Grill a Christian: Question 2. How does heaven work?

Question: “How do we know that we can remain good in heaven? Free will isn’t taken from us, so we can still make mistakes? Once in heaven can people be sent away? What makes living there different to here? And what will we do in heaven? No one will need anything.”

These are great questions. I think the big difference the Bible promises between us and our will now, and us and our will for eternity is that our character is perfected. It’s not that we won’t have free will, it’s that our free will won’t be lead astray by our self-serving nature (free will is a sort of paradox anyway, because God is also totally sovereign and working through every moment of our existence, because he is the ground of our being — as in, we exist ‘in him’). When you have perfect freedom, in the context of perfect love, where there is no crying, or mourning, nor pain, nor the ‘old order of things’ (which is what Revelation 21 suggests the new creation looks like), our mistakes won’t be mistakes, they’ll be exercises of our free will that don’t cost anyone anything. It’s perfect rest and recreation, for eternity. I find this question hard to answer because I find eternity quite hard to fathom. I think there are a few things that the Bible suggests are true about eternity that probably help answer the questions here, even if somewhat indirectly.

1. Heaven is earth. Perfected. Renovated. We’re not living on clouds, God’s good world is being refreshed, renovated, and renewed for his people to enjoy the way we were made to. So, whatever good stuff you do now, you’ll do then too. This is a little speculative, but I suspect we’ll not just have the world to explore, but the cosmos.

2. God will remain infinitely amazing, and we will be finite creatures moving towards the horizon of eternity (so becoming more and more infinite I guess, and knowing more and more about the love of God, and who the God who made the world is, and what God is like). He doesn’t stop being creator, and we don’t stop being creatures — we don’t become omni-anything in the new creation, we as creatures have a beginning, but as ‘new creations’ we have no end, while God has neither beginning nor end. So we, I think, will grow in the knowledge of God for eternity. I suspect this means we’ll also grow in the knowledge of our own capacity and what being loved by God frees us to do, so we’ll, I think, become more creative (like God), and thus capable of creating more wondrous things over time. I’m fairly sure the imagination continues to exist in heaven, and we’ll continue imagining and creating things, like we were made to. Otherwise heaven will be not as much fun as earth.

3. Nobody will ‘need anything’, sure, but wants are actually valid, even if parents try to tell you only to worry about things you need, not things you want. And we’ll still want to know God, still want to love, still want to create, we’ll still want to do all the things we were made to do as people made in God’s image, and we’ll be free-er than ever to embrace our (new-created) humanity in a way we’re unable to now because sin gets in the way, so does death. The stuff you can’t imagine achieving in your life time will no longer be impossible. I like to think we’ll have an eternity to explore the far flung reaches of the universe, and that God might well keep expanding the universe into eternity, so we’ll never run out of new things to play with.

4. People can’t be sent away. Probably the best passage to read to answer these questions (as well as Revelation 21-22) is Romans 8. It’s close to my favourite passage in the Bible.

This bit is the best bit:

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

Question: How will we know the Joy? If in this life it’s kind of like ‘you can’t know joy without pain, happy with out sad, bad without good’ how will we know that we are experience Pure Joy in heaven? Will people become complacent or tired?

I think we’ll know joy because we’ll remember life now. I hope we won’t become complacent or tired because one way heaven is described is as perfect rest, where work and play are unfrustrated by our shortcomings. So work exists in the Bible before sin, but exists as a sort of unfettered playful creativity with the good things God made.

CS Lewis writes some cool stuff about the fleeting sense of joy we experience here in this world and the overwhelming joy we’ll experience, by comparison, in the new creation. Especially in the Weight of Glory (and also in Surprised By Joy). Some bits are about Greek poetry and stuff, which was what he lectured in at university, but you can skip that pretty easily and still get something out of this. I think. Here are some great bits from the Weight of Glory.

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter…The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited…

…Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience. The scriptural picture of heaven is therefore just as symbolical as the picture which our desire, unaided, invents for itself; heaven is not really full of jewelry any more than it is really the beauty of Nature, or a fine piece of music. The difference is that the scriptural imagery has authority. It comes to us from writers who were closer to God than we, and it has stood the test of Christian experience down the centuries. The natural appeal of this authoritative imagery is to me, at first, very small. At first sight it chills, rather than awakes, my desire.And that is just what I ought to expect. If Christianity could tell me no more of the far-off land than my own temperament led me to surmise already, then Christianity would be no higher than myself. If it has more to give me, I must expect it to be less immediately attractive than “my own stuff.” …If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know. The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised, firstly, that we shall be with Christ; secondly, that we shall be like Him; thirdly, with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”; fourthly, that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and, finally that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe—ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God’s temple…

…At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch. For you must not think that I am putting forward any heathen fancy of being absorbed into Nature. Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects. And in there, in beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life. At present, if we are reborn in Christ, the spirit in us lives directly on God; but the mind, and still more the body, receives life from Him at a thousand removes—through our ancestors, through our food, through the elements. The faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when He made the worlds are what we now call physical pleasures; and even thus filtered, they are too much for our present management. What would it be to taste at the fountain-head that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy. As St. Augustine said, the rapture of the saved soul will “flow over” into the glorified body.


Reading the Bible (and life) as the story of God ‘re-creating’ and ‘re-vivifying’ broken images of God: Part 1 — By the rivers of Babylon

In which, over a two part epic, I quote significant chunks of Babylonian religious propaganda to make the case that we should understand being made in the ‘image of God’ as a call to play a part in representing God in his world, while our idolatrous hearts keep leading us to play that part for idols.

This post is fairly epic in size, but the good news is, I’ve split it in two. Ok. So here’s a fun way to read the Bible, in sum, think of this as the TL:DR; version of what follows:

  1. The Bible is the story of God giving life to his image bearers — making living images or idols to represent himself — and then restoring life to those images when they stop serving that function. Part of this restoration involves the image being ‘revivified’ — given life, breath, and a function — near or through water. This vivification, or revivification, happens through a ritual ceremony that was a ceremony used throughout the ancient world to give and restore life to broken idol statues.
  2. God’s people are meant to function for him the way idol statues function for the other gods of the ancient world — to represent the presence of his kingdom, to, in a sense, manifest his rule and give legitimacy to it.
  3. The flip side of this reading is that the stuff in the Bible about not making idols to represent God is actually a pointer to the truth that only the living God can make representatives of himself, that share his qualities, because all things that are made by makers reflect their maker. The problem with the gods of the nations — gods of stone, shaped from the human imagination but based on things that God made — is that its an overturning of the created order, in which it is God who makes images (humans), not humans who make gods.

God creates his images (and gives them breath and a purpose, near water)

Creation as ‘giving something a function’…

Old Testament scholar John Walton has written a bunch of stuff about how the Genesis creation account relates to its ancient near eastern context. One really important point he makes is that we, as modern readers, bring modern concerns to the text as well as modern notions of what it means ‘to be’ (a modern ontology). We think ‘being’ is meaningfully tied to questions of what substance a thing is made of, our ontology is material. This wasn’t the case in the ancient world, nor, (just to give you a sense of how this question plays out significantly in different times, while we might take our modern thinking for granted) for some time after that. The Greeks, for example, as described in Plato, saw being as a thing reflecting some perfect infinite form, and a thing’s ‘being’ was measured, in some way, against this ideal. The significance of this, in the Greek world, was that people often separated a thing’s physicality from its ‘ideal form’ — prioritising the ‘spiritual’ over the physical. This question matters more than we think it might. In the world the Bible came from, existence was tied not to its material essence, or a thing’s ‘ideal form’, but to the function it was given within a system of functioning things. The ancient world had what Walton calls a ‘functional ontology’… Here’s a quote where he explains what this means:

“WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR SOMETHING to exist? It might seem like an odd question with perhaps an obvious answer, but it is not as simple as it may seem. For example, when we say that a chair exists, we are expressing a conclusion on the basis of an assumption that certain properties of the chair define it as existing. Without getting bogged down in philosophy, in our contemporary ways of thinking, a chair exists because it is material. We can detect it with our senses (particularly sight and touch). The question of existence and the previous examples introduce a concept that philosophers refer to as “ontology.” Most people do not use the word ontology on a regular basis, and so it can be confusing, but the concept it expresses is relatively simple. The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist… When we speak of cosmic ontology these days, it can be seen that our culture views existence, and therefore meaning, in material terms… Since in our culture we believe that existence is material, we consequently believe that to create something means to bring its material properties into existence. Thus our discussions of origins tend to focus on material origins.

If we are going to understand a creation account from the ancient world we must understand what they meant by “creation,” and to do that we must consider their cosmic ontology instead of supplying our own. What did it mean to someone in the ancient world to say that the world existed?

People in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system. Here I do not refer to an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture… In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society… In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties… Unless people (or gods) are there to benefit from functions, existence is not achieved. Unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not exist… Consequently, the actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence.” — John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

Walton obviously takes a position on how this affects the way we read the nature of ‘creation’ in Genesis 1, but that’s a red herring in this discussion. His observation is borne out through a study of the sort of things ‘created’ and what is said of them throughout the Bible (it’s always linked to function, rather than form), and also in texts apart from the Bible — other creation accounts, and other stories about people ‘creating’ things in the Ancient world. I think its fair to say this ‘ontology’ is not disputed, and you might have to take it to whatever conclusions are necessary when it comes to how to read the Genesis accounts as they relate to our ‘material ontology’ and the questions we might want Genesis to answer. I’m going to go in a very different direction though, and specifically consider the questions this creates for us when Genesis talks about us. Humans. Where we’re made in God’s ‘image’ and likeness. I think the likeness part captures a sense that we share some qualities of God in how we operate in the world, we reflect him, but the ‘image’ part is also functional and is tied to us representing him.

I’m suggesting that to be made in God’s image in the sense in which Genesis (and the rest of the Bible talks about it), is not just to be something, but also to do something. And that something is caught up with the idea that we are the living, speaking, God’s living, speaking, statues, in the same way that dead and dumb statues represented dead and dumb gods.

The Hebrew word for image selem is often translated as idol, both later in the Old Testament (rarely, because there are a few different words used), and elsewhere in the ancient near east (frequently, like, this is a very common word for how the nations describe their statues), it does come up a few times like:

“You also took the fine jewellery I gave you, the jewellery made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them.” — Ezekiel 16:17

The verbs used for God’s creation of humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 are later used when talking about the forming of idols, or to refer back to God’s creation of humankind.

There’s a consensus emerging amongst a stream of good Bible scholars — people who believe the Bible is God’s word, and is about Jesus — that Genesis 1-2 should be read as the story of God creating his cosmic temple, a place for him to dwell, and rest, and be worshipped. I don’t think this is controversial. This is the ‘ordered system’ then that we are placed in and given the function we’re given as ‘images’… The word for ‘image’

There are some steps to notice in what happens as God makes an image of himself in Genesis 2.

  1. Formed and fashioned, near water (and symbolically, in a sense, moved through water, it’s interesting that God places the man in the garden twice, once before the mention of the water, and once after) (Genesis 2:6, 8, 10-15)
  2. Inspired, or given ‘breath’ so that it the image is vivified. It is to be thought of as a living representation of the God whose image it bears. (Genesis 2:7)
  3. Declared fit for purpose within a system, and via connection to God. (Genesis 1:26-31)
  4. Placed (or enthroned) in the Temple/garden sanctuary and given a job within the Temple. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15
  5. The images are provided for with food and drink. (Genesis 2:16-17)
  6. The image fulfills a function in representing the God behind the image (Genesis 2:19-20)

These steps are pretty much a summary of the steps required for people to create images of God in the ancient world. The sequencing is interesting here because 3 actually happens in Genesis 1, and then Genesis 2 zooms in to sequentially cover 1-2 and 4-5. Genesis 1 also supplies the sense in which 5 happens. God creates and rules by speaking good things (and a good system) into being. God creates humans to rule over the things he has made — especially the other living things — as his images. And in Genesis 2, Adam ‘names the animals’ by speaking their names into being, and thus rules them — in the Ancient Near East, to name something was to express your authority over it.

Humans are meant to serve as God’s images in his temple — his living breathing representatives.

The creation, and re-creation, of images of God in the ancient world

The notion of ‘images of God’ in the ancient world, outside the Bible, was linked to the role the king of an ancient nation would play in being the representative of that nation’s god as both priest and king of the nation’s cult. Here are some things written about a couple of kings. The image of the king, and the image of the nation’s god were so closely tied that the king of a successful nation almost always became God.

“He [the king] alone is the image of Enlil, attentive to the voice of the people, to the counsel of the land.” — EPIC OF TUKULTI-NINURTA


“The King’s image, made brilliant like the heavenly stars, was set up before the eyes of the God Enlil”  — A HYMN DEDICATED TO SULGI OF UR


He created his royal image with a likeness of his own countenance and placed it before the God Ninurta.”— INSCRIPTION DESCRIBING ASSURNASIRPAL, KING OF ASSYRIA

Some of the words in this bit are going to seem foreign — because they are. Not just foreign, but ancient. Just let those bits wash over you, but as you read (if you read the chunks of quotes from inscriptions) try to notice the similarities, and the differences, to how the Bible describes the making of an image of God. The Genesis account comes from a world much closer to these tablets than to our modern world. What’s really striking, I think, is how much the conclusion from the first section, and those steps present in making an image of God (and supplying a function), is supported in the ancient world — and what sort of comparison is struck between the Bible’s story of God’s creation of humanity, and the ancient, human, stories of how people were to make images of God. Those same 6 steps are there, with a couple of key subversions, in an ancient Babylonian ritual called Mîs-pî, where images are created, given the job of representing the god(s) who made the universe, and enthroned. Here’s the text of the ritual. There’s heaps of stuff here that sounds like it could be said about the God of the Bible, what’s interesting is what changes if you remember that this is a person speaking to the gods, about the creation of an image of a god. An image that is a statue where they need to create a sort of cognitive dissonance because the statue does not breathe or move, which brings into question just how powerful these gods are. The king/image-creator would say:

Ea, Ṧamaš, and Asalluḫi, the great gods, who judge the heavens and the earth, who determine the destinies, who fix decisions, who make sanctuaries great, who set the foundations of the throne daises, who lay out the plan, who outline the ordinances, who apportion the lots, who watch over sanctuaries, who keep the rites pure, who creates the rites of purification, it is in your hands to determine fates, to draw plans, you alone establish the fate of life, you alone draw the plans of life, you alone make the decisions of life, you inspect all the throne daises of god and goddess, you alone are the great gods who direct, the decisions of the heavens and earth, of springs and seas, your utterance is life, your pronouncement is well-being, the work of your mouth is life itself,  you alone bestride the farthest heavens, you dispel evil (and) establish the good, you loosen the evil portents and signs, disturbing and bad dreams, who cut through the cord of evil. I am the chief exorcist who <knows> the pure rites of Eridu, I have poured out water; I have cleansed the ground for you;  I have set up pure thrones for your sitting; I have dedicated clean red garments for you; I have set up the pure offering arrangements for you; I poured out for you a pure libation; I set up for you an adakurru-bowl with našpu-beer.

I libated for you wine and best beer. Because the completion of the rites of the great gods and the direction of the plan of the purification rite rest with you, on this day be present: for this statue which stands before you ceremoniously grant him the destiny that his mouth may eat, that his ears might hear. May the god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside! — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

After this had been recited, the king would “set up a libation for the gods Kusu, Ningirima, Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusigbanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim,” and ritually carry some incense and a torch past the image of these gods that had already been created. Then, the king would approach the new image that was being given life (vivified).

“You purify him with the egubbû-basin and (then) perform the Mīs Pî ritual, you set up a libation and the āšipu-priest stands to the left of that god. You recite three times the incantation “When the god was made” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The words of this incantation make it clear, or attempt to, that these statues are the products of all these other gods. Ignore all the funny types of Babylonian stone, and notice where those names of the gods mentioned above come up. And their ‘involvement’ as makers, but the key bits that are bolded. This is an exercise in overcoming the knowledge that these images are crafted by people, and can’t actually do what they symbolise.

“When the god was fashioned, the pure statue completed, and the god appeared in all the lands, then bearing an awe-inspiring radiance totally suited to rule with perfect strength; surrounded on all sides with splendour, endowed with a sparkling-pure appearance, he appears magnificently, the statue shines brilliantly; in the heavens, it was crafted; on earth, it was crafted. This statue was crafted in the entire heavens and earth… this statue grew up in the forest (of) Tir-ḫašur (ḫašur-cedar); this statue went out from a mountain, the pure place; the statue is the product of gods and humans; the statue (has) eyes that Ninkura has made; the statue (has) … that Ninagal has made; the statue (has) features that Ninzadim has made; the statue is of gold and silver that Kusibanda has made; [the statue ] that Ninildu has made; [the statue ] that Ninzadim has made; this statue of ḫulālu-stone, ḫulāl īni-stone, muššaru-stone, pappardillû-stone, pappardildillû-stone, ḫulālu parrû elmešu, by the skill of the gurgurru-craftsman, this statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim have made,  this statue cannot smell incense without the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony. It cannot eat food nor drink water…” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

These eyes can’t see. These features can’t do what they represent — see, or smell, or hear. These gods are made of gold and silver. These gods are statues. They are made by craftsmen, not gods. And here’s the ritual that ‘opens’ its mouth, that gives it life and breath and the ability to manifest the presence of the god it represents.

Water of the Apsû, brought from the midst of Eridu, water of the Tigris, water of the Euphrates, brought from a pure place: tamarisk, soapwort, heart of palm, šalālu-reed, multi-colored marsh reed, seven small palms, juniper, (and) white cedar throw into it; in the garden of the canal of the pure orchard build a bīt rimki. Bring him out to the canal of the pure orchard, to the bīt rimki. Bring out this statue before Shamash. Put again at their place the adze that was driven (into the wood), the chisel that carved it, the saw that cut it, and the master craftsmen who prepared it. With a scarf bind their hands; with a tamarisk knife cut off the fists of the stoneworkers who touched him. This is the statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, (and) Ninzadim made. Kusu, the chief purification priest of Enlil, has purified it with a holy-water-basin, censer, and torch with his pure hands. Asalluḫi, the son of Eridu, made it resplendent. The apkallu and the abriqqu-priest of Eridu have opened your mouth twice seven times with syrup, ghee, cedar, (and) cypress.

May this god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The ceremonial ‘cutting off the hands’ of the stoneworkers to ritually deny human involvement fascinates me. The whole process to this point has been so very human. The king has been in the driving seat both in terms of speaking life into the god, via the incantations, and in terms of organising the design and creation of the god. This human involvement is clear from the number of “I did X” statements. It’s a very human process and this little ritual shows how much the idol maker must operate with a weird doublethink, the “I made this, it is my god” thing that Isaiah nails when he talks about how idol makers cook their food over half a lump of burning wood, and worship the other half. I say ‘ceremonial’ because tthe knife is wooden so I don’t think they actually chopped the hands off. After this ritual the statue is ‘commissioned’ by this prayer, and then carried to its temple.

“In the ear of this god you shall say the following: “Among your brothers you are counted,” you shall whisper into his left ear. “From this day let your fate be counted as divinity; among your brother gods may you be counted; draw near to the king who restored you; approach your temple…. To the land where you were created be reconciled.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

Notice the water mentioned at the start, is ‘water of the Apsû,’ the Apsû is the divine source of water in the ancient near east so this is ‘divine water’ from the mids of the god Eridu, which is said to come from two rivers. This water is brought into the place where this ritual happens, a ritual that happens in a garden-canal area in a ‘pure orchard,’ you may have identified all six of those elements of the Genesis creation narrative I mentioned above too, but check this out.

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the EuphratesThe Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” — Genesis 2:10-15

This, then the subsequent creation of Eve, is how God places his images in his Garden/sanctuary/temple. To ‘work it and take care of it’ — and, for bonus points, the two verbs translated as ‘work it and take care of it’ are later used, and only ever used in this pairing, or construction, as describing the role of the priests in God’s temple. It’s also interesting that when God essentially ‘re-creates’ humanity, his images, a few chapters later through Noah, his family, and the waters of the flood, much of the same process repeats.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat… Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it. So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.  Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and cleanbirds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” — Genesis 8:1-3, 16-20

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. — Genesis 9:1-3

Here, God re-creates humanity in his image. We see God:

  1. Forming a new people for himself through water (6:1-8:4),
  2. Placing them where the ark — his vessel for salvation — lands on a mountain (8:4, 16),
  3. Giving them a function in this cosmic system — he gives Noah and his family the job he gave his image bearers in Genesis 1 (8:17, 9:1)
  4. Providing food for them (9:3).

And we see Noah and his family ‘representing God’ — even if temporarily, as he builds an altar/sanctuary (8:20), and then as he, ‘a man of the soil,’ gardens, like Adam did (9:20).

There are also plenty of connections here to the later creation of Israel, through the waters of the red sea and the Exodus, to be placed in the Promised Land with it pictured as a rich, fruitful land marked by flowing water… When God speaks of his creation of Israel he talks in terms of creating a nation of priests, he does that through the waters of the exodus, and he moves them from Egypt to the Promised land (where, as they’re about to enter the land, he makes it very clear they’re not to follow any sorts of images given life by empty man-conducted rituals.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” — Exodus 19:5-6

Note the similarities here to the things humanity was meant to rule, and read it remembering who humans are meant to be.

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticedinto bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.

The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. — Deuteronomy 4:15-24

Just as Israel is about to be placed, like a divine image, in the promised land — a new Eden — there’s this reminder of who they’re to be, and a warning that if they do turn away from God, they’ll end up captured and taken into exile — God’s images removed from this temple — where they’ll worship ‘man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell’ (Deut 4:25-28).

Images broken by exile, restored through waters

Ok. Here’s an extra fun part. When an image — as in the statue in a temple — was captured by an enemy army and taken into exile it lost its power. The God behind it was emptied, the statue was de-vivified. When nations went against nation they went after the idol statues in their temples. Statues functioned a bit like a flag in a game of capture the flag, if a nation held another nation’s statue of their god it was meant to show how little power the nation and its king had, and the king couldn’t exactly say ‘hey that statue is a fraud’ because the statue guaranteed the king’s own power — oh, yeah, the story of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant and its little power struggle with Dagon in 1 Samuel 5 is a fun example of this. If ever a nation captured back its statue, or if the winning nation wanted to take the power and prestige of the god behind the statue as a means to control the captured nation then the statue had to be re-vivified using a pretty similar ceremony, essentially following those same steps (this is fun background to read when we see foreign kings allowing Israel to restore the temple or practice their religion during exile).

There was a king of Assyria, Esarhaddon (he gets a mention in the Bible, in 2 Kings 19), who, famously restored the idols he’d captured in one of his conquests. I say ‘famously’ because Esarhaddon had his restoration of the Babylonian gods he (and his family) had captured inscribed in stone to shore up his own personal claims to divinity. Here are some bits of what he says in the inscription. In this you get a picture of the role the king played when it came to setting up an image of god, and the kind of kudos that came with it. The TL:DR; version, if you want to skip this quote, is that the king claimed divine right to create gods, found the craftsmen to do it, then decorated the image with gold and jewels to make them ‘more radiant than before,’ before conducting the same ceremony conducted to give them life in the beginning.

“When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… When in heaven and on earth signs favourable for the renewal of the statue of the gods occurred, then I, Esarhaddon, king of the universe, king of the Land of Ashur, the apple of Ashur’s eye, the beloved of the great gods, with the great intelligence and vast understanding, which the great Nudimmud, the wise man of the gods, bestowed on me, with the wisdom which Ashur and Marduk entrusted to me when they made me aware of the renewal of the the statue of the great gods, with lifting of hands, prayers, and supplication, I prayed to the divinities Ashur, king of the gods and to the great Lord Marduk: “Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where man dare not trespass? This task of refurbishing the statues, which you have constantly been allotting to me by oracle, is difficult! Is it the right of death and blind human beings who are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives? The making of images of the gods and goddesses is your right, it is in your hands, so I beseech you, create the gods, and in your exalted holy of holies may what you yourselves have in your heart be brought about in accordance with your unalterable word. Endow the skilled craftsmen whom you ordered to complete this task with as high an understanding as Ea, their creator. Teach them skills by your exalted word; make all their handiwork succeed through the craft of Ninshiku… When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… With red gold, the product of Arallu, ore from the mountains, I decorated their images. With splendid ornaments and precious jewelry I adorned their necks and filled their breasts, exactly as the great lord Marduk wanted and as pleased queen Sarpanitu. They the artisans made the statues of their great divinity even more artistic than before. They made them extremely beautiful and they provided them with an awe-inspiring force, and they made them shine like the sun… I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. Into the orchards, among the canals and parterres of the temple E-kar-zaginna, the pure place, they entered by means of the office of the apkallu, mouth washing, mouth opening, washing and purification, before the stars of heaven, before Ea, Samas, Asalluhi, Belit-ili, Kusu, Ninigirim, Ninkurra, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, and Ninzadim.” — Esarhaddon Inscription

It’s a bunch of foreign ‘super-powers’ like Esarhaddon who cart Israel off into exile, and gods like those he decorates in jewellery that Israel are so enamoured by, who so capture their hearts, to their peril. Not only are the Israelites taken into exile, as a result of worshipping stone idols dressed in fancy stones, they are ‘de-vivified’ — they lose the essence of their life as they lose connection with the life giver. They need restoration. Isaiah nails the ‘man made’ nature of the nation’s gods, and their destructive capacity, so too Psalm 115. Their idolatry leaves them exiled, and with hearts of stone. No longer living images of the living god in his temple, but dying images of dead gods captured by the foreign kings.

Here’s the thing — to bring this all home to 21st century you and me — we are all Esarhaddons. We don’t have ‘kings’ and ‘national cults’, but we all build pretty idols and become ensnared by them. Our hearts are led astray. We think we’re super impressive, we make life all about us, and our idols, though they don’t speak, are the things we look to, apart from God, for a sense of self worth or a picture of success. They guarantee our self-rule. Only. They destroy us. Because they take us away from God. That tendency you have to put yourself at the centre of the universe, the ‘Lord,’ as David Foster Wallace puts it, ruling your own skull shaped kingdom, that is going to kill you.

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

David Foster Wallace is right about the destructive power of worship, but wrong that there is anything other than God the creator who won’t ‘eat you alive’ — there’s only one right option. And the worship of self, which provides this apparent freedom, actually enslaves. We become what we behold. We cut ourselves off from the voice that set creation into being, and that’s why, to pinch another phrase from that famous DFW speech, we have that sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. We are, as a result of our worship of things other than God, in exile from God. De-vivified. In need of new breath. In need of re-imaging so we might re-imagine life as God’s people, his images, again. So that we might speak, and taste, and see, and smell, the world the way we were made to, not the way our senses are dulled as we pursue hollow gods.

Israel’s situation, in exile, is dire. They are images waiting to be restored. That Psalm made famous by Bony M, which, somewhat poetically, pictures those waters the Babylonians believe brought life to their statues, picture Israel losing their lives, and their identity and their ability to speak, or sing, as they were meant to — as God’s representatives.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy. — Psalm 137:1-6

The hope expressed by the prophets, especially Ezekiel, is that life will be restored to God’s people, that they’ll function as his images again. Re-vivified (given life and breath), re-commissioned, and replaced in his temple, through water, with God providing them with food. See how many of the six elements of Genesis 2 you can spot here.

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.” — Ezekiel 36:24-30

Or, in chapter 37…

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”… I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’” — Ezekiel 37:11-14, 21-28


Where and how this restoration happens is part 2.

Grill a Christian: Question 1. Why did God make us?

Question: Why did God create us, and does the answer ‘so we might glorify and love him,’ mean God is selfish?

God created us because he is, by nature, a creator of life. I believe the catechism answer is true, but a little limited, because it focuses on our response not on God’s free action in creating. I think it’s wrong to think of God as creating us outside himself for the purpose of having little minions who worship him. We exist ‘within’ God’s infinite being, and he gives us life and breath, and being, and love.

In one sense, this question is like asking why Shakespeare wrote the characters he created into existence. How could he not when he had such magnificent stories to tell. How much more must God be compelled to create when he wanted to create the Gospel story (Revelation talks about the lamb slain before the creation of the world — the Gospel was always God’s plan).

As a little side note on this one — I don’t think sin was always on God’s agenda, but I think resurrection and glorification was — I think Adam and Eve were meant to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and expand God’s perfect garden throughout his good world. I think the serpent was always on the agenda. And my super speculative thoughts here are that if Adam and Eve had turned their backs on the serpent, he would’ve done what Satan orchestrated with Jesus — he would have killed them. Eventually. And resurrection and glorification would’ve been how God defeated Satan. That’s the sense, I think, of how the verse from Revelation can work without God orchestrating the Fall (though I ultimately don’t think he was surprised by the Fall). This opens up a bunch of other questions about God’s knowledge. Which would be a tangent from a tangent…

Let’s assume that God is love. Like the Bible says. That he acts, makes, and creates, out of love. This love is directed, at first, within the Trinity, but it pours out from that. Creation is an act of love, an act of love overflowing — creating more things for the infinite/eternal triune God to direct his infinite love towards. It’s also, if Colossians 1 is a good summary, a gift from Father to Son, an inheritance, which, because God’s love is an overflowing or abundant love, overflows to those parts of his creation redeemed by Jesus, and united in the love of God.  Creation is also an act of the Son, the ‘word’ who was with God in the beginning as God spoke the beginning, and the cosmos, into existence.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. — Colossians 1:15-16

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. — John 1:1-4

Creation is not an act by which God the Father glorifies himself, but by which God the Father glorifies and celebrates the Son, and by which God the Son glorifies and shows his love for the father, and by which the Holy Spirit glues both together. Creation is a Trinitarian love story, and an outpouring of that to us. So when Jesus prays that we might share in the love of the father and son we’re being brought into this eternal, infinite love story not just as spectators to God’s ‘cosmic love story’ but as actors in it. With parts to play as we celebrate and experience the overflowing of this love… Here’s a thing Jesus prays about us which is incredibly profound — that we might share in the unity of the Trinity, becoming one as they are one. God’s creative act is generous and other-seeking, and inclusive, rather than self-seeking. It is also measured in that it never forces this conclusion — this drawing together — on anybody who doesn’t want it.

As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

 “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. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. — John 17:18-23

Also, because God is not a ‘self’ in an individualistic sense, but is found in the perfect interwoven, overlapping nature of the Trinity (there’s a Greek word that captures this best ‘perichoresis’, which means interpenetrating), the pursuit of glorification isn’t the same as when we seek glorification. And God’s non-self-seeking nature is on display in how he extends the invitation for us to participate in his divine, eternal life, by completely ‘un-selfing’ — at the Cross. There is no Christian God apart from the God whose nature and love is on display at the Cross. God the father is ‘cross-shaped’ as much as God the son is crucified, as much as God the Spirit is — perhaps especially in his desire to completely throw light on Father and Son — cross-shaped. There is no self seeking part of who God is. Because we know God best as we meet him in Jesus, and we know Jesus best as we see him nailed to the cross. That’s what ‘glory’ looks like.

Ulitmately, God is a story-teller. A creator. This is part of who he is. We know this because what we know most about God is that he creates and reveals (we know this from the world, and his word — and his ‘Word’ who the written word points to).

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

He creates things that reflect who he is, and because of who he is that can’t really produce anything but glorification or contempt. The world God made is a finite thing made by an infinite thing to reveal something of the infinite. Things we make, and stories we tell, serve a similar function for us, they’re an outpouring of who we are in an attempt to make ourselves known (even to ourselves, if we never share them beyond ourself), an attempt to capture and reveal something of ourself in a moment in time. Jesus as ‘word’ and ‘image’ written into creation is the ultimate version of what God always does when he creates, a pointer to who he is. It’s also worth saying that an infinite, creative, mind could create an infinite number of possibilities, God didn’t have to make what he made. But he loves what he made so much that he wrote himself into creation, in a finite way that actually forever changed the nature of Jesus such that, even now, he is embodied in a glorious, resurrected body as a taste of the future work of re-creation God will do when we are resurrected to share in his next creative project, the New Creation, with him.

Grill a Christian… answering questions about Christianity for those who want answers

Do you have any questions you’ve been super keen to ask a Christian? Any question? But never known who to ask, or how to ask it without someone not taking it seriously? Send them my way.

I’d love to have a crack at answering them. In this little “Grill A Christian” thing, I’m going to take a stab at answering some questions that a few people newish to thinking about God have asked me, but I’m open to answering more. Maybe it’ll help you believe something, maybe it’ll help you understand why or how people can believe in something that seems like a fairy tale or an exercise of the imagination to you… Who knows.

I’ve been thinking lately about how much I can no longer really describe in accurate terms what I thought when I became a Christian (In a nutshell: I was a kid, I grew up being taught about Jesus, and at some point I decided I owned it. Then I started questioning the beliefs I had as a child, then I came up with answers to those questions that satisfied my adult brain, while looking at better stories that account for our humanity and our world). I can, however, describe in accurate terms what excites me about seeing the world through a Christian lens, and what excites me about the God revealed simultaneously in his word and in his world. I’ve often wondered how to reconcile the two — how the thinking that comes through probing and questioning as an adult might connect with someone just starting out on the journey. Is there anything I can say that isn’t the product of a massive gap that has been created by my own wanderings and musings?

Here is the working assumption that underpins this exercise, and, hopefully, my answers.

God is big, and our ability to understand him is small, and the process will take forever. Which is what we’ve got if we grab onto him as he shows himself in Jesus.

One of the profound truths I believe about God is that in order for him, an infinite ground of all being in the universe to make himself known to any finite creature in the universe he needs to step down to us. Finite creatures can’t touch the infinite, the infinite can reach down though. And that’s precisely how God works. Whatever we do as our appreciation of God grows with time, and by his Spirit, we need to be able to look backwards to where we came from, so that we too can reach back and grab people as they reach out for God. Plus. Christianity at its heart is a story that is both simple and rich. When Paul speaks to the leading religious philosophers and theologians of his day, the council of the Areopagus in Athens, he takes the small ideas of God they’re working with, and blows their mind. Paul is a guy who knows who God is from a lifetime of being schooled in the Old Testament, and, it seems, from having read Greek and Roman philosophy and poetry about gods. He replaces the small, human, finite, understanding they have of God with something much bigger. I think that’s our job as people searching for truth. Paul was being grilled — questioned — by this council. He went willingly into the breach to answer the questions of these smart guys, and this is what he said (and many of them laughed at him).

 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

The thing is, while all this talk of infinity might blow our minds… You don’t need a sophisticated faith, you don’t need to grasp the ungraspable. You need to grasp that moment in history where God became finite, and knowable. There is no God in the universe who is not exactly like the crucified Jesus. That is God in his majesty and love on display. That is his invisible qualities and character revealed. It’s the pinnacle of God’s creative work, and our destructive work, on display. The thing God says about what the whole world is meant to do as we understand more of it (like via science or history), is true, perhaps truest for that moment in history where he stepped into the creation and revealed himself in the most profound way.

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

Jesus takes those invisible qualities and makes them visible. The Gospel is the story of God making the unknowable, the invisible and infinite, knowable in the visible and finite person of Jesus. This is the story the world was built to tell, or to host, as God’s revealing canvas for his act of self-revealing in Jesus.

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

You don’t need to grasp anything else to ‘get God’…  you need to come running to the God who reaches down with the excitement of a child. I love this picture from Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, of love and reaching for knowledge being two sides of the same coin, but being something that starts when we ‘think like a child’… there’s a richness that comes from staring at the same truth for a long time. A richness I hope to keep cultivating for eternity. Like a farmer who keeps investing gleanings and stubble back into the earth to create richer soil, and thus, better fruit. What we look forward to is our picture of the God we know in our infancy, or as we meet him for the first time, becoming more and more complete, in this process that stretches infinitely into the future.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 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.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. — 1 Corinthians 13:9-13

Which all brings me to this new thing I’ll post here from time to time. One of the fun parts of being a pastor, and a Christian who is quite public about their faith online, is that I get questions from people. I love questions. Often I’ve just answered a person, and later thought “wow, that answer might be useful to store somewhere”… well. No longer. Now I’m, with the permission of the questioners, going to start sharing questions and answers from people so I don’t lose them, and in case others are asking similar questions.

You can ask questions too! Grill me. No doubt some of my answers will be wrong, heretical, or stupid. That’s part of the process of working towards truth. So feel free to join in the discussion by providing your own answers…

I’ll post up the first question tomorrow, and go from there.

What would Jesus snapchat? 10 tips for using social media (other than Facebook) as a Christian

Would Jesus use social media?

If he did, what would he post?

If we’re followers of Jesus how should we think about social media? How do we keep tabs on how teenagers are using stuff like Instagram, Snapchat when we can’t even figure Facebook out?

These are, of course, the questions of our age.

I’m going to answer them a little here by making a certain assumption, that I’ll put up front. I’ve written plenty about this elsewhere (including how people who are leaders in churches might help the people they lead think about this stuff). I’m going to assume that we, people, as God’s image bearers, are God’s social media. That God’s people have a track record, beginning in the Old Testament, of using communication mediums to tell people about God, while avoiding the dangers that come from deadly communication mediums (like idol statues). We’re naive when we assume mediums don’t matter, but we’re over-correcting when we assume mediums that can become dangerous shouldn’t be used. Creation itself was meant to reveal God’s divine character and invisible qualities, the fact that we turn God’s creation into images of things he made, and worship those images, isn’t a problem with creation as a communication medium, but with us (see Romans 1:19-25).

There’s been plenty in the news the last few weeks about how people are using Instagram — from models swearing off social media, specifically the ‘crafting’ of an image that isn’t real on social media, to models swearing at their social media followers for not doling out enough likes on their posts.

“I have created an image of myself that I think others feel is unattainable, others look at as a role model, others look at as some type of ‘perfect human’.” — Essena O’Neill

If you believe what teenagers tell you about social media, Instagram is where the action is. It’s where people are crafting an image of themselves for others to see, and where people are finding images to follow — to worship — and to be shaped by. Snapchat, another image based service, is equally interesting, and equally ignored by Christians who talk about this stuff.

“Snapchat is where we can really be ourselves while being attached to our social identity. Without the constant social pressure of a follower count or Facebook friends, I am not constantly having these random people shoved in front of me. Instead, Snapchat is a somewhat intimate network of friends who I don’t care if they see me at a party having fun… If I don’t get any likes on my Instagram photo or Facebook post within 15 minutes you can sure bet I’ll delete it. Snapchat isn’t like that at all and really focuses on creating the Story of a day in your life, not some filtered/altered/handpicked highlight. It’s the real you.” — Andrew Watts, A Teenager’s View on Social Media

One of the interesting things about Instagram and Snapchat, apart from their use of images, is that they don’t rely on the same algorithmic sorting of information that Facebook and Google use. They provide a stream of content unfiltered by an algorithm; except of course for the photos, which are ‘filtered’ first in terms of what images are shared and not shared, and ‘filtered’ in the sense of being made to look good via tweaking, often tweaking via the application of a pre-designed filter which applies an algorithm of effects to a photo. This content comes from people who people have chosen to follow, or, in the case of Instagram, content sorted via hashtags or location from newest to oldest.

Perhaps this shift to these new platforms, by our younger generations, is built on a cynicism about algorithms, and the desire to really be in control of one’s media experience.

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, describing the Facebook newsfeed philosophy

I think this, in itself, is interesting because it means the reason we’re not confronted with pictures we don’t want to see — or the reason we’re confronted with pictures that cause us outrage — is not down to an algorithm that controls what you see, but is down to your choice in who to follow.

Anyway. Here are ten tips I’m giving to a bunch of teenagers for how to use image-driven social media — mostly not thinking about Facebook — as Christians.

1. Remember that you are God’s Social Media

We were made in God’s image to represent him in his world. That’s what images of God in the ancient world did. We, from the beginning, were meant to be God’s media. That was true for Adam, true for Israel, and is true for us in Christ. God should be made known through us, and through our connection with him and with others. We’re his representatives in his world, re-created in Christ to re-represent him.

You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.


And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.


Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!


We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.


2. Don’t worship, or become an image of, anything else.

Our human tendency is to make ourselves images of anything but God. Our first inclination is to want to be images of ourselves, rather than dependant on God. To be the pattern for life. That’s basically what Essena admitted above in the words “I have created an image of myself”… in replacing God, we actually end up worshipping ourselves, or some dead thing — an idol — and we become what we worship, and we become disconnected from the one who gave us a pattern for life.

All the stuff we know about media and the brain confirms what the Bible says about idolatry. Our brains are shaped by the things we consume, including the mediums we use to consume things. There’s a saying that’s popular in a particular branch of media studies that looks at the effects of different communication mediums being introduced into society: “We shape our tools, and then, they shape us.” Add this to the line that sums up much of what we know about how our brains take shape “neurons that fire together, wire together” and we find that it’s not just the things we present in our media, but the mediums themselves, that shape us. It’s true that we become what we worship — the objects we fix our sight, imagination, and desires on.

… Idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see… Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.

— PSALM 115:4-5, 8

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

— ROMANS 12:2

3. Share Jesus.

If we are communication mediums for whatever we worship, then the way we use mediums will reflect who we are, and communicate what it is we worship. If someone looked at your social media accounts, who would they say you worship? Our job isn’t to try to make images of God, or of things we worship, but to point people to God via our lives, and via what God has made (and how we use it). God’s handiwork  — the stuff he makes, including the people he remakes in Christ — should point people to him, which for us means our ‘good works’ that he has prepared for us to do, as a subset of his creative acts, should show who we are “in Christ Jesus.”

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

— ROMANS 1:20

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.


4. You must decrease. He must increase

Our human tendency is to want to be at the centre. It’s the experience of being creatures whose lives are projections of our own subjectivity — our thoughts, our imagination, our desires, are projected through our actions. The Gospel calls us to re-centre ourselves, and our lives, and our thoughts about others to make Jesus the subject, and the centre of reality, and to point people to him, not ourselves. I like the way John the Baptist describes this experience as he is confronted with the truth about who Jesus is.

He must become greater; I must become less

— JOHN 3:30

This runs counter to the way people in our world use social media to project either ourselves as the ultimate subject of reality, or to present our idols as the subject of our lives and worship.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others


In a practical sense, this changes the sort of stuff we tend to want to share/project into the world so that we’re not crafting an image of ourselves, but seeking to serve others (which will always, in some sense, involve sharing something of yourself). This Venn Diagram from Wait But Why’s post on 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook pretty much nails it. Instagram and Snapchat work a little differently to Facebook, but the question is who are your photos pointing to? You? Or Jesus? Who are they serving? You and the image you craft as you ‘worship’? Or Jesus, and others?

5. Don’t Fight.

Nothing looks worse on social media than you arguing with, and grumbling about, other Christians. We’re actually called to be God’s image bearing ‘social media’ together, in and through our relationships with each other as we, together, find our identity in Christ. And arguing and grumbling undermines and so destroys this ‘image’… When we want to fight, Paul’s answer is to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” whose approach to status and power is described in Philippians 2, where Paul follows this instruction, and his description of Jesus’ example, with:

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.


We’ll stand out on social media as ‘shining stars’ if we make social media a place where we’re not living for our own name, or glory, but for the sake of others — and where we demonstrate this by not fighting or grumbling.

6. Online is great. Offline is greater.

Heaps of people, mostly old people, are super-negative about social media because it’s disembodied. You’re talking at people through a screen. You stare at screens rather than ‘doing life’ in a very present sense. The place you are physically put is definitely part of reality when you are a finite creature, but we’re called to hold our physical reality in balance with the eternal spiritual reality we’ve become part of. As a Christian, you’re connected to the people in your immediate vicinity, but, paradoxically, you’re also connected with God, by the Holy Spirit, and ‘in Christ’ — and through this connection you’re, in a real sense, connected to every other Christian who has ever lived, and who currently lives. Virtual connections are a pointer to this reality, and a great substitute for the physical presence we will enjoy for eternity. If this is a little too abstract — virtual, online, connections are also a way to overcome some of the limits of being finite, in order to have real and significant relationships. They’re a brilliant new way to make space and time less of an impediment for relationships with people, they become dangerous if they stop us ever being really present with the people in our lives, or if we never anticipate coming face to face with those we ‘commune’ or ‘communicate’ with via these channels.

In the old days, like the Bible days, people wrote letters to overcome the limits space and time place on our communication with others. John wrote letters like this — and they’re obviously valuable because they’re in the Bible and have continued circulating for almost 2,000 years since. He saw the value of letters, but placed a greater relational value on presence, and his letters anticipated this presence.

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

— 2 JOHN 1:12

What are some ways we can use social media to anticipate or invite face to face contact, even if they’re global relationships? One way is to look forward to, or anticipate, a shared eternity through a shared connection with Jesus.

7. God’s Word is the best media.

Everything God made is, in a sense, media. In that it reveals something about him to us. It helps bridge the divide between creator and creature, or writer and audience. God is most clearly revealed in Jesus, who is most clearly revealed, for us, in the Bible, which is all about him.

Whatever media practices, or social media practices, we cultivate will be best, or at least will relate best to our created purpose, if we start with media practices centred on God’s media. Not our own. And these practices are, at least significantly, to occur within our ‘social network’ as God’s people — we’re not called to plug in the headphones and focus on God as individuals as though we’re an island.

Check this out. This is a fairly famous passage from Colossians. It definitely already has a corporate sense in that the ‘dwelling among you richly’ all relies on things we do together. But our tendency is to think this is speaking particularly to us as individuals. That it’s a set of instructions for personal godliness.

“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 3:16-17

But this is a problem, at least a little, because we don’t use youse. Everything about these verses is corporate. Let’s play it again, while breaking all sorts of rules — well, one — about english.

“Let the message of Christ dwell among YOUSE richly as YOUSE 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 YOUSE do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

We need to focus on the message of Christ, via multimedia practices, in relationship. God’s media is media we’re to use socially. And this should both come before we pick up ‘social media’ from the world, and it might inform how we use social media. Not in that it will make us boring regurgitators of random Bible verses, but because this message of Christ should soak everything we do and say as Christians.

How can social media help you, and your ‘network’ have the message of Christ dwell among you richly?

8. Prayer is the best social networking

Prayer is how we express that we have become part of the ultimate social network — that we have, in a profound way, been united with the God who made the universe. That we have been brought into the eternal, self-giving, community of the Trinity, and invited to communicate with God, our Father, in a way that is enabled by Son and Spirit. The prayer of Jesus in John 17 is an incredibly profound demonstration of prayer, and explanation of the privilege we now have as pray-ers.

“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. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

— JOHN 17:20-21

We are members of this incredible social network, and with that, comes the privilege of communicating in this network — but also the responsibility to pray for those in every other one of our networks. There is not a person you are connected with on social media who you are not instructed to pray for. We’re called to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), for our fellow Christians (which Paul models in Ephesians 1:15-18, and then instructs us to do in Ephesians 6:18-20).

How might social media help you to pray for the people in your life?

9. Use your new imagination to share Jesus on new mediums

There are plenty of pitfalls with adopting new mediums without thinking. But we’ve been adopted into a new ‘network’ in a way that gives us great freedom to act as people with renewed minds, who are being transformed by God’s media. We are creatures of imagination, and we’re invited to use these in creating and participating in media, as God’s media. Giving people a bunch of rules and regulations for how to be ‘good’ social media users is a guaranteed way to make people un-imaginative and inauthentic on social media. It’s a pitfall most social media experts fall into. The formula for success is to be generous, interesting and authentic. So. How might we use snapchat or instagram? Be creative. Tell stories. Throw attention onto others. Celebrate.

I had a great coffee with my mate Dave Miers this week and picked his brain about how he — very intentionally — uses check-ins and hashtags to share bits of what he believes with strangers on Instagram. He’s even had someone come to his church because they started following him on Instagram because he uses relevant local hashtags, and tags photos in excellent local places, while sharing snippets of what he’s thinking or reading in God’s word, or in books he’s reading in those cafes.

10. Tell real(ly thankful) stories

This follows the above. People love stories. We are creatures who live by stories as we create stories. Social media thrives on stories. Most people craft stories that are boring and self-seeking, or tap into some story that we want to imagine ourselves living. I love stuff like the 365 Grateful project that encourages people to cultivate gratitude.

And I reckon gratitude is fantastic. But I think we, as Christians, are called to appropriately direct our gratitude beyond the great people in our lives, and past the ‘universe’ which conspires to give us great experiences — and we’re called to cultivate thankfulness to the God who makes excellent media, who has re-created us to be actors in his story. That’s how we give God’s world its purpose back — how we stop falling into the trap of living for ourselves, or making the mistake of worshipping God’s great media instead of God as the imaginative creator of great media.

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

— 1 TIMOTHY 4:4-5

We cultivate thankfulness in the same way that people are trying to practice gratitude. By expressing it. In real ways. By being thankful for the big things, and small things, God has made. And by using social media to do that — to be thankful for what God has given us, in this world and in Jesus, and by being thankful for the people he has given us as part of our networks. That’s a natural way to soak your life in the message of Christ, and to be God’s workmanship, rather than building your own image via the things you share online.

What does an advancing Australia look like? On anthems, home, and welcomes

Australians all let us rejoice, For we are young and free…

Image Credit: Flogged from a site I won’t link to that is selling this hideous ideology-as-T-shirt-slogan.

It seems some Christians who love Australia are joining in the chorus of angry voices shouting variants of the “if you don’t love it, leave it” slogan at some Muslim school children who left a room while their classmates sang the national anthem in a Victorian school.

I don’t get it. I mean, I get that the national anthem is the closest thing we’ve got to a sacred song in terms of our nationalistic religion, and so walking out is an act of impiety, at best, and sacrilege, at worst. And so I expect certain sections of the community to be up in arms when believers from another religion don’t follow these cultic practices, or appear to be insulting them. But I’m confused, a little, on two fronts. The first is what sort of freedom we’re rejoicing in as we sing the national anthem if it doesn’t include the freedom not to sing, the second is how to navigate the murky pool of Christianity and patriotism, or nationalism, without forgetting that we too, are exiles, and that we too, are called to not bow the knee to nationalistic cults if such knee-bowing represents a betrayal of our religious convictions.

… we are young and free

Are we? What sort of freedom are we believing in, as Australians — and as Christians in Australia — when we echo the ‘love it or leave it’ slogan? Is there any greater curtailing of freedom than to force people to participate in something that clashes with their fundamental view of the world, or of citizenship? Do we really want to be throwing citizenship in a pluralistic, liberal, democracy — one that believes in ‘freedom’ — up against religious belief and practice? Isn’t that a privilege that we as Christians can only rely on if we deliberately forget our history — the story of the emergence of the Church, indeed, the story of the incarnation of Jesus — against hostile worldly empires? That’s the story of the Old Testament, and the story of the New, it’s the story of the Early Church, and the story of the Reformation.

It seems to me that Christians calling on faithful Muslims to leave because they can’t align their religious beliefs with Australianism, in order to be consistent, would historically have called Daniel to leave Babylon, the Israelite exiles to no longer ‘seek the welfare’ of the pagan cities they were carried off to, and would have called early Christians to pack up their bags and flee the Roman empire. It seems they’d be forced to ask, in essence, Jesus to bow the knee to Caesar.

It seems, not to be too dramatic, that if we adopt the ‘love it or leave it’ slogan to throw it at our ‘ideological enemies’ — those whose religious faith is at odds with our own — we’re in danger of becoming a bit like the Pharisees at Jesus’ trial. There’s a risk that we might become so keen to end the ‘freedoms’ of a competing religion, Islam, that we’ll sign up with any common enemy of Islam at the cost of our own soul.

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”…

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:12, 14-16

Christians have always had a funny relationship with the secular state. With worldly notions of nationhood. We want to live in such a way, as foreigners within our ‘home’ country, that people see where home really is, and to what kingdom we truly belong as citizens.

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

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

Just after this little passage, Peter describes what it looks like for Christians to live as exiles in a hostile world — a world, or empire, that crucified the king of God’s kingdom. He outlines a path towards radical change and transformation. He describes why Christians might feel a sense of pride, or belonging, as we sing a nation’s anthem (without feeling like we’ve necessarily sold our soul in order to join a civil cult).

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people,but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. — 1 Peter 2:13-17

Honouring the emperor — participating in the empire — never extended to worshipping the emperor or participating in a litmus test based on nationalistic religion. A Christian in Rome was free to not pray to the emperor — a Roman rite of passage — while still feeling like they could live in Rome and contribute to public life, ‘doing good’ and while still honouring the emperor.

In a Christian framework, you don’t have to bow the knee, or offer a sort of lip service, to the nationalistic cult. You have to participate in public life for the good of the people around you, out of love for neighbour and enemy. A letter, called the Letter to Diognetus, from some time in the second century, describes the Christian approach to life in the world, life, as it were, as exiles.

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

The Christian message, if reduced to a shirt slogan, is not just the anti-thesis of love it or leave it, it’s not just that we look around us at our earthly home and say “if you do love it, stay”, but we look towards our eternal home and say “we love our home, come”… and the way we live now — our hopes, our practices, our participation in the public life of our place — reflects this slogan.

It might seem specious to equate the worship of a Roman emperor with the singing of a national anthem, but if the sentiment behind “if you don’t love it, leave it” or the sense that a person is, or isn’t, truly Australian based on their desire to sing the anthem or salute the flag truly represents an understanding of what it means to really be a ‘citizen’ here, then it’s not far off. In the early years of the church, when the Roman Empire was looking to weed out this disruptive sect that was threatening civic life as those in power knew it — such was the transformative power of the Christian ethos — the test applied to Christians, a citizenship test for people who considered themselves exiles in the empire, was to see if the Christian would bow the knee to Caesar, to deny Jesus. The Governor, Pliny, describes his application of this test — and motivation — to the Emperor, Trajan:

An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

In response, Trajan says:

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

Is this the tradition we want Australia to stand in, is this what we want freedom to look like?

Are we asking these Muslims to deny their faith in order to participate as citizens in our nation? What are Christians doing standing behind those demands — if not a sort of obvious fear and desire for self-preservation built on some sort of belief in Australia’s ‘Christian heritage’?

We, Christians, have always celebrated our ability to live as exiles — and our commitment to not bowing the knee to Caesar, selling out Jesus for the sake of belonging in our worldly kingdom. We’ve lost that in the era of Christendom, and as we’ve simply assumed a corollary between the civil cult and Christian belief. For as long as Anzac Day services are held in Christian churches, with prayers led by Christian ministers, we’ll believe there’s a close link between the two, and so, the Muslim will be the outsider. But days are coming when the laws of our land will place similar constraints on Christian belief, and we might face very similar tests to these Muslim students about where our allegiance really lies. In these future days we’ll be looking to the sentiment expressed by the anthem — a desire for a nation built on freedom — and we might remember days like these where we weren’t so quick to extend that freedom to others.

It seems odd that we don’t want to extend this freedom — to be defined by a religious citizenship — to citizens of other religious kingdoms. Sure, the values of those kingdoms might be at odds with their host nations, and such kingdoms might indeed seek to change the nature of their home culture, or transform it according to their religious vision of the good and flourishing society, but aren’t we all actually compelled to do that? Isn’t this what pluralism, and freedom, looks like? Isn’t this what we sing about when we talk about Australia being a land we want to share with those who’ve come across the seas? Isn’t there an irony here in terms of what European settlement did to the Australian culture it was met with on arrival?

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

Isn’t courageous combining, placed alongside the ‘freedom’ of the first verse, an aspiration to live well together. To share the table of our ‘boundless plains’ with others, even if they don’t agree with us? Isn’t the unity we’re called to express in the act of singing this anthem a unity that transcends whether or not we choose to sing the anthem, and is located more in a common desire to live together for the sake of the nation of Australia ‘advancing’ towards some advancing view of the good life? And what sort of good life are we talking about if it involves the excluding of certain freedoms.

Obviously this unity requires a certain desire to ‘combine’ with courage, rather than to not combine — but assimilation isn’t really courageous combination. It’s cowardly. It involves a fear of the different, rather than a celebration. From what I can tell of the motivations of those young Muslims who did not sing the anthem with their classmates, it was not a repudiation of a desire to see Australia advance in this way, but a desire to simultaneously be committed to their religious convictions, to live, as it were, as citizens of two worlds — the world created by their religious beliefs, and the world created by a common love for Australia. Like any story that becomes part of the outrage cycle, we’ve now got extremists posturing for both camps.  The Herald Sun reports that the initial rationale behind the withdrawal was specifically linked to a religious practice.

Principal Cheryl Irving said during the month of Muharram Shi’a Muslims do not take part in joyous events, such as listening to music or singing, as it was a period of mourning.

“Muharram is a Shi’a cultural observation marking the death of Imam Hussein,” Ms Irving said. “This year it falls between Tuesday October 13 and Thursday November 12.

“Prior to last week’s Years 2-6 assembly, in respect of this religious observance, students were given the opportunity to leave the hall before music was played.

“The students then rejoined the assembly at the conclusion of the music.”

These students bravely took a stand on the basis of their convictions about the world — if these were Christians the Christian commentariat would be lauding their bravery and describing their actions as martyrdom. These students then, despite this obvious difference, returned to the gathering — an act of courageous combination with a view to participating in life with their peers, as Australians. This is, I would’ve thought, the sort of Australia we join to sing into being. Songs have the capacity to powerfully shape actions and ethics — that is one of the many reasons that Christians sing together, and it’s why nations and sporting teams create songs which foster harmony within the group. Singing the anthem is, in a sense, a speech-act, a declaration of an ideal. Perhaps this is why we mostly skip the second verse. Perhaps this is to recognise that modern Australia is not advancing the way we hoped. Perhaps it’s to put our guilty consciences at ease about the way settlers treated first Australians, or maybe it’s about our wavering commitment to sharing with those who come across the seas, and a sense that our boundless plains, or generosity might not be so boundless after all. Perhaps the second verse makes us uncomfortable because it calls us to live beyond our comfort zones.

Maybe we need to return to this ideal — whether we sing it together, or live out this courageous commitment to combining with those we disagree with for the common good. This is the Australia the anthem envisages, and so, creates as an ideal. A nation built on the courageous combination of people and worldviews, and commitment to generous sharing of our natural resources, with ‘those who’ve come across the seas.’ That, more than anything, is a gift given to us by the continued undeserved generosity of the first people to share Australia with sea-faring settlers. I’m blown away, with great regularity, by the willingness of Indigenous Australians to conduct ‘Welcome To Country’ ceremonies at different events, and with the generous manner that Indigenous elders participate in discussions about asylum seekers.

In joyful strains then let us sing, Advance Australia Fair.

Songs really are powerful. Songs really do give us a sense of home — perhaps this Muslim tradition has actually recognised something powerful that Christians have forgotten, at least if we don’t think the singing of the anthem is a big deal. I have no doubt that Christians can sing the anthem with gusto — particularly with a vision for how we might act out these words in a manner consistent with our faith, and with our calling to live as exiles who do good for the benefit of those around us, and so they might know the truth of our belief. It’s interesting that in that correspondence between Pliny and Trajan, the governor mentions that his investigations have established that Christian practice involves singing what, in the face of the belief that the Emperor was divine, a truly subversive song:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food —but ordinary and innocent food.

Our singing loses its subversive power if we either deny the significance of the singing of the national anthem, and thus call on religious people to sing it without question, or if we assume it is a song that can truly represent our view of good citizenship apart from our true citizenship in the Gospel. Our songs, our Christian anthems, contain the subversive truth that should shape even our singing of the national anthem as it shapes our view of home, and of where we belong. Perhaps the best we have, at this, is the one that the Apostle Paul quotes in Philippians. Perhaps this should be our anthem, and perhaps it should shape our approach to other kingdoms — be it the kingdom of Australia, or the various kingdoms envisaged by our Muslim neighbours who put their trust in interpretations of the visions of the ‘good life’ as described by Mohammed. Our vision of the good life is captured in the example of the one who truly lived ‘a good life’ — who was crucified for refusing to compromise the nature of his kingdom in the face of the Empire he lived and walked in, and who, through his crucifixion, was crowned as the real king of the universe. The one who invites us home.

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

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
— Philippians 2:6-11

It’s only when we forget this song, and the vision of the world it brings, that we start to believe others refusing to sing Advance Australia Fair are worth condemning. This song compels us to invite people to an eternal home, rather than calling them to leave our temporary one. It also invites us Christians to ‘courageously combine’ with each other, for the good of those around us, to, in the words which precede this song in Philippians “have the same mindset of Christ” as we live to see the nation we live in truly advance as it transforms. The result of owning this song as an anthem is never to ask people to leave — but to extend hospitality, and ask people to stay.

SNIPPET // Athanasius on the Incarnation

In case you’re wondering what the deal with these ‘snippet’ posts is. I use this site, at least in part, to store/collect interesting ideas, quotes, etc. But the things have to be suitably useful that I think other people might enjoy them too. I’m currently putting together some material for church for a series we’re going to do on the Image of God next year. So I dipped into Athanasius’ On The Incarnation of the Word, and I like all of this for different reasons. Partly because it gives us a sense of just how small the God people believe we believe in has become — most people writing popular atheism stuff are not tilting at the God Athanasius talks about here, but instead, a God who exists within nature whose supernatural intervention should be observable. This is a modern category.

This is the entire first chapter of Athanasius’ masterpiece. It’s worth stewing over a bit, I reckon. I don’t necessarily think everything Athanasius writes is 100% correct, but it is early Christian thought, and it is stimulating. I’ve bolded some bits that I found particularly fun to chew over…

Creation and the Fall

(1) In our former book we dealt fully enough with a few of the chief points about the heathen worship of idols, and how those false fears originally arose. We also, by God’s grace, briefly indicated that the Word of the Father is Himself divine, that all things that are owe their being to His will and power, and that it is through Him that the Father gives order to creation, by Him that all things are moved, and through Him that they receive their being. Now, Macarius, true lover of Christ, we must take a step further in the faith of our holy religion, and consider also the Word’s becoming Man and His divine Appearing in our midst. That mystery the Jews traduce, the Greeks deride, but we adore; and your own love and devotion to the Word also will be the greater, because in His Manhood He seems so little worth. For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident. The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes most fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as “human” He by His inherent might declares divine. Thus by what seems His utter poverty and weakness on the cross He overturns the pomp and parade of idols, and quietly and hiddenly wins over the mockers and unbelievers to recognize Him as God.
Now in dealing with these matters it is necessary first to recall what has already been said. You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.
(2) In regard to the making of the universe and the creation of all things there have been various opinions, and each person has propounded the theory that suited his own taste. For instance, some say that all things are self-originated and, so to speak, haphazard. The Epicureans are among these; they deny that there is any Mind behind the universe at all. This view is contrary to all the facts of experience, their own existence included. For if all things had come into being in this automatic fashion, instead of being the outcome of Mind, though they existed, they would all be uniform and without distinction. In the universe everything would be sun or moon or whatever it was, and in the human body the whole would be hand or eye or foot. But in point of fact the sun and the moon and the earth are all different things, and even within the human body there are different members, such as foot and hand and head. This distinctness of things argues not a spontaneous generation but a prevenient Cause; and from that Cause we can apprehend God, the Designer and Maker of all.

Others take the view expressed by Plato, that giant among the Greeks. He said that God had made all things out of pre-existent and uncreated matter, just as the carpenter makes things only out of wood that already exists. But those who hold this view do not realize that to deny that God is Himself the Cause of matter is to impute limitation to Him, just as it is undoubtedly a limitation on the part of the carpenter that he can make nothing unless he has the wood. How could God be called Maker and Artificer if His ability to make depended on some other cause, namely on matter itself? If He only worked up existing matter and did not Himself bring matter into being, He would be not the Creator but only a craftsman.

Then, again, there is the theory of the Gnostics, who have invented for themselves an Artificer of all things other than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. These simply shut their eyes to the obvious meaning of Scripture. For instance, the Lord, having reminded the Jews of the statement in Genesis, “He Who created them in the beginning made them male and female . . . ,” and having shown that for that reason a man should leave his parents and cleave to his wife, goes on to say with reference to the Creator, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” How can they get a creation independent of the Father out of that? And, again, St. John, speaking all inclusively, says, “All things became by Him and without Him came nothing into being.” How then could the Artificer be someone different, other than the Father of Christ?

(3) Such are the notions which men put forward. But the impiety of their foolish talk is plainly declared by the divine teaching of the Christian faith. From it we know that, because there is Mind behind the universe, it did not originate itself; because God is infinite, not finite, it was not made from pre-existent matter, but out of nothing and out of non-existence absolute and utter God brought it into being through the Word. He says as much in Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth; and again through that most helpful book The Shepherd, “Believe thou first and foremost that there is One God Who created and arranged all things and brought them out of non-existence into being.” Paul also indicates the same thing when he says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that the things which we see now did not come into being out of things which had previously appeared.” For God is good—or rather, of all goodness He is Fountainhead, and it is impossible for one who is good to be mean or grudging about anything. Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men. Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise. But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things—namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, “Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die.” “Ye shall surely die”—not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption.
(4) You may be wondering why we are discussing the origin of men when we set out to talk about the Word’s becoming Man. The former subject is relevant to the latter for this reason: it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that in His great love He was both born and manifested in a human body. For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom: “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.” And being incorrupt, he would be henceforth as God, as Holy Scripture says, “I have said, Ye are gods and sons of the Highest all of you: but ye die as men and fall as one of the princes.”
(5) This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. That is to say, the presence of the Word with them shielded them even from natural corruption, as also Wisdom says: “God created man for incorruption and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death entered into the world.” When this happened, men began to die, and corruption ran riot among them and held sway over them to an even more than natural degree, because it was the penalty of which God had forewarned them for transgressing the commandment. Indeed, they had in their sinning surpassed all limits; for, having invented wickedness in the beginning and so involved themselves in death and corruption, they had gone on gradually from bad to worse, not stopping at any one kind of evil, but continually, as with insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sins. Adulteries and thefts were everywhere, murder and raping filled the earth, law was disregarded in corruption and injustice, all kinds of iniquities were perpetrated by all, both singly and in common. Cities were warring with cities, nations were rising against nations, and the whole earth was rent with factions and battles, while each strove to outdo the other in wickedness. Even crimes contrary to nature were not unknown, but as the martyr-apostle of Christ says: “Their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature; and the men also, leaving the natural use of the woman, flamed out in lust towards each other, perpetrating shameless acts with their own sex, and receiving in their own persons the due recompense of their pervertedness.”

A video to help give you a sense of how we do church

Chances are you’re reading this because you’re my friend, you may have worked with me, gone to school with me, you might always have that nagging suspicion about my sanity because I work for a church.

Are you one of the many Aussies who grew up going to a church run school, or who occasionally got dragged along to Sunday school by a friend, or relative? Are you a little bit curious about why, given your experience of church, anyone bothers getting out of bed on a Sunday to hang around with a bunch of people they don’t really know, who they probably have no good reason to love?

We’d love to help answer this curiosity, and so, this video is something our church Media Team put together to help re-introduce the idea of church. Most churches have moved on from the sort of church you might have experienced in your childhood. We’re mostly only 10 years behind the curve now when it comes to technology and our ability to understand and make culture. But hopefully we’re catching up.

If you haven’t been to church for a while, and don’t know what to expect if ever you ‘darken the doors’ of a church now, or don’t know what it is that churches that aren’t the church you might remember from your school years, or Sunday school as a kid, here’s a little run through of how and why we do things the way we do at our church.

You might be watching this video because you work for a church and you’re trying to figure out what you have to say about your church, or what you can offer the people around you. I quite like this as a departure from some of our previous ‘vision videos’ where we describe who we are in terms of what we want to achieve. I was very involved in some of those, this time around, my version of this video involved a talking smart fridge of the future. I think we can all agree this is a better video because it didn’t go with that idea.

If you haven’t been for a while, and you live in Brisbane, then why not come check us out one Sunday — or, if you’re not in Brisbane, or nowhere near South Bank, Carina, or Springfield (where Creek Road churches meet) let me know where you live and I’ll introduce you to a church near you.

A letter to our Immigration Minister re: #Abyan

The debates around asylum seekers and the complex nature of the global refugee crisis often involve more heat than light. This is me trying to throw a little bit of light into the mix. The story of the suffering Somali Refugee Abyan has gone through at our hands has led me to shed tears, and led me to cry out for something different. Something that breaks this cycle.

Love, love is a verb.
Love is a doing word.
Feathers on my breath.
Gentle impulsion
Shakes me, makes me lighter. — Teardrop, Massive Attack

The story of Abyan, the pregnant Somali woman (allegedly) raped on Nauru, has been belting my brain about this week, and my heart. It’s such a compounding of personal, national and international tragedy that it has driven me as close to despair as the story of Aylan Kurdi. Abyan’s situation is the result of many evils, and she has been tossed around on an ocean of horror — literally even — from Somalia, to a journey involving leaky boats and people smugglers, to Nauru, and into the hands of this evil man.

I despair at the lack of options on the table for Abyan at every step on this journey. I despair at the lack of choice. I despair that her dignity has been taken from her — a little more — at every turn. And that I, as an Australian, have been complicit in some of this, and that we in our prosperity, have the potential to offer dignity and freedom much earlier in the piece, and the responsibility to offer it now. As costly as this will be for us in dollar terms. The problem is that we keep trying to outsource this cost to our government, to be paid for by our taxes, sure, but we want to wash our hands of the decision making, and keep them clean when it comes to dealing with the mess. Our government — our politicians — then become the people we send in to clean up our horrid mess, and we crucify them because their hands get dirty. That doesn’t seem fair either.

I was blown away by many things at the recent Faith and Public Office Conference (12 of them here), one was the metaphor of ‘dirty hands’ — the cost that comes with being someone who bears responsibility in public office, who has to navigate complex moral issues on our behalf, and bear the cost of often attempting to choose the lesser of two evils in order to do good. Politics can be a messy game. It’s easy to throw stones from the sidelines so that we never dirty our own hands. It’s easy to get outraged, to grandstand, to say “not in my name” — but to never put your name on the line, like our politicians have, and to never offer to get your hands dirty.

The catch in this situation — in Abyan’s story — is, I can’t see a good or convenient way out of this mess, like many can. I absolutely recognise that other people think differently on this — and are free to. But, I’m not sure the ‘clean’ answer was not simply for our government to allow her pregnancy to be terminated. Some may argue that this is the ‘least messy’ option, or even a good option, but as a Christian who believes life within the womb is human life, I don’t think ‘termination’ is a ever a ‘good’ option (it may be a least bad option — like in situations where there’s a genuine choice between the life of a mother, and her child). If I’m being consistent, it always involves the ‘termination’ — the death — of a human life. At 14 weeks, this life within Abyan, is moving, it has a beating heart. It has just learned to “grasp, squint, frown, and grimace. It may even be able to suck its thumb.” I know this because when you want to keep a baby, you treat it as a life from the moment you know it is there, there are websites and books where you read about this stuff, and you chart the milestones (especially on the first, after that, it’s all a bit passé until they take that first breath and you know you’ve run the pregnancy gauntlet).

Despite the obvious (and consistently drawn) link to unborn children in the film clip to Massive Attack’s Teardrop (featured above), I think the song is about the cost of life in this messy world (here’s a little account of the life of Elizabeth Fraser, who wrote the lyrics, including what she says the song’s metaphor means for her). I think it, both lyrically and in the video, explores the cost of life lived with death — or mess — or our broken humanity — as an ever-present consequence. The fragility of life. It’s better, perhaps, not to be born into this world, except that birth is the path to life, and life itself is inherently good. Even though it hurts. I think it offers stumbling love — love as a verb — as the solution for us as we navigate this together.

Teardrop on the fire.
Feathers on my breath.

You’re stumbling into all…
You’re stumbling into all… — Teardrop, Massive Attack (I took a while to settle on the ‘official’ lyrics of this song, because nowhere on the internet seems to agree, but José Gonzalez’s cover is relatively clear)

What does love look like here? For Abyan? In this mess? Love, I think, looks like being prepared to stand beside Abyan, to bear some of the cost, to lay down something of ourselves for her sake.

I should be filled with the same grief at the picture of an ultrasound of a refugee baby ‘terminated’ — aborted — as a result of our solution to this complex global issue as I am by the picture of a child who fled evil but didn’t make it into the care of a nation like us. I don’t think Abyan should be forced to carry the cost of this evil — any of it — perpetrated on her for the rest of her life either (I expand on this a bit in the letter below, so before you send me hate mail, read that, and then send me hate mail). In isolation, there’s no ‘good’ outcome here — but people aren’t meant to live in isolation, we’re meant to carry the cost of evil together. To dirty our own hands for the sake of pulling someone out of the mud of these horrors (in part, lest these horrors also pull us into the mud).

Ultimately what happens to this life — this baby — will be, and should be, Abyan’s choice. But at the moment, at least if we’re talking about this pregnancy as involving a life, she has no good options. We all make life and death choices about those we have a responsibility for, every day, I’m about to feed my own kids a healthy breakfast — and the choice not to serve them an unhealthy breakfast will shape their lives. But this isn’t a decision she should make alone, and it’s not a decision she should make confronted with only terrible options. That sort of decision compounds the horror of this horrible set of circumstances. I like the idea, throughout the Bible but best articulated in Deuteronomy, that our decision making is generational. That we shape the people who come after us as we make decisions that end up being decisions made on their behalf — and what marks out people who follow the living God of the Bible, is that we choose life at every turn, even if it costs us — a pattern we ultimately see in Jesus, but one that’s there in the opening books of the Bible, this was the choice facing God’s people in the Old Testament:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants” — Deuteronomy 30:19

This choice is harder than it sounds. The Old Testament is the story of people failing over and over again to choose life. Making messy decisions that compound messy decisions. Generationally. We need to choose life over and over again — at our cost — to break this messy cycle in our lives. This, again, is modelled at the Cross, where Jesus chooses his own death, in order to bring life to others. He gets his hands dirty, and pays the cost. So we might live, and so that we might take up our cross and offer to lay down our lives, or get our hands dirty, for the sake of others.

I was challenged by all this — the brokenness of this situation, the ‘dirty hands’ metaphor, and the example of Jesus as a way out, the call to ‘choose life.’ So I wrote to the Hon Peter Dutton MP, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and offered to get my hands dirty. Well, in a generational sense, I offered my family’s hands.

Robyn and I have offered to adopt the unborn baby, and find some way to also care for Abyan. The ‘why’ is a bit buried in the letter. So here it is:

“I’m moved to offer this generosity because I believe that this offer has first been made to me. That as a Christian the model of “getting one’s hands dirty” to solve a product not of one’s making is found in Jesus, whose hands became a bloodied mess as he solved the problems of our making at the Cross. This offer is me taking up my cross.”

I should have said “we” here, because Robyn, without hesitation, said yes to this crazy idea. And I love that. Adoption like this may not be what Abyan wants, it probably isn’t, but I guess my desire for her is simply that she have choices beyond the choices she faces today. I want for her, and for the many like her, that they have not just the same decision making capacity, dignity, and freedom they’d have without the suffering they’ve experienced and fled from, but that this would be increased because they have the offer of stumbling love from their global neighbours to add to the mix. So our offer, really, is an offer to love Abyan according to whatever terms she, and our government, might allow.

The tragedy is that there are many Abyans. The global refugee crisis creates stories like this every day. We’ve heard Abyan’s story because it has been brought to our attention, but our responsibility extends to Abyan, and beyond. Are you prepared to dirty your own hands? Maybe it’s time you told someone, someone who has had their skin in the game — via politics — for some time. Maybe it’s time we stopped haranguing — however gently — and started offering our empathy, and our assistance.

And so:


Dear Peter,

I’ve been praying for you, and your office this week (and for many weeks, but especially this week). I lead a church community in South Bank, Brisbane, and some of our number are refugees in the community on bridging visas. I’ve heard their stories and I know just how complicated the refugee issue is globally, and locally. I know its a situation where there are no ‘good’ or easy solutions. That millions of people have been displaced, are hurting, and are needing care. I want to make the following offers, and I explain why below.

1. I would like to find a home for Abyan’s child, it seems that a decision has been made that this child will be born. I would like to spare Abyan from as much cost involved in this decision as possible. And I would like to pay it. I’m sure there would be people in our church community who would be willing to adopt Abyan’s child, because I spoke to my wife this morning and we would be happy to adopt this child. There may be others more fitting. But somebody needs to make this offer.

2. I know this one would involve invoking your Ministerial prerogative, but I would like to offer our community’s care to Abyan, so that if she wishes, throughout her life, she might have a relationship with this child. But I would find housing and an appropriate amount of counselling and care for her within our community, or the wider Christian community in Brisbane.

My prayer for you, offered every time a story like this hits the paper, is that you would continue to act with wisdom and increasingly act with compassion. I think we can always have more compassion, and the refugee crisis is getting worse, so our compassion must keep increasing. I believe the outpouring of offers of support from within the Australian community in response to the Syrian crisis is a turning point and an example of what this might look like. People in the community stand ready, willing, and able to open our homes to those in crisis. We’re prepared to open ours for as long as it takes.

I’m moved to offer this generosity because I believe that this offer has first been made to me. That as a Christian the model of “getting one’s hands dirty” to solve a product not of one’s making is found in Jesus, whose hands became a bloodied mess as he solved the problems of our making at the Cross. This offer is me taking up my cross.

I know this situation is complex. It’s a mess — and not of our making. It’s horrific and I thank you for bearing the cost of that horror, seeing and knowing things that most of us would wish to remain ignorant of. Making decisions on the basis of data that we don’t have.

I know also, that in our prosperity, Australia has a role to play in providing that care and this role is often outsourced to the government. We want to wash our hands while yours get dirty, and at our worst, we want to point at your dirty hands as evidence of a lack of compassion, when we could instead be extending them to help.

I read the story of Abyan and her rape on Nauru with horror. Horror because there is no way that I, as an Australian, put her in this situation, as much as the people smugglers and her decision to get on a boat with them, and the horrors in Somalia are also responsible. This is a horrific situation and it is a confluence of global and local horrors. It grieves me, and moves me to compassion, as I trust it does for you too. But I know there are no easy solutions.

This situation grieves me in a slightly fuller sense, too, because like many in our community I believe there is a human life quickening in the midst of all this horror. A human life who is not guilty of the crimes committed in Somalia, by people smugglers, or by the rapist on Nauru. A life that will join an ocean of casualties from this refugee crisis without the freedom to choose between a UN camp or a rusty boat. As a Christian who believes in the inherent dignity of life — both Abyan’s and this child’s — I should feel the same when I see a picture of an ultrasound as I did when I saw that traumatic photo of Aylan Kurdi. I recognise this child’s life is in the hands of his mother, where it should be, we all have responsibility for the lives of those around us, and we all make life and death decisions, of sorts, in myriad ways, every day.

I’m not seeing many choices on the table for Abyan though — she does not have the freedom we might expect in Australia to make these life and death decisions. There aren’t that many ‘good’ options on the table here, because good options cost someone something, and good options are hard to find in situations that just seem to leave everyone with dirty hands. But I believe in these situations you’ve got to offer your hands for the sake of others. Especially if you ever want to credibly speak out against people making decisions who have offered their lives in service to our country and its interests. So, this is why I have made this offer, and why I continue to pray for you and yours. For wisdom and compassion.

I know that conventional lobbying would involve me starting a petition or something at this point. I’m not interested in playing that game. I’m interested in offering costly solutions to complex problems. I will share this letter with my network, online, in the hope that others will be moved to offer the same response to situations like this, but I want to assure you this is not an act of grandstanding, this is jumping the fence and asking to play on the field.

If you have any other ideas for ways our church community could help bear the cost of this global crisis, I would love to hear them. You, your family, and your department are in my prayers. Thank you for serving us as a member and minister of our government.


Nathan Campbell

Why I now side with Paul, not Eutychus

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted. — Acts 20:7-12

St. Eutychus: Where being boring kills.

When I changed the name of this site from nathanintownsville to st-eutychus, I did it because I thought the story of Eutychus falling out the window in Acts — to his death — was hilarious. Eutychus will eternally be known as the guy bored to death by Paul’s preaching. Paul. Potentially the most effective teacher ever to have lived. In my reading of the story, for the sake of the title, he fell into the trap of preaching too long. A trap, as a PR hack who wrote pithy 500 word press releases for a living, that I genuinely believed was deadly.

So what’s happened. Somehow in recent times the tagline of this site should almost be read as an indicative — this is the place where you might come to be drowned in words, lulled to sleep, and might fall from a window to your death. Where being boring kills. Yes.

This is deliberate. I’m raging agains the TL:DR; machine. If you want short, punchy, simplistic and inane reactive viral fodder, then, well, pith off.

I’m raging against this machine because I think Eutychus was wrong. I think being bored kills. I think Eutychus should have worked harder to pay attention to Paul, and to the world — he should have known the dangers of sitting on a window sill, in a dimly lit room, listening to someone speak for hours.

We’ve lost the ability to pay attention, and the only way we’ll gain it is to start paying attention. Copious attention. To the world, to the Gospel, to the people around us. TL:DR; (too long didn’t read) is at least as much an indictment of our collective failure to pay attention as it is on poor content that is too long and convoluted.

Sure, a thing might not be worth your attention — that’s on you to figure out, and your attention is yours to give. I’m writing as an attempt to pay attention to things myself. To notice. To seek understanding. To avoid knee-jerk outrage in response to whatever is going on in the world, and to try to understand the world as people see it, and the world as I believe people should see it. Attention is what is required to live well, and love well. It’s what prevents outrage, and what causes someone to bother with fact checking before sharing something designed to create outrage. Any pithy thing I ever do write — anything under 2,000 words, the posts I typically see shared the most — is always, always, the product of thinking I’ve extensively outlined, out loud, here already, at much greater length.

At the end of the day, I write about things that interest me, that I hope, over time, might prove of interest or value to others. You don’t need to pay attention to me or what I write. That’s fine — I don’t check stats, this stopped being about my ego or my ‘brand’ a long time ago. But I do feel like I need to keep explaining the shift of gears in this corner of the interwebs.

You don’t need to read everything I write — not even my wife or mother do that (I think dad might, hi dad) — but if I could leave you with one plea. One desperate, heartfelt, plea:

Please pay attention.

To the world.

To others.

Give it generously.

Lavish it in droves.

Use your brain, and your eyes, but think about what you’re filling them with. Ask yourself why we fill a 24-hour news cycle with 10 second grabs from spokespeople forced to reduce complex issues into a memorable zinger. Ask what that’s doing to our media, our politics, and our ability to be civil. Ask yourself why we’ve got a 24 hour news cycle that we then pad out with input from multiple devices, feeding us those same 10 second lines from those same glib speakers. Read Nicholas Carr’s famous piece Is Google Making Us Stupid. In his book, The Shallows, Carr says:

“Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

The internet has the capacity to stop us concentrating, and contemplating — other words for paying attention.

And then he says, according to neuroscientists and because our brains are ‘plastic’ — they change as we use them…

“We become, neurologically, what we think”

The Psalmist behind Psalm 115 says:

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see…

Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

We become what we behold. And what we behold isn’t just the messages we pay attention to, but the mediums that deliver them too.

Paul, in Romans, says:

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

Things in this world shape us. Things external to us. You might believe you’re in control of this shaping, but the only way to be in control is to pay attention — Christian or not — testing and approving of how you live and the decisions you make is what keeps you in the driver’s seat for your brain, and what keeps us able to live well in this world.

Ask yourself if you really believe that we become what we behold — then ponder why media theorists, theologians, and neuroscientists all agree that the information we consume, and the way we consume it, has the power to shape the way we think and physically re-shape our brains and communication.

Maybe a ten second sound bite or a seven hundred word opinion piece isn’t enough to do justice on any real issues in this world. And maybe consuming these things and thinking they do our thinking for us is starting to cost us our ability to see the world well, and thus live in it well. Maybe you’ve got to read ten seven hundred word opinion pieces, or one seven thousand word opinion piece to really know what’s going on, and to react appropriately.

That’s what I think. That’s why I’ve switched camps from Eutychus to Paul. Paul was also a nice guy. He didn’t punish Eutychus for not paying attention, he saw what happened and picked him up.

And then he talked some more. From midnight to dawn. That’s a lot of words. Because sometimes its words that give life.

St. Eutychus: Where being bored kills.



Re-Enchanting the World — Episode 3: We can be heroes (and we need heroes we can be)

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” — G.K Chesterton

Image credit:

“Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to…When works of art shine, they illuminate and glamourise a way of life, and all other things shine in their light.” — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

Ok. So here’s my theory — one I’ve found some support in elsewhere — if you want a form of popular art that performs this function in the modern west, where we have figures who are clearly heroes — superheroes — battling figures that are clearly villains, and ‘glamourising a way of life’ — by embodying virtues of the current age, then it’s our humble comic book superhero stories that do this. They do it because these are the popular stories of our age — but they also do it because they self-consciously present us heroes of our age. This means if we want to change, or re-enchant, our current view of the world, these stories might be a vehicle to do that. The problem is that these stories are products of a modern view of the world — just as ancient stories were a product of an ancient view of the world, so we may need a healthy dose of ‘enchantment’ thrown into the mix if these stories are going to raise our eyes to a greater significance of reality. To pull us towards the ‘transcendent’ or the idea that the world has a meaning beyond physical, material, reality.

In a piece of fairly bizarre timing, Christ And Pop Culture (one of my favourite websites) launched a new column this week called Panel Discussion, an exploration of the world of the comic book. The first cab off the rank was a piece titled Comic Books as Modern Mythology. This piece operates on the premise that: “The comics of today are American versions of Greek mythology complete with origin, philosophy, psychology, and religion.”

This is a view supported in a couple of more scholarly works on Superheroes and their function in our culture. For example, this essay ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ that compares our modern heroes to ancient heroes like Beowulf.

“The vague origins and the sudden departures of such heroes also serve to enhance their legends. These legends in time take on almost religious status, becoming myths that provide the communities not only with models for conduct but with the kind of heightened shared experiences which inspire and unify their members.”  — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

…And this book Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths by David Reynolds, who looks to Socrates and Plato and their understanding of the function of myth in conveying truth about the world, and fostering virtuous character, to suggest we should read these modern stories asking similar questions that we (and others, historically) ask of their ancient equivalents — epic myths:

The cultural function of mythic heroes such as those from Greek, Roman, and Norse cultures has attracted significant scholarly attention. Yet, what is the relevance of those ancient heroes today, and what are we to make of their hitherto academically neglected modern equivalents, popular superhero figures, such as Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman? A culture’s prominent narratives become that culture’s myths, reinforcing cultural values and disseminating norms of social behaviour… — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths

Reynolds charts three ages of comic book mythology — the gold, silver, and bronze ages. He draws the boundaries of these ages in slightly different places to some sort of comic convention — suggesting ‘golden’ age heroes appeared in stories from the modernist world, up to and including WW2. The heroes in this age served the establishment. Silver age heroes emerged after the war, with the creation of Spider-Man. They have more human flaws, this period spans the gap from modernism to post modernity and its stories introduce a greater sense of world-building and story integration. Bronze age heroes are all dark, gritty, post-modern and somewhat nihilistically hopeless — a product of our cynical age. The ‘epic’ function of superheroes developed over these epochs.

The shining ‘heroes’ of the ‘golden age’

Heroes, as the central characters in our modern works of art — especially stories — show us how to live. They become combatants in the mission to help us see the world rightly — they’re products either of an enchanted world embedded with meaning, or a mechanical world where heroes are made, mostly accidentally, not born with a divine purpose. Most of our modern comic book heroes are products of a mechanical, or immanent, world. They’re (largely) spawned by the immanent world going very right, or very wrong — science, and science gone bad, accounts for the super-powers of plenty of our heroes.

When they are their most ‘epic’, or enchanted, heroes don’t just show us that dragons (or villains) can be defeated, but at their best present us with a path to immortality. That’s been a theme of the epic tale since Gilgamesh — see also the Arthurian knights in their perpetual quest for the Holy Grail.

It’s interesting to consider what a quest for immortality — or an epic quest — looks like in an immanent world, where the infinite is collapsed into the finite. What does salvation look like in this sort of frame? The secret to immortality is likely to be either a product of scientific innovation, or immortality will be dismissed as a pipe-dream, and replaced with the quest for some more rational form of immortality — like a name that lasts.

Often, in epic stories where the hero is clearly mortal — like, say, Beowulf  — immortality is captured when a hero’s name lives on, on account of their glorious deeds. Immortality in an immanent world is about making a name for yourself. A name that lasts. That’s the best a modern myth can imagine, or aim for.

Heroes model virtues. But not just any old virtues — virtues set against the backcloth of the current view of the world, or, they may embody a virtuous ideal, linked to an ideal vision that they are working towards — within the story, and as the story (as a tool of a story teller). Heroes, through these stories, articulate a picture of human flourishing. We readers are invited to share this vision, but we’re invited more to see the character as embodying a certain type of heroism, a type of heroism that we are free to imitate in our own world. Heroes are model imaginators — they help us see the world as enchanted because they model what it looks like to have an imaginative vision for the transformation of the world, and show us a bit of what it might cost to change — to re-create — the world as we know it to the world as we imagine it could be.

Heroes that only solve very ‘domestic’ issues are a little too small. Epic heroes — heroes that may pull us somewhere other than where we are — need a sense of being larger than life. They need to shine. They need to stand for something bigger than themselves.

“All of these heroes are larger than life; some are merely larger than others. But what the hero is and does in terms of objective reality are less important than what he represents to our inner reality. The local man who saves a child from drowning is of less enduring interest to us than our fictive or historical heroes: the former wants symbolism, and unless local mythopoeia provides him with it, we tend to displace him in our consciousness with the more value-charged heroes we seem to need.” — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

And, as Chesterton says, the heroes of these stories teach us to kill dragons, or vanquish evil — they fight evils that are larger than life too. Everything is exaggerated. C.S Lewis agreed with him, he says heroes, especially enchanted ‘radiant ones,’ provide us with a more comforting picture of the defeat of evil than even thinking about real, immanent, heroes, like the police.

“Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened… For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think St George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.” — C.S Lewis, Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say What’s Best to be Said

Despite the new ages of comics-as-epics that make the characters more human, flawed, and twisted by their agenda — the golden age hero, or how they were used — might teach us something about a hero can be presented to people in this epic sense.

‘Golden age’ heroes as propaganda

There’s a fine line between characters being orchestrated to deliberately depict a cultural view of virtue and the stories these characters appear in functioning as propaganda. This is a fine line that has, at least according to David Reynolds, historically been obliterated in America, in the form of comic book stories, especially in the so-called Golden Age, and especially in the archetypal heroes from the DC world, Superman and Batman.  Their origin stories, heroic powers, and their respective ‘missions’ position them to be perfect carriers of an ideological agenda.

Superman is the last survivor of the planet Krypton, sent to earth as an infant. As a Kryptonian on Earth, Superman is gifted with an array of superpowers ranging from superstrength to x-ray vision. Raised by the “everyman” Kent family on a farm in Smallville, Superman was raised to embody the ideal American norms of honesty and justice. As a superhero, Superman is dedicated to “truth, justice, and the American way.” Batman, on the other hand, witnessed the murder of his millionaire parents as a young child, and swore an oath dedicating his life to fight crime. He is at the peak of human physical and intellectual performance. While fighting crime, Batman utilizes a vast array of gadgetry, such as his batbelt, batarangs, and the batmobile. He represents the epitome of human physical fitness and intellectual conditioning and, by extension, he symbolizes how people may unlock their true potential through will and determination. — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

This propaganda function came of age when America itself was under external threat — during World War 2. It’s interesting to see how the propaganda functions now when the greatest threat is perceived as a threat from within — radicalisation — Marvel has this Civil War storyline that seems fascinating, and may, I understand, even be part of the storyline of the forthcoming Captain America movie. Because Marvel’s characters are participants in the ‘real’ world, they were able to directly participate in the war effort (incidentally, my introduction to Phantom comics was a reprint of the Phantom’s foray into World War 2). Superman and Batman, functioning as the heroic citizen of the ‘every city’ stayed home and played a more symbolic role, embodying a responsible, patriotic, ideal that encouraged civilians to support the war effort via the American way of life.

Superman noticeably shifts his ideology such that his adventures begin linking patriotism to legitimate business, while he consistently thwarts illicit business… The original Superman of 1938, hero of the underprivileged working class, has given way to the new Superman of the war effort, supporting complacent consumerism and upholding the values of the capitalist, industrial empire… most popular comic book characters, like Superman and Batman, also served to remind soldiers of home and “reinforce the purpose of the war in their minds… Since the most popular superheroes of the war effort adopted strong, responsible consumerist values, their following mythoi have built steadily upon those values and that style of crime fighting. However, although the modern superhero finds its cultural roots in consumerism, some recent storytellers have begun to challenge the superhero’s traditional role of blindly supporting hegemonic values…

… the narratives were directly affected by the political and social climate of the time. Not only were they affected by the social context, but they were employed as a means to affect the culture as well, as a medium to spread war-time propaganda. — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

Comic stories as vehicles for complex ethical questions

In order for comic books to keep reflecting the values of a culture, and to keep providing ‘shining’ examples, comic heroes had to shift from embodying idyllic certainty to embodying questions. The door for this change was opened, at least a little, with the creation of Spider-Man, a flawed hero who wanted to use his new-found powers for gain, only for that to cost him the life of his uncle, which propelled him (along with that line from his uncle: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’) into a life of web-slinging heroism. But this trajectory didn’t stop with more relatable, more human, more broken, heroes. It continued into what Reynolds calls the ‘bronze age’ — which he suggests begins with the creation of The Dark Knight version of Batman, and Watchmen. 

“Many sophisticated elements of comics today that we now take as givens – the way they raise questions of justice and vengeance, their exploration of the ethics of vigilantism, and their depiction of ambivalent and even hostile reactions towards superheroes from the general public as well as from government – are largely traceable to these works. These two titles deconstructed the superhero genre so thoroughly that for several years any superhero comic that continued in the traditional vein of storytelling seemed like nothing more than a bad parody of the superhero genre… Miller and Moore deconstructed the established tropes of the superhero genre, challenging readers to confront the issues surrounding justice and vigilantism.” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

This move ends up producing a depressing — rather than radiant — hero. One who’s not much good for doing anything but keeping us squarely in our immanent frame. Watchmen creator Allen Moore agrees:

“Obviously, we’ve to some degree doomed the mainstream comics medium to a parade of violent, depressing postmodern superheroes, a lot of whom, in addition to those other faults, are incredibly pretentious. I stand accused.”— Allen Moore, cited in Geoff Klock, ‘The Revisionary Superhero Narrative,’  The Superhero Reader

This, in a sense, is a reflection of our modern culture and its cynical inability to find anything virtuous, or anybody heroic. For a hero to re-enchant the world they now have to pull us out of this culture, by giving us something we believe in. But something that is still real and relatable, that grapples honestly with the questions and challenges of life in the real world.

Comic stories as myths that explore models of the (fallen) world

There’s a guy, Joseph Campbell, who is generally held to be pretty cluey when it comes to thinking the shape of myths, and especially the mythic journey of the ‘hero.’ Here’s a TED talk featuring his view of mythology — in which he sees every hero (and every ‘god’) being described as going on a journey that involves a three stage process of: separation, initiation, and return.

It’s pretty fascinating, even if its given birth to a bunch of dumb ideas about Jesus being exactly the same as any other god. This same story — this journey — takes place throughout the ages, the same pattern, but against a different backdrop, the stories happen against the model of the world that produces it.

“Myth has to deal with the cosmology of today… a mythological image that has to be explained to the brain is not working… then, you’re out of sync.” — Joseph Campbell, cited in David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

It’s interesting to consider the stories that are produced by the ‘cosmology of today’ — a cosmology that is not enchanted, that is immanent, in many ways they’re the stories we see in The Dark Knight and Watchmen. Myths reflecting the real world means the bar is lower for us, as readers, to enter the story, and helps us see our world with fresh eyes. Reflecting the real world means reflecting the world in its brokenness. And it does. The world presented in these stories is a broken world. Broken, in part, by villains. The heroes want to help perfect the world, according to their utopian vision, while the villains want to stop them, either to keep the world the way it is or to see it fall apart even more, or indeed to continue the affects of the Fall. Vreekill is a villain from a 1940s Batman/Superman crossover story who invents a machine that makes steel fall apart. He embodies this sort of villain-as-truly-fallen trope.

“Vreekill’s bald head and functional costume signify him clearly as a ‘mad scientist’. There is no exploration of the psychology that leads Vreekill to use his discovery for the pursuit of crime:

“With my machine I can become the most powerful man in the world! I can hold it as a club over those who deal in steel constructions.”

This is clearly not a sociological view of the roots of crime. The mythology underlying the text is that of the Old Testament, and, most specifically, the Temptation and Fall. Vreekill is a prototype for many ‘Fallen’ characters which Batman and other superheroes have encountered through the years — the Joker, Two-Face, Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Ozymandias. All are corrupted by power, and power in the particular form of knowledge. ‘Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil’ promises the serpent in Genesis 3… If history is to be understood as a progress towards Utopia, a significant tension can be adduced between superheroes (assisting this process) and villains (thwarting the Utopia builders, or ‘those who deal in steel constructions’).” — Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology


So heroes have this job of representing the ideals of our modern world — especially ‘unfallen’ ideals, and pulling us back towards the paradise lost at the Fall — part of that paradise, I suggest, is a rekindling of our capacity to see the world as enchanted, as an artwork itself that points us to the great artificer. The God who spoke this world into being and continues to sustain it, the God whose divine nature and character are on display in this world, if only we were able to see them.

Marvel v DC — The man of iron v the man of steel

When it comes to modern comic book stories — and comic book heroes — that achieve this for me — it’s the Marvel characters that most connect me to modern ideals. I’d rather learn how to live from Iron Man, or other Avengers, than from Superman and the Justice League. As a disclaimer: I don’t read the comic books, but I watch the movies and TV shows, so it may be that my reflections are easily dismissed by real comic fans.
I don’t know how much my preference for Marvel is determined by the question of the space the stories take place in — that Superman is in the fictional ‘every city’ of Metropolis — I suspect that’s only a marginal factor (see Episode 1). I think its more to do with the ideal on display in each world.
When some of my friends were discussing my last question — what difference the city setting makes — my friend Craig Hamilton made the observations that:
“The DC universe is about the ideal whereas Marvel is about struggling to live up to an ideal. DC heroes are almost pure archetypes while Marvel are heroes with feet of clay.”
There are DC characters who break this type — Arrow, and The Flash are less archetypal than Superman, and, indeed, Craig points out that DC has deliberately become more Marvelesque (Marvellous?) over time.
“It wasn’t until the mid-1980s with Crisis on Infinite Earths that DC, in my opinion, tried to become more Marvel-esque. In the post-Crisis DCU they shipped in John Byrne and Frank Millar to redefine Superman and Batman. You can’t get more Marvel-esque creators than those two.”

The ‘man’ in the mask (Marvel) v the ‘masked man’ (DC)

In a piece in the Christian Research Journal titled ‘The Gospel According to Marvel’ a guy named Jason McAteer made a similar observation.

“The biggest difference between Marvel and DC is that Marvel heroes are ordinary people disguised as superheroes. Whereas DCs Superman is really an alien (Kal-El) disguised as an average guy (Clark Kent), Marvel’s Spider-Man is just an ordinary teenager named Peter Parker dressed up in red Spandex. Even DC’s Batman is using the persona of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne to distract from his true identity as a vigilante hero. Bruce Wayne’s drinking and womanizing is all an act. Contrast Marvel’s Iron Man whose true identity is Tony Stark, a millionaire playboy who really is as obnoxious as Bruce Wayne pretends to be. Marvel heroes are complex characters with all the imperfections of real-life human beings. They’re not all that “heroic” in comparison to a Golden Age DC character such as Superman, who came to embody a kind of idealized moral perfection. The original DC heroes are mostly aliens (such as Superman and Wonder Woman) or self-made men (such as Batman). Marvel’s heroes, on the other hand, are flawed ordinary people who gain unusual powers. They have extraordinary abilities thrust upon them whether they like it or not, usually through accidental exposure to “radiation” of some sort or another. Furthermore, Marvel heroes always have other real-life problems to deal with in addition to fighting crime.”

I think this is true — and its part of the reason I prefer Marvel’s heroes to DC’s. One of the implications of this ‘type’ of heroism on display in the DC world is that DC’s heroes can be so idealised that we’re unable to relate to them, and as a result, unable to imitate them. They hold up such a strong ideal that we can only dream about doing what they do. These dreams might still enchant us, and cause us to see goodness and virtue differently, but goodness and virtue always appear just that little bit beyond us. Because the real Superman is not Clark Kent, but the heroic guy in the cape — the masked man — we’re not invited into the story via the relatable human brokenness of the hero, we’re invited to enjoy the story as pure idealistic myth.

Superman is always ‘other’ — always fully super (except around kryptonite) — and only ever disguised as human (somehow this doesn’t annoy me as much when it comes to Thor). There’s nothing particularly imitable about Clark Kent, who, when trouble strikes, disappears in order for Superman to appear and save the day. You know that underneath the nerdy Clark Kent disguise there’s a godlike figure waiting to emerge to save the day. Iron Man is always Tony Stark in the suit. And when he puts the mask on he’s the same guy, just wearing a suit that lets him make a difference. The humanity is the driver of the story and the source of narrative tension, his humanity is not a disguise, a mask he wears to hide his real identity

Identity is an interesting motif in superhero stories — in the Marvel world, especially the world of the Avengers, the heroes don’t have a ‘secret identity’ — they are who they are. Even in a Marvel story where the hero keeps who they are a secret — like in Spider-Man — the hero’s identity is the human, Peter Parker puts on a mask and becomes Spider-Man, Spiderman doesn’t take off the mask to become Peter Parker. You could compare Stark’s Iron Man and Bruce Wayne’s Batman at this point — both use their significant means to transform the world according to their imaginative vision of a better place. Stark is a complicated mess of arrogant over-confidence and a real desire to do good, the stories he features in function as stories of his sanctification — he moves through that journey towards humility, even if he always remains true to himself. His personal demons are things he works out as a human, and they’re exaggerated when he puts his super-suit on. Batman is Bruce Wayne’s actual identity. The Bat is the manifestation of his damaged psychology. We wrestle with his demons when he puts the mask on and becomes himself. Batman is Batman, and like Superman, Bruce Wayne is an alter-ego. A projection. A persona he adopts — even though Batman is thoroughly shaped by the young Bruce’s experiences — these experiences fundamentally change who Bruce Wayne is. Wayne’s foppish ‘adult’ persona is an act, a disguise. We know the real, heroic, Bruce Wayne is revealed when Bruce puts on the mask, not when he takes it off. This is following an ancient pattern of behaviour of mythic heroes who only become ‘heroic’ by revealing their true selves in and through violent chaos.

“Heroes cannot, however, remain lambs: crises call for lions… crises usually require violent solutions. Violence indeed seems to be the reality of their worlds, and it is in violent situations that heroes are defined. Superman is somehow more “real” than the mousey “Clark Kent,” Batman more “real” than the do-gooder “Bruce Wayne.” Indeed, in this “civilian” alter ego, each of these heroes is suspected of being, like the youthful Beowulf, “slack, a young man unbold.” — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

Ultimately I find Marvel’s heroes more compelling, and more useful for looking to for models of workable heroism and/or virtue. It’s interesting that my gut-feel preference is also for their city setting, and their exploration of the consequences of ‘heroic’ action in the real world, rather than for DC’s fictional ‘every cities.’  

Marvel v Marvel: Iron Man v Daredevil

Marvel’s world has two types of hero — much as DC’s world does in Batman and Superhero. Heroes shaped by a modern sensibility. Heroes best typified, at least for my purposes of comparison, by Iron Man and Daredevil. They’re both typical modern heroes in that they’re essentially loners, thrust into a network of relationships at least, in part, because of their desire to make a difference to the world. To re-imagine it as something different.

“A new kind of popular hero had emerged: the self-reliant individualist who stands aloof from many of the humdrum concerns of society, yet is able to operate according to his code of honour, to take on the world on his own terms, and win. For Americans, the historical path from Munich to Pearl Harbor coincides with the emergence of Superman and Captain America — solitary but socialized heroes, who engage in battle from time to time as proxies of US foreign policy. A darker side of the Lone Wolf hero is embodied by the Batman, a hero whose motivations and emotions are turned inward against the evils within society, and even the social and psychological roots of crime itself. The tension between these two veins in the superhero tradition remains to the present day.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader

Daredevil adopts the cowl of the Batman like ‘Lone Wolf’ hero, while Iron Man operates in a similar vein to Superman, without his humanity ever being compromised. In fact, its his full humanity that makes him compelling — even as his imagination causes huge destruction on the global landscape.
When it comes to the modern cinematic heroes that I find most compelling as myths that help me see the world differently, I like Daredevil. I like the idea that Daredevil — at least the Netflix iteration — operates in a world where people are truly enchanted (ala Thor), or super-human products of science gone wrong (ala Spider-Man, The Hulk, Captain America), or are humans with a big imagination for how transformation might take place — but whose ambitions sometimes end up causing more destruction than hope — ala Iron Man — but while this is true of the world Daredevil operates in, he is grounded (as is his world).
I like Iron Man because he’s a flawed guy trying to do the best with what he’s got. He’s both incredibly human, and incredibly super-heroic. Daredevil has smaller ambitions, and lives in a world dealing with the mess these guys created, but also sees the world differently to the people around him. He isn’t endowed with superpowers, but more intra-powers. His senses are sharpened by the loss of his sight. It’s fun to imagine Daredevil as a guy who is imitating Iron Man, simply without the means to do quite so much damage, and without the same grand ‘global’ vision.
“I see a suit of armour around the world”. — Tony Stark (Iron Man), The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Stark has a big vision, and the incredible resources to make it a reality. He bankrolls the Avengers for this purpose (in Age of Ultron — when S.H.I.E.L.D isn’t around). His vision for the world is, as it turns out, quite destructive. And its only when he listens to those around him — in humility — that the destruction is mitigated. But this destruction comes at a cost, on a local level. And that’s where Daredevil steps in. He’s in the same world, and he’s left to clean up Stark’s mess.

“[Daredevil] carries no water for the larger franchise to which it’s connected. There’s a reference in series creator Drew Goddard’s pilot script to “death and destruction raining from the sky” above New York City and its effect on property values in Hell’s Kitchen; later, if you don’t blink, you’ll spot a “BATTLE OF NEW YORK” front page hanging in the office of crime reporter Ben Urich (a wonderfully careworn Vondie Curtis-Hall). But that’s it. No one gets a job offer from Samuel L. Jackson or stumbles upon a Cosmic Cube; at no point does Tony Stark drop by for shawarma. We’re meant to understand that this is the same New York where men with unimaginable power kick other men through buildings on the regular, but we’re also allowed, and in some sense encouraged, to forget that as soon as it’s established.” — Alex Pappademas, ‘Giving the Devil His Do-Rag Why Netflix’s Daredevil is The Least Marvel-y Marvel Property Yet,‘ Grantland

Matt Murdock’s Daredevil is the sort of hero endemic to Hell’s Kitchen, and to the sort of world shaped by Stark’s grand vision meeting his humanity. When Stark goes to battle for his vision, the collateral damage is immense. Stark acts global, while Daredevil acts local. Even Wilson Fisk (Kingpin) the villain in the Daredevil story mocks him for his transformative vision being too small. Daredevil plays the heroic game on a local level, not a global one.
Fisk: You first. That’s what I thought. You and I have a lot in common.
Daredevil: We’re nothing alike.
Fisk: That’s what you’ll tell yourself.
Daredevil: You’re feeding off this city like a cancer.
Fisk: I want to save this city, like you… only on a scale that matters.

The world of Netflix’s Daredevil is a product of Stark’s vision, but the localisation of its story is part of the way it paints a compelling and heroic vision for those who encounter it as ‘art’ in the functional sense. Daredevil is the model of a localised hero. A real flesh-and-blood hero for our times, and your place.

Despite the difference in scale, both Daredevil/Murdock and Iron Man/Stark are flawed heroes, bringing their humanity to the table as they work towards their transformative ‘heroic’ vision — the better world they imagine. In All Things Shining, Dreyfus and Kelly describe a sort of approach to heroic life that’s a bit like Tony Stark’s — or at least like Iron Man’s at a particular stage of the story arc in every Iron Man/Avengers story — and like Matt Murdock’s — as he alienates his friends through the pursuit of his vision of a better Hell’s Kitchen — this serves to make these guys a bit more relatable as characters, and makes their heroic triumph a triumph over the limitations of their human nature, as well as over whatever is going on in the world.
“The man of self-confidence is often a compelling figure. Driven and focused, he is committed to bringing the world into line with his vision of how it should be. He may genuinely believe that his vision for the world is a good one,  that the world will be a better place if he can shape it to his will, and sometimes he is capable of making changes for the better. But there is a danger to this attitude as well. Too often it turns out that the blustery self-confidence of such a person hides its own darker origins: it is really just arrogance combined with ambition, or worse yet, a kind of self-delusion. As a result, when his plans fail, as they are bound to do at least some of the time, the self-confident man is often unable to recognise the failure. Stubbornly and inflexibly committed to his vision of how things ought to be, he has no ability to respond to the world as it actually is. The self confident man believes that confidence is its own virtue.” — Dreyfus &  Kelly, All Things Shining
I can totally relate to this. Daredevil/Matt Murdock can relate to this too, on a smaller scale. Coming out of this over-confidence and into an approach to service that involves humility and teamwork is part of the journey of most Marvel heroes. It’s the journey we’re invited to take as we use the lens of these stories to examine our selves, and to truly see a path to decision making in our own life. These stories always play up the heroes as paradoxically fully human and fully super.
Christ and Pop Culture published a great piece exploring Daredevil’s model of heroism — of martyrdom even. There’s some great stuff in this piece about the complex relationship between heroism, violence, suffering in traditional superhero stories, and an exploration of how Daredevil breaks this pattern — including the relational disconnect that comes when the hero understands themselves as ‘suffering for’ the city, not suffering with it, that seems to go hand in hand with a lack of concern for the damage the fight for a city does to a city (seriously, read the piece). Daredevil/Matt Murdock even breaks the pattern of ‘self-confidence’ — or has it broken — through his relationships with others. Unlike Stark, it’s a bunch of ‘normal’ others who choose to be heroic, rather than superheroes, that move Daredevil away from arrogance, and towards a new and different sort of virtue.

“Matt Murdock is a part of Hell’s Kitchen, and though he’s often tempted to be a lone vigilante, he learns again and again that the true way to preserve his community is to recognize and enter into communal brokenness, not to try to save it from without. In Daredevil, the significance of relationships trumps the rightness of violence done in their name… Matt Murdock’s story, with those of his friends, positively reinforces the idea that heroes should suffer with their communities rather than standing apart and suffering for them…

Wilson Fisk’s character also reinforces this idea—only his does so negatively. Fisk is always portrayed as apart from Hell’s Kitchen, the community both he and Matt Murdock say they want to save. Fisk lives high above them in luxury; when he bombs the Russian-controlled parts of town, he and his girlfriend watch them burn from the wide windows of a high-rise restaurant…I think one reason the standard “suffers-for” hero is so attractive is that a lot of people are intrigued and allured by the idea that they might stand apart, adored and admired. They may suffer, but there will always be someone there to gaze adoringly and express gratitude. But that’s not the only, or the best, kind of heroism. And as Christians, while we might sometimes suffer for each other, we are also called to suffer with each other—to enter into community with others, to carry their sorrows and help them in their work and through their struggles.” — Julie Ooms, Daredevil, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Good Samaritan, Christ and Pop Culture

Daredevil’s local, incarnate, form of heroism is overtly influenced by a religious — even a Christian — vision of heroism. The Good Samaritan functions as a metaphor throughout the series, developing this vision of a heroism built on incarnation and sacrifice.
“Claire: You know, the only thing I remember from Sunday school is the martyrs… the saints, the saviours… they all end up the same way. Bloody and alone.
Matt: I never said I was any of those.
Claire: You didn’t have to.” — Claire and Matt Murdock, Netflix’s Daredevil
The pay off for this metaphor comes when Fisk, himself, makes it clear that he is not the good samaritan, he and Matt are not as similar as he claimed (see above), it turns out that the from-the-community-hero, Daredevil, is good Samaritan. The neighbour to those who are suffering.
“I’m not a religious man but I’ve read bits and pieces over the years. Curiosity more than faith. But this one story There was a man. He was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was set upon by men of ill intent. They stripped the traveler of his clothes, they beat him, and they left him bleeding in the dirt. And a priest happened by saw the traveler. But he moved to the other side of the road and continued on. And then a Levite, a religious functionary, he came to the place, saw the dying traveler. But he too moved to the other side of the road, passed him by. But then came a man from Samaria, a Samaritan, a good man. He saw the traveler bleeding in the road and he stopped to aid him without thinking of the circumstance or the difficulty it might bring him. The Samaritan tended to the traveler’s wounds, applying oil and wine. And he carried him to an inn, gave him all the money he had for the owner to take care of the traveler, as the Samaritan, he continued on his journey. He did this simply because the traveler was his neighbor. He loved his city and all the people in it. [sighs deeply] I always thought that I was the Samaritan in that story. It’s funny, isn’t it? How even the best of men can be deceived by their true nature. What the hell does that mean? It means that I’m not the Samaritan. That I’m not the priest, or the Levite. That I am the ill intent who set upon the traveler on a road that he should not have been on.” — Wilson Fisk, Daredevil
Despite its religious allusions, Daredevil is a hero for an immanent age — a hero borne out of a community, and its concerns, in response to an external, but still immanent, threat. Fisk is not a demi-god, like Loki in The Avengers. He is a villain — a devious, wealthy, businessman — with an alternative vision for Matt’s city. He has no interest in pursuing immortality, his interest is in shaping his city, according to a virtuous vision, by loving his neighbour. He’s the perfect hero for a gritty, earthy, real, disenchanted age. Embodying the best bits of the post-modern milieu of The Dark Knight and Watchmen, but offering the hope that a visionary hero (albeit a blind hero) might be able to effect positive change on the city they belong to, rather than spiralling into a bleak and vicious cycle. The note of hope comes via the offer of a solution proffered in the form of this virtuous, incarnate, connected, hero — whose heroism is on display both under the mask, and apart from it. Murdock’s fight against Fisk, his fight for his city, is simultaneously carried out by the masked hero and his unmasked alter-ego. Matt Murdock and Daredevil are one and the same. Matt Murdock, the lawyer who has a vision for something greater for Hell’s Kitchen, and Matt Murdock, the vigilante, who steps in to fight the battles the law is unable to reach. In both fights he suffers with the people around him, and that’s the way he attempts to mitigate some parts of the ‘fallenness’ of his immanent world. But though he avoids the aforementioned traps of the ‘Golden Age’ figures like Batman and Superman, and, more narrowly, the depressingly hopeless traps for vigilantes grappled with in the Miller-esque ‘Bronze Age,’ Daredevil is still a flawed ‘epic’ hero — he doesn’t offer a path to enchantment, or to immortality. We still need transcendent heroes.

Superman, Iron Man, Daredevil and the God-Man: Our quest for an imitable, but transcendent, hero

I think it’s interesting to explore the idea that stories about our mythic heroes either tend to emphasise the human nature of the hero or their super-human nature.
There’s been plenty of stuff written comparing Superman to Jesus — and the similarities are evident —but I’ve always had are a couple of problems with the metaphor because Superman is never actually human, and so he’s never someone who can truly be imitated. Superman, in his ‘human incarnation’ is an imitation human.
Classical, creedal, Christianity has always been exceptionally keen to emphasise that in his incarnation; Jesus is fully human, and fully divine. He’s not a superhero play-acting at being human, or a human play-acting at being super. He is not masked — a human playing at being God, or God playing at being a man. He is, in a sense, God unmasked. God made fully known. There is no transcendent God apart from the God made known and on display in Jesus. There is no disconnect between his human nature and his divinity. His identity is not confused, a bizarre mish-mash of humanity and hero where we’re left asking if the real Jesus is human or divine. He is fully both. He makes no secret about his identity. Both his humanity and his divinity are heroic — in fact, its as these parts of his being work in concert, in harmony, that we see a path to true heroism.
In fact, through these aspects of his being — his humanity and divinity — working together we are invited to move beyond our immanent existence and participate in his transcendent nature. Unlike Superman, who always remains fully other, Jesus invites us to share in his divinity, and in the Christian story this participation comes as God’s Spirit dwells in us.
“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. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” — John 17:20-23
Jesus also makes the ‘transcendent’ immanent. He becomes flesh and blood. Truly human. And his humanity is enough to mediate the triune God’s transcendent nature to us.
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” — John 14:9-10
And rather than heroically wielding power to perpetrate violence to solve the violence of the world, hiding behind a mask to avoid truly facing this violent reality, or to somehow buffer himself from his violent nature — as some sort of divine avatar — Jesus submits himself to violence in order to defeat it.
Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name — Philippians 2:6-9
A hero who adopts this ‘transcendent’ view of heroism, and the world, doesn’t live for the immortality of their own name, but secures immortality — a share in Christ’s heroic victory — by living for his name. And rather than epic, radiant, larger than life battles against super-villains, real heroism looks like humble service in accordance with the divine pattern for life, as agents of the divine will. This is what makes us shine, and what gives the world a new, enchanted, lustre. We’ll be ‘bigger’ than others because we are noticeably less ‘warped and crooked’…

“… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” — Philippians 2:13-16

It’s this story — this hero — who invites us to see the world through fresh eyes, who enchants it again, and also provides us with a new model of virtue to imitate in an ‘immanent’ sense — physically, in this world. Marvel’s heroes, in their very human ‘immanence’ — especially in Daredevil’s gritty local, incarnate, immanence — give us something to imitate — but in most cases they don’t give us something ‘other’ — a sort of saviour who can truly save us from ourselves. A saviour who can pull us from our humanity by offering us a humanity that is not flawed, and a real path to immortality — a path our immanent heroes can only dream about treading in fictional worlds that don’t age or change. Jesus does what these heroes fail to do, and provides us with a new way to see and imagine the world. The real world is changed by its heroes, heroes who capture and articulate a vision for world creation and the creation of meaning for us as we look at our world through their eyes. In a future episode I’ll unpack the idea of Jesus being a God coming into the machine (a deus in machina) — an unlikely happy ending — and the implications this has for our view of heroism.
The disenchanted world we live in needs heroes — both from above, and below — if its any hope of being lifted from despair, of the effects of the Fall, especially death, being dealt with, and if we’re to have ‘radiant ones’ people who shine like the stars, to imitate. The beauty of Daredevil’s incarnate heroism is that it provides us with a place to start. We start by doing something, anything, just that little bit heroic.
“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.” ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Re-Enchanting the World: Episode 2 — The mission to re-image-ine the world

“He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — CS Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

Image Credit:

Before I explore a little more on the nature of the heroes of our modern myths — especially the characters from Marvel and DC’s universes, and the question of how, or what, sort of ‘worlds’ we might find in art, stories, and our imaginations, in order to re-enchant the one we live in, I thought I’d lay out a little more of what I’m thinking behind this series of posts, and describe the dilemma a little more concretely.

Is imagination dead — or did we make that up?

In the last post I quoted C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image — in which he explores the movement from a medieval view of the world that was entirely ‘enchanted’ and mystical outside of the realm of fiction. He speaks, in this passage, of the way even the commonplace, the natural, was a means by which people imagined something beyond themselves, and of the damage done to our means of seeing when we only really see things for what they are, and for our own sake.

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

In this sort of world, art and story help make these symbols sing. Stories operated as a bridge between the earthly reality and heaven. They help draw out this sense of meaning and enchantment.

The death of this way of seeing the world — and stories — in both the world, and the church, presents an interesting challenge for Christians. In Colossians 3, Paul tells the church to:

“Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. “

Paul wants us to see the unseeable with our hearts and minds. He wants us to imagine.

How do we do this without a bridge? How do we do this in a world that tells us both that this is nonsense, that ‘things above’ are nonsense, and so seeing anything but the world as it is, is a waste of time — thus devaluing both stories, and a sort of meaning through enchantment. How do we re-build this bridge and make this sort of setting of heart and mind possible for ourselves, and invite others to join us? That’s the challenge at the heart of this little series, even if it might at times seem to mostly be about superheroes.

This sort of approach to finding meaning in the world wasn’t a medieval invention, this was how most people everywhere saw the world right up until the enlightenment and the dawn of the scientific age (a transition C.S Lewis, and others, pinpoint as involving a movement from seeing the world as a creation to seeing the world as ‘nature’. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly are a couple of secular philosophers who make similar observations about the ‘disenchanted’ world to C.S Lewis (and James K.A. Smith and Charles Taylor), while suggesting to think secular thinking necessarily ‘disenchants’ is to buy into a hollow form of secularism.Dreyfus and Kelly think there’s much to learn and admire from ancient thinkers that keeps us from nihilism, or an empty and hollow experience of the world. They wrote a book called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, in which they chart this movement towards disenchantment.

“The Greeks of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age. How did the West descend from Homer’s enchanted world, filled as it was with wonder and gratitude, to the disenchanted world we now inhabit? To pose the question this way is to mock the traditional story of the West. At least since Hegel, in the early nineteenth century, the narrative of Western history has been one of progress. We have learned to think of the Enlightenment, or some more recent period, as the pinnacle of this steady advance. The self-sufficiency of freedom, the lucidity of reason, and the security of a world completely explained and controlled: all these indicate history’s advance…” — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

In All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfuss and Sean Kelly describe the way that stories like the Odyssey and The Oresteia functioned in Ancient Greece to shape the way people saw and participated in the world such that stories function to help define art as: any workmanship created to focus our attention on meaning or enchantment in the world.

The Oresteia manifested and focused for all Athenians what they were up to as Athenians. Heidigger calls anything that performs this focusing function a work of art. The Greek Temple is his primary example of artwork working.
Like the temple, the Odyssey was a work of art for the Homeric Greeks. It was the sacred work, in other words, that manifested and focused the practices paradigmatic for the Homeric world. The Odyssey disclosed the existential space in which shining heroes like Odysseus and Achilles and shining examples of the erotic like Helen, as well as bad guys like the suitors, made sense as possible ways of life. When sung about, these figures gave direction and meaning to the lives of the ordinary Greeks in Homer’s world… The paradigmatic works of art for an age let certain ways of life shine forth. But in doing so they cover up what is worthy in other—radically different—ways of life. Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to. Works of art in this sense do not represent something else—the way a photograph of one’s children represents them… they gather practices together to focus and manifest a way of life. When works of art shine, they illuminate and glamorize a way of life, and all other things shine in their light. A work of art embodies the truth of its world. — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

The death of ‘enchantment’ could easily have become — and perhaps in some senses has become — the death of the imagination. If everything that happens is reduced to the ‘natural’ — to chains of cause and effect — we lose a sense of mystery or ‘enchantment’ when amazing things happen because we approach these amazing things trying to figure out what lever has been pulled to produce that particular result. When we have an explanation we potentially simultaneously lose a sense of enchantment, wonder, gratitude, and potentially imagination — All Things Shining doesn’t argue that this is necessary, just that it is possible and logical, and does happen.

There are alternative expressions of the imagination if imagination is what we use to construct meaning in our world, and look for the means by which we might create, or re-create, things that transform our world for the better. But our modern dilemma is we don’t see the world the way people in the past saw it, we’ve moved from seeing it as a cosmos, or creation, pointing to something greater than itself, to being a universe guided by ‘nature.’James K.A. Smith describes this challenge:

“The emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option — the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary — a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. So it wasn’t enough for us to stop believing in the gods; we also had to be able to imagine significance within an immanent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendence.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

He expands on this dilemma a bit later…

“In contrast to this, the modern imaginary finds us in a “universe” that has its own kind of order, but it is an immanent order of natural laws rather than any sort of hierarchy of being… the shift from cosmos to universe — from “creation” to “nature” — makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent “meaning” that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

And again…

“It’s not enough to ask how we got permission to stop believing in God; we need to also inquire about what emerged to replace such belief. Because it’s not that our secular age is an age of disbelief; it’s an age of believing otherwise. We can’t tolerate living in a world without meaning. So if the transcendence that previously gave significance to the world is lost, we need a new account of meaning — a new “imaginary” that enables us to imagine a meaningful life within this now self-sufficient universe of gas and fire. That “replacement” imaginary is what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism”…

“…we all do “spontaneously imagine” ourselves in a cosmic context, and it’s that which Taylor is after: “I’m interested,” he says, in “how our sense of things, our cosmic imaginary, in other words, our whole background understanding and feel of the world has been transformed… Taylor encapsulates this imaginary-shift as the move from a “cosmos” to a “universe” — the move of spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an ordered, layered, hierarchical, shepherded place to spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an infinite, cavernous, anonymous space… One can understand the trajectory that leads from this cosmic imaginary to materialism; if the immanent is going to be self-sufficient, as it were, then the material has to be all there is.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

The search for meaning beyond the transcendent or ‘super-natural’ will still involve imagination— All Things Shining is a perfect example of such a quest for meaning (so too, Douglas Adams and the answers he gives for this quest in the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), but this move — as those examples demonstrate —  has an impact on the stories we tell ourselves, the way we imagine ourselves, and, as a result it changes the images we present as ourselves.

The arts and the aesthetic become a way of working out “the feeling that there is something inadequate in our way of life, that we live by an order which represses what is really important… The result is an immanent space to try to satisfy a lost longing for transcendence; in short, this creates a “place to go for modern unbelief” without having to settle for the utterly flattened world of mechanism or utilitarianism — but also without having to return to religion proper. And so we get the new sacred spaces of modernity: the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage. — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

Imagination still operates, even if it operates with a different sense of wonder. We all become mini-Archimedes, our imagination is limited by the cause-effect nexus. Real change to the world as we experience it is simply a matter of finding the way to bring about that change in a material sense — a natural sense. We start seeing the world as a machine — subject to natural, physical, laws, and ourselves as machinists, inventors, or mechanics. The world can be moved and tweaked, and re-cast. So long as we find the right way to shift the gears. We are in control.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” — Archimedes

And yet, in the face of the ‘infinite, cavernous, anonymous space’ we are very small. Very, very, small. And so too are the changes we can hope to make on the world. So too, becomes our sense of what we know and understand about the way the world works. Because we are oh so very finite. A fleeting breath in the scheme of eternal space and time. Even though we’re so minute, we still — by nature — are beings that crave meaning, a sense of a bigger picture, and we’re people who want to interpret information using some sort of system. This realisation that we are finite, and the belief that the material world is all there is, does not necessarily kill our ability to experience wonder at the vastness, beauty, and complexity of the world — but these are things that must be incorporated, via imagination, into a “way of constructing meaning.” A belief that there is ‘no meaning’ is actually an imaginative construction, not in the sense that it is made up, but in the sense that it is the thing we tell ourselves about meaning in this world. But how do we choose this system? How is this imagination shaped? It is shaped, in part, by the way we see the world — but it also shapes the way we see the world. Could it be that it actually comes down to the question of what way of seeing the world is the ‘shiniest’…

Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart suggests all of us intuitively construct and ‘imagine’ meaning on the basis of a system we think is the most beautiful (according to whatever aesthetic we adopt – be that a sort of Occham’s Razoresque elegant simplicity, the beauty of the explanatory power of the scientific method, or a more mysterious or ‘enchanted’ approach to the world that includes a transcendent creator standing behind, or guaranteeing, existence). Or, as he says it:

“If one adopts the position of a certain account of how being, knowledge, and language are related, that is one’s position – ultimately because one finds the particular depiction of the world it affords especially compelling, even inevitable, for reasons that are finally aesthetic.” — David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

Our imagination is a way of assessing truth claims about the world through a sort of aesthetic lens. Enchanted world or not, there is some part of our thought process by which we assess, participate in, and finally, shape the world.

Dreyfus & Kelly, Smith, Taylor, and Hart would all seem to agree on this point: we underplay the role that imagination plays when it comes to living in, and understanding, the world to our detriment. Imagination is, in some way, what anchors us, but also what propels us. If we want to restore something mysterious and ‘other’ about the world we need to see it with a renewed imagination — this will require, I think, four things from us:

  1. A re-image-ination of ourselves,
  2. this, in turn, will require that we learn from art depicting a new sort of hero who is both grounded in reality, and who seeks to transform it,
  3. the ability to create and appreciate other-worldy stories which help us see our own world (and forests) in a re-enchanted way, and,
  4. if we really do see the world as a ‘machine’ a deus in machina (God entering the ‘machine’, as opposed to the deus ex machina — God from the machine) which completely changes the nature of the field we’re playing on. An unexpected entry in the story which ultimately saves us from ourselves, and pulls us into a new way of seeing and imagining.

I’ll suggest in the next few posts that the comic book universes of Marvel and DC both provide something akin to each of these (though in a deus ex machina way, not a deus in machina way), so too do the worlds of Tolkien and Lewis’ faery stories. They certainly provide a model that provides for what I think is an interesting conversation partner in this meandering effort. Even if I’m only writing to myself by now…

An invitation to image-ination

Imagination is on display right from the first moments of the Christian story.

When God says “Let there be light” this is an act of imagination that produces an act of creativity. The world itself is an expression of God’s imagination, and, rightly understood plays a role as one of Heidigger’s ‘works of art’, remember, that quote from All Things Shining: “Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to.” There’s a really compelling theory from Biblical Scholar John Walton that encourages us to read Genesis 1-2 as God setting up his cosmic temple, an ‘artwork’ that points us to him, and gives us a place in which to truly know God, and through that, to truly know ourselves, and truly fulfil our function as his divine image bearers.

The world of the Bible is a world ‘shot through’ with meaning. An enchanted world in which, when we rightly understand the world, we encounter the transcendent and experience it as natural. A natural world that in its natural state — before we trash it and ourselves — was meant to point us to the character and nature of God.

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

Here’s a thing. In Ephesians, Paul uses these same Greek words ποίημα and κτίζω to talk about humanity. Our job, as God’s creations — his artwork — his images in his cosmic temple — is to focus people on the life we were created to live, and the imagination we were created to see and transform the world with.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. — Ephesians 2:10


What seeing the world this way requires is imagination. But imagination isn’t just the thing that leads us to see the world as ‘enchanted,’ or to create enchanted worlds in our stories and art — imagination is required to see the world we live in as it is, and as it could be, and to work towards transforming it. Imagination is the thing that underpins creativity  — in a sense its also the thing underpinning God’s creativity in creating the world when he speaks, a thing that he has pictured is created, and he can declare it good and fit for a purpose according to his imagined design. In creation, God is able to turn his imagination into actuality.


Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” — Genesis 1:26

Part of this likeness is expressed in creating via imagination just as God did in creating the world. In Genesis 2, Adam demonstrates his God-given imagination by co-creating with God, he invents names for the animals God made in Genesis 1, ruling over them and bearing God’s image through an act of imagination.

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.” — Genesis 2:19-20

As Genesis plays out, into a line of genealogies, one of the thing the narrator notes is that people make art — or use their imaginations — as they spread throughout the world.

His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes.  Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.” — Genesis 4:21-22

The problem is we stuffed up this job. Our imaginations failed us. Instead of imaginatively acting as representatives of the living God, we imagined dead things were god. We imagined God did not exist. We stuffed the world. We stuffed our heads. We lost our ability to imagine properly.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. — Romans 1:21-23

This exchange had a cost. For us and for the world. Part of the cost is our inability to imagine — or to see the world clearly — to see it as shot through with meaning. To have any sense of the transcendent. We’re left with little old immanent us, in our little, contracted, immanent world, living little immanent lives when we were made for the infinite, we were made to make beauty, and life, and carry the image of the one who made us into his world, not trash it and trash the world.

A re-invitation to image-ination

The implications of this failure to imagine — or to image-ine — have an impact on the planet. And, subsequently, on our ability to know God’s nature from creation, because creation no longer reveals who he is. It reveals how we’ve damaged it.

The Gospel — where we meet Jesus — is an invitation back to seeing the world with imaginative eyes, and seeing our role in the world and the way we might be part of its transformation so that it does what it was made to do through our co-creating. Through our imagination. Especially through our imaginative and deliberate carrying of God’s image.

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God… For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  — Romans 8:19-21, 29

God’s children — his image bearing imaginators — arrive on the scene again through Christ. The one who truly acts in an imaginative way to spread God’s presence through the world, by living out a more beautiful story, and inviting us to be a part of it. Over the next few posts in this series I’ll continue unpacking the idea that our story is better and more enchanted than worldly alternatives — our story of the transcendent becoming immanent — is more compelling than any other. And part of re-enchanting the world is really believing this to be true.

If the world has become machine-like for some, any ‘gods from the machine’ (deus ex machina) that provide happy endings in our stories come from below, not from above. They’re products of an immanent world. Our God comes into the machine and re-enchants it. It’s no longer good enough to experience the natural as black and white. It is re-cast in vivid colour. It is a pointer to the sort of God who acts to shape a good world, gives it to us, sees us trash it, and then acts to re-shape and re-claim and re-imagine and re-enchant it by sacrificing himself. Stepping into the story and laying down his life. Just when it looks like those in favour of the ‘immanent frame’ have won out — as a person of the Triune-God-in-the-flesh is nailed to a very physical cross — the transcendent triumphs.

The Christian story is a story of people being rescued from themselves, and from the consequences of our actions by God coming into the machine — a Deus In Machina (but we’ll get to that in a subsequent episode).

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. — Colossians 1:14-20

This is Paul’s version of this story. An invitation to imagine again. To see the world as enchanted and held together by God again. To see it — and ourselves — as shining art, not created by our flawed hands, but by God’s perfect hands marred by nails and blood, that lights the way for people to live better, fuller, more wondrous lives, and to be invited to start re-imagining and re-creating again. Our calling, in the light of this story, is to imitate its hero (and we’ll get to this next episode). But in short, Paul’s words towards before this passage, and then at the end of Colossians are a pretty good place to start when it comes to figuring out what an ‘enchanting’ life looks like.

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. — Colossians 1:9-12

… you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised,barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. — Colossians 3:9-14

Our job is to offer a better story. To tell this better story. To help people see the world anew, and aright (and we’ll get to this, too, in a subsequent episode. Nothing like a cliffhanger).

Our job is to re-cast the world such that our story is more satisfying and compelling than alternatives. To re-enchant the machine, by using the complex beauty of the machine and its intended use to point to the inventor. We do this by living the story, and believing it to be beautiful and enchanting.

Taylor suggests that those who convert to unbelief “because of science” are less convinced by data and more moved by the form of the story that science tells and the self-image that comes with it (rationality = maturity). Moreover, the faith that they left was often worth leaving. If Taylor is right, it seems to suggest that the Christian response to such converts to unbelief is not to have an argument about the data or “evidences” but rather to offer an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith. — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

Though he’s talking more about how Christians should frame their attempts to persuade others of the truth of Christianiy — which necessarily involves a movement from a dis-enchanted world, to an enchanted one, Hart essentially thinks that the thing required to break people out of the immanent frame is not more, or mere, rationality. It’s a more beautiful truth. Whatever is most beautiful — the best story — that makes sense of the most data, that is what people should believe.

“What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of “rational” arguments that (suppressing certain of their premises) force assent from others by leaving them, like the interlocutors of Socrates, at a loss for words; rather, it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity – and the rhetorical richness of its idiom. Making its appeal first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may “command” assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty… Christian thought has no stake in the “pure” rationality to which dialectic seems to appeal – the Christian ratio, its Logos, is a crucified Jew – and cannot choose but be “rhetorical” in form; but it must then be possible to conceive of a rhetoric that is peace, and a truth that is beauty.” — David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

This, I think, is what this description of what it looks like for our self to be renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator — to re-imagine, and re-image, the world by telling a beautiful and enchanting story that helps people see with the world with both their eyes and hearts.

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 3:15-17

Confessions of a politically religiously motivated radical who wants to see the world as we know it come to its end

I am a religious radical. I confess that my religious beliefs are my primary motivation for how I live in this world, and I believe my actions to be consistent with bringing about the end of the world as we know it. But. Don’t panic.


In How (Not) to be Secular, Christian Philosopher James K.A Smith unpacks fellow philosopher Charles Taylor’s theory that the modern, secular, world has collapsed everything supernatural into a sort of ‘rational’ natural basket.

“It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter…So the modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority, “giving its own autonomous order to its life”” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) to be Secular

Or, as Douglas Adams put it in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. 

“My universe is my eyes and my ears. Anything else is hearsay.”
― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

To me, Douglas Adams is a bit like the Lewis/Tolkien of this sort of disenchanted world, perhaps even a bit like the wise teacher in the Bible’s Ecclesiastes. Adams built a fictional cosmos in The Hitchhikers Guide that allows him to fantastically weave his way through the big questions, and implications, of a disenchanted world, giving that helpful piece of advice — “DON’T PANIC” — for anyone who comes to the conclusion that life has no meaning, or that its meaning is 42 (an incorrect answer to “what is 6 times 9”). His point, at one point discussed in a little dialogue between Zaphod and Arthur, is that a world devoid of meaning from beyond itself is a world where a belief in, or search for, a sort of ‘transcendent’ meaning — or any meaning at all — is meaningless, and inaccessible.

“But nothing! Think about it. The Meaning of Life! We get our fingers on that we can hold every shrink in the Galaxy up to ransom, and that’s worth a bundle. I owe mine a mint.”

Arthur took a deep breath without much enthusiasm.

“Alright,” he said, “but where do we start? How should I know? They say the Ultimate Answer or whatever is Forty-two, how am I supposed to know what the question is? It could be anything. I mean, what’s six times seven?”

Zaphod looked at him hard for a moment. Then his eyes blazed with excitement.

“Forty-two!” he cried.

Arthur wiped his palm across his forehead.

“Yes,” he said patiently, “I know that.”

Zaphod’s faces fell.

“I’m just saying that the question could be anything at all,” said Arthur, “and I don’t see how I am meant to know.” — Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

One of the implications of this shift is in how we think of the way people are motivated to make choices or decisions. Where, in the past, people saw themselves as actors in a divinely created cosmic play, their position placed, determined, and directed by God’s mysterious plans, now, people assume life is a smorgasbord of choices and we are our own agents, able to place ourselves wherever we want (so we’re more mobile than ever, in terms of social status, education, and physical location, able to determine the course our own life takes, and directing ourselves via our own ethical framework or set of moral rules (sometimes with socially constructed frameworks that make sure other people, or as many other people as possible, enjoy these same freedoms). In this new script every action is ‘political’ because every person is a monarch. According to this new script, no actions are ‘religious’ — even if they are — because religion is just one choice we make among many, and we choose one religion among many equally (in)valid options. Religion, in this secular script, cannot, and should not, be spoken of as a motivating factor for action — because it gets dangerous when it is. In this script religion is, rather, a consequence of action, of choice, rather than a motivator.

“It is folly to say you know what is happening to other people. Only they know, if they exist. They have their own Universes of their own eyes and ears.”  — Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

There’s been a bit of a secular paradox at play in the reportage of the Parramatta shooting. On the one hand, the government, and a bunch of secular spokespeople, are very keen to eradicate the clear and present danger presented by ‘radicalisation’ — so keen that they’ll throw all sorts of religions into the mix as potential sources for dangerous radicalisation (see Michael Jensen’s piece on the ABC), they’ll even throw poor people like the hypothetical “Karen” under the radicalisation bus in order to protect the masses from these ills. If you break the Internet’s First Commandment “Never read the comments” on that article you’ll see that the discussion sort of proves the point of Jensen’s piece, any religious belief, taken seriously, is dismissed as dangerous.

On the other hand, when speaking of the Parramatta shooting, reporters do not speak of the event as ‘religiously motivated’ but ‘politically motivated’…

“We believe his actions were politically motivated and therefore linked to terrorism.” — NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, ‘Teen Shooting Linked to Terrorism

The shooter was ‘politically motivated’ by people he met in a religious place. A place of worship. I’m not claiming that his actions were a necessary product of the religion he aligned himself with by faith, but they were almost certainly a product of his faith. Of his understanding of the world and its end. Obviously there’s a massive link between religion and politics for most people of faith, for good or for ill, but I can’t help but think this plays into a narrative that isolates people of faith and robs us of the dignity that comes from being able to make choices about how we understand life and are understood. As a person of faith, putting myself in the shoes of someone who might be robbed of dignity in this sense, I’d like to offer a few alternatives for ‘deradicalisation’ that don’t involve ‘depersonalisation’… I’d like to suggest that the secular narrative being used to disenchant this narrative with a view to de-radicalising it (making these actions politically motivated (immanent) rather than religiously motivated (transcendent) might actually be counter-productive because it might reinforce a sense that the secular west is not interested in understanding those who don’t subscribe to its disenchanted story. I’d like to suggest that perhaps, even within a secular frame, what would be productive, virtuous, and just response would be to treat the perpetrator — and others — as human agents, giving them the dignity of understanding their choices and motivations, without thinking that doing so would either ‘radicalise’ other like minded people, or insult those who share a similar way of seeing the world as ‘enchanted’ and meaningful through eyes and ears of faith. Maybe a better way forward would be to invite those who share an ‘enchanted’ view of the world — be they Muslims, or people of other faiths — to enter dialogue in the public square that offers alternative ways of seeing the world and its end, through better stories (without shouting them down in angry comment threads).

Secularisation: an exercise in not seeing the emperor’s old clothes

Secularisation in its modern, disenchanted form, and especially the secularist narrative playing out in the analysis of the action of people of faith ends up being a deliberate attempt not to see things as they really are, but also, not to see people as they truly wish to be seen. It fails to give people dignity because it denies them the robes they choose to give context to their actions. When a person of faith acts in a way motivated by that faith the secular narrative is that this is ‘political,’ a category I certainly wouldn’t put first in describing my own actions.

This new narrative is disingenuous and unloving. It doesn’t love ‘political’ actors — or perpetrators — with the kind of just love that requires us to pay real attention to the motivations for action and decide on reasonable and just consequences or solutions. It dehumanises those who do not share the new narrative. It robs a religious person of dignity, stripping their life of the meaning they have ‘chosen’. In this it both undermines the secularist narrative of ‘choice,’ and also deliberately holds ignorance and arrogance in tension — it’s deliberately ignorant, in failing to consider possibilities beyond one’s own ‘eyes and ears’ or beyond a consensus reached by many eyes and ears, and part of this ignorance manifests itself in an arrogant failure to listen to narratives that don’t fit this dominant view. It’s a failure to listen, and a failure to see, other people as they wish to be seen, and perhaps the world as it should be seen.

If the old view of the world was one where the universe was fully clothed in rich, enchanting, meaning, where it was vividly coloured and beautifully formed so that both the emperor wearing the clothes was special, but the designer was clearly a good and creative genius who wished this to be the case, then the new version of the world is one where we, the new emperors, are naked and left to construct an outfit, and dignity, for ourselves.

The secularist assumption is that its those who have stripped off their old clothing who are dressed, while those who hang on to the idea of an enchanted world given meaning by a divine creator, are naked and foolish.

The secular status quo runs a real risk of dehumanising people according to its own account of meaningful humanism, where our sense of what it means to be a person with dignity, a monarch, a ruler of our own tiny kingdom, is caught up in making the decision about how to live and to channel David Foster Wallace, what to worship. In This Is Water, Wallace points out that our new default is to worship things within the world, immanent things, things that will ultimately eat us alive, and that our secular age is structured in such a way that it wants to keep us exercising our freedom, so long as its directed at these immanent things. So long as we don’t rock the boat. But he ponders whether or not this default is really freedom, or if freedom might lie elsewhere, in questioning the default narrative, and the default ‘secular’ gods.

“And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water


A radical story — motivated by a view of the end of the world

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. 

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” 
― Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe

As he explores Taylor’s understanding of The Secular Age, Smith mentions that part of the movement from an ‘enchanted’ or spiritual sense of reality was a depersonalising move from describing the world as a divine creation (as it had been understood right up to modern times), to simply ‘nature’… a neutral and unthinking thing, at best governed by ‘natural law’…

“The shift from cosmos to universe — from “creation” to “nature” — makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent “meaning” that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence… Now, from the vantage point of secular humanism, this new interest in nature can look like the next logical step on the way to pure immanence: first distinguish God/nature, then disenchant, then be happy and content with just nature and hence affirm the autonomy and sufficiency of nature. Such a story about the “autonomization” of nature posits a contrast or dichotomy between belief in God and interest in “nature-for-itself”…

Part of the fallout of such a metaphysical shift is the loss of final causality (a cause that attracts or “pulls”), eclipsing any teleology for things/nature. Understanding something is no longer a matter of understanding its “essence” and hence its telos (end). Instead we get the “mechanistic” universe that we still inhabit today, in which efficient causality (a cause that “pushes”) is the only causality and can only be discerned by empirical observation. This, of course, is precisely the assumption behind the scientific method as a way of divining the efficient causes of things, not by discerning “essence” but by empirical observation of patterns, etc. The result is nothing short of “a new understanding of being, according to which, all intrinsic purposes having been expelled, final causation drops out, and efficient causation alone remains””— James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

I can understand why people choose to see the world this way though. The universe is vast and intimidating. Douglas Adams goes on and on about infinity in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and its to explore just how uncomfortable a view of the universe is if it is very infinite, and we are very finite. There’s this thing in the story called the Total Perspective Vortex which promises to show anyone who attaches their mind to its probes just how small they really are. Trin Tragula built the machine to annoy his wife, but when he plugged her into it, it had disastrous consequences.

“To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

“For when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.” ― Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe

This is what happens when we strip the universe of enchantment, of meaning beyond the physical. Suddenly the sheer, immanent, physicality of the universe is intimidating, rather than comforting. It’s better to think of it as uncaring, and uninvolved, and as without an ‘end’ at that point, so that we don’t have to worry about getting the ‘end’ wrong, given our new freedom to choose how to live in it. Robbing the world of an ‘end’ — a telos in the old Greek sense — a purpose — in itself, means we are in the driver’s seat when it comes to creating meaning. We understand the world as we experience it with our eyes and ears, and we, within the world, are free to come up with our own vision for how things should be, and what things are for, and we’re free to direct our own lives. If people come up with some approach to their own life — an understanding of their own purpose, or ‘end’ that is tied to some broader purpose in the universe, some other director giving things purpose, especially a divine purpose, we treat them with suspicion.

And looking around at all the alternative understandings of the purpose of the world posited by religious people — including some Christians — I share a fair amount of this suspicion. I can totally understand why we’d want to take the shortcut of robbing people of their dignity by stripping them of their metaphorical clothes and leaving them naked. Exposing them and their folly for all to see. But when I put myself in the shoes of those seen as ‘exposed’ it leaves me feeling a little empathy for the religiously motivated person. It leaves me thinking that perhaps this strategy might leave other people of faith, who feel the same way about the world, feeling naked and foolish. Which is a brilliant ‘deradicalisation’ strategy. Except that it’s not. Especially if the ‘secular west’ has a habit of pushing the sorts of people who have faith to the margins, away from the benefits of the ‘secular defaults’ which builds a further degree of resentment.

Let’s come back to that alternative strategy — inviting those who share an ‘enchanted’ view of the world to the table to discuss solutions to radicalisation, rather than excluding us by lumping us all in together as potential dangerous radicals who want to see the end of the world as we know it.

For those who see and experience the world as shot through with meaning, the vastness of the universe helps build self-esteem. The universe is the stage in a divine cosmic drama that tells the story of the value of human life to the creator of the universe — one vaster than the universe itself. In this drama, especially the Christian version, the creator of all this steps onto the stage, and takes part in the drama, by laying down his life for the actors he made. The cross of Jesus is a new Total Perspective Vortex that puts us at the centre of a vast and infinite world. It gives the world a new end, both in an understanding of its purpose — as the ground upon which God became incarnate, made himself human, died, and promised to redeem — and it gives us a new understanding of how it all ends. Jesus, by his resurrection, promised to be the ultimate and final solution for this world, inviting those who follow him to ‘take up their cross’ becoming part of the picture of what the end of the world looks like. Eating with a radical Christian should be like eating at the restaurant at the end of the universe — you should see and taste the end of the world.

I confess, I totally buy into this ‘enchanted’ vision of the world. I believe the world is ‘shot through with meaning’ – that it’s a divine creation, carefully maintained, damaged by our selfish ‘default’ following lives and crying out for a solution. I pray God brings that solution every time I say anything remotely like the Lord’s Prayer. Prayer is an incantation of sorts, an act of enchantment, and this is the prayer of a ‘radical’ who follows the God-man.

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’” — The Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:9-13

This is a radical prayer for the world as we know it to end, for the world to meet its end — the kingdom of God. I suspect if our politicians knew what they were asking for when they prayed these words the attempt to further disenchant our ‘politics’ by removing ‘religion’ would gather steam.

I’m a religiously motivated Christian radical. I want to bring about this end. I want to confront people with this story and I want them to see that without it they’re actually naked.

This is what being a Christian radical looks like.

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

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

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

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

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12

It’s interesting that this largely matches up with how Christians were perceived to be living in the early church, in the Roman Empire. Pliny, a Roman governor, wrote to his friend, the emperor, Trajan, asking how he should deal with the Christian radicals popping up all over the empire and threatening to end the world as they knew it. The Roman world was also a world shot through with meaning — where Gods existed within the cosmos, and men (emperors) could become gods. Christians threatened this status quo, as we now threaten the secular defaults of our age. Pliny describes their radical behaviour as:

“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.” — Pliny, Letter to Trajan

It was concern for the status quo that motivated Pliny’s query, and Trajan’s response that Pliny was right to put these Christians to death if they wouldn’t worship his divine image, this was his litmus test for deciding who to execute, he spared those who “worshipped your [Trajan’s divine] image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ” — because people who did this were no threat to the established order. Here’s why he says he wrote — because the enchantment/superstition that led Christians to act radically like this was spreading.

“For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.” — Pliny, Letter to Trajan

People will do all sorts of things in the thrall of a compelling story, be it secularism, or your garden variety secular -isms like communism, materialism (but perhaps not naturalism, unless its paired with something else — or threatened by something else, which is why it’s a compelling antidote to enchantment). People will die for a secular ‘-ism’, just as they will for a religion (or a religious -ism like Judaism or Mormonism), an enchanted story.

Religious stories don’t just enchant life, but death as well. Often they involve some picture of martyrdom, which is closely tied to our sense of the world’s end, and how it the world. An interesting working definition of a ‘radical’ might not just be someone who is prepared to live by their story, but to die by it.

Being a Christian radical also means martyrdom — death to self — not just in the David Foster Wallace sense of death to the default in order to love others — but perhaps even in a literal sense, laying down our lives to give life to others. This is where our ‘enchanted story’ is fundamentally better for the world than any of the others. Jesus produces a different sort of radical, and a different sort of martyr. The diners at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe are horrified by how willing their meal — a sentient cow — is to die for their good, their food and entertainment, and yet, its this same willingness that Christians have historically shown in the face of death so that others might see the way the world ends. This same horror, for a secular citizen, extends to the idea that anybody might throw away their immanent existence — assumed to be their only existence — for the sake of some ‘religious’ notion.

“Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body? It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters into a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

“Something off the shoulder perhaps?” suggested the animal. “Braised in a white wine sauce?”

“Er, your shoulder?” said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

“But naturally my shoulder, sir,” mooed the animal contentedly, “nobody else’s is mine to offer.”…

“You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?” whispered Trillian to Ford.

“Me?” said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes. “I don’t mean anything.”

“That’s absolutely horrible,” exclaimed Arthur, “the most revolting thing I’ve ever heard.”

“What’s the problem, Earthman?” said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal’s enormous rump.

“I just don’t want to eat an animal that’s standing there inviting me to,” said Arthur. “It’s heartless.”

“Better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten,” said Zaphod.

I’m totally on board with being terrified by the sort of martyrdom that comes at the cost of others, but I can’t get my head around being opposed to a deliberate exercise of freedom that takes that sort of freedom David Foster Wallace identified to ‘sacrifice’ for others ‘over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day’ to its radical conclusion. It’s this sort of exercise of freedom, as he rightly identifies, that helps people see the world through different eyes. But it’s when we connect this freedom to the Christian story — where the infinite God steps into his finite creation as a man, and lovingly sacrifices himself for us — that we are no longer haunted by that “gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing” because in the ‘incarnation’ — in God becoming flesh — the transcendent and immanent are revealed at once in vivid colour. We see the emperor in his truly magnificent clothes as the God-Man hangs naked on the Cross, exposed in order to re-dress us. This story answers that ‘gnawing sense’ of having lost touch with the infinite, because in it the infinite one finds us, and draws us to him. It’s this story that gives us enchanted eyes and ears by which we now see the world, and imagine a better end  — both in terms of a better purpose, and a better future.

This new way of seeing is what brings the political and religious together. It’s what gives a deeper meaning to a radical life and death. It’s people living this radical story that best displays the enchanting and compelling power of this story. The Cross isn’t just our Total Perspective Vortex, it’s our Restaurant at the End of the Universe. When we stand near it — reliving it by living it each day,  through our words and practices as extensions of our story, as we practice dying to self each day, is what gives people the taste of the end of the world that Douglas Adams could only dream of meaningfully depicting in a secular sense by inventing time and space travel.

Tertullian, a guy from the early church, showed what it looks like to be both religiously and politically motivated at the same time when he wrote to the Roman government, the same government that kept executing Christians

“It is our battle to be summoned to your tribunals that there, under fear of execution, we may battle for the truth. But the day is won when the object of the struggle is gained.  This victory of ours gives us the glory of pleasing God, and the spoil of life eternal. But we are overcome. Yes, when we have obtained our wishes. Therefore we conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued…

…Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” — Tertullian, Apology

Re-Enchanting the World: Episode 1 — Heroic Space: DC’s Gotham v Marvel’s New York; Or, things I thought about while playing Spider-Man 2 with my son

In which I ask why Marvel Comics sets its stories in real cities, while DC creates anonymous every-cities. And consider what this does to us as participants in the narrative.

Image Credit: Screenshot from Amazing Spider-Man 2, US Gamer, Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review

I’ve somehow managed to get my 2 year old son obsessed with Spider-Man. It wasn’t hard. I’ve always loved Spider-Man’s off-the-wall (or on-the-wall) antics, and there’s something about the playful red/blue/web aesthetic that I just enjoy. I also love that clichéd line “with great power comes great responsibility”… I was never all that into Spider-Man myself. I was an avid reader of The Phantom as a kid.

Xavi and I have been watching The Ultimate Spider-Man together. A pretty fun cartoon. Mostly it’s fun for me. He has a Spider-Man figurine that he takes to bed. And so, I thought it’d be fun for me to grab a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on the PS4. And it has been fun. Though mostly for me.

In the last few years I’ve enjoyed the resurgence of comic book worlds in TV and Cinema. I love the Marvel Universe (except for the relatively insipid Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D). I thought Nolan’s Batman trilogy was great, and Arrow and The Flash are TV favourites in our household. Robyn isn’t so sure about Gotham. But I like its gritty gangster vibe, and its introductions of villains from Batman’s world have drawn me back into the Batman mythos a bit.

As I was swinging from building to building as New York’s friendly, neighbourhood, Spider-Man, it got me wondering — why is it that Marvel’s universe co-opts real world cities as a back-drop for its stories, while DC has invented the likes of Gotham, Metropolis, Central City and Starling City? What is gained through this decision? What is lost?

I’ve been thinking a bit about questions of place and story lately. And I’ll get to a bit of theological unpacking of these questions in some subsequent posts.

I while back I posted a bunch of lectures from TV show-runner extraordinaire Dan Harmon (of Community fame) about how stories work (and some stuff from Ira Glass and Kurt Vonnegut). The shape of stories Harmon talks about in those lectures is pretty much the shape of every comic book story ever created (and every story ever told), and he said this, which I think is true:

“Sooner or later, we need to be someone, because if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.” — Dan Harmon

Video games obviously make this process easier by giving you a character to play. Eyes to see through. An avatar. They bring us into the story via a character — other stories through other mediums have to do this in other ways, and as a result of web-slinging my way around New York, I’m wondering what role place plays in getting us inside a character. Do we get into a story, and into a character, quicker if the setting is one we know, or one that exists in our world, or does an ‘every-city’ do the job faster?

I’m also wondering what role comic books — or fantasy in general — plays in giving us a picture of a re-enchanted world. A world where good and evil are locked in a battle, not just in a natural sense, but supernaturally. I’m wondering how they might teach us something about compelling story-telling that helps us help people see the world truly.

All this. Just as a result of playing a video game about a comic book character…

Our Disenchanted world

I’ve been reading quite a bit of James K.A Smith lately. One of the ideas at the heart of much of his writing is that our modernist, ‘secular,’ world is a disenchanted world. A flat world that has lost a sense of meaning beyond the physical reality. He suggests that in moving to an epistemology (method of knowing stuff), ontology (understanding of what stuff ‘being’ ‘stuff’ is), and a philosophy (materialism, the way we bring these two together), that emphasises the material world above all else we’ve collapsed any transcendent (stuff beyond us, and our senses, and ‘ultimate’ stuff) reality into an immanent (stuff around us, that we experience and observe) reality. That is: we don’t ask questions about supernatural stuff. About magic. About God or gods — because all that really matters is what we (collectively, and individually) see, hear, feel, and experience.

The effect of this has been to disenchant the world — which has an impact on our art and culture as much as it does on the way we think about knowing, and the sciences. Our art becomes less enchanting. Our stories, even our ‘myths’ — not untrue stories, but the stories we live by — become more worried about the immanent.

But. Maybe the world isn’t as disenchanted as it appears to be. And maybe superhero stories are an invitation for us to consider our desire to be enchanted. One of Smith’s books I’ve been reading is How (Not) To Be Secular its a short commentary on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. in it, Smith says:

Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.

One of the ways out of a disenchanted world, via these haunted remains, is through the arts — and — specifically, through stories. Comic books are a type of art (even if high art types might criticise them as being ‘pop’ culture). They’re also a type of story particularly given to doing this work because they’re visual stories, not just words on a page. They’re also, often, an ‘epic’ sort of story capable of functioning as myth, and with a hero designed for us to care about, and identify with (but more on heroes in the next episode). Both the Marvel and DC universes, via their comic books, but also their multimedia platforms represent a billion dollar sector churning out stories people want to immerse themselves in as they read, watch, and play.

“The cinema has never before seen anything quite like the “Marvel cinematic universe”. This sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely connected skein of films and television shows draw on characters the comic-book publisher (now also a movie company owned by Disney) has been developing for decades. Begun in 2008 with “Iron Man”, its exercise in extended mythopoeia now consists of 11 feature films and three television shows, with many more to come… The studio has successfully explored a range of trappings and stylings for its superheroes, putting them in character pieces and ensembles, setting their stories in outer space and in congressional hearings, playing them for thrills, or laughs, or both. There has, though, been something of an amped-up sameiness to the recent offerings, with third acts dominated by variations on the theme of a large-flying-object-laying-waste-to-a-city-with-possible-world-changing-conseqences.” — Ant Man: The Smaller Picture, Economist

These stories matter. The settings matter — these cities that are laid waste matter. The ‘laying waste’ matters within those worlds, it has potential consequences that we largely ignore as viewers, but the authors are no longer interested in letting us ignore, nor are they interested in ignoring them as storytellers who are world building — that’s what that word ‘mythopoeia’ means in the quote above.

These stories are also a window into the way people experience the haunting of our ‘immanent’ world at a ‘pop’ level. They are art. Pop art. I don’t think ‘pop’ should carry any sense of snobbery, because what this really means is that its a popular way that people in western society get their little taste of enchantment. Even if the way these comic universes are set up (as we’ll see) are often products of an immanent view of the world.

Just briefly, as a bit of an answer for anyone who has bothered to read this far who is still thinking “what’s the point” of all this — the point is this. Too often our methodologies as Christians, the way we speak the Gospel and live it — buys into this immanent frame, and produces a sort of immanent Christianity that never touches the transcendent, or gets close to this haunting sense people have. One of our goals, as Christians who believe in a supernatural — something beyond our senses — and an archetypal hero — must surely be to give people a new vocabulary, and a new way of seeing the world. Our task in speaking into the secular world — the stories we tell — are stories, or ‘myths’ that are ‘enchanted’ and true.

Now. Back to the question at hand. What difference does it make to the story if its set in the “real” world, or in a created world? Are we most likely to see the world as enchanted if the ‘myths’ or stories we live by that give us models for action, and help us think through meaning are set in the real world, in real cities, or in fictional every-cities? What is more relatable?

It turns out this is a debate that goes as far back as CS Lewis and Tolkien, who both wrote about the importance of ‘faery stories’ and creating worlds shot through with meaning. Worlds where the transcendent was not collapsed into the immanent. Worlds where magic still happened. Enchanted worlds. Worlds that could speak to those haunted parts of our minds and help us see meaning in our own world. So we’ll unpack that a bit too. My basic thesis is that Tolkien advocates a DC approach to story telling, while Lewis would adopt Marvel’s approach. So, for example, the humans in Narnia are citizens of earth who arrive in the enchanted world of Narnia through a wardrobe, while the humans of Middle Earth are natives of this alternative, still overtly enchanted, world.

Although, Lewis understood that enchanted stories needed to take place a little beyond our little immanent bubbles of reality. Beyond our own place — our own city.

“It is not difficult to see why those who wish to visit strange regions in search of such beauty, awe, or terror as the actual world does not supply have increasingly been driven to other planets or stars. It is the result of increasing geographical knowledge. The less known the real world is, the more plausibly your marvels can be located near at hand.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction

The effect of dislocation into these enchanted places was meant, for Lewis, to help people carry that experience into their everyday reality. To re-enchant the world.

“He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — CS Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

But are comic books really the equivalent of the Lewis/Tolkien approach to faery stories? Can we really think these forms of pop culture can do what the literary work of two of the 20th century’s most prodigious literary geniuses were able to do? Is there any comparison between DC’s Gotham and Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Or Marvel’s New York and Lewis’ London? Or even perhaps Marvel’s Asgard and Lewis’ Narnia?

In the next couple of posts I’ll unpack what Tolkien and Lewis teach us about building worlds embedded with meaning, and I’ll consider the role of heroes within these world building stories. Who knows when those posts will be finished. For now lets continue on this question of what sort of place, or setting, provides the quickest path to re-enchantment. A real city, enchanted, or an ‘enchanted’ city we’re invited to see as a city we belong to…

Comics and the “real” world

Comics, as stories, are an interesting lens through which to unpack the values of the world that produces them, and they also play a part in shaping the world we live in. Comic book characters are no longer reduced to two dimensional avatars that move through panel by panel, they’re now brought to life in TV shows, Movies, and video games. We can, as I’ve experienced this week, see the world — our world — through their eyes, and so seeing, can be invited to re-see our world differently through our own eyes.

It’s interesting that in their current iterations the significant difference between DC and Marvel is that, thanks to the aesthetic of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, DC products tend to be darker, and grittier than Marvel’s, and ultimately, despite Superman coming from another planet, I think they’re somewhat less overtly enchanted or magical than Marvel. Marvel’s cinematic universe — with the exception of the new Netflix Daredevil series (and we’ll discuss it in a subsequent post) operates in a world soaked in vivid colour. Neither comic universe really engages in the magical realm quite so much as Lewis or Tolkien. Whether its New York or Gotham or Metropolis, these stories still occur in something close to the real world. And yet the ‘enchantment’ of the superhero still needs to be explained, this is truer in Marvel’s universe — Batman (DC) and Ironman (Marvel) both operate as functions of their wealth, and the opportunity created by such wealth, Superman (DC) and Thor (Marvel) are both ‘out of this world’ heroes from above, bringing a sense of enchantment to earth, while the rest of Marvel’s heroes are essentially ‘enchanted’ when the immanent world backfires, or, when science misfires. The ‘enchantments’ are largely not enchantments at all, but products of immanence (the question of whether God/gods exists in these universes is an interesting one that I’ll unpack a bit later too). As my friend Craig Hamilton put it when I asked him (and others) the question that drove this investigation:

“The DC universe is about the ideal whereas Marvel is about struggling to live up to an ideal. DC heroes are almost pure archetypes while Marvel are heroes with feet of clay. Even Batman isn’t a brooding vigilante he’s The World’s Greatest Detective. Marvel has a fearful, suspicious stance towards technology and science that DC doesn’t have. Most of Marvel’s heroes and villains are the result of science gone wrong. The Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Hulk. It’s fear of radiation that creates all these heroes. And they’re fundamentally flawed characters in a way that DC heroes aren’t. Sure Superman has kryptonite and Green Lantern’s ring didn’t work on yellow for a while, but that’s totally different to Tony Stark being an alcoholic weapons manufacturer or Peter Parker being responsible for his Uncle’s murder and being driven by that guilt forever while continuing to make stupid decisions and needing to fix his mistakes.” — Craig Hamilton

The X-Men, a Marvel franchise, are another example of enchantment via immanence — super powers developed via mutation, rather than enchantment being a natural product of a world that includes an accepted, and largely unquestioned, transcendent reality (ala Gandalf and Aslan).

Regardless of the origin of the powers of the hero, these stories have always had a mythic quality, the ability, via a sort of enchantment, to function as myth and cause us to understand our ‘immanent’ reality differently.They’ve always had this sort of power. Regardless of their setting — but a really interesting example of the differences between Marvel’s real world stories and DC’s stories that come from fictional cities set within the real world, came in World War II.

While being perennially dismissed as juvenile, comic books functioned as powerful propaganda in World War II, which took place just as superheroes were emerging as icons. DC Comics Superman and Batman, who existed in their own fictional ‘every-cities’ took part in the war effort by modelling an ideal citizenship — a citizenship of responsible consumption — cracking down on petty crime and irresponsible use of resources back home, while Marvel’s characters, especially Captain America, coming as they did from real cities, were able to participate in the war effort.

The question of setting is already playing a part in the way comic book stories function as ‘myth’ stories that shape us. Stories that use a sense of enchantment to reshape the lives of the people and cultures who both read them and produce them. What’s interesting in the question of setting, is that regardless of universe, all the action is really taking place in one city. Vancouver.

Or, rather, New York. “Every City” or not, comic book drama takes place in that great city.

That great city: Gotham, Metropolis and New York

“Originally I was going to call Gotham City “Civic City.” Then I tried “Capital City,” then “Coast City.” Then I flipped through the New York City phone book and spotted the name “Gotham Jewelers” and said, “That’s it,” Gotham City. We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it. Of course, Gotham is another name for New York.” — Batman Writer/Co-creator, Bill Finger

“The difference between Gotham and Metropolis succinctly summarizes the differences between the two superheroes. As current Batman editor Dennis O’Neil put it: ‘Gotham is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3 a.m., November 28 in a cold year. Metropolis is Manhattan between Fourteenth and One Hundred and Tenth Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year'” — Dennis O’Neil, Batman Writer, cited in ‘Metropolis is New York by Day, Gotham City is New York by Night,’

The locus of superhero comics was then, as it largely remains, New York. Writers and artists living in the city depict it in their work — so successfully that superhero stories set in any other city may require a certain degree of justification for their choice of locale.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader


But why New York? Making an ‘every-city’ based on New York is interesting, because it’s already an every-city.

“The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described his reactions on arriving in the city in the essay ‘New York in 1941’: “…New York (and this is the source of its charm and its peculiar fascination) was then a city where anything seemed possible. Like the urban fabric, the social and cultural fabric was riddled with holes. All you had to do was pick one and slip through if, like Alice, you wanted to get to the other side of the looking glass and find worlds so enchanting that they seemed unreal.” This is the New York (or Gotham City, or Metropolis) that dominates the superhero story and has become its almost inevitable milieu. New York draws together an impressive wealth of signs, all of which the comic-reader is adept at deciphering. It is a city that signifies all cities, and, more specifically, all modern cities, since the city itself is one of the signs of modernity… New York is a sign in fictional discourse for the imminence of such possibilities — simultaneously a forest of urban signs and an endlessly wiped slate on which unlimited designs can be inscribed — cop shows, thrillers, comedies, “ethnic” movies… and cyclical adventures of costumed heroes as diverse as Bob Kane’s Batman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader

What’s interesting is that these comic universes — even these comic New Yorks — have to grapple with questions of the relationship between people and place. Both people in these worlds — and the impact they have on the places they occupy, and the impact these places have on the people who occupy them, and the people and events outside the world and the impacts these people have on the fictional, enchanted universe of these stories. A question that flows from this is what do these ‘enchanted’ places do to people in the real world — via the power of story.


What places do to people, what people do to places

“Batman is integrally linked to his city, the city he has sworn to protect. In every sense of the word, he is a true avatar of Gotham. And Gotham City itself is an avatar, not only of the dreams of its fictional architects, but of our collective urban paranoia.” — Jimmy Stamp, ‘Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives,’ Life Without Buildings

There’s a sense amongst the literature on Batman, especially the Dark Knight Batman, that Gotham’s dysfunctionality is, at least in part, due to the sort of person, or sort of hero, he is. His ‘myth’ — his power as a symbol — is built on fear. He wears a mask. He strikes fear into the hearts of those who do wrong in the city, and yet, this perpetuates a kind of criminal in Gotham who needs to be fearless (or insane) to operate. It’s a vicious cycle. Batman is shaped by his city, and thereafter he shapes his city.

In the real world, as readers or viewers visiting Gotham, the city has the capacity to both embody our fears about criminals unchecked by conscience, and the ‘worst’ of city life. If the writers of Batman have quite deliberately based their ‘enchanted’ city on New York’s worst districts, at night, then this fictional place starts to reinforce certain fears in us, as we read. The Dark Knight is a certain sort of post-modern hero who turns the table on the way this ‘enchantment’ works from being light and magical to being dark, if not a dark art, or sorcery, at the very least a sort of defence against the dark arts that comes from us seeing humanity reflected at its worst through the magic mirror, rather than at its best in the, albeit masked, visage of the superhero.

“Since its inception, Gotham City has been presented as the embodiment of the urban fears that helped give rise to the American suburbs, the safe havens from the city that they are. Gotham City has always been a dark place, full of steam and rats and crime. A city of graveyards and gargoyles; alleys and asylums. Gotham is a nightmare, a distorted metropolis that corrupts the souls of good men.”— Jimmy Stamp, ‘Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives,’ Life Without Buildings

Architecture, real or enchanted, shapes the people who ‘live’ in it. It makes us feel. It’s a form of art, and thus, able to enchant. Or haunt. As my web-slinging avatar flew through the streets of New York, and as the impressively animated city was corrupted, burned, and blown up by bad guys, and an hyper-vigilant anti-hero agency, I felt things about the destruction of the city. I don’t know if this felt ‘realer’ because it was New York, a city I’ve never visited, but the setting was part of the story. It helped it touch some haunted part of me, or put me in touch with something enchanting. It got me asking the sort of questions that led me to read a bunch of stuff and write these posts.

“Architecture influences the lives of human beings. City dwellers react to the architectural forms and spaces which they encounter: specific consequences may be looked for in their thoughts, feelings and actions. Their response to Architecture is usually subconscious. Designers themselves are usually unconscious of the effects which their creations will produce.” — Hugh Ferris, An Architect/deliniator from New York from his book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Comic book architecture also reacts and responds to the real world. It has to, to keep us engaged. This becomes part of the motivation (apart from a desire to do-over a stupid plot line) for a comic book trope called retconning. The “retcon” is a portmanteau of retroactive continuity. It’s a sort of on the fly editing of a back story to account for a change in the present. From what I’ve read in the last couple of days, Frank Miller’s introduction of the Dark Knight version of Batman was an incredibly powerful and effective retcon, with a fitting story. It was a retcon that took place because of a cultural shift. It enabled Batman to be interestingly post-modern, asking new questions in storylines and for us as readers (but more on this in a future episode). Apparently Superman started off as something of a Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich and was a little anti-establishment, but as soon as World War II kicked off he became the face of the ideal American. These retcons seem necessary. But some are dumb. Other retcons, or changes, are forced because of physical changes in the real world — like the 9-11 destruction of the Twin Towers. There are other changes that are less retconny and more trendy.

“Miller’s revisionary realism is only another version of what comic books often accomplish in the narrative, a literal revising of the facts of a comic book character’s history on the basis of recent interpretation. Take, for example, the design of Superman’s home planet, Krypton. The rendering of a “futuristic” world looks very different today than the rendering done in 1938. Today, however, Krypton is portrayed anew and is expected to be understood by readers as the true rendition of how Krypton has always looked. — Geoff Klock, The Revisionary Superhero Narrative

But places are also, increasingly, affected by the events that take place inside the comic book universe. This is interesting because it makes the stories set therein simultaneously ‘realer’ in that there is an effect following a cause, and less real, in that the ‘real’ version of the city is increasingly removed from the story version. A story-teller particularly committed to their craft would have to start literally blowing up cityscapes to keep a continuity between the real world and the story world. Over time, the change inflicted on the physical landscape in the story could make the events more distant from us, if they didn’t become opportunities to present us with new questions. It’s funny that in one sense, Marvel’s New York is moving closer to DC’s, especially Dark Knight DC’s, Gotham.

One of the profoundly cool things about Netflix’s version of Daredevil is that it happens in the same Marvel universe as the films. And this becomes part of the story. The events shape the people. There’s continuity — which according to Reynold’s in a book called Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths  — is a thing that Marvel’s Stan Lee introduced into the world of comics as a key innovation in what he identifies as the Silver Age of Comics (these ‘ages’ are contested a bit). So it’s true to Marvel’s DNA. This continuity is interesting because Daredevil, via Netflix, has a sort of gritty aesthetic more at home in Gotham. Daredevil’s New York is gritty. And its grittiness is a result — a direct result — of the wanton destruction of New York in The Avengers. Daredevil confronts the fallout of the destruction of this city so prominently featured as the landscape for Marvel’s epic cinematic universe. This universe, a universe grappling with the destruction wrought upon it by these conflicts, and changing as our real world changes too, becomes the backdrop for increasingly complex stories, stories where we’re haunted by both our very immanent reality, and the real, physical, consequences of decisions made in the real world, but where we’re also haunted by a lingering sense of the transcendent, and the idea that even now, though we might deny it, our world is shot through with meaning. The Marvel Universe is becoming even more ‘fallen’ in a Biblical sense, as the impact of human, and super-human, failings are felt at an environmental level. Marvel’s universe, like DC’s, and like our own, is frustrated and groaning as a result of sin. But this makes the world meaningful, and real.

CS Lewis wrote a book called The Discarded Image in which he explores how our modern approach to knowledge displaced the idea that there is meaning beyond the material. He writes about the medieval model of the world, a world imbued with all sorts of meaning. A world which functions as a backdrop for stories — art — that is more enchanting than the art we produce as a result. We start handicapped, like a runner 20 metres behind the start line, because we’ve lost our sense that the everyday forest is enchanted already. Our fictional forests are as bland as the run of the mill forest of the medieval model. Our comic book villains are less magical, and our heroes are the product of science experiments gone wrong. They’re not the sorts about whom bards might sing.

In every period the Model of the Universe which is accepted by the great thinkers helps to provide what we may call a backcloth for the arts. But this backcloth is highly selective. It takes over from the total Model only what is intelligible to a layman and only what makes some appeal to imagination and emotion. Thus our own backcloth contains plenty of Freud and little of Einstein. The medieval backcloth contains the order and influences of the planets, but not much about epicycles and eccentrics. Nor does the backcloth always respond very quickly to great changes in the scientific and philosophical level. Furthermore, and apart from actual omissions in the backcloth version of the Model, there will usually be a difference of another kind. We may call it a difference of status. The great masters do not take any Model quite so seriously as the rest of us. They know that it is, after all, only a model, possibly replaceable. — CS Lewis, The Discarded Image

Romans 1 suggests we suppress the transcendent reality of our world, and exchange the transcendent supernatural God, in whom we exist, for a bunch of immanent gods — worshipping created things. Romans 1 shows that the world, as it was intended to be, is an enchanted space where we should be coming face to face with the divine, and its only our deliberate blinkers, our wilful intent to not see, to not be enchanted, that leaves our world more two dimensional than a comic strip universe (a world where meaning and enchantment still exist).

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. — Romans 1:18-23

Enchanting stories: Stories that bridge the gap between the immanent and transcendent

The contemplation of the actual Metropolis as a whole cannot but lead us at last to the realization of a human population unconsciously reacting to forms which came into existence without conscious design. A hope, however, may begin to define itself in our minds. May there not yet arise, perhaps in another generation, architects who, appreciating the influence unconsciously received, will learn consciously to direct it?” — Hugh Ferris, from The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Breaking this ‘suppression’ and the blindness that comes with it requires the world to become enchanted again, in some sense this requires the enchanted worlds that teach us that our world, too, is enchanted, to become more compellingly enchanted. That’ll help. It also involves us shifting our model for understanding the real world, to include the transcendant. This is another one of those vicious cycles. Our models are influenced by art and story, just as they influence art and story. Paul’s answer to the world broken by our fascination with the immanent in Romans 1 is a story, the story about how the transcendent one broke through. How God took the first step. How he provided a hero. Here’s a spoiler. The answer at the end of this series, wherever it leads, is going to be Jesus, because Jesus, in the incarnation, is the perfect character (a character almost every superhero, but especially Superman, rips off in some way). This isn’t your typical Jesus juke. I think it’s true in a profound and enchanting way.

But the answer is also us telling better, more enchanting, stories. Learning something from DC and Marvel, sure, but looking back to times when the world was more enchanted, or to those who engaged, deliberately, in the construction of enchanted worlds. Whose approach to ‘architecture’ or to world-building was an intentional attempt to direct us not just to something enchanting, but something truer than true about our own world. Stories require people (heroes) doing things in places, over time. So the next two episodes will explore that. But now. Some James K.A Smith on why we need stories.

“So what does this have to do with stories? Well, our hearts traffic in stories. Not only are we lovers, we are also story-tellers (and story-listeners). As the novelist David Foster Wallace once put it, “We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing”. We are narrative animals whose very orientation to the world is most fundamentally shaped by stories. Indeed, it tends to be stories that capture our imagination—stories that seep into our heart and aim our love. We’re less convinced by arguments than moved by stories… The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that stories are so fundamental to our identity that we don’t know what to do without one. As he puts it, I can’t answer the question, “What ought I to do?” unless I have already answered aprior question, “Of which story am I a part?” It is a story that provides the moral map of our universe…

Stories, then, are not just nice little entertainments to jazz up the material; stories are not just some supplementary way of making content “interesting.” No, we learn through stories because we know by stories. Indeed, we know things in stories that we couldn’t know any other way: there is an irreducibility of narrative knowledge that eludes translation and paraphrase…

So it is crucial that the task of Christian schooling is nested in a story—in the narrative arc of the biblical drama of God’s faithfulness to creation and to his people. It is crucial that the story of God in Christ redeeming the world be the very air we breathe, the scaffolding around us… we constantly need to look for ways to tell that story, and to teach in stories, because story is the first language of love. If hearts are going to be aimed toward God’s kingdom, they’ll be won over by good storytellers.” — James K.A Smith, Learning (by) Stories


So. What difference does it make if the story is set in real New York or New York in a mask? Perhaps not much. What matters is how enchanting the story is, or how much the use of the city is able to haunt us by pointing us to some truth beyond ourselves. To get us to remove the mask, or the blinkers, we wear that stop us truly seeing the world around us as enchanted, and shot through with meaning. A place where we might meet real heroes, and even behold the divine.

On paradoxes and pendulums: From sacrifice to sacrifice and resurrection

I just read a piece on the Gospel Coalition Australia by Wei Han Kuan called From Sacrifice to Fulfillmentessentially a call for our understanding of ministry to be much more shaped by the Cross than the current trend in global Christianity (which, in sum, is a ‘best life now’ approach to Christianity rather than a ‘when Christ calls a man he bids him come and die’ Christianity). He opens with the question:

“What will it take? To reach all the nations for Christ?”

I love the idea that ministry needs to be cross-shaped. I wrote a thesis on exactly this. The article makes lots of fine points, but I fear its guilty of the same charge it levels at the breed of Christianity it has in the cross-hairs. Like much reactive Christianity out there, it over-corrects a bad thing by killing a paradox. By swinging a pendulum further than the Bible would allow, and perhaps, further than effective proclamation of the Gospel allows. It uses this idea of a ‘main frame of reference’ and a ‘subtle shift’ to push for one side of a paradox to have priority over the other.

“I’m not saying the books today are all bad, or even that those ones are all bad. But notice the way in which the frame of reference has shifted. From sacrifice and suffering as an inevitable part of the Christian life that must be embraced to fulfilment and even strategy–that which is most strategic for me and my ministry–as the main frame of reference. It’s a subtle shift and one that moves us a step further away from the pattern we see in Scripture.”

Why can’t our ‘main frame of reference’ be complicated enough to embrace paradox? I suspect that would allow us a more robust Christianity and a better way of correcting the problems at either pendulum extreme. This GK Chesterton quote from Orthodoxy shows what a better response to the question of the Christian life in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus will look like.

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

Cross shaped. Absolutely. But the reason we suffer is that we believe we are raised with Christ. And when I have an opportunity to show what a flourishing or abundant life that reflects what God’s goodness to the world, and his ultimate plan for the world might look like, it’s also my job to live life in a way that testifies to this. Isn’t it? Aren’t we able to conceive of a sort of approach to life that simultaneously testifies to both the life we now share through Jesus, and the means by which we were invited to share in it? Can’t we be ‘positive on both points’ of the paradox? Must we keep writing correctives that throw out both sides, or priorities one side, rather than simply calling for paradoxical balance or tension? We do the same thing with the deeds v words debate, and just about every other paradoxical element of our faith has at one point been resolved in a manner which created some manner of heresy or hollowness.

There is no Cross-shaped message without the resurrection. And the central thesis of this piece, which I’ll reduce to ‘preach and live the Cross’ kind of misses the point that Jesus also did say:

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” — John 10

“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

And Paul picks this up, I think, in Romans 6. This isn’t to say suffering is not part of the Christian life, but its a part held alongside a sort of resurrected flourishing. A flourishing that Romans 8 picks up too…

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. — Romans 6

This all has implications for life now. Life that goes beyond simply taking up our cross — but must necessarily involve that too (and I’d say, ultimately it involves this for the sake of loving others. That’s what leads us to suffer. Willingly). The ‘resurrected’ life involves the incredible new humanity we now experience because God dwells in us by his Spirit, and transforms us into the image of Christ (not Adam). We’re part of something new. The Gospel is good news for our humanity, and our testimony is an expression of this new humanity as well as a constant pointing to where this new life, eternal life, is found.

And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” — Romans 8

Picking either ‘death/suffering’ or ‘resurrection/glory’ as our thematic approach to Christianity robs the Gospel of its richness. It leaves us anemic. It leaves our Gospel roughly 100% incomplete. Just as Jesus is 100% divine, and 100% human. The Gospel is 100% the suffering and death of Jesus, and it is 100% the resurrection and glorification of Jesus. And we share in that Gospel fully.  

“Could it be that our drift to the narrative of fulfilment and strategy is running counter to our commanding officer’s vision of a spiritual army at war, with faithful soldiers ready to fight, suffer, be wounded, and even to die? Could it be that too much talk of strategic ministry and mission, and of fulfilment in the Christian life, is working actively against God’s purposes to use suffering to achieve his Gospel ends? Consider the suffering of Christ!” — Wei Han Kuan

Suffering alone is not a strategy. Embracing paradox is. As confusing and mysterious as that will necessarily be.

The Gospel isn’t just a path to a way out of this life via suffering, it’s a path to a good and flourishing life — the life God made us for. Life as God’s children again. Equipped and empowered by the Spirit to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, fixed on his victory, and fixed on the future — so that we will be prepared to suffer anything for the sake of making God’s goodness, and this new life, known for others. Even for our enemies. Even for those who would crucify us for holding this hope — for living this hope. The problem the article is identifying, I think, is an eschatological problem and a problem of expectations. The ‘best life now’ stream of Christianity brings too much of God’s future into the present, but the danger is that in rejecting this brand of Christianity we leave too much of the future in the future, and neuter our message which is ‘good news’ — and its good news in more than just a sense that Jesus died for us. It’s good news, also, because he was raised for us. And we share in his resurrection. Our lives, and our teaching, and our approach to ministry, is meant to be shaped by where we think life (and the world) is heading. An under-realised eschatology is just as damaging and wrong, and limiting, as an over-realised eschatology. Wei Han Kuan is right, absolutely right, to nail the problem with much popular Christian literature — probably even the most prevalent form of Protestant Christian belief — but just because it’s a big and popular problem isn’t an excuse to swing the pendulum to the other extreme. It won’t provide the answer to his opening question.  

“What will it take? To reach all the nations for Christ?”


It’s getting a full and robust Christianity that appreciates, and celebrates the mystery at the heart of all our paradoxes that has a hope of being compelling to those around us. It’ll take us living out the richness of a life of  robustly held paradox, not trying to flatten it every time someone else fails to hold twin truths in balance. This means living out the truths of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Putting to death our old selves, and putting on the new self. Because we really believe the old us died with Jesus, and the new us is raised with him and developed in us by God’s Spirit, as God works in us to ultimately present us completely transformed and glorified in the image of Christ. This is what bringing our future best life into the ‘now’ looks like. Our best life now is a life that is a taste of what is to come, as well as a taste, for others, of what secured this life for us. This is what a good, flourishing life, an abundant life, a life patterned on God’s design looks like.

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

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, since you have taken off your old selfwith its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised,barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

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