario or engagement into an opportunity for an interaction to degenerate into sex. We saw this play out on the sporting field a few years back when football legend Craig Foster put his hand on a pre-teen girl standing in front of him during the anthem, and twitter blew up, and continued to blow up as people doubled down even after it was revealed she was his daughter and he was comforting her; we also saw the ‘objectification’ culture play out closer to home when fly-in-fly-out T20 star Chris Gayle hit on a reporter as she tried to do her job in a post-match cricket interview.

In our new view of the world, every relationship, unless clearly defined otherwise, is inherently possibly sexual, so it doesn’t take much for us to jump into assumption.

So Faulkner has had to ‘come out’ today as straight; clarifying that the bloke in the photo has been his housemate for five years, that he’s his business partner and best mate, and also having to, with Cricket Australia, find ways to appease the LGBTI+ community or Spirit of the age, lest his clumsy wording become a transgression worthy of judgment.

There seems to be a misunderstanding about my post from last night, I am not gay, however it has been fantastic to see the support from and for the LBGT community. Let’s never forget love is love, however Rob is just a great friend. Last night marked five years of being house mates! Good on everyone for being so supportive.

We know what happens when athletes are insensitive about the culture’s sexual gods on social media. Cricket Australia has jumped into damage control with its statement.

“His comment was made as a genuine reflection of his relationship with his business partner, best friend and house mate of five years. He was not contacted for clarification before some outlets reported his Instagram post as an announcement of a homosexual relationship

“James and CA are supportive of the LGBQTI community and recognise coming out can be an incredibly emotional time. The post was not in any way meant to make light of this and, though the support from the community was overwhelming and positive, Cricket Australia apologises for any unintended offence.”

An apology for ‘unintended offence’ is an interesting one; and while I suspect Faulkner was probably playfully transgressive in his presentation of his relationship in the terms he used, complete with heart emojis, there’s a real fear at the heart of this apology that Faulkner has committed a transgression that will earn him the judgment of the modern day online inquisition. He’s definitely been potentially unhelpful in playing with an issue that matters in substantial ways to real people (and starting to see some backlash on that). Whether that backlash translates into outright condemnation and being ‘excluded’ — tossed into the fires of the modern day Gehenna — does remains to be seen at this point. But this scenario is super interesting coming on the heels of the Folau scenario, and one has to ask whether Faulkner faces Hell on Folau’s terms now for lying rather than for homosexuality, but more than that, what sort of hell his casual instagramming will earn in the form of judgment from the modern world. Will he escape the treatment Folau has received for his insensitivity, or is his repentance (and the vicarious repentance on behalf of his peak sporting body) enough to earn him ‘salvation’ from the Internet, and perhaps more importantly, the games’ sponsors.

Perhaps instead of asking questions about Faulkner’s future, or social media policies for our national athletes, we might start asking ourselves questions about the role sexuality and sex play in the ‘spirituality’ of our modern age, and if they can bear the weight of defining who we are, and what is sacred, to the extent that a new orthodoxy wants to insist they do; perhaps we could be asking how healthy our view of the world is if every relationship has to be interpreted through the grid of sexuality, and if we might all end up running the risks of pornifying every interaction (seeing and collapsing all relationships the potential for sex), and so avoiding intimacy or deep friendship (boy friends and girl friends) as a ‘Billy Graham Rule’ that will ultimately rule out any deep connections with anybody. We can’t say “love is love” about a friendship when our prevailing culture believes and teaches, in a reinforcing echo chamber/circular force, that love is sex. Faulkner runs the risk of elevating his friendship with his housemate to a place that only a sexual relationship is allowed to hold in the lives of the modern ‘believer’ in the sexular religion; this post was potentially a form of sexular idolatry. A heresy.

For us Christians this presents some interesting challenges because we’ve adopted the sexualised view of relationships in our churches in pretty damaging ways; ways that idolise marriage as ‘the relationship’ that carries all the expectations we have for intimacy (and sexuality), and correspondingly reduce friendships to superficial, we’re just as likely as the world to sexualise the relationship between James Faulkner and his housemate (and to ask questions about David and Jonathan). We’re also likely to have the Billy Graham Rule operating as a cultural norm in male/female relationships, so we’re not ‘brothers and sisters’ first — spiritually in a way that is truer than biologically — but every relationship was the capacity to be sexualised (partly because we’ve been ‘formed’ by our pornofied culture, certainly, and how to unwind that is tricky)… but we haven’t yet come to terms with what that looks like for the same sex attracted in our midst. Bizarrely, it’s probably actually the voices of the only people our present culture might consider more transgressive than Folau, or, now, Faulkner, those who refuse to participate in our ‘sexual’ worship at all; the celibate, same sex attracted, Christians who can guide us through this journey. Voices like Ed Shaw in his book The Plausibility Problem, or Wesley Hill in his books and blogging, especially at Spiritual Friendship, or the Revoice movement and its statement, or locally, someone like my friend Tom Pugh who has just launched The Integrate Project. He posted yesterday about why the church needs Same Sex Attracted/LGB+ people.

“If marriage and the nuclear family has become an idol in our churches, then how important is the celibate gay Christian in reminding The Church of central Gospel truths regarding sacrifice, waiting, and community? And if sex has been elevated to the level of godhood in western culture, then this kind of person is testament to what it is to be whole and human outside of our sexual obsession, confusion and entitlement.

The LGB/SSA Christian often finds themselves in the crossfire between the most prevailing narratives in our culture: the heteronormative narrative versus the sexual liberation & gender non-conforming narratives which usually go hand in hand.”

I think this is true, but I’d also add that it’s not just marriage and family that is idolised, but sex and sexuality as the ultimate forms of meaning and our ultimate access to ‘transcendence’ or something ‘heaven-like’ — and that part of teaching us about waiting and community is about teaching us about seeing these created goods as having an ‘ends’ beyond themselves, but also teaching us the practices of intimacy and friendship that aren’t defined by the sex act (though they might involve ‘attraction’).

Our whole culture is going to Hell. Hell isn’t ‘other people’ as much as it’s ‘other people with no intimacy, love, or friendship’… because it’s other people without God… and we’re all heading there together if we don’t start repenting and trying something new. Perhaps something more like James Faulkner and his housemate. Good on them. Happy anniversary. But more than that, it’s about finding how our desire for intimacy, friendship, and sex aren’t ends in themselves, but part of our human experience that echo the image of the Triune God who is, in the three persons of God, love, intimacy, and friendship — and from whom these characteristics flow as blessings to us; and alongside those blessings there’s an invitation out of ‘hell’ or even the false-heaven of sex, and into that eternal intimate relationship through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The ‘oneness’ or intimacy he offers is a fuller experience than any romance, or bromance… Check out these words from Jesus (the sort of thing where if we were to express them about another person some questions might be asked on Twitter).

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…I have made you[e] known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” — John 17:20-21, 26