Category Archives: Christianity

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A letter to the Queensland Government regarding the Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018

The Queensland Government is considering a new bill to decriminalise abortion. I wrote a pretty lengthy piece for church on how any legislation in this area is complicated because it touches on how we, as a society, define personhood, and how we choose who gets ‘human rights’ before we then stack the rights of the mother up against the rights of the child. Abortion is a pretty complicated issue and it’s multi-factorial — there’s much more going on than can be solved simply with legal solutions, and the church’s public stance on sexual ethics (and thus unwanted pregnancies) has left us as complicit with abortion as those who allow it. We’re also bad at imagining solutions beyond legislation — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak about legislation when the moment arises. Two of my brilliant colleagues, Andrea and Vicki wrote pieces exploring these issues.

I’ve been asked why abortion (and the sanctity of life) is a different issue to marriage equality (and the sanctity of marriage), which is a great question that I’d love to unpack. And my basic answer is that it both is and isn’t different; my approach to speaking into the political sphere as a Christian is consistently to articulate a Christian perspective and recognise that we are not a Christian nation and that our views have no special place in the legislative approach chosen by our government — who must balance all the views at the shared table. A Christian perspective is one built from the idea that, for the Christian (and in reality), Jesus is Lord, and that our loyalty, within a democracy (or anywhere) is to him first. Our reason for speaking for a Christian view is that we believe it is better for all people because God is the loving creator. Our challenge is that other views of creation (idolatry) will need to be accommodated by the laws in a secular, pluralist, democracy; and such a democracy, that holds competing views together in tension, will always by default lean towards one view and attempt to accommodate, or make space for, as many others as it can.

Our case for or against any change is not served by spreading misinformation; and having read the Bill and the report from the Queensland Law Reform Commission that produced it, I’m appalled by some of the misinformation being circulated by the pro-life side. I’ve seen claims that the legislation allows sex selection, the death of children born alive during the process, and partial birth abortion. The last claim is the most obvious form of misinformation; the Bill does not mention partial birth abortion because the report suggests a partial birth abortion is neither an abortion, nor murder, but fits within its own definitional category in the Criminal Code).

The report says:

“Provisions like section 313(1) were intended to fill the gap between the offences of unlawful termination (which apply to a fetus) and unlawful homicide (which applies to a child born alive).”

The relevant section of the Criminal Code says:

“Any person who, when a female is about to be delivered of a child, prevents the child from being born alive by any act or omission of such a nature that, if the child had been born alive and had then died, the person would be deemed to have unlawfully killed the child, is guilty of a crime, and is liable to imprisonment for life.”

The report acknowledges that there’s an ambiguity here when it comes to abortion, so the Bill recommends an amendment to s313, to make it clear that terminations are not the same thing as ‘preventing a child being born alive’. It doesn’t specifically say anything about the surgical procedures involved that either allow or disallow partial birth abortions. And while, if the unborn child is a person from conception, there’s no moral difference when it comes to the methods of procuring an abortion anyway, it is important that when discussing a topic that is rightly one where the emotions are at play, and where the outcome matters, that we get our facts straight. There’s a massive grey area on the question of partial birth termination, but that’s not the same as suggesting it’s a built-in feature of the Bill. One problem with the Bill is that there are just two many grey areas that mean different emotional arguments from all sorts of scenarios become possible arguments, but this doesn’t make them good arguments any more than the grey areas make good law.

I’d recommend reading the QLRC report (where the Presbyterian Church of Queensland submission even gets quoted). It’s 300+ pages long, but if you’re going to enter a conversation it’s worth holding an informed position. Especially if the issue matters.

Here’s a letter where I attempt to hold these things in balance. You might like to write your own.


To the Hon Yvette D’ath MP, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice and the Hon Jackie Trad MP, Deputy Premier and Member for South Brisbane,

Re: Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018

I am a Presbyterian Minister, leading a congregation in Ms Trad’s electorate of South Brisbane. I’ve long been an admirer of her engagement in the community of South Brisbane and particularly her concerns for the vulnerable members of her electorate — our neighbours.

The recent proposed changes to laws regarding termination of pregnancies in Queensland are causing some concern within the Christian community, and not a small amount of misinformation is being circulated by pro-life groups. I’ve been urged to oppose changes to the legislation because the new bill allows abortions on the basis of ‘sex selection’, and that it will allow partial birth abortions or even post-birth abortions where a fetus survives the process and is left to die, unwanted. This is disturbing to many within the community (beyond the boundaries of religious groups). As I read the proposed Bill from the Law Reform Commission I could find no evidence to support such emotional claims, but also nothing to refute them.

As a leader within the Christian community it seems that the best pathway to a civil conversation on what is not a small or simple issue requires clear information, especially in response to misinformation — especially when the moral weight of such misinformation must surely lead many decent people to oppose the bill. I’m writing to ask that in the course of the public conversation you devote time and energy to both hearing from those worried by these changes, and to correcting the record with as much clarity and charity as possible.

It seems to me that the discussion around the legislation of abortion is not helped by references to marginal cases (from either side), but also that such marginal cases are inevitably part of the discussion. I watched a speech from Ms Trad on the ABC’s Facebook page where she said:

“When the other side say that what we are campaigning for is the right to carry an unborn baby for 38 weeks and then go to a doctor and say we want an abortion is bullshit. It is 100% bullshit.”

I’m concerned that while Ms Trad identifies a gross misrepresentation of the views of those seeking legislative change, any approach to a complex ethical issue built on statements about ‘the other side’ are likely to create an adversarial basis for discussions. One can grant that the legislative changes are seeking to aid women in enormously complicated medical and emotional circumstances without accepting the premise that generalised laws should be made for marginal cases. The proposed legislation is much broader than required those situations as they arise. I am concerned that the proposed limits in the legislation for terminations beyond 22 weeks are fairly vague, where they could be much more specific.

That’s not to say that those of us in religious communities within the community are only concerned about terminations after 22 weeks, which involve the more emotionally disturbing surgical termination (and as a result open up concerns about partial birth abortions, and infant survival beyond the process). The report from the QLRC, which produced the draft bill, provides a relatively black and white position on what it acknowledges is a complicated and contested question.  In deciding whether to recommend abortion ‘on demand’ or the ‘combined approach’ the bill adopts, the QLRC acknowledged various objections to abortion on demand from religious groups (including the Presbyterian Church of Queensland), and those supporting a ‘combined approach,’ which typically argued from the rights of the mother. The report cited a submission from the Australian Lawyers For Human Rights which, in arguing for no limit, made the point that isolating any moment in the gestation period as a point at which the fetus gained human rights and legislating from there is an arbitrary decision:

“Specifying criteria for termination according to different gestation periods is arbitrary, and fails to consider the individual circumstances of each case.”

I would agree with the arbitrary nature of specifying criteria, but suggest that a rush to individualise the considerations around particular cases ignores general principles that our legislative framework must uphold (and indeed the sort of ‘general principles’ required to establish generalities like universal human rights. I would humbly suggest that it is precisely because making such a distinction is arbitrary that we might consider drawing such a point earlier than viability, rather than later.  The report, in Appendix D, also makes the claim:

“Determining the moral status of the fetus or unborn child is contentious. It cannot be resolved by medical facts.”

If extreme cases make for bad law, then I wonder if another axiom might be thrown into the mix — legislation that doesn’t have settled ‘first principles’ also makes bad law. While I recognise that the rights of the woman are an important consideration, laws regarding termination (and that such laws have not been established in Queensland prior to 2018) have always been contentious because deciding when a human life becomes a ‘person’ the law should protect is not easy. The contest of rights between mother and child cannot simply be solved by assertion, and the report itself acknowledges that religious and philosophical reasoning must be brought to bear on this question that medical science alone cannot answer; and so I was concerned to hear Ms Trad dismiss religious objections being raised to the Bill when she said:

“That is the shameful act — to elevate these women’s lives and these women’s circumstances and to use it as a political platform for their absolutely fringe religious perspectives here is outrageous.”

These are not so much fringe religious perspectives as perspectives on the nature of human life that have shaped the approach to human rights, including the rights of the mother, that we enjoy in the western world. For good, and for ill, our approach to personhood in the western world has been profoundly shaped by the Christian teaching that all people are made in the image of God, and thus have inherent dignity (traditionally from conception), and the command from Jesus to “love your neighbour as you love yourself.” It is this axiom that led the early church to, in practice, oppose the abortion-on-demand culture of Rome, a first century Christian document, The Didache, contains specific teachings about how the church was practice this command, which included, specifically, a command not to have abortions, and as the Christian view of life became the dominant one in Rome, and then the west, this view of the unborn child as a neighbour became enshrined in practice, philosophy, and law. From the earliest practices of the church, through to the influence of these practices on our laws (and the establishment of rights for women and children), the church has been seeking to apply the teaching of Jesus to a belief that life begins at conception. These are not ‘fringe religious perspectives’ but a particular position on an issue that Queensland Law Reform Commission acknowledges is complicated.

Because Christians believe the unborn child is a person from conception there is a heightened amount of passion and emotion brought to the conversation about legislation; for us the images brought to our imagination when discussing surgical terminations after 22 weeks are profoundly the same as the idea of the ‘surgical termination’ of a newborn, whose right to life the state rightly protects. While Ms Trad rightly makes the case that nobody takes these decisions lightly, and they almost always tragedy, the legislation does not provide adequately explicit limits on the sort of cases where surgical terminations might be performed; and the distinction between a surgical termination performed at some point prior to 22 weeks and afterwards is, as the report acknowledges, totally arbitrary. How can those who hold this view of the humanity and personhood of the fetus possibly stand by and still believe they are upholding the command of Jesus to love our neighbours? For these weighty questions or scenarios to be dismissed as ‘bullshit’ or ‘fringe’ does not allow the sort of civil discussion required for the formation of good law based on the sort of consideration our pluralist, secular, democracy requires.

The influence that inherently Christian views should have on legislation in a modern secular state is, of course, open to debate. I’m not writing with the expectation that the particular views of my religious tradition be enshrined in the law, but rather to request that they not be summarily dismissed as ‘bullshit’ or ‘fringe religious perspectives’ in weighing up questions of when a human is viewed as a person (the criteria we use here, which are philosophical, will have profound ‘first principles’ implications for all sorts of lawmaking). I would urge you both, and the Labor Party, to reconsider the arbitrariness of drawing a line on where a fetus is a person, and as a result, draw the line to confer both personhood and human rights on the unborn child much earlier, and thus to weigh those rights carefully.

I’m also writing to suggest that the laws regarding conscientious objection and the necessary referral to other practitioners are not so straightforward. In my conversations with medical professionals within our Christian tradition I’ll be suggesting that part of ‘disclosing an objection’ is an opportunity to explain the basis for such an objection, to persuade our community that the best version of our society is one where Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ shapes all we do, that to simply refer a patient to termination by another where you believe the life of a person involved is to become a bystander in the killing of an unborn person. When Jesus affirms the command to ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’, he tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan — the one who stepped in to a complex situation to help after two others (religious leaders) had chosen to be bystanders in the situation. If such a stance is not protected or envisaged by the current framing of the bill then it does not actually protect the conscience of the practitioner but impinges on it such that they are essentially forced to adopt the definition of personhood not-clearly-defined by the Bill.

I recognise that churches have a long way to go in making alternatives to termination plausible, and that our ‘pro-life’ stance often does not extend to the community based support we offer mothers in emotionally and socially vulnerable situations, such that we demonstrate a concern for the rights of the mother, and I also recognise that there are many medically and socially complex cases where decriminalisation of abortion and the provision of clear medical guidelines for practitioners is important, but I do not believe this Bill provides the clarity or limits required for it to make good law for those circumstances.

Ms Trad has been exceptional at loving our neighbourhood in many other spheres, recognising the inherent dignity of many people our society chooses to walk by, and I thank her for that. I would love to have a further conversation with Ms Trad to listen to her perspective, and to outline the objections of the religious members of her electorate and the wider community, trusting that such a dialogue would limit our capacity to see our neighbour as a despicable ‘other’ and that dialogues like this are the basis of producing better, and more inclusive, legislation. Christians are also called to pray for our leaders, and I write to assure you both of my prayers as you, and the government, weigh up the best way forward on this issue.

Sincerely,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

Campus Pastor — Creek Road Presbyterian Church, South Bank.

If we’re going to talk about the ‘image of God’ in a foreign language let’s get it right: or why I’m more interested in the ‘selem elohim’ than ‘imago dei’

There is no theological topic I read about as much as what it means to be made in the image of God; it was the question at the heart of my thesis, but my obsession didn’t end when I graduated. It’s a question at the heart of what Christians believe it means not just to be human but to flourish as humans; and the answers to the question have been used to achieve many great things for societies influenced by Christians. There’s no doubt that being made in God’s image is part of what sets us apart from animals, and part of what gives us dignity and an inherent value (see Genesis 9:6) — there are questions about what sort of dignity it carries or what it entails to bear God’s image, and how much we as humans can deliberately or accidentally eradicate that image in pursuit of our own purposes (and very clear evidence about what happens when we refuse to see fellow humans as image bearers).

In church tradition and in the developments of doctrine or ‘systematic theology’ there has been much ink spilled on what it means for humans to be the imago dei — that’s Latin for ‘image of God’. The early church, once it got established and there were people who had the time and space to be theologians, wrote in Latin so there’s plenty of latinisms hanging around in systematic theology/doctrine discussions still. Sometimes the development of systematic theology fails to take into account developments in Biblical scholarship; and I’m pretty firmly in the camp that our theological understanding of the world comes from always going back to the source (ad fontes — in Latin), the Bible, rather than from church tradition (though church tradition does limit totally novel and heretical readings of the source material).

Lots of the stuff I read that digs into what it means to be the ‘imago dei’ is built from church traditions rightly affirming the inherent dignity of the person; and increasingly the embodied reality of our humanity; you can’t be an image and not be ‘physical’ — and that’s true. But it’s often the case that we bring ideas to the text of the Bible that are foreign to its thought world (and developed through the history of the church); rather than trying to get into the world, and once an idea gets a certain sort of momentum or meaning, it’s very hard to rein it back in. This isn’t to say there aren’t systematic theologians grappling with how the text of the Bible shapes a theological concept like the ‘imago dei’; but it does mean we need to be careful of the certain sort of freight tradition brings with it when we use terms, and I think it’s time to start resisting some of that freight to ensure we’re able to do the ad fontes work of building our understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to him.

Here’s my not so passive act of resistance; I’m happy to talk in english about being made in the ‘image of God’ (not the imago dei) simply because it is clear (more perspicuous — more Latin) and less pretentious (also more latin), but if we’re going to get into the nuts and bolts of the meaning of these words I’m not going to indulge the Latin game. I’m going to be talking ‘selem elohim’ (sometimes ‘tselem’ because the Hebrew letter צ rolls that way). This reminds us of the foreignness of the world of the text to our world (in ways that help us not to forget that this is about more than language — and includes how we understand, for example, the place of the supernatural and the reality of a spiritual realm, which underpins the Genesis story but not many modern discussions around anthropology). It reminds us that we’re always translating. It also reminds us that there’s a gap between the institutional church as it unfolds through history for good and for ill, and the experience of Israel and how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament and its expectations and shapes the church and its theology (rather than our understanding of God ’emerging’ and ‘progressing’ beyond the ‘exact representation of God’s being’ walking the earth ala Hebrews 1).

Here’s a few things from Biblical scholarship (selem elohim) I reckon lots of modern systematic theology (imago dei stuff), especially at the ‘popular level’ misses.

  1. That the word ‘image’, when it’s not about our role as humans, is almost exclusively used for idol statues (one exception is the weird models of the tumours in the ark in 1 Samuel).
  2. That the word ‘selem’ is what’s called a ‘cognate’ the same consonants are found lumped together in the ancient near east (and vowels are a later edition to the written word); and it has the same meaning in those other nations which establishes a particular context for its use. I’ve written elsewhere about how a ritual for giving life to a ‘slm’ in nations outside Israel parallels in a fascinating way with Genesis 2.
  3. That to ‘be a thing’ (ontology) in the ancient world, including to be ‘created’ (Hebrew ‘bara’) in the Old Testament was to have a function; to be a selem elohim was to do something in particular; a vocation. If we’re not doing it, there’s a question as to how much our ‘material’ is actually being the thing we’re made to be. So there’s a question, from the Biblical narrative, as to how much the ‘imago dei’ is a permanent imprint rather than a purpose that we might systematically eradicate. The human equivalent to the ‘selem elohim’ outside of Israel was the king-as-god (who’d ultimately become part of the gods of a nation).
  4. There’s are many important distinctions between Israel’s ‘selem elohims’ and the nation’s. In the nations around Israel people make images and the gods decide to live in them if they tick the right boxes; in Israel’s story — God breathes life into living images. In the nations only the king is ‘godlike’, in Israel’s story all of us are rulers of God’s world.
  5. This understanding of what it means to be human has some pretty big implications for how we understand human failure — sin — as a failure to uphold God’s image and the pursuit of other ‘images’ that we make for ourselves. All theology is integrated.
  6. That ‘male and female’ carry out this role together means we’re not simply talking about the ‘imago dei’ being an inherent dignity to the individual thing, but something we carry out in relationship with each other (and the God whose image we bear). The plurals in Genesis 1:26-27 and their significance are debated beyond this (whether it’s the Trinity or God addressing the heavenly court room, for example), but what is reasonably clear (including from Genesis 2) is that a man alone isn’t fully fit for purpose. The Old Testament theologian John Walton makes the case that ‘being’ in the ancient world isn’t just about ‘function’ but ‘function in relationship with everything else’
  7. There’s a plot line that runs through the Bible where other ‘selems’ form the heart of the Israelite imagination of the good life, and where instead of being God’s images, Israel is conformed into the image of other gods. When Israel entered the nations they were to ‘destroy all their carved images and their cast idols’ (Numbers 33:52), which they do at least in their own land in 2 Kings when they get rid of the temple of Baal (2 Kings 11:18). Israel is constantly warned (in the Law, Psalms, and Prophets) to be God’s representatives, emerging through the smelting furnace of exodus, rather than to worship idols — the warning is they will become what they behold. Breathless and dead. Or the images of the breathing, life-giving, God.
  8. This line creates a better ‘Biblical Theology’ or narrative of fulfilment where Jesus, the exact representation of God’s being (Hebrews 1) and the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1) is the new pattern for our redeemed humanity that we’re transformed into by the gift of God’s spirit on top of the breath of life (1 Corinthians 15, Romans 8). There’s admittedly a jump from Hebrew to Greek in the move from Old to New Testament, but the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX) helps track that jump for us.

What it means to be made in the image of God is fascinating and important, and a vibrant part of the narrative of the Bible. It’d be a shame to remove it from that context and make it mean all sorts of other good things. The best systematic theology already deals with lots of the ideas above — and these ideas make the image of God a pretty big deal — but the best understanding of what the flourishing human life looks like; caught up with who we were made to be comes from going back to the text of the Bible and seeing what it really says and means, letting the Bible shape our world, rather than our world (and traditions) shape how we read the Bible (though this is more like a dialogue than a thing where we pit one against the other).

Join the resistance.

Disruptive Witness: a review

Alan Noble is one of the founders of Christ and Pop Culture; a few years ago I decided to throw some dollars at a subscription to Christ and Pop Culture because I think good content is worth paying money for, and I wanted to support the approach he, and the stable of writers who produce content for the site, take to cultural artefacts. I made this decision without knowing that it came with a new digital community — access to a forum where nuanced discussions are celebrated and disagreement is predominantly civil. I’ve been part of this online community since, and have benefited from the wisdom of the community but also from the first hand insight it has provided to the growing platforms of its founders, and contributors, particularly Alan. His voice during the Trump election was profound (especially this piece), and I still think this piece on lust and a theology of beauty is exceptionally pastorally helpful (I link to it often).

His book Disruptive Witness has been on my ‘must read’ list for a very long time; its seemingly endless ‘pre-release’ whet my appetite back when he published this piece on the ‘disruptive witness of art‘ last year; long time readers will know I’ve played a little bit with the idea of ‘disruption’ off the back of Paul’s appearance in Ephesus in Acts 19 — where Paul causes a ‘great disturbance’ to the idol-worshipping status quo by hollowing out the value of the idol market; I’ve suggested a Christian ‘political theology’ should be built around the idea of challenging and disturbing ‘beastly’ idolatrous regimes (mostly just channeling Brian Walsh’s Subversive Christianity). The Gospel should disturb and disrupt. It should invert and ‘crucify’ our sinful, power-hungry, self interested, defaults both individually and corporately. The challenge for us as we seek to ‘disrupt’ the world we live in is that we face the twin obstacles of ‘the secular age’ and the ‘age of distraction’; Alan’s book brings together these diagnoses and proposes a series of solutions — practices — for Christians as individuals, the church, and in culture.

Disruptive Witness applies James K.A Smith’s vision of Christian formation (from his Cultural Liturgies trilogy) to Noble’s diagnosis of the present age; which is Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age’ diagnosis paired with Noble’s articulation of what one might call ‘the age of distraction’. The particular elements of Taylor’s work that he draws on, beyond the ‘immanent frame’ we now live in where belief in the supernatural is contested more than in previous ages and the ‘buffered self’ that comes with it (where we view ourselves as individuals cut off from some transcendent source of meaning or being), are Taylor’s insights about where that leaves us individuals in a quest for meaning and identity (unpacked more in his less cited work Sources of the Self). If we no longer find meaning external to ourselves we start seeking meaning from within (think every recent Disney movie). We’re left constructing our identity not from a relationship with a creator, or with the supernatural, but with the various ‘immanent’ things we adopt and cling to — we turn to the marketplace of ideas to define ourselves authentically. As Noble says (summarising Taylor):

“So the quest for authenticity has become a central narrative of the contemporary West. To be fully human, we must discover who we are, actualize our identity, express ourselves, be true to ourselves, and so on.”

Noble’s challenge is for those of us who find our identity in Christ, and so through a connection to the transcendent, to think carefully about how we live and act in our witness to this reality so that we aren’t presenting Christianity as one ‘market’ solution; one ‘identity’ option amongst the smorgasbord of other options on the table (especially the digital table). He identifies several challenges in the digital age — our inability to escape distraction prime among them; I read this book on my kindle while driving through outback Australia — even with very sporadic connectivity I still found myself habitually opening my phone to look for a signal, and being drawn away from concentrating on the book and these thoughts at every available opportunity. His diagnosis was convicting and clear; and his synthesis of the ‘secular age’ and the ‘age of distraction’ is worth meditating on, especially when it comes to how it shapes our life and witness.

The challenge of identities that are shaped by the pursuit of some internal desire — where those desires shift as we change circumstances and as the objects of our desire disappoint or enslave — in an age of distraction — is that we don’t give ourselves the time and space to put down deep roots when it comes to identity and conviction. We don’t make space for ‘slow, careful, introspection’ of the sort required for deep transformation. Our practices mitigate against that. Or, as Noble says:

“The habits we adopt form our desires, which drive our beliefs. When those habits form desires for immediacy, superficiality, continual engagement, and instant gratification, we should expect our beliefs to reflect these desires. The content of our beliefs will be formed by our habits, but so will the nature of our beliefs.”

Briefly, as a ‘distraction’ from the main thrust of this review, and simply because I loved this part of the book so much I couldn’t let it go unrecognised — the implications of contested, fragmented, and distracted identity formation, namely that most individuals live out or ‘perform’ inherently contradictory ‘identities’ for a ‘worldview’ approach of reducing people to a certain sort of outlook on the world are worth considering. Noble suggests ‘worldview’ approaches don’t grapple with reality as experienced by individuals (as Jamie Smith suggests they don’t grapple with the way people are shaped/formed — more by love and practices rather than by deliberate ‘intellectual’ conviction).

“I contend that in practice worldview studies lack explanatory power and often misinterpret people. This is increasingly true today when the fundamental contestedness of all belief and the tendency toward thin belief have conspired to incline us to form eclectic mixes of belief, something we are often quite proud of because it separates us as individuals: I may take a bit of Marxist economics, a conservative view on family and sex and virtues, a modern empirical view of the natural world, a view of nature as raw material for human use, libertarian politics (except on economics), and then undergird it all with a Reformed faith. Would such a worldview be coherent?”

He calls for a pattern of living that doesn’t add more noise to the noisy world, but instead acts as a disruptive signal that pulls people from distraction for long enough to invite them to look beyond the buffered default. Where his diagnosis bites hard; and the platform from which he builds the second half of the book, comes when he turns his gaze to how churches have adopted the rules of the age without thinking about how the mediums shape our message.

“Even evangelicals who spurn seeker-friendly church outreach and “relevant” evangelism heed Paul’s example of being “all things to all people” in other ways (1 Corinthians 9:22), and in a culture of sound bites, viral videos, and hashtags, this regularly involves adopting the media-rich practices that so deeply shape our culture. But in developing our own viral images and mobile apps to reach connected readers, we risk contributing to the clutter and distraction of modern life rather than helping to lift our neighbours out of it. Even more concerning, by adopting these ephemeral cultural expressions, we may signal to our neighbours that Christianity is merely another consumer preference in the endless sea of preferences we use to define ourselves as individuals.”

As I read that particular paragraph I was able to put words to something I’d been thinking as I’ve explored what a Christian aesthetic might look like recently; if we take 1 Corinthians 9 as a call to imitate culture in order to be all things to all people, rather than to understand the culture such that we appropriately incarnate the message of Jesus in the culture, the danger isn’t just what Noble identifies here, but that we’re trapped in a mode of always being a derivative ‘poorer cousin’ rather than shaping the culture we have embedded in by innovating (and this is the problem most of us intuitively recognise with contemporary Christian music). 1 Corinthians 9 is one of the most formative passages in how I understand the role of the church; but somehow it always ends up looking like being five years behind the culture stylistically, a lack of critical media-literacy when it comes to how the medium is the message, and very rarely like Paul’s application of his own principles in the book of Acts — where he engages with poets and philosophers in speaking to the Areaopagus, but doesn’t make little silver statues of Jesus when disrupting Ephesus and its media practices.

While I’m more inclined to quote Marshall McLuhan than his student Neil Postman, Postman’s essay Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change is worth considering at this point, in support of the thesis of Disruptive Witness. Here are his five things:

“First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price.

Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners.

Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on.

Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates.

And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”

If we uncritically adopt technological or media practices without paying heed to these impacts then we’re in danger of losing control of our communication to the technological mediums we adopt; and having the ‘myth’ at the heart of that technology obliterate what it is we are seeking to communicate. We’re more likely to be co-opted by the world than disruptive. Postman also sounds this warning as he unpacks that fifth point:

“Our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute. The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder, to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”

Noble frames the warning this way, alongside this challenge:

“…the church is often tempted to look at popular communication in culture and mimic it with a Christian message. And while mimicking the methods of communication in wider culture can sometimes be valuable, it can also unintentionally signal to readers that Christianity is just like all these other ideas. The challenge for Christians in our time is to speak of the gospel in a way that unsettles listeners, that conveys the transcendence of God, that provokes contemplation and reflection, and that reveals the stark givenness of reality.”

Resisting this effect and taking up this challenge is at the heart of Disruptive Witness; the book offers strategies and practices for resistance so that we can instead be shaped by the Gospel in order to bear witness to it not as one ‘identity’ to adopt amongst or in competition with others; but as an identity we are adopted into by God as he works in us by the Spirit through our union with Jesus.

“The gospel is not a preference. It’s not another piece of flair we add to our vest. It’s something far more beautiful and disturbing. The gospel is the power to raise the dead, to proclaim the greatness of God in a fallen and confused world. To be a follower of Christ in the early twenty-first century requires a way of being in the world that resists being sucked into the numbing glare of undifferentiated preferences we choose from to define our identity.”

Noble turns from diagnosis to prescribing treatments in the second half of the work; it’s here that he puts down Taylor and picks up Jamie Smith as a conversation partner. The second section of the book is divided between ‘disruptive personal habits,’ ‘disruptive church practices,’ and ‘disruptive cultural participation.’

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence. At the level of the church, we must abandon practices adopted from the secular marketplace that trivialise our faith, and instead return to traditional church practices that encourage contemplation and awe before a transcendent God. Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.”

On the personal front, Noble recommends adopting particular spiritual disciplines that push back against a hyper-connected age (and Mike Cosper’s Recapturing Wonder makes a really nice companion piece for this section) — while recommendations around keeping a sabbath and deliberately saying (and meaning) grace before a meal (especially in public) are refreshingly framed around formation for our good rather than legalism, the habit that really ‘sang’ for me was the development of an aesthetic life and the practice of what Noble calls ‘the double movement’.

“Simply put, the double movement is the practice of first acknowledging goodness, beauty, and blessing wherever we encounter them in life, and then turning that goodness outward to glorify God and love our neighbour. Such a practice challenges the secular assumption of a closed, materialist universe. It shifts our focus away from expressing our identity and toward glorifying God, and it lifts our attention to a telos beyond ourselves and our immediate entertainment.”

This is simply an attempt to habituate Paul’s statement about creation in 1 Timothy 4 (“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”). Noble gives several examples of how this ‘double movement’ might come into play (including one articulated in his piece on lust linked above); but at the heart of the ‘double movement’ and personal disruption is the development of a properly-ordered appreciation of beauty; particularly to see the ‘allusive’ quality of beauty in this world — that it always points to something beyond itself (think C.S Lewis’ The Weight of Glory). Where Noble goes with ‘allusiveness’ and aesthetics is the reason this book will be on the list of books I work through with people for years to come; alongside Smith’s You Are What You Love.  

A couple of years ago I interviewed Smith for Eternity News about You Are What You Love — which is a great summary volume of his bigger trilogy — and there are a couple of things he said in that interview that are useful in unpacking some of the implications of Disruptive Witness, and form some of my critique of both Smith and Noble’s work (though to be clear, there’s much more that I affirm). Here’s a nice summary of Smith’s framework, that is something like the backbone of what Disruptive Witness suggests as a model for our life together as Christians.

“In You Are What You Love, I suggest that the forms of Christianity that will most effectively tap into and speak to people’s enduring hunger for the sacred will be forms of what we might call “ancient” or enchanted Christianity – sacramental Christianity that is tactile, embodied, material, “catholic” (though not necessarily “Roman”). That’s why I suggest that the future of Christianity is ancient. And too much “contemporary” Christianity doesn’t realise how much it has accepted the terms of disenchantment.”

Smith, like Noble, sees the arts as an avenue for Christians to avoid being formed by the secular age and its rival ‘liturgies’ (like a liturgy of technological distraction), and the best bits of Disruptive Witness are the bits that go beyond Smith’s thinking here, or that unpack it to the point of supplying and suggesting practices that might form part of a disruptive ‘liturgy’ (when Smith and Noble talk ‘liturgy’ they mean habits oriented towards a certain sort of formation of people, shaped by a vision of the ‘good’ or ‘full’ human life — so how we live together as the church is always liturgical, but so too is how a shopping centre or social media platform is set up to shape us in particular ways). Here’s Smith again:

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

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

Note that Smith too centres on ‘art that is allusive’ as part of what might blow us out of the ‘secular age’ paradigm; Noble expands on the aesthetic life and how art might form part of our witness in the ‘disruptive cultural participation’ section of the book too, but before we conclude there, the section on ‘disruptive church practices’ is where my main disagreements lie; and not necessarily for the reasons that might seem obvious upon reading his critique of modern church practices (that sound very much like the practices of my church).

“If the challenge of bearing witness in a distracted, secular age is that buffered people struggle to recognize the distinctiveness of the Christian faith, then our first task is to ensure that we are not inadvertently helping to obscure the gospel by adopting secular ideas that undermine it. I have in mind here everything from church signs to Christian T-shirts to the setup of our church stages and pulpits. As the church has taken more and more of its cues from a secular, market-driven culture, we’ve picked up some bad habits and flawed thinking about branding, marketing, and promotion. We’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths. We see the same trends at work in high-production church services that feel more like a concert and TED Talk than a sacred event. High-quality video clips interrupt the sermon. The pastor paces the stage with a headset mic, skillfully weaving facts, stories, and dramatic pauses. The young, fashionably dressed worship band puts on a performance at center stage. The lighting and volume make it clear who the congregation should be paying attention to. Each element of the service alludes to bits of popular culture that draw the audience in. The cumulative effect is to give the impression that the Christian faith is something akin to a good motivational conference.”

Noble unpacks some of these ‘media’ choices to make his point, and while he doesn’t make a blanket statement that anything technological or ‘worldly’ is bad, he does call for some serious discernment about how to balance a desire to be ‘all things to all people’ in our communication, with the danger that our message will lose its distinctive call. It’s a sort of ‘media literacy’ I hope continues to reform the practices of the church, for the reasons he identifies.

“The way we speak, write, and visually depict our faith has a serious effect on the way others conceive of the nature of faith. Words like sin, redemption, guilt, and grace are tied up with the rhetorical shape we give them. And if that shape takes its source from a secular marketplace, we can expect the words to be heard as part of that marketplace.”

My problem is with the solutions he prescribes; and they’re the same problems I have with the same solutions prescribed by Smith. I am all for looking beyond the practices we might adopt from the age we live in — the ‘distracted age’ or the dis-enchanted ‘secular age’ that will see us not being ‘conformed to the patterns of this world,’ but being transformed by the renewing of our minds. I am all for that involving a ‘looking backwards’ to ages that had different pressures and patterns, and to the practices of faithful Christians in those times; but I’m wary of prescriptions that don’t carefully consider how those forms, too, were a product of their own time and place.

There’s a trend in Christian publishing at the moment amongst authors grappling with how to bear witness in a changing landscape to find a solution from some point in church history and to seek to replicate it rather than to be poorly imitating the culture around us; that’s the Benedict Option with its turn to monasticism, and Smith with his return to medieval practices (which came from a time where the ‘backcloth’ of life was not secular but shot through with supernatural meaning — as described in C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image). Noble isn’t quite so keen to normalise the ‘cathedral’ experience as some of Smith’s writing, but I’m yet to be convinced that the sort of liturgy he outlines pre-dates the Medieval church (there are certainly elements of liturgy of the sort Noble suggests in the descriptions of church gatherings in The First Apology of Justin Martyr. I’m also not sure any traditional liturgy is devoid of certain forms from the age they emerged in. Like monasticism before it, medieval Christianity assumed certain categories, functioned in a particular social and physical location (at the centre of the town square), in a certain sort of architecture (a cruciform building centred on the altar) — the forms of liturgy developed in those cultural ages reflected assumptions no longer true in our age, such that a return to those forms, even if it pushes us beyond our cultural defaults (particularly distracted individualism and the self-centred pursuit of piecemeal ‘authentic’ experiences) might solve some problems without necessarily being the panacea we hope for; if we’re going to look for ‘ages’ to draw practices from, my contention is still that our present experience as Christians will increasingly more closely reflect the experiences of Christians pre-Christendom, whether that’s outside the west, or pre-Constantine. I’m not sure, for example, practices and church services built around available public space will survive and thrive, whereas a return to ‘family’ life like that found in the New Testament church might push back against some of the present cultural concerns. While I’m convinced by Smith (and Noble, and Augustine) that liturgy is important (and indeed inevitable) for formation, I’m also not sure we should be prescriptive and ancient when it comes to shaping a liturgy rather than imaginatively seeking to create disruptive practices within certain parameters, confident in the Spirit transforming us, looking both backwards to the richness of our tradition, sideways to the de-formative practices and assumptions of our present age, and forwards to the new creation while being mindful of things like media ecology and the importance of form. I’m not sure the Medieval Church had it right in terms of disruptive practices, coming as it did before a decline (and before the ‘secular age’), but I’m reasonably confident that the early church radically re-shaped the western world. I’m more inclined to consider practices outlined in something like Acts 2, Justin Martyr’s apology, and the Epistle to Diognetus than other more recent ‘traditions’. While Noble has a quick dig at our modern obsession with personality type understandings of our humanity (including Myers-Briggs), and while I enjoyed that — I can’t help but think that like Smith, he might not avoid prescribing an approach to liturgy shaped by a certain sort of personal preference (something I explored elsewhere).

That critique aside, the section on disruptive cultural participation is my favourite — and is reflected in Noble’s web project Christ and Pop Culture at its best. Part of Noble’s diagnosis of the world we live in is that most people are constructing their sense of ‘fulness’ or the good life through stories. We’re seeking distraction and affirmation in stories. We seek communities that affirm those stories. One of the solutions then, to disrupting people, is to change the story by embracing and challenging the stories in our culture, to see stories as ‘allusive’ opportunities for both a ‘double movement’ on our part, but to invite others to consider that move too — the move from secular ‘immanence’ to connecting with the transcendent God.

“When Christians interpret, critique, and discuss stories with our neighbours, we can model a contemplative approach that promotes self-reflection and honesty, inviting empathy rather than promoting the detached rationalism of the buffered self. We can offer interpretations that affirm and account for our longings for forms of beauty, goodness, order, and love that find their being beyond the immanent frame.”

This comes with an important ‘how-not-to’ as well; something I’ve always loved about the way Christ and Pop Culture deals with art (and why I threw some money their way).

I am not recommending that we participate in stories in order to find allegories for Christ or spiritual truths. This method doesn’t take the world of the story seriously; it treats the story as a prop. Instead, we should consider what the story says about life and explore its truth in relation to our experience… The correct posture for Christians approaching a story is one of humility, charity, and a desire to know.

The way the book explores our presence in and explanation of tragedy both in art-as-story and in life-as-story is a beautiful fleshing out of how ‘disruption’ isn’t always un-settling or disturbing for our neighbours, but instead is the blessing that comes as we embody the story of Jesus in the world for the sake of others — a disruptive witness indeed.

“It is this kind of witness that we are called to bear in the world today—a witness that defies secular expectation and explanation, that unsettles our neighbours from their technological/consumerist stupor, and that gambles everything on the existence and goodness of a transcendent (and immanent!) God, whose sacrificial love for us compels us to love in return.”

We beat darkness by bringing light

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. — John 1:4-5

Reading the news (or the newsfeed) over the last few weeks has left me feeling pretty dark about the world. This statement could be made about any week — but I’ve had my heart smashed by the death of Eurydice Dixon in the dark hours of the night in Melbourne, the separation of refugee children from their parents in the United States, the ongoing humanitarian crisis on our watch in Manus and Nauru, and the ongoing tragedy in the gap between the life expectancy of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians… and there’s always more.

It’s dark.

And in all this, I’ve despaired as I’ve watched what passes for leadership in these times — political leadership, church leadership, thought leadership… it all seems so polarising. Our leaders trade on anxiety — they feed it and feed off it — like wolves who fatten up the sheep so they can enjoy lamb stew for dinner… They use our fears to bolster their power. Instead of dealing with the heart of increasingly complex realities (like the refugee crisis) our leaders create solutions that would be unravelled if our populace was compassionate. Leaders now are feeding on darkness, and so feeding the darkness, rather than bringing light into a dark world.

What deepens my despair is my growing conviction that none of the human solutions to these problems are adequate. There’s a fundamental failure to grapple with the real nature of darkness — we can’t simply defeat darkness by appealing to the ‘better angels’ of our nature. I’m glad there are a bunch of Christian leaders who want to stand against the darkness — on all fronts (or, it’d be nice if it was on all fronts not just on single issues).

But what is distinctively Christian about our stand? What particular insights might we bring to this darkness?

What do we know about light and life that we might bring to the table as our distinctive, and that might shape our particular response both in how we participate in the political and social structures of our world and in how we operate as a counter-political and counter-social structure living out our own solutions built by following King Jesus, as children of the light?

That’s where I’m struggling.

Even the Christian leaders who are calling darkness what it is seem to be limited to tackling these examples of darkness with purely human weaponry — we’re so bought into the secular age and its frame — which includes the supernatural (the idea that God is at work in his world) — that we think these bits of darkness involve the best natural response we can muster (the idea that God works in his world only through natural means).

When it comes to the experience of women in our world — a world systemically stacked against them because it is largely designed and defined by sinful (dark-hearted) human men — we’re left telling men to stop being sinful, or to revolt against a system set up to protect our self interest.

It’s like we’ve assumed the prophetic voice means that we’re speaking to Israel — people who have a particular calling in the world as a kingdom of priests — rather than speaking prophetically to people who have fundamentally and explicitly ignored that calling. But also, if we’re going to talk about the prophetic voice it’s worth looking at how the prophets spoke to Israel’s leaders when they had become just like the nations and what solution the prophets saw for that (hint — divine judgment and intervention).

When it comes to responding to the predatory behaviour of wolf-like men, we’re left asking them to behave like sheep instead.

It’s like we’ve assumed that we can appeal to directly to the image of God in someone without seeing how that image has been twisted and distorted by the conforming worship of other images (idols). It’s a naive theological anthropology that doesn’t see how being made in the image of God was a vocation built from a relationship with God — and how much the restoration of that image is the work of the Holy Spirit.

You can’t tell a wolf to act like a sheep — all you’re doing there is teaching wolves how to dress in sheep’s clothing. You can’t even train, or modify, the behaviour of a wolf in order to pretend it’s a sheep, no matter how good your approach to cultural change or education is, unless the wolf has a total change of heart.

At this point I want to make it clear I’m not playing the ‘not all men’ game here, to suggest that only the truly monstrous figure is wolf-like, but rather to suggest that all humans are inherently capable of monstrous, predatory, behaviour — and this plays out in a particular way in a society shaped by power and violence and a consumer mentality where the good life is not about self-denial but self-gratification.

Until we’re dealing honestly with the human condition — and thus less optimistically — we’re not going to come anywhere near human or natural solutions to the problems plaguing our world.

I quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn pretty regularly, for good reason. Solzhenitsyn survived just about the worst darkness humanity can imagine in the Soviet gulags and lived to write about it. He had time to grapple with what it was that produced the sort of systemic evil he experienced, and the evil individuals — the predators — he came face to face with. He came face to face with darkness — and this is his diagnosis:

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

The darkness in the world mirrors the darkness in our hearts — and until we start talking about heart change as Christians, in our public response to darkness, we’re just the blind leading the blind. We might sound good and compassionate as we do it — as we point out systemic and individual darkness, and hold out the ideal of a pure ‘light’ heart that can be achieved by any or all of us if we just work hard enough — but who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? The thing about this dynamic, Biblically, is that the divide between good and evil isn’t 50-50 for every person all the time, the more we cultivate one or the other the bigger it is. In fact, in Romans 7, Paul suggests that without the Spirit, the darkness wins most of the time even as we still know what good is, and still want to do it… Let’s call the ‘good’ part in the heart the product of us being created in the image of God and the evil the product of our pursuit of things other than God (our idols, or our self-gratification). When we talk about acts of evil we’re talking about people whose hearts have been shaped in such a way that their deeds reflect their hearts, and the heart-destruction required to fix that evil becomes closer and closer to the eradication of the self. Who wants to do that?

There are plenty of examples of this sort of human solution offered to what is truly a spiritual crisis. But at the moment I’m fixated by how our leading public Christian voices (in the political realm) are both falling into the same trap — offering secular solutions to spiritual problems; and specifically, not offering the work, victory, and example of Jesus as the basis for a way to bring light into darkness. Often we’re offering the natural fruit of Christianity as the solution without the root, or the tree. We want wolves to behave like sheep without offering them the good shepherd — and we want to deal with the existence of wolves without following the example of Jesus the shepherd who used his strength to stand between Satan, the prince of darkness — the father of wolves, and the sheep. This is true of both the Australian Christian Lobby on the right and its oddly mirrored alternative on the left, Common Grace (though at least their name explicitly limits their field to a particular application of an understanding of God’s relationship to nature).

The Gospel of John calls Jesus the light of the world. John witnessed a different sort of darkness to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the crucifixion of God’s son — the light and life of the world — by people who should’ve welcomed him with open arms. A world of wolves desperate to cling to power and to stay in the darkness. Here’s John’s record of Jesus’ version of Solzhenitsyn’s diagnosis:

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3:19-21

If Jesus is right about the human heart — and what is required to change it — then our social media activism, or those times that we restrict ourselves to merely human arguments based on merely human accounts of the problem won’t fix anything or anybody. His solution to our dark human hearts is new hearts — not just renovated hearts but being ‘born from above’.

There’s hints of the prophet Ezekiel in Jesus’ words in John. Ezekiel has a similar diagnosis of what drives wolf-like behaviour to Jesus (and Solzhenitsyn). It’s a problem of the heart — a problem that leads to a system set up to propagate predatory behaviour (sound familiar?). Princes, priests, and prophets colluding to destroy those they’re meant to protect, and to deny justice.

There is a conspiracy of her princes within her like a roaring lion tearing its prey; they devour people, take treasures and precious things and make many widows within her. Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain. Her prophets whitewash these deeds for them by false visions and lying divinations. They say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says’—when the Lord has not spoken. The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice. — Ezekiel 22:25-29

And what’s the solution Ezekiel offered to this problem? To take up arms? To tell people to stop and change. To create a new human system without addressing the heart? No. Where Ezekiel lands after this diagnosis is what Jesus says is required to enter his kingdom — changed hearts.

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. — Ezekiel 36:26-27

Jesus is the solution to the darkness in our world — and we, the church, his kingdom, are to model that solution as the light shining into the darkness. There are all sorts of ways we can bring light through human structures as we participate and are present in them — but unless there’s heart change involved we’re just asking people to destroy a piece of their own heart rather than offering a heart changed by God, by his spirit. It won’t work.

John’s account of Jesus’ use of ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ is fascinating. It develops through the Gospel, right from the prologue. He consistently introduces little narratives and interactions with people by orienting us as to whether it’s light or dark — Nicodemus comes to him in the cover of night, the woman at the well meets him at mid day (exposed by daylight), the disciples are terrified in the boat in the dark when he walks on water, the women come to the tomb ‘while it was still dark’… Darkness is bad. But on the other hand Jesus says:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” — John 8:12

And his invitation is to walk with him and so become children of light. To receive the Spirit and be born again as children of the light.

“You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.” — John 12:35-36

At that point he was predicting his death, but also forecasting his resurrection. When John then writes to the church after the resurrection he keeps going with the ‘light’ theme — and he suggests that as a result of the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit darkness’ days are numbered.

Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. — 1 John 2:8

Matthew’s Gospel also famously has Jesus saying some stuff about light in the Sermon On The Mount.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” — Matthew 5:14-16

The public perception of the institutional church in Australia isn’t this — it’s that we’re part of the darkness. But our own view of the world as we read the papers, and perhaps experience the fruits of this perception, seems to be that darkness is winning. We’re an anxious system perpetuating an anxious presence in the world. When we could be so much more.

We could be people who face up to the reality that the wolf doesn’t just lurk outside the door — but inside all of us.

We could be people who aren’t naive about the human condition and what it takes to protect sheep from wolves — or change wolves to sheep.

We could be people who know that the change required for all of us doesn’t simply come from rediscovering the image of God within us, or having it ‘educated’ into dominance, so that we’re restrained from evil just by common grace (which is better by far than unfettered evil), but from being re-created in the image of Jesus.

We could recognise that the doctrine of common grace means that our society, apart from us, might find some solutions to restrain the darkness of the human heart, but we Christians have the solution, the light of the world. And to not explicitly offer that is to do less than love our neighbours. It’s to give a rock when they ask for bread.

The line between darkness and light — evil and goodness — cuts through every human heart, and defeating evil requires our death and rebirth. Any other solution — individual or systemic — is a bandaid on the heart.

We could be people who believe the teaching of Jesus and so follow the example of Jesus offering our lives, our selves, to bring light to the world confident that even when darkness surrounds us, or takes us, light wins.

We could rebuild the trust people have in Christians and the church by being an institution that focuses on the needs of others — bringing light to the world, rather than self protection — hiding in darkness.

This requires a different sort of leadership and emphasis on different sorts of solutions — solutions that grapple with the heart of the problem and the Spiritual realities at play.

I don’t know how to make the darkness safe for any woman who wants to walk alone at night. But I do know light beats darkness — metaphorically and in actuality. Darkness is the absence of light, it’s not a thing in itself.

I don’t think we can change ‘wolves’ — or deal with the evil in the heart of humans — simply by tackling the culture, system, or environment around us. The dynamic between the culture around a person and the orientation of their heart and imagination is complicated and circular (our behaviours create cultures which reinforce and normalise behaviours which shape our hearts which drive behaviours which create cultures…) — but the Bible is pretty keen to suggest that our actions in the world are a product of our heart, and that a new heart comes from God, not just from education programs.

Or let me put it another way… cultural change driven outside the re-creating work of God on the hearts of people will not replace darkness with light but darkness with different darkness. Cultural change is important — and the church itself, the kingdom of God in this world, is a ‘culture’ that brings change to those within it in the way light changes darkness… and the job of this kingdom is, as Jesus says in Matthew 5, shine beyond itself as ‘the light of the world’ (which is why it’s so important the church sorts out its culture internally on abuse and domestic violence before we can be trusted to shine into the world). If we’re offering a solution to darkness that is not the kingdom of God then we are not really offering a solution at all.

The push for cultural change from many women is one that men should heed (here’s a good place to start — an uncomfortable (deliberately) read for men); but as Christians we have something more to say about the human condition and what solutions look like — and something more to do if we’re going to be a light in the dark world.

It’s not enough just to listen to and champion the voices of women on areas of cultural change we need — if we were going to be the sort of leaders in our community who follow the example of the good shepherd then we’d find ways to position ourselves between wolves and sheep to keep the night safe.

We’d be on watch. We’d walk beside people in the shadows. We’d set up services like Uber where we offer safe passage home — and we’d do it in ways that ensured the service operated above reproach (Uber can’t claim that). We’d open our churches and our homes as safe houses and sanctuaries— beacons of light in a dark world.

We’d call out darkness for what it is in little moments, not just big ones… and more than that — we’d point people to where light really is found (not just offer merely human solutions to a spiritual problem).

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. — John 1:4-5

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What might a ‘Christian aesthetic’ look like? And why bother?

Late last year I was listening to the podcast Cultivated (one of my favourites), and about halfway through this episode the panelists started talking about what a ‘Christian aesthetic’ might look like.

“That makes me think of a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot, that I’d love to talk about and explore, is: what would a Christian aesthetic look like, if you go beyond the content level, which is often how we talk about these things, right? Something is Christian if it tells a story from the Bible, or has a Christian theme or message. Protestants are prone to that kind of word/propositional orientation anyway, less than Catholics, who are oriented more towards the visual. What would it look like to think about an aesthetic, a form, that’s ‘Christian’, certainly in architecture there are certain forms or styles that we could point to and say ‘that’s a  ‘Christian’ aesthetic,’ that’s a form that has been created and has always been associated with Christianity …” — Brett McCracken, Cultivated Podcast

It’s been something of an ‘earworm’ or a ‘brainworm’ for me since, coupled with my love of the idea that when Christians did start building their own buildings, they incorporated the cross into the floor plan, and put the highest point of the ceiling above the intersection, so that the space itself represented the story of the Gospel, and that Jesus death serves as the bridge between earth and heavens, that will ultimately bring heaven to earth. That’s a ‘certain’ sort of form — a provision of a habitat that helps us embody the Christian story from the ground up (though for most of us, who are architecturally illiterate, and textually literate, this sort of thing might be meaningless — greater actual literacy is not a reason to be illiterate when it comes to aesthetic stuff though). I love that idea — while also pondering if the very decision to own public buildings, rather than meeting in homes, was a good move (aesthetically or ‘formally’). I say this having been pastoring a church for four years that has now met in a rented public theatre, an empty ‘box-like’ room, and now a church auditorium with all the modern bells, whistles, screens and lighting — each ‘space’ has shaped the life and experiences of our community and our gatherings in profound ways.

The Cultivated conversation explores questions of form, or a Christian ‘aesthetic’ when it comes to Christians making art, I’m interested in considering what it looks like to ask these forms in our architecture — our use of space both public and private, and social architecture. How we create a ‘stage’ or a habitat where we embody the Gospel story as ‘characters’ and form habits.

One of the ‘modernist’ assumptions that ends up shaping ethics (how we live) is that we are consumers in a machine-like environment, that things have utility, which led to a corresponding rise in utilitarian ethics and pragmatism, and through all this, we Christians in our modernist framework have tended towards making pragmatic rather than aesthetic choices about space (and even art). Here’s a cracking quote from Karen Swallow Prior, from that same Cultivated podcast episode.

“We’ve inherited a lot from the Victorian age and we don’t even realise it. We often don’t even distinguish between Victorianism and Biblical Christianity. And one of them is utilitarianism. And so we have undue emphasis on the idea that things must be useful, that they must have a purpose, in order to be valuable, of course, you know, when we apply that to human lives we know what that results in, but I think that’s part of what makes us uneasy with art, that, you know, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘all art is utterly useless’ right, and what he meant by that is it’s just there to be enjoyed, it doesn’t have to fulfil a purpose, which of course is a sort of a purpose. Modern Christianity is uncomfortable with something that is just there to be enjoyed and take pleasure in… we think we have to be on mission all the time and fulfil some sort of purpose” — Karen Swallow Prior, Cultivated Podcast

Here’s the thing though; art does ‘serve a purpose’ — it is part of the ‘backcloth’ of life, part of the ‘environment’ we live in or the habitat we inhabit, art-as-artefacts are part of what forms a ‘culture’, and so art shapes our seeing of the world both directly as we engage with it, and subtly (by being part of our ‘environment’). And if we bring in my favourite academic discipline — media ecology — and one of its maxims: the medium is the message, then we start to see that forms do inherently communicate something along with content. To keep ‘ecology’ on the table — think about the relationship between the words ‘habitat’ and ‘habit’. If we want to be creatures of habit — those who habitually live out the Christian story because we are formed as characters within God’s story — not our own consumer-driven stories with us as the hero, but as disciples — maybe we should consider our habitats — how we structure and design space, including what it looks and feels like — an application of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ to how and where we meet and live…

I’ve been challenged to re-imagine how we approach church as Aussies who believe the Bible is the word of God, and that the Gospel is the story of Jesus arriving in this world as the king who conquers sin, satan, and death and who launches a kingdom — his people, to live a life, for eternity (but starting now) where these enemies have been destroyed, so that we’re free from their grip, and he is victorious.

I’m struck by how many of our practices as Christians are adopted from a modernist world with modernist assumptions — a couple in particular, that the world is ‘disenchanted’ (thanks Charles Taylor) and that we are simply ‘brains on a stick’ who need logic and facts to make good ‘rational’ decisions (thanks James K.A Smith). I’m simultaneously struck by the way this adoption of a ‘modernist framework’ as ‘the Christian frame’ has us reeling because we now live in a post-modern, post-Christian, environment and our practices aren’t keeping people (humanly speaking) or persuading people, and how much this framework has shaped our understanding of making disciples or Christian formation, and in this post, I’m particularly considering how that approach to formation has de-emphasised embodiment, and so de-emphasised our ‘environment’ and the arts. So that the idea of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ seems a bit wanky — we’ve lost a sense of deliberately Christian architecture or art, whether within the life of the church or in the witness of the church to the world (or both).

“I want there to be a place for evangelistic art, really, really, really good evangelistic art. I want there to be a place for art that has very obvious utility. I don’t have a problem with that. But once you get in the field of the Terence Mallicks, and he’s making a movie about creation, and dinosaurs, and trees and light. You’re asking yourself a really important theological question: How does God perceive light, and sound, and texture, and scent? Because that’s what he’s talking about. Because if we have a theological way to frame God’s care of those things in creation, then Terrence Mallick is a profoundly Christian artist…” — David Taylor, Cultivated Podcast

We reformed evangelicals in reacting against worldly idolatry of beauty (too high a view of creation), and the way we’ve seen that play out in the Catholic Church with its iconography and expensive cathedrals, have tended to over-correct, adopting and almost ‘dis-embodied’ approach to life in the world — so we think less about space, and place, and beauty than other streams of Christianity (including the Pentecostal stream, who have a different ‘frame’ but, perhaps, are more likely to uncritically adopt the forms that are popular in our world).

There’s been a recent pushback against modernity (and post-modernity) by people who realise we’ve been breathing the air for so long that it has become normal — that perhaps, to quote another podcast I’ve listened to quite a bit lately — Mark Sayers in This Cultural Moment — we’ve been colonised by our culture, rather than ‘colonising our culture’ with the Gospel. Sayers argues you should understand the west in three eras — pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian; that missionaries have often come from the ‘second culture’ — one shaped by the Gospel into the pre-Christian world (think Africa, or the world the early church operated in), and that the ‘third culture’ — the ‘post-Christian’ culture lives off the fruits of Christianity but ‘wants the kingdom, without the king’ — it has moved on to a new story about what human flourishing looks like.  In episode 2, After discussing Leslie Newbigin’s return from the mission field in India to ‘post-modern’ England, and his realisation that the ground had shifted such that the west is now a post-Christian mission field, not “Christian” or “pre-Christian.” Sayers talks about some of the misfires of the early ‘missional’ church (including his early attempts at a missional church), which adopted secular forms, or aesthetics, to shape the teaching of the content of the Christian story. He said his question was: “how do you do a kind of church that incarnates into the culture of my friends?”

“Gen-X culture was hitting… post-modern culture was hitting… so the question was how do we incarnate into post-modern or Gen-X culture. I planted this congregation. We didn’t have singing. We didn’t have sermons. It was conversation, you know, clips from the Simpsons, we didn’t have a “front”… I was very much influenced by some of the alternative worship stuff that was happening in the UK. It was an attempt to use the cultural forms, it was the framework of missiology, but there was a thing that I missed was that there was an assumption that if you did this and you just did mission, then it would re-energise Christians, it would bring alive their faith, it would bring the church back to its core purpose… the model then of the three cultures is the idea that the third culture is not a ‘pre-Christian culture’… it’s not a return back to culture one, we’re turning to culture three… what it is, is a culture that is defining itself against Christianity, wants some of the fruits of Christianity whether it knows it or not, consciously, and therefore has a corrosive and caustic effect. The science of missiology taught people in Christian culture not to colonise people in culture one, when they’re communicating the Gospel to them, but what I realised was happening was that when I was in culture two incarnating and using cultural forms to speak to culture three, a post-Christian culture, that it was colonising us.”

John Mark Comer, the co-host of This Cultural Moment, sums this up as ‘you go out with the Gospel of Jesus, and instead of influence, you are influenced. Instead of shaping, you are shaped.” You uncritically take on the aesthetics of the world, and they start to shape how you see the world.

James K.A Smith puts it this way, in a series of paragraphs from chapter 3 of his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit:

“In our desire to embed the gospel content into forms that are attractional, accessible, and not off-putting, we look around for contemporary cultural forms that are more familiar. Instead of asking contemporary seekers and Christians to inhabit old, stodgy medieval practices that are foreign and strange, we re-tool worship by adopting contemporary practices that can be easily entered precisely because they are so familiar… confident of the form/content distinction, we believe we can distill the gospel content and embed it in these new forms…” — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

He says this ends up with us saying “come meet Jesus in the sanctified experience of a coffee shop; come hear the gospel in a place that should feel familiar because we’ve modelled it after the mall”…

“”Forms” are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message… what are embraced as merely fresh forms are in fact practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life.”

“When we believe that worship is about formation, we will begin to appreciate why ‘form’ matters. The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves towards the kingdom, so we need to be intentional about the story that is carried in those practices. By the form of worship, I mean two things: (1) the overall narrative arc of a service of Christian worship and (2) the concrete, received practices that constitute the elements of that enacted narrative.”

“Only worship that is oriented by the Biblical story and suffused with the Spirit will be a counterformative practice that can undo the habituation of rival, secular liturgies.” — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

Sayers and Smith are essentially pointing to the same truth, through different (though related) paradigms. If our forms or aesthetics are predominantly derived from the world around us (not that this is always terrible) there is a risk that we will be shaped by the world, rather than the forms or aesthetics that are predominantly derived from our story, and the practices of Jesus and teachings of the New Testament. Both Smith and Sayers/Comer land in the same place — spiritual habits — or ‘disciplines,’ shaped by the Gospel story, which include coming to terms with our embodiment as the key for transformation. Smith, for mine, leans too heavily into the medieval practices that developed as the church moved into ‘institution’

Now. I’ve written quite a bit about where I depart from Smith’s proposed embodiment of these insights (that I love), I think he ultimately picks the medieval, or pre-enlightenment (or Augustinian), church as a particular point in time disconnected from our modernist assumptions so that its practices will be counter-formative… while I think much older (pre-Constantine) practices of the New Testament and early church — forms and practices specifically developed in the Christian story — are both more disconnected from modernism, and from Christendom and its ‘forms’ — such the backdrop is more like ours, and the practices Christians adopted against that backdrop are more likely to be helpfully counter-formative for us. It’s not that everything between then and now is wrong, or that we shouldn’t be progressing in our telling of the story of God working through history to bring about his kingdom, it’s just that I’m not sure the practices produced by Christians when we were in the cultural ascendency are the ones we should pin ourselves to when trying to rehabituate and rehabilitate the church. I’m not sure it’s enough to say our post-Christian inclination to adopt the forms of our culture wasn’t at the heart of the church when it built cathedrals that looked a lot like castles (Solomon had a similar issue here); even though I’m prepared to cede that the medieval church, at times, might have had a less sinister approach to aesthetics and practices than it did when Luther kickstarted the Reformation (using popular forms from outside the church), and Calvin adopted a particular sort of iconoclasm that went far beyond doing away with inappropriate and idolatrous aesthetic practices. Anybody trying to learn from history inevitably goes back into the annals to find some point where they think the church departed from a faithful model, and to find faithful counter-examples; this is inevitably an inexact science built around drawing analogies (see Dreher and the Benedict Option for another example of this phenomenon).

I think we’ve often made the distinction Smith points to between form and content when it comes to the Gospel — being flexible on form and firm on the Gospel as an expression of the sort of ‘contextualisation’ Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 9. And it’s not that we shouldn’t play with expressing the Gospel in different forms — that’s part of being human and forms being cultural expressions — but I do wonder if we’ve been deliberate enough in developing a particularly Christian culture, or forms, or aesthetic that might pair with the Gospel content as we adapt our engagement with a variety of cultures so that our ‘medium’ and ‘message’ work together to disrupt and challenge idolatrous status quos (which are often packaged aesthetically). I wonder if we’ve created a universal flexibility on forms without grappling with the idea that ‘the medium is the message’ — and without critically asking what forms or mediums undermine our preaching and living of the counter-cultural, subversive, aspect of the Gospel.

Social architecture and how the habitat of the home shaped a new habit for the early church

Paul is able to both understand and embody a culture and challenge it in the way he does so — it’s what I think he does in Athens — and to do it in a way that doesn’t challenge the way we Christians operate in our own spaces, where he’s one of the architects (divinely inspired) of a radically different aesthetic, or form. A totally new use of space that is utterly subversive.

Paul’s treatment of eating immediately after he talks about his adaptability in 1 Corinthians 9 is interesting. Eating with people is a ‘form’ now (see anthropologist Mary Douglas’ fascinating essay ‘Deciphering a Meal’) and was a ‘form’ that had a particular meaning in the ancient world in both Jewish and Graeco-Roman culture. There are ancient records from the Roman world observing the dining habits of the Jewish people.

Living in their peculiar exclusiveness, and having neither their food, nor their libations, nor their sacrifices in common with men.” – Philostratus, Life of Apollonius V.33

“They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart…” – Tacitus, Histories 5.5.2

The Jews had a particular practice — not becoming impure by eating with gentiles. This form had a meaning — the Jews saw this as something of an aesthetic practice, a thing that made their eating more beautiful (and this is apart from the dining program aligned with their calendar of festivals).

The Romans had their own forms, or aesthetic, when it came to dining, Pliny the Younger describes a meal around the table of an acquaintance (and again, there’s a certain sort of ‘physical space’ required for this, and an ‘aesthetic’ created by that space, check out the adjectives attached to the content).

“I happened to be dining with a man, though no particular friend of his, whose elegant economy, as he called it, seemed to me a sort of stingy extravagance. The best dishes were in front of himself and a select few, and cheap scraps of food put before the rest of the company… One lot was intended for himself, and for us, another for his lesser friends (all his friends are graded), and the third for his and our freedmen.” — Pliny the Younger, Letters, 2.6

Paul takes that form and, with Jesus, talks about three particular forms — eating at ‘the table of demons’ (1 Corinthians 10:18-21), eating with non-Christians in their homes as an act of love and mission (1 Corinthians 10:27-33), and eating together as the church (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The act of eating together as a church required a particular sort of space — a home, organised in a particular sort of way that created a form — and this form might be part of a sort of aesthetic framework that transcends time and place.

What he describes in chapter 11 is a new and subversive form of eating; a new aesthetic; where people of different ethnic backgrounds and social class were to meet together around a table as equals, united as one by and in Jesus. This unity was a certain sort of aesthetic. A beautiful, embodied, picture of the Gospel. Part of a Christian aesthetic must grapple with the idea that as ‘images’ we humans are a certain sort of divine art (we are God’s handiwork, ala Ephesians 2). Part of our forms will include the way we inhabit space together. This form of eating together communicated the message — and it still does. What we eat — the content — around that form might change from culture to culture, across time and space (apart from the bread and wine), but the habit of gathering around a table might actually be at the heart of a Christian use of space — our social architecture in our public spaces and our homes. It creates, or assumes, a certain sort of habitat.

Sketching an aesthetic for Christian habitats — homes and church owned buildings

Let me unpack this a bit specifically as it relates to aesthetics and our how our ‘habitats’ shape our habits and our character, and how we might shape our ‘form’ or aesthetic, or architecture, in a way that is both adaptive to different cultures, or ethnicities, while simultaneously challenging where those cultures or ethnicities are affected by sin.

What would happen if we designed our spaces — be it home or church owned buildings — with some attention paid to architecture not just for utility’s sake, but with an eye to how aesthetics at a level not simply of ‘content’ (eg obvious pictures, or the colour of the carpet)  but also of ‘form’ — in such a way that the form helps us inhabit and retell the story of the Bible in such a way that it shapes our habits. We already do a bit of this when it comes to acoustics, and the ability for people to move through various stages of a church gathering in a functional sense (that supports the ‘habituation’ of good things). I was struck by something one of the pastors of the church whose venue we hire said about how deliberately they’ve designed their facility so that the space for the ‘service’ (the auditorium) is the same size as the space for eating and talking together as a community (the cafe area). It’s a great facility with an eye to a certain sort of aesthetic and attention to detail I’m not used to in the Presbyterian scene… but part of me wonders how much artificial lighting, smoke machines, and big speakers form the backbone of a Christian aesthetic (I’m not opposed to the idea that the development of technology is part of humanity’s role in God’s story, see John Dyer’s book From the Garden to the City for a nice balanced account of this). I’m also struck by how a poorly designed house (like ours) in terms of living, kitchen, and dining, space limits our ability to participate in the sort of eating together that happens in the early church; and my dreams about an ideal home or ‘church building’ are concepts with a certain sort of ‘social architecture’ underpinning them.

I’m not naively suggesting that this sort of focus on space or ‘the aesthetic’ will magically transform us — that we’re exclusively products of our environment such that the right habitat will automatically fix our nature; and I’m totally aware of our tendency to idolatry — that our default response to beauty is to objectify it and seek to make it our own — but I feel like instead of cultivating an appropriate approach to beauty, or aesthetics, to counteract our sinful hearts, we’ve uncritically adopted an almost negative view of beauty and baptised that as ‘utilitarian’ and so we’ve treated this as the Christian norm.

Here are some of my early thoughts, or ‘sketches’ about some elements (a certain sort of ‘content’ geared towards the ‘aesthetic’) and ‘forms’ (a certain sort of delivery of that content) that might be part of how we structure our spaces to be both beautiful and formative habitats that orient our habits around the story of the Bible as they act as spaces that help re-tell that story…

  1. Light and life.
    Natural light. I’ve been pondering how often we have church in dark rooms (for the purposes of projection and managing lighting), where there’s something from start to finish in the Christian story about God being ‘light and life’ — and some part of that is him being the creator of light. There’s something to the idea that the introduction of electric lighting has ‘deformed’ us in all sorts of ways (including the way the screens of our smart devices do things to our eyes and brains when, prior to their development, we’d have been sleeping). The use and availability of light shapes our practices. The Gospel is a movement from darkness to light, and we’re not meant to fear it. Do our spaces communicate something else, even if subliminally? Is projection (and lighting) a case of harnessing this good gift from God?
  2. Water.
    There’s something about how there are rivers running through the garden in the beginning, and the end, of the story (and, for instance, in Psalm 23) — and that it’s involved in baptism, that means some sort of refreshing, flowing, presence of life-giving water works nicely in telling the story. Plus, you know, that stuff about Jesus at the well and him being living water…
  3. Trees and fruit.
    The trees in the garden are a picture of God’s provision and hospitality, fruit his initial gift of miraculously sweet, juicy and sustaining produce (both on normal trees and the tree of life), which is also a metaphor for the ‘good’ or ‘flourishing life’ for Christians (think the parable of the sower, the ‘true vine’, the fruit of the Spirit). Tree imagery also features prominently in the design of the fittings for the tabernacle and temple, Ezekiel’s vision of the new creation, and the new creation described in Revelation 21-22. And of course, there’s the tree at the heart of the Christian story — the cross. I’m struck by how churches in the past put lots of emphasis on flowers, and how little I thought of that at the time, but how an experience of stepping in to a sort of ‘oasis’ when you gather with Christians — a space trying to capture something of the gardens at the beginning, middle (Gethsemane) and end of the Christian story might help the idea that we are an alternative kingdom — and this might spill out into a world (an environment) desperately in need of a better picture of relating to the natural world. I love the idea of a massive table laden with fruit being part of our experience of eating together — a recognition that for all our technological processing of food to make it more convenient and desirable (with sugars and fats), we can’t compete with what’s on offer in nature.
  4. Table/feasting.
    God shows hospitality to his first image bearing priestly people — with a garden full of good things to eat, and then Israel, his renewed image bearing priestly people are promised a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’; Israel marks its story with feasting (and fasting), with festivals tied to its life together. Sharing the passover, in particular, was a chance for the retelling of their story of creation/salvation through Egypt — and for Christians that’s the feast that became the first Lord’s Supper. I can’t help but feel we’ve been a bit reductionist and utilitarian with a move to individualised portions handed out during a service, formalising the ‘teaching function’ of the meal to what the priestly-pastor says during the carefully ‘demarcated’ time in our week, rather than this being something to do whenever we eat together. There’s an aesthetic element to the reduction of this practice (or its re-imagination). When Robyn and I have spoken about how we’d redesign our home, particular with hospitality being at the heart of our ministry philosophy, I’ve had this romantic idea of the kitchen and dining room being at the literal centre of our house, in a way that communicates something and also sets our rhythms for family (and guest-as-family) life together. We already have an obscenely big table that doesn’t really fit in the space allocated, but this is tucked in the back corner of the house. If the early church meeting in houses was a deliberate sociological and aesthetic practice — where our group identity and character were shaped by architecture — maybe we should consider how much our church buildings should take the shape of houses rather than auditoriums, concert halls, or whatever other space we uncritically adopt; or if we do start running spaces that look like public meeting halls, how we make them truly public not just big private spaces outside the home for us to use in ways that mirror the use of other private spaces that aren’t homes…
  5. The Cross.
    I do love the idea of the ‘cruciform’ church even as I’m subtly challenging the approach to space that began around the time we Christians moved out of homes and into cathedrals… but something of the ugliness of the cross and the utility it represented for the Roman empire being subverted and made beautiful in Jesus’ death is compelling to me in some way, and something about the reminder that at the heart of all the beauty in the world God chose this ugliness to shame our worldliness and to build something new needs to be at the heart of our theological approach to ‘aesthetics’ — if there’s no sense that the cross has challenged and overturned our appreciation of and use of beauty and creation then we’re trying to run ‘creation’ and ‘redemption’ as two separate poles in our framework rather than grappling with how those poles come together in Jesus’ death and resurrection. I’m not entirely sure what this looks like, but part of our thinking must surely be asking ‘how does this experience of beauty prompt me to sacrifice my desire to grasp hold of beauty for myself by connecting me to its maker and redeemer?’ Maybe it’s that things are sweeter without the fear of death and decay — the promise that ‘all things will be made new’ — and part of an ‘aesthetic’ is the reminder that even the good things we have now are not yet perfected.
  6. Gold.
    This one has been historically controversial because churches have lined themselves with expensive gold while neglecting the poor; but there’s something in the way gold is threaded from being ‘good’ around the garden (Genesis 2:11-12), to plundered from Egypt, to used for the tabernacle, priestly vestments, and the golden calf — then in the gifts laid before Jesus, and prominently featured in the new creation. There’s an aesthetic quality to Gold — an inherent beauty — that explains its value, and there is something to an appropriate not using gold for our own ends but to glorify God that expresses a refusal to try to serve both God and money. I’m not suggesting that our use of ‘gold’ — aesthetically — be at the expense of the poor, or in any way idolatrous; in fact if the poor aren’t being included and welcomed into our ‘richness’ then we’re doing it wrong (and maybe that’s part of the historical issues with the church and wealth). I wonder if somehow it’s more about the way that gold reflects the light than about it being exceptionally valuable, and there are plenty of gold coloured things that aren’t made of gold. I’m also sympathetic to the idea that gold serves as something of a metaphor for the inherent goodness of creation, that can be used to glorify God or idols. I have some thoughts about how this might be approached aesthetically, in both church and home, that doesn’t require much more than a trip to Kmart.
  7. White.
    Part of a tendency towards dark colours in buildings has been a focus on a certain sort of aesthetic, but I wonder how much we’ve balanced light and dark in our approach. There’s a bit to be said for the idea that being ‘clothed in white’ is a bold and stark statement in a world where mess is everywhere, and as much as gold might be part of our aesthetic because of how it reflects and amplifies light, white does this too.

Exactly what ‘forms’ these different elements take could vary greatly, and so my sense is that an approach to the ‘aesthetic’ is descriptive rather than a one size fits all ‘prescriptivity’ — which means the quote from the podcast I opened with, the idea that part of an historic definition of a particularly Christian aesthetic is that people might say “that’s a form that has been created and has always been associated with Christianity” is maybe not where I’m landing with this — and these forms aren’t distinctively Christian, you’ll find them in modern architecture, in Kmart, and in my favourite cafes. The extent that these are elements of a “Christian aesthetic” and not simply ‘beautiful’ is caught up with how the form/content stuff plays out in each place, and our creative intent as we carve out spaces that carry this aesthetic… but to want this to always be explicit is to fall into a certain sort of utilitarianism that kills art. Perhaps the thing that actually does away with the ‘Christian’ part of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ is when these things that are inherently beautiful are co-opted for idolatry or the service of self, not God. Part of a Christian aesthetic is recognising that Christians don’t have exclusive access to knowing what is beautiful in our world; we all innately recognise beauty. The problem with our use of worldly beauty or aesthetics has often been that it’s derivative, that we’ve simply tried to imitate cultural forms common around us, rather than creating our own cultural forms within our cultures built from our story. What we do have is the ability to connect what is true and beautiful to its source, God, and see it as the backcloth to his story — the redemption and renewal of the world in and through Jesus.

Infinity Wars, the trolley problem, Abraham, Jepthath and Jesus…

This piece contains some spoilers about a minor element of the plot for Avengers: Infinity War.

There’s a plot thread in Infinity War continuing in Marvel’s exploration of parenting (see also, Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, etc). Thanos is the adopted father of Gamora; the adoption comes in the midst of his committing a semi-genocide (killing half the population) of her planet ‘in order to save it’. Thanos’ mission to ‘save the galaxy’ what is driving his pursuit of the ‘infinity stones’ and the power they offer is a mission to make life sustainable by halving the population. It’s a vision for human and alien flourishing that he is utterly committed to in mind, heart, and action. He is willing to make big sacrifices to achieve this end, including the life of the daughter he loves; Gamora, one of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Thanos’ conviction to his mission is essentially religious; it’s the pursuit of his ‘kingdom of heaven’ in a physical sense in the cosmos, that he is willing to sacrifice and work for… even to make the semi-ultimate sacrifice; the sacrifice of a beloved child. It doesn’t appear that he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice — himself — to achieve this end. When his mission is accomplished, he sits watching the sun set over a valley; a scene he foreshadows as ‘what he’ll do when his task is complete’ earlier in the movie. It’s clear he saw his task both as a personal burden, and as moral (a conviction he’s held since his own planet was destroyed because people refused to do hard things for the greater good)… it’s also clear he pursues his task with a sort of religious fervour, or zealotry. Nothing will stay his hand; no price is too great. It’s also clear his willingness to ‘exchange lives for outcomes’ is being pitted against the Avengers’ steadfast refusal to ‘trade lives’ (right up until Vision convinces his beloved Scarlet Witch to help him sacrifice himself for the cause of resisting Thanos’ cosmic vision). There’s a Cinema Blend piece doing the rounds arguing that Thanos sacrificing Gamora is the worst part of the movie, because Thanos’ actions in sacrificing his adopted daughter make it clear that his claims to love her are a lie.

When Gamora and Thanos arrive on the planet Vormir, they learn that in order to obtain the stone, one must sacrifice somebody they love. Gamora believes that Thanos has been beaten by this, because he loves nothing. But it turns out that, because he loves Gamora, he can, and does, sacrifice her to obtain the long-lost Soul Stone.

The idea is that, while Gamora doesn’t consider Thanos’ treatment of her to be love, in his own way, he does care deeply for her, and because he does, her life can be given up by him to get what he needs in order to complete this terrible task that he has burdened himself with. That’s a load of bullshit.

I have some substantial problems with the argument in this piece; but I think it’s revealing. We’ve, as moderns, collapsed our understanding of ‘love’ to be totalising and utterly focused on the people or things in front of us; the idea of having greater love for some cause beyond ourselves is, at least in this piece, unpalatable. For Thanos to say that he genuinely loves Gamora he has to love her above all other causes. This is tricky ground to cover; especially in a world where a family with deep religious convictions can do what a family in Indonesia did to some churches over the weekend. There’s something to the argument that unfettered fanatical devotion to a cause can warp our commitment or love for other things in such a way that the commitment can no longer be called love. But we also, as humans, live with conflicting loves and with ultimate loves that shape our interactions with all other things — it’s part of being ‘worshippers’ or ‘lovers’ to orient ourselves to the world based on some vision of what is ultimate, and to organise our ‘sacrifice’ (of time and energy and relationships) accordingly; whether it’s career, or success, the improvement of the world for future generations, or the propagation of a culture or religion, there are socially acceptable and unacceptable ways to order our loves and the impact those loves have on others. The effect of our worship on how we treat the people in our lives is a good thing to think through (and a good criteria to figure out the validity of our object of worship using criteria that include things like our emotions). It is good to ask a workaholic (someone who worships work) about the impact that has on their family (and whether they truly love their family, or on what basis they see their work as an act of love or sacrifice for their family). It’s good to consider whether the ‘worship’ or ‘sacrifice’ required in a religious system makes that religious system worthy or good (and even true or reasonable). If a God really is capricious, then worshiping rather than overthrowing that God is preposterous; and if a vision for life in this world requires awful costs imposed on others, then we can ask if it is truly a better alternative.

It’s not that Thanos doesn’t love Gamora, it’s that a greater love allows him to sacrifice Gamora (while grieving over that sacrifice). This isn’t the worst bit of the movie, but part of what makes Thanos such a compelling villain; we understand his motivations, and they are costly and coherent. He genuinely believes that what he is doing — and even the costs imposed on himself, and those who die in his pursuit of the cause — serve a ‘greater good;’ the moral question we have to resolve here (at least to understand whether this sacrifice means he doesn’t actually love Gamora) is more complicated than the Cinema Blend piece allows. We have to ask questions about how moral it can be to co-opt another person for your cause — to play God, rather than virtuous creature — in pursuit of a ‘kingdom of God’ (or gods); and Thanos is certainly depicted as being quite prepared to play god (and slay gods). The minions who buy in to his mission and who carry out the mass killings of people required to secure his vision of the future, are interesting pictures of whole-hearted, unwavering, religious zealotry too.

At least part of the problem we’re faced with in assessing the morality of Thanos’ behaviour is the question of whether his vision is utopian or dystopian (can anybody ever find real peace and happiness knowing the price paid to secure it?), but another part is the question of how much the ‘ends’ ever justifies the ‘means’; and one thing the Cinema Blend piece does well for us is it exposes just how hollow a dispassionate, utilitarian, framework is for us in questions of life, and death, and love.

Basically, what we’re seeing in Avengers: Infinity War is a CGI heavy, cosmic, re-imagining of different versions of the Trolley Problem (and one that allows a sort religious motivation to provide the ‘moral frame’ for making a life or death decision (or acknowleding, perhaps, that the moral frame for such decision making is almost always ‘religious’ in some sense, in that purely rational decision making is utterly unsatisfying to us as humans, and needs to be built on subjective value-based criteria that are more emotional or intuitive than we’re sometimes prepared to acknowledge). If you’re not familiar with the Trolley Problem as an ethical test via imaginary scenario… Here’s how Wikipedia lays it out.

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track. You have two options:
1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

For Thanos, the problem might be presented this way:

You believe life in this universe is unsustainable and that all people will die terribly if left unchecked. There is a stone that will secure the sustainable life of half the existing population, and life of future generations. Achieving that outcome requires running over the other half of the existing population. You can:

  1. Do nothing, and everyone dies.
  2. Claim the stone and kill half of all lives in the universe.

The dilemma, in a utilitarian framework seems fairly straight forward to this point; securing the best outcome for the greatest number means option 2 (for a moment granting the premise that there is literally no other hope or destiny for the people currently alive; no better solution than the death of half of them… the real problem in this movie is a total lack of imaginative alternatives (particularly alternative uses of infinite God-like power from the stones).

The Avengers play out a different ethical system in their initial refusal to intervene to even trade one life for the greater good; there’s tension when Doctor Strange breaks that pact, giving up a stone to Thanos to save Iron Man (though Doctor Strange is no stranger to making sacrifices for the greater good, having died a seemingly infinite number of deaths to save the world from destruction in his solo movie, and he also does this with a sort of ‘infinitely bestowed’ foreknowledge of the paths to the best possible future). This refusal to make trades doesn’t hold forever though; because when it comes to making sacrifices to save half the world’s population from Thanos’ vision, they have their own version of the trolley problem. Vision is alive because of an infinity stone embedded in his head. Thanos wants the stone, and will kill him to take it. Wanda, the Scarlett Witch, has the power to destroy the stone, but she loves Vision and does not want to pull that lever… Their version is:

  1. Do nothing and half the planet dies.
  2. Kill Vision, destroy the stone, save half the planet.

The only option on the table at that point, it seems, is option 2.

It’s interesting that both of these dilemmas are built around the idea that to be moral, or ethical, when faced with a scenario like this, is to intervene; the notion that we are the ‘ultimate actors’ in every moment, and that individuals bear a sort of corporate responsibility if they want to be considered ethical or loving.

Thanos faces an even trickier version of the Trolley Dilemma than that first version; on the mountaintop he faces an earlier form of the dilemma… “in which the one person to be sacrificed on the track was the switchman’s child” (wikipedia)… coupled with a version created by controversial moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Thanos faces a scenario where only Gamora’s sacrifice can meet the conditions (in his account of reality) to secure the best possible future for the greatest good, where she is both his beloved child and as a result the person who is ‘weighty enough’ to be sacrificed to secure that future. This version of the trolley problem exposes some of the weight behind the ‘mechanical’ pulling of a lever by making you get your conceptual hands dirty; and this was the price Thanos was willing to pay to secure his religious vision. He was prepared to personally sacrifice his beloved child in order to secure what he believed was good for the world.

I want to suggest that the problem with Thanos; what makes him a villain and his love hollow is not that he sacrificed Gamora, but that his vision was not good; that the killing of half the life in the universe to save the other half is vicious, rather than virtuous, that with the power of God in his hands he had myriad better options if he’d bothered to use his imagination, that he should’ve learned something more about the tragic destruction of his planet through the selfish consumerism of its inhabitants than ‘beings need to die so that other beings can consume’… and that perhaps what he should’ve done, morally speaking, was thrown himself of the cliff to give Gamora, his much more worthy and virtuous daughter, the power of the gauntlet, trusting that she would use that power to create a better world; that it’s clear that in sacrificing her he is just as guilty of the distorting self-love that destroyed his planet, and that this selfishness actually colours his distorted vision of a solution to the problems of the universe.

In doing this I want to suggest a better solution to Thomson’s version of the Trolley Problem, and I want to use the Bible to do it… I want to suggest that one element of Thomson’s “fat man” trolley scenario must always be challenged and re-imagined if we’re to pursue true other-centric virtue; and let’s call that other-centric virtue what it really is… love. It isn’t true that we are at the centre of the universe, and that its problems must be solved by our actions and decision making on behalf of others. Where the problem states “your only way” is to take the life of another, there’s actually a question left hanging… what if I jumped in front of the train instead… What if I’m the heavy weight? And even if I’m not, do I gain more in terms of ‘goodness’ or virtue — am I more moral — if I at least try that form of intervention instead. The intervention where I am not the most important person in the world.

I think this is part of the answer the Bible gives to the trolley problem; or the Thanos and Gamora problem… When Thanos is standing on that mountain top with Gamora there are eery echoes of a thread of stories in the Bible involving the death (or near death) of children for the greater good. Passages that have vexed moral philosophers (the sort of people who like trolley problems) and at a gut level, vexed plenty of us, forever — the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Jepthath and his daughter, and God and his son, Jesus. I’m going to suggest that Thanos is more like the abhorrent Jepthath than Abraham and God — and I’m going to be drawing on this excellent article, ‘The Condemnation of Jepthath,’ by my friend Tamie Davis to make this case. Let’s recap the two Old Testament stories…

Abraham is a pivotal figure in the Old Testament narrative; an archetype of faithful trust in God and someone who makes sacrifices in response to that faith, and according to the visions of the ‘good life’ in this world supplied by God. God speaks, and Abraham listens. God calls him to leave his home and his family, and to set out to a new land; Abraham obeys. God tells Abraham he’s going to be the father of a great nation, and despite his being old and childless, Abraham believes. Abraham’s not blameless; he does some stupid things in the story and tries to take fulfilling God’s promises into his own hands a couple of times (in different ways that are less than commendable), but his faith is held up as exemplary, bumbling though it is, and eventually he and his wife, Sarah, have a son, Isaac. What follows is one of the most disturbing stories in the Bible; but also one that gets used to unpack different moral philosophies within a framework where God exists and cares about life in this world (especially in discussions around a thing called ‘divine command theory’). Here’s what happens:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” — Genesis 22:1-2

Like Thanos, who takes Gamora to a mountain top where he is forced to decide if he can give up the child he loves for the cause, Abraham takes Isaac to the mountaintop. He is prepared to go through with the sacrifice — though you get some sense from the ‘whom you love’ that this preparation is not without inner turmoil and conflict. He’s about to carry it out when God stays his hand and provides an alternative sacrifice (to Abraham’s joy, and Isaac’s relief). It’s a strange story; but one thing that is clear (though Cinema Blend might disagree) — Abraham loves Isaac, and that love is what makes what he’s called to do a sacrifice (if he didn’t, it wouldn’t be one). What’s clear is that Abraham trusts God’s vision of the future, and his ability to carry it out, more than he trusts his own vision of things.

What’s a bit trickier is that in the context of the Genesis story, Isaac is already marked out as the ‘child of promise’; God has already says he’ll create a nation through him, so though we’re rightly disturbed by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, there’s more than meets the eye… and it does seem legitimate to read Genesis 22 the way the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews does when it commends Abraham as an archetype of faithfulness.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” — Hebrews 11:17-19

What I’ve always wondered though, is given Isaac has been marked out as the future for God’s promises — should Abraham have offered himself in his place (he’s quite happy bargaining with God earlier in the piece when it comes to the future of the citizens of Sodom and Gommorah)… this sort of speculation seems permissible in the light of where the story of the Bible goes in terms of a mountain top sacrifice, and doesn’t necessarily contradict the way Hebrews reads the narrative (especially the phrase ‘one and only son’ that has a particular resonance with the Jesus story).

Jepthath’s story is an even closer parallel with Thanos and Gamora than Abraham’s.

Jepthath is a leader of Israel. He’s a warrior. Where Abraham left his family for another land as an act of faithfulness to God’s promises, Jepthath left his messed up family, he was the son of a warrior and a prostitute, and his brothers drove him away, and gathered a gang of outlaws. Israel pulled him back from living amongst foreign nations to lead them in to battle, and he uses their request to secure himself a place as leader of the kingdom — if he successfully delivers them (Judges 11:9). On the eve of battle he strikes a bargain with God. He makes a vow (a stupid vow).

“If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. — Judges 11:30-32

Predictably, the first thing (or person) to come out of the door of his house is his only daughter. He then gives her up, and it seems from earlier in the narrative that this isn’t just about keeping his dumb promise, but about not threatening his motivations for signing up for the fight to begin with; power. What also seems clear is that he loves his daughter; but his vow and his vision of the ‘greater good’ drive a particular course of action.

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child.Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.” — Judges 11:34-35

Tamie brings feminist readings of the story into conversation with evangelical readings, and a parallel with the Abraham and Isaac story; she says:

“Maltreatment of women accompanies the fall of the nation; it conveys the terrible extent of the moral decay of Israelite men and society. When it comes to reading the story of Jephthah, then, located in the middle of Judges, we may have room to read the daughter positively but certainly no warrant to view Jephthah as faithful… Unfaithful Jephthah is representative of Israel’s own turn to apostasy; to construe him otherwise would present a sudden upturn in the downward spiral. Such parameters as these are not at odds with feminist concerns. Jephthah’s actions are by no means commendable; the death of his daughter is in no way endorsed. These are part of a loathsome era of Israel’s history.”

When Tamie compares the two stories, to help unpack this reading, she points out thematic links between the narratives (that also apply to the Thanos and Gamora scene, except that Gamora isn’t the only child, Thanos has just been torturing her adopted sister, Gamora is, it seems, the only loved child):

In their narrative contexts, both children are the sole descendants of their parents, the beloved child and the only hope of the continuation of their line. The parent on view in both cases is the father and he is to be the sacrificer (Gen. 22:2, 10; Judges 11:31, 36, 39). In both cases, the sacrifice has a religious character: it is to fulfil an obligation to God, and the child is to be sacrificed to God. Both stories hence play with questions about the duty to protect family coming into conflict with loyalty to God. Which allegiance is stronger? How should the father adjudicate two conflicting moral imperatives?

The difference between Abraham and Jepthath is key to our comparisons here, and helps to position Thanos as a ‘type’ of Jepthath not Abraham. But these two questions about allegiance and competing moral imperatives are the ones that make the Thanos-Gamora scene compelling rather than ‘the worst’… despite our modern, secular, objections to a religious ‘greater good’…

God speaks directly to Abraham, both in promise and in the call to sacrifice. He’s more like a lever in the Jepthath narrative, a being to be used for the purposes of securing Jepthath’s place at the head of Israel, and Israel’s success over their enemies. God doesn’t speak to Jepthath; Jepthath strikes his own bargain, and carries it out without reconsidering (or imagining that maybe when his daughter comes out of the door he should consider that his vow, in itself, was sinful and that there were ways to deal with breaking bad vows in Jewish law). Like Thanos, he commits himself to an unimaginative view of the best possible future for the world — a future where he is at the centre, enthroned. His daughter is a small price to pay to achieve that end; and yet, a large price to pay (what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet forfeit his soul, as Jesus might put it). Jepthath, like Thanos, is a true believer in his place being beside the lever, deciding the fates of all other people.

Tamie also unpacks the inversion of the structure of the two stories (it’s great, read it), suggesting:

“While the backdrop of Genesis 22:1-19 may lead us to expect to see a faithful man and a faithful God, instead, we are left with a God who is sidelined as the unfaithful man treats him like a pagan deity.”

One of the starkest parallels between the stories, at the heart of Tamie’s essay, but also one that is a line to the Thanos story, is that where Abraham is called to sacrifice his son, Jepthath (and Thanos) sacrifice their daughters.

What’s interesting though, is that Jepthath also gets a gig in Hebrews 11, a passing mention, but a mention nonetheless.

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised” — Hebrews 11:32-33

Somehow, in the awfulness of Jepthath’s actions, and the degeneration of Israel (Samson is also a flawed hero, or an anti-hero, used in God’s plans). God is actually at the lever in these stories — even when the human characters think and live as though they are… even in their unfaithfulness (or the behaviour that specifically puts them at odds with how humans are meant to live under God), God is still at work fulfilling his promises to Abraham, and plans for Israel.

If we were left with just these two stories — Abraham and Jepthath — to assess morality and love, and what you should do with the trolley on the tracks in your own life, then we’d be in a little bit of a pickle. If Abraham’s willingness to ‘pull the lever’ to sacrifice his ‘one son’ on the tracks is our archetype, or if he and Jepthath are totally competing archetypes, we’re left with a pretty arbitrary utilitarianism; the idea that we’re left deciding on the ‘ultimate’ vision for the good life for everyone on our own terms… which inevitably leaves us in the centre of the action, lever in hand (unless we outsource the decision making to others). Abraham’s story centres on a paradox though, which leaves us even more confused — he’s told to kill the child he’s been told is the future, and God has been doing the telling the whole time… He is different to Jepthath (and Thanos) because his vision of the ‘kingdom’ he is sacrificing for isn’t his own kingdom, with him at the centre.

Hebrews actually points us to an interesting ‘final version’ of this story; an archetype to look to in our own trolley problems, and in questions of sacrificing and what is worth sacrificing for… a story that won’t have us sacrificing our children, whether on the altar of our careers, addictions, or visions of a better world, but will have us sacrificing for our children as we live the moral, ethical, and loving life patterned on this story of ‘child sacrifice’.

One of the things that stops God being a moral monster — a Thanos pulling Abraham’s strings — in the Abraham story is the way it is actually used to foreshadow God’s own actions in history — actions the Bible suggests were part of God’s plan before Abraham (Jesus even says at one point ‘before Abraham was, I am’)… another thing, obviously, is that he stays Abraham’s hand and provides an alternative sacrifice to secure his plans (a kingdom built on faithfulness to his word)… first the sheep, and then, Jesus.

If we acknowledge that the Abraham story is internally paradoxical, then the sacrifice of Jesus blows it out of the water in the scale of the paradox. The Trinity, and the relationship between the divinity and humanity of Jesus as God and son of God are complex realities at the heart of the Christian faith… but in the dynamic of the Trinity and the acts of Jesus at the cross we have a father offering up his only son as a sacrifice, but also Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice — the only sacrifice ‘weighty enough’ to stop the train of death and judgment not just destroying five people, but all people. It’s not just a case of God with a lever, redirecting the train to hit Jesus on the tracks, but Jesus, the weighty sacrifice jumping between the train and us, voluntarily and deliberately, both out of love for God and us, and because he trusts the plan — the ‘vision’ of a new reality; he acts from the ‘religious conviction’ that God the father is author of life, and that this sacrifice is not the end of the story to secure a particular future vision, but a step towards resurrection — both for him, and for the ‘greater good’ — the resurrection of as many people as possible in his re-making of the world; his kingdom. Jesus trusts God to pull the lever; and in trusting God to pull the lever, ‘jumps off the cliff to halt the trolley’ himself… what a weird archetypal solution to any formulation of the trolley problem, or the ‘there’s a necessary sacrifice’ problems… to put yourself in the firing line out of love for others, not the self interested belief that you’re at the heart of reality.

In the way father and son combine in the sacrifice of Jesus we’re not just seeing the alternative to Thanos, but the end of Thanos… Thanos is the word for death in Greek, and outside the Marvel Universe, Thanos is the Greek god of death. The sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus represent the defeat of death and the kingdom of death — the spreading of death across the face of the universe; and the replacement of death with life.

There’s obviously not a direct parallel between Thanos and Gamora on the Mountain and Father and Son on ‘Golgotha’ — the ‘place of the skull’ — the hill Jesus was executed on… and yet, there are thematic links (as there are with Isaac and Jepthath’s daughter). Like the differences between Abraham and Jepthath, the differences between God and Jepthath (and God and Thanos) are important ones… Gamora is not a willing participant in Thanos’ plans, she is not Jepthath’s daughter, who submits to her father’s stupidity, she is not Jesus, who willingly entrusted his life (and resurrection) to his father… she has no reason to believe that her father should be entrusted with her life, or that the payoff will be justified.

All these sacrifices share a certain ‘something’ in common; they’re all the life of a loved child being offered up with some sense of the greater good — the trolley problem. But only one of these stories has the child going willingly, and the child being an equal stakeholder in the plan with equal power.  After the long line of ‘faithful’ examples, ‘types’ of sacrificers, Hebrews points to the ‘perfecter of faith’ — the actual archetype — Jesus, in his humanity. The example for us when faced with our own trolley problems — all of these stories involve a father who loves their child, but only one of these stories comes with an example that is worth applying in ethical scenarios (real or hypothetical).

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. — Hebrews 12:1-2

This is how we know what love is; this is what allows us to take on the burden of suffering, even death, in sacrifice for others… and this is what makes Christianity and its object of worship — our God — better for our kids (and others) than alternatives we might put in its place; any kingdom we might like to build through our own intervention in the world. This is why Christians acting ‘religiously’; with this archetypal story at the centre — eyes fixed on Jesus — are the best thing for the people stuck on the tracks in our world.

This is why the Thanos scene is the best, richest, and most thought provoking scene in the whole movie… because here, the ‘Thanos story’ goes head to head with the ‘Jesus story’…

Why we might all need conversion therapy

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” — Jesus, Matthew 10:24-26

The state of California is considering passing a law (Bill 2943) that makes the controversial practice of ‘conversion therapy’ or ‘reparative therapy’ illegal.

This bill would include, as an unlawful practice prohibited under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, advertising, offering to engage in, or engaging in sexual orientation change efforts with an individual.”

It’s worth pointing out that there’s a limited scope to this Bill, that it is specifically about consumer rights, not about the right of an individual to pursue treatment in private and without cost (it’s a law about the marketplace, not a law governing how people approach the bedroom). It’s not a law banning prayer, or private conversations where there’s an ‘equal standing’, but about transactions, and particularly in settings where there’s a power-dynamic (eg patient-doctor). The Bill ‘declares’:

“Contemporary science recognizes that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is part of the natural spectrum of human identity and is not a disease, disorder, or illness.”

It quotes an American Psychiatric Association finding that:

“In the last four decades, ‘reparative’ therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure. Until there is such research available, [the American Psychiatric Association] recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to first, do no harm.”

Which is curious; because it’s hard to see how such research might become available given this recommendation, if such therapy were possibly effective. But it also makes significant assumptions about the framework for assessing harm, and whether or not such ‘therapy’ should only be pursued on the basis that it will produce certain results, rather than simply being something an individual might freely pursue to live a life of their choosing (with the caveat that how reparative therapy for same sex attraction has been used by Christians with a particular view about the moral status of same sex attraction).

The question of whether reparative therapy is effective or damaging was the subject of a longitudinal study by Christian psychologists, Dr Mark Yarhouse and Stanton Jones. This study included non-therapy approaches (the sort you might offer as a free course, not just the sort you pay for) concluded:

“In conclusion, the findings of this study would appear to contradict the commonly expressed view of the mental health establishment that sexual orientation is not changeable and that the attempt to change is highly likely to produce harm for those who make such an attempt.”

The Yarhouse-Jones study did find that ‘orientation change’ from predominantly homo- to predominantly hetero- attraction was possible in some case (23%) and a reduction in homosexual attraction with an outcome of “a reduction in homosexual attraction and behavioral chastity” occurred for a further 30% of people involved in the study. The sample size for this study was small, and there are other studies more targetted at particular therapy practices, which may end up causing more harm (especially if unsuccessful).

That humans are able to change aspects of our identity, even if natural, seems to align with findings around how our brains work, and a whole heap of other clinical psychological practice.

There are much bigger issues on the table here for Christians — two in fact.  Bigger even than the freedom to practice our faith under law (though that’s a biggy).

First is whether an orientation change from same sex to opposite sex attraction is necessary for Christians (rather than desirable) — if 47% of cases in the longitudinal study remained same sex attracted, what does our theology say to their experience and their capacity to live in the world as followers of Jesus?

Does loving Jesus require a change in ‘sexual orientation as it occurs across a ‘natural spectrum’?

It doesn’t; but it does require a decision to love Jesus more than we love sex (and other ‘things of this world’) because we are, by nature disordered people who love things God made in the place of the God who made them (what the Bible says is at the heart of sin).

Some form of therapy to realign natural desires might, however, be useful to a Christian who doesn’t want to experience same sex attraction. It might be that they freely choose to investigate the possibility that sexuality occurs on a spectrum and involves factors that aren’t simply innate (even if attraction isn’t ‘chosen’), and so an individual might seek to change those desires and that orientation, and to take that option off the table, if it might work, just because sexual orientation is ‘natural’, seems cruel. We intervene to treat all sorts of natural things that are part of our identity. It’s perhaps more cruel to co-opt a person’s will and force them through such therapy, especially if the change in orientation isn’t necessary for somebody to faithfully love Jesus.

Second is whether part of our issue, as Christians, is that we’ve limited our approach to ‘therapeutic’ practices following conversion to the belief that Jesus is Lord to a particular area — sexuality — for a particular orientation — homosexual, where instead we should be providing mechanisms for ‘reparation’ or ‘conversion’ for the entire ‘natural spectrum of human identity’… whether that’s heterosexual orientation or, for example, our incredibly natural greed and selfishness (the ‘selfish gene’, anybody). We might also need some conversion therapy for our wallets and our self-image. That is; people working with us to change fundamental ‘natural’ things about ourselves  and our identities as we seek a particular unnatural outcome.

Part of the issue here is that we seem to have limited ‘conversion’ to an intellectual assent to some sort of belief in every area but the sexuality of our same sex attracted neighbours. Nobody talks about any sort of professional ‘conversion therapy’ for Christian people addicted to overseas travel, or career, for those who are lovers of money, not God (or money as God). An opposition to ‘conversion therapy’ — the idea that we might need to change and sacrifice happiness — comes as much out of this view of God as out of a view that God is irrelevant.

There’s a popular description of western spirituality as ‘moral therapeutic deism’ — where God steps back from the world and our lives (deism) but wants us to be good and moral people who chase happiness, and good people end up in heaven. There’s a ‘therapy’ at the heart of this because such a wishy-washy set of beliefs about God is inherently comforting and therapeutic. The problem is, of course, the total absence of ‘Christ‘ Jesus from Christianity.

We have as western Christians, bought into a picture of evangelism and the Christian life that equates to ‘tick a box’ decisionism, unless you happen to be a member of the LGBTIQ+ community. A huge percentage of Aussies ‘tick the box’ at census time, calling themselves ‘Christian’, and lots of our evangelistic efforts focus on helping people ‘make a decision’ and then leave out the question of ‘making a disciple’ — the hard work of discipline and formation… unless the person making the decision happens to be same sex attracted; then we want them to ‘discipline their bodies’ in order to change their orientation to the world.

It’s hypocrisy; costly hypocrisy as a result of cheap grace. The German churchman who fought against Hitler and the rise of his political vision, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, defined ‘cheap grace’ as:

“…The preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” — Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

The idea that ‘conversion therapy’ — a deliberate, habitual, reordering of our desires to conform to God’s design, drawing on insights into how people change — is something that we should limit to same sex attracted Christians and their sexuality, not a thing for all Christians to pursue, is a version of ‘cheap grace’… so to is the idea that we’re not all called to ‘die to self’ when it comes to our sexuality (and every other area of our life).

We seem to ask the average Aussie to tick a box, believe that Jesus died for them, and then largely live an unchanged life when it comes to their time, money, and vocation — we ask them to change nothing about their sexuality except to limit to one person in marriage; saying nothing about the way we in our ‘natural spectrum’ are geared up to turn other people, even our spouse, into objects of our self-fulfilment. Sexual immorality isn’t limited to same sex attraction; every person is called to ‘conversion’ and needs to be repaired by God’s spirit; working through our habits and practices — perhaps even with help (therapy).

Maybe we’d have less issues explaining ‘conversion therapy’ if it was a widespread practice in the pursuit of being like Jesus, living with him as king of every area; if we say ‘sanctification’ as having our naturally ‘disordered’ image — broken by sin — repaired so that we bear the image of Jesus. If we applied this to our use of our credit card, and the darkness of our hearts in all areas of life, not just to sex.

Grace is, of course, free. Life is a gift offered freely by Jesus, not earned… but the call to discipleship is a call to conversion, and the idea that this conversion shouldn’t involve thinking about how people are changed and formed by practices or ‘therapy’ that changes our hearts, and our ‘orientation’ to the world and its pleasures — is naive.

As Bonhoeffer said:

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our  lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” — Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.

It’s no good for anybody to pretend this process will happen without deliberate intervention in community; the New Testament, especially the letters, are attempts by a writer to convert and repair the actions of those who have taken up the call to discipleship. It’s costly; it’s intense; it requires a deliberate re-ordering of our practices in order to re-order our loves (including how we approach our sexuality). It’s a call to obey God’s word and submit our lives to him, with our love for Jesus at the centre of all our other loves. That’s true for all Christians.

The goal of ‘conversion therapy’ is not heterosexuality or ‘turning straight’; such a goal would suggest we straight people don’t need any intervention or help. The goal of the conversion therapy we all need — the repair we all need — is not ‘straightness’, but Jesus, a life moved from our natural state of ‘disorder’ to being ‘conformed into the image of the son’ (not our natural state or identity).

We all need conversion therapy — the idea that a government might call the possibility of being transformed into the image of Christ ‘fraud’ is laughable, but maybe it’s time we ask if we’re the joke?

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Broadchurch and the secular age: the limited value of Christianity without Christ

Broadchurch is the sort of show best watched in small doses — it doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of the human condition, and where seasons one and two were about a couple of seedy blokes who’d killed minors, season three was about toxic masculinity and there were only two blokes who emerged relatively unscathed — DI Alec Hardy (the lead), and the village vicar, Reverend Paul Coates.

The final series focuses on a serial rapist, and zeroes in on ‘rape culture,’ and its relationship to porn and the systemic objectification of women (right from the teenage years). It’s hard viewing because just about every male is a suspect (and rightly so, in terms of how they’re characterised), and every woman is either a potential victim of sexual assault, or victimised by the toxic masculinity of the small town’s culture. It’s challenging viewing as a bloke — but with news linking the Toronto incident this week with a ‘toxic’ movement of ‘involuntarily celibate’ (incel) men who believe they’re entitled to female affection (and sex), it’s worth grappling with some of the darker, causative, factors underpinning this cultural moment and what it means to be a man, or a woman, in a world where there’s an ever present threat of rape, and a growing saturated environment where blokes (and increasingly, women) are marinating their imaginations in pornography.

Though the village Rev is depicted sympathetically — and almost positively — throughout the series, I find his character fascinating, and his story arc a depressingly real picture of how the world sees the church, and where the church is failing the world.

There’s a scene early on in series three between the local newspaper editor, Maggie, who’s facing a ‘corporate rationalisation’ of her newspaper, and the Rev, where he reveals his despair at the lack of impact he’s having on the town.

Maggie: Just be glad you’ve got a job for life. People will always need a bit of God.

Paul: I wish you were right. On Sundays now, the church is emptier than before Danny was killed [season 1]. You don’t come. Beth and Mark don’t come, Ellie and half the people that were affected by what happened here. People look to God when they want something and then Well, now they’ve just deserted him.

Maggie: No, Paul, no. People love you. You pulled so many of us through these past few years.

Paul: Exactly. I’m the priest that people look to when they’re hurting and then desert when everything’s OK. I’ve got more to offer than that.

The reverend is having an identity crisis; he’s not ‘reaching people’ or helping people — and he’s less interested in people finding God than in people seeing him as a bit of a hero in a time of crisis. While he’s not ‘toxic’ in the ‘rape culture’ sense of toxic masculinity, this insecurity — when he has much more to offer — is another form of broken masculinity. He wants to be the white knight, to save the town and be there for its victims — for him to be there, not for Jesus to be present in any meaningful way. He wants to be the model man, rather than point people to the model man; Jesus. More of this is revealed in his dialogue with Beth Latimer, the mother of Danny (the boy killed in season 1), who has become a crisis counsellor for a sexual assault support service, and is helping season 3’s victim — Trish.

Beth: I spoke to Trish Winterman, – about you going to speak to her.

Paul: Great, thanks.

Beth: She didn’t want that.

Paul: Oh. Right. OK.

Beth: She’s not religious and didn’t know how much help it would be.

Paul: But you did say it didn’t have to be about that? It’s support.

Beth: I did, I really talked to her about it. She’s not up for seeing you. I’m sorry.

Paul: Right.

Beth: You say that like I’ve let you down.

Paul: No. Not at all. I am so admiring of you. It’s brilliant, the way you’ve turned all of this into a way to help people. People really respond to you.(Sighs) If I’m really honest with you, I’m a bit envious.

If he can’t help people with generic, non-religious, support — then what can he do? Envy the mum of a dead boy because she is able to help people? It’s like he can’t imagine a contribution he might make to the town, or the writers can’t… somewhere between this moment and the end of the series, the Rev decides to call it quits — to leave town.

Paul: How did you know I’d be here this early?

Maggie: Last service in a few hours. I thought, if I was you, I’d be wallowing.

Paul: Hm.

Maggie: Have you got your sermon worked out?

Paul: To all seven who’ll be there.

Maggie: I’m hoping you’ll reconsider.

Paul: (Snorts) No. No. It’s time. To everything a season.

And here’s what we see of his ‘stellar’ last sermon…

There’s a line from Hebrews echoing through my head.
Let us all consider how we may spur one another on, toward love and good deeds.
Not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.
But encouraging one another.
Now, I hope that even without me here, you will go on encouraging one another.
All any of us really want are love and good deeds.

It’s a hit with Alec, who picks at the barely closed wound…

Alec: If I’d known you were that good, I might have come more often.

Paul: Oh, thanks very much.

There’s something sympathetic in the way the writers of Broadchurch realise this character; as though this is the ‘ideal’ modern churchman, He was essential in the earlier seasons, offering real comfort to the Latimer family in their grief, but also offering prayerful support to the murderer in prison. He helped Mark (Danny’s dad) not pursue vengeance — a decision still haunting Mark in season 3, but one he remains proud of… but there is no place, no future, for the Reverend, or his church, in this town… and yet, there seems to be something like the passing of judgment on him (and the church) in the way his story arc finishes and how useless he ends up being in the face of systemic toxicity.  When it boils down to it, it’s pretty clear the citizens of Broadchurch (the town) are an irreligious bunch, barely interested in his counsel, and certainly not interested in his religious belief… except maybe if it boils down to ‘love and good deeds’ — they can stomach that, and there’s a reluctant sense that he might have something, a nagging sense that maybe he does offer some sort of traditional wisdom (bereft of any super natural substance, ground he has already ceded).

“We have moved from a world in which the place of fullness was understood as unproblematically outside of or “beyond” human life, to a conflicted age in which this construal is challenged by others which place it (in a wide range of different ways) “within” human life.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

The town, and its reverend, are a living, breathing, example of Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age’ thesis; and the ‘good’ reverend in his existential crisis is the archetypal image of Taylor’s ‘buffered self’ dealing with the ‘malaise of immanence’ while trying to pursue an authentic sense of self… and that’s no place for a churchman to be… if that’s all we’ve got to offer then we may as well shut up shop and leave town. Taylor describes a world where religious belief is less possible, and where the default way of seeing and being in the world is to not register anything ‘supernatural’; to be concerned with ‘immanent’ things (the things around us) not ‘transcendent’ things (the ‘divine’/supernatural things beyond us), he says this leaves us bereft and cut off from bigger things (and from community built around something beyond us). He suggests this creates a dilemma — we’ve lost something (for good or for ill) with a move to seeing the world in material terms, and we’re left searching for a replacement; he sees “a wide sense of malaise at the disenchanted world” where instead of rich and supernaturally meaningful we have “a sense of it as flat, empty” and instead of purpose coming from God or ‘the gods’ we’re left with “a multiform search for something within, or beyond” the world and our lives that “could compensate for the meaning lost with transcendence.”

If that’s the world of most people then what’s the point of church? What place can it occupy in the village? And what’s the point of being a churchman?

This is Reverend Paul Coates’ dilemma. He’s living and breathing in the secular world and trying to authentically take part in that world, rather than challenging the ‘haunting’ Taylor sees as left behind when we encase ourselves in this way of seeing ‘reality’. Taylor says this view of the world creates that ‘malaise,’ but also this pursuit of authenticity on these terms. Again, terrible circumstances for a member of the clergy. Taylor says the pursuit of ‘authentic’ fulfilment, flourishing, or ‘fullness’ on these terms look like a life where:

“we strive to live happily with spouse and children, while practising a vocation which we find fulfilling, and also which constitutes an obvious contribution to human welfare.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

He says this can only work if our daily practices keep our haunting sense of loss at bay, and that they provide a sense of growing fullness — a movement towards something substantial. This is exactly the Rev’s dilemma — he’s lost his sense that he is contributing to human welfare, and so his job is no longer ‘fulfilling’ or inching him towards ‘fulness’ — instead, he feels empty. Haunted perhaps, though he doesn’t realise it.

And I’d like to make the case that this is precisely how a clergyman who has taken his path should feel… that his job, instead, is to point his town to a different picture of fulness and flourishing — and that he has failed the job (and the town), rather than the job failing him.

There’s more to Christianity (and to Hebrews 10, the part of the Bible his last sermon comes from) than ‘meeting together’ and ‘love and good deeds’. I can’t help but wonder if the writers of Broadchurch were being advised by some clergy cut from the same cloth as this character; but the verses immediately around this final sermon are the core truth claims of Christianity that might present a sort of ‘truth beyond ourselves’ that challenges the issues underpinning toxic masculinity and without these claims Christianity is useless, toothless, and should be run out of town. Here’s what Hebrews 10 says is the reason to meet together and encourage each other towards love and good deeds.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. — Hebrews 10:20-23

The church meets together to hold on to the truth that we have been restored to living God’s way by Jesus, there’s a ‘new and living way opened for us’ to be in relationship with God, washed pure… we meet together to ‘hold unswervingly to the hope we profess’ — resurrection from death and total liberation from our own toxic humanity and a world messed up by our shared toxic humanity. Our ‘love and good deeds’ aren’t just random, amorphous, acts of ‘good will’ or ‘neighbourliness’, they’re a response to the hope that we have that Jesus will return to right wrongs and judge evil.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. — Hebrews 10:24-27

A Christianity with nothing to say about Jesus and life in him, and in the hope of his return, is a Christianity with nothing to say in the face of sin — no hope to offer victims, no condemnation and mercy to offer perpetrators, and no new way of life to offer to anybody. A Christianity with no hope, or no ‘day approaching’ is a Christianity with nothing to live for — a dead, truncated, Christianity.

A truncated Christianity is no Christianity at all; and rightly has no place in the village.

Taylor says that one of the problems created by the flattening of reality, for everybody, is that when we pursue fulness in ‘this worldly terms’, when we adopt the ‘secular age’ and its modernist, materialist, ‘immanent’, vision, we end up where the wise writer of Ecclesiastes ended up — with a sense that everything is meaningless. This is, along with the utter sinfulness of the human heart, is the root problem in Broadchurch, and what it depicts so effectively. Even in the ‘best communal moments’ in the series — a walk where the female residents unite to ‘light the night’, and the Rev’s farewell service, there’s an emptiness to what is on offer in the face of the dark reality they’re standing against.

“Running through all these attacks [on the modernist rejection of spiritual realities] is the spectre of meaninglessness; that as a result of the denial of transcendence, of heroism, of deep feeling, we are left with a view of human life which is empty, cannot inspire commitment, offers nothing really worth while, cannot answer the craving for goals we can dedicate ourselves to. Human happiness can only inspire us when we have to fight against the forces which are destroying it; but once realised, it will inspire nothing but ennui, a cosmic yawn.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

Broadchurch needs Jesus; any ‘church’ has to be built on something beyond itself… on him, and the hope that he will return.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.” — Hebrews 10:36-37

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What the Hell?

Look. There are plenty of issues that should be occupying your attention as a global citizen, but the question of the eternal destiny of people is a big one and worth probing a bit; especially as it relates to how Christians operate in the here and now.

“People’s lives are not for me to judge. Only God can do that.

I have sinned many times in my life. I take responsibility for those sins and ask for forgiveness through repentance daily.” — Israel Folau

In the fallout to his controversial answer to the question ‘what is God’s plan for gay people,’ Israel published a long piece titled ‘I’m a sinner too,’ and it’s good, but it has also revealed some issues facing Christians in Australia that are much bigger than religious freedom or freedom of speech. The issue seems to me to be that people in Australia expect us Christians to be trying to ‘play God’ when it comes to how they live, while simultaneously believing that the idea of any god is harmful nonsense, when the function of God’s judgment isn’t to have us reaching for the pitchfork and forming angry mobs, but taking up our cross and laying down our lives in sacrificial love in the hope others might experience God’s merciful love, and the gift of life.

There are two very public responses to Folau’s two pieces that I’ve found particularly provocative… this one, from University of Queensland Political Science professor, Katharine Gelber, and this tweet (and resulting media storm) from one-test All Black Brad Weber. Weber tweeted:

“Kinda sick of us players staying quiet on some of this stuff. I can’t stand that I have to play this game that I love with people, like Folau, who say what he’s saying My cousin and her partner, and my Aunty and her partner are some of the most kind, caring & loving people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. To think that I play against someone that says they’ll go to Hell for being gay disgusts me.”

There’s been a whole lot of hatred, outrage, and ‘disgust’ from people who don’t believe in the God Israel believes in, or the Hell he speaks of… and a lot of this outrage is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of how belief in hell is meant to work in the life of a Christian towards those who are facing it.

Hell isn’t meant to motivate us to hate others; but to love them. 

There are plenty of good reasons to be outraged at God and the prospect of Hell if you do believe in God; but there’s only two reasons I can see to be disgusted about the idea of Hell if you’re Brad Weber; one is the reason given by Peter FitzSimons in his piece on Folau — the mental and emotional wellbeing of gay people in Christian communities who believe there’s a destination just for them just because of their sexuality (which is part of why I didn’t like Folau’s first post, and love his second), two is if belief in Hell as the appropriate destination for ‘those people’ caused Christians to act judgmentally or with hatred towards ‘those people’ (in this case, gay people, but the ‘those’ can be just about any group because all groups of people, all people, are heading towards God’s judgment without Jesus, if the Bible is true).

And here’s the rub — I can see why people would believe that Christians take the judgment of God and use it to make moral judgments of others and to cause harm rather than using God’s judgment as motivation the same way Jesus did — to sacrificially love those who are God’s enemies in the hope that in laying down your life for them in myriad ways they might be confronted and arrested by the great sacrificial love God has for them…

Hell — or God’s judgment — isn’t meant to motivate us to sit in judgment over others, but to love them.

We aren’t God. To put ourselves in God’s position is the very definition of sin, the ‘original’ sin.

If Israel’s answer to the question ‘what is God’s plan for gay people’ is the same as his answer to ‘where would you like gay people to end up’, then there’s a real problem. If he puts himself in God’s place and acts as though he is God — or if we do — then there’s a problem… which is why his follow up is so important.

The problem in the other direction is a whole bunch of secular people who aren’t conversant with Christian teaching (but perhaps are with Christian practice) assuming that you can infer an ‘ought’ from this ‘is’ — that saying someone is destined for Hell is a personal expression of judgment and an assumption that ‘you’ are worse than ‘me’… to say judgment exists is not to say someone is more deserving of it than we are (even if it often comes across that way), nor is it to say we should treat a person differently to how we expect to be treated — two of the fundamental moral teachings of Jesus are ‘love your enemies’ and ‘treat others as you would have them treat you.’

Watching people who don’t share these categories try to understand and respond to what they think they mean is as painful as the meme pointing out that homosexuality is ruled out in Leviticus, but so are tattoos and Israel proudly has those — it’s just a poor understanding of how the Bible works from cover to cover (in case you’re wondering: there are several references to homosexuality in the New Testament letters to churches, and the idea that Old Testament Jewish laws should apply directly to non-Jewish converts was the subject of debates recorded in the Bible, in Acts 15, the Old Testament pointed to and is fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 5, Luke 24)).

Hell and judgment are meant to motivate us to say ‘there but for the grace of God go I…’; to have us put ourselves in the shoes of the other.

God’s plan for his people is that we be like Jesus, inviting people to know the reconciling love of God, as his ambassadors, so that we no longer face eternal death and judgment, but eternal life. Here are a couple of quotes from the Bible (from the apostle Paul, about how he lived, and how Christians should live, if the stuff about death and judgment, and Jesus, is real). He says:

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” — 2 Corinthians 5:10

This judgment thing is fundamental to Christian belief. It’s not an added extra (and it’s not us sitting in the judgment seat, but Jesus, it’s not ‘our plan’ but God’s plan). And this reality motivates Paul’s way of life with people who are facing judgment.

He says:

“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.” — 2 Corinthians 5:11

And then, that this persuasion isn’t motivated by earning bonus points with God, or to persuade people that they deserve judgment, but instead to love, and to invite people to experience the love of God.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 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 Corinthians 5:14-21

If there’s no sin, and no judgment, then there’s no need for this reconciliation stuff — but Paul’s profound motivation for speaking about sin, death, judgment, and Jesus is God’s love; it’s taking that loving invitation to the world that needs it.

The thought of people facing death and judgment is so troubling for God that he sent Jesus to die on a cross as an act of reconciliation; he took the first step. This stuff only makes sense if you’re prepared to believe there’s a God who has a standard, and that we fall short of that standard (what we call ‘sin’ — literally, etymologically, an archery term for ‘falling short of the target’), and that this falling short is total (not just about our sexuality or particular ‘transgressions’), a deliberate departure from God’s will, and destructive for ourselves, others, and the world, and means we don’t get heaven but face judgment. Without these categories anything a Christian says about God, hell, Jesus, reconciliation or judgment will sound like nonsense.

But for people who do operate with those categories, one needs to consider how they operate to produce a coherent way of life rather than just picking one bit to get offended at in isolation.

Paul also says, elsewhere:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” — Romans 12:1

The ‘in view of God’s mercy’ bit; if you were going to unpack that, is basically ‘because you are meant to face God’s anger and judgment as his enemy, and instead, through Jesus, are his child’ — the reality of God’s judgment and our place as Christians is that we’re meant to lay down our lives just like Jesus, in response to God’s love for us.

There’s lots of good reasons to probe around Christian beliefs and teachings around Hell (and lots of how we picture Hell that comes more from Dante’s fiction than from the Bible, and a reasonable theological case to be made for conditional immortality as an alternative to eternal death-as-death); but the idea that Christians believing or speaking about Hell is inherently evil or harmful, is only really true if either ‘being told things we disagree with and don’t like to hear’ is evil, or if somehow we’re acting not just as messenger but judge, jury, and executioner and sending people there ourselves, when we deserve exactly the same fate. It’s really God that Weber should take umbrage with, not Folau.

In his follow up, Folau said:

I think of it this way: you see someone who is about to walk into a hole and have the chance to save him. He might be determined to maintain his course and doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. But if you don’t tell him the truth, as unpopular as it might be, he is going to fall into that hole. What do you do?

In this case, we are talking about sin as the Bible describes it, not just homosexuality, which I think has been lost on a lot of people.

This is good stuff — though that last line troubles me because I think it was Folau’s initial answer that created what was ‘lost on a lot of people’… and it presents a dilemma for Christians if views like Weber’s or Professor Gelber’s start to shape the way public conversations about the afterlife happen.

Professor Gelber raises the spectre of Folau being brought the courts on vilification charges; it’s a fascinating thought experiment revealing the default assumptions in the secular frame our academy, political and legal spheres have adopted — which will be utterly incompetent for assessing issues around religious freedoms if allowed to sit unchallenged, and if they can’t make room for the assumptions of religious participants in a truly secular (no official state religion), pluralist (many religious groupings), society.

My view is that it is unlikely the comment would reach the threshold of vilification, by which is meant that the comment was capable of inciting hatred in its audience against a member of the targeted group.

Well. What a relief. But given his comments were, by (theological) definition designed to be both an act of love in themselves, and are reflective of a theological belief that should motivate love for the member of a targeted group either our society has problems in how it perceives Christians and understands this stuff, or the way we Christians take this teaching and run with it is problematic.

Professor Gelber, like many in a post-enchanted secular world where there is no transcendent or divine foundation for morality or ethics has adopted an ethical framework based on harm, our apparent right not to be harmed, and our responsibility not to cause it.

“The responsibility that attaches to freedom of speech is the responsibility not to use one’s words, or one’s position, to hurt others. And despite the nursery rhymes, we know now that words can hurt, and hurt badly.”

Words about hell, judgment, or death, certainly describe something harmful and a prospect that is meant to motivate us to consider how we then live; but if hell is real, and Israel believes that it is, then the harm based ethic becomes a paradox. Who gets to define or choose which harm Israel should perpetrate on his neighbour — the harm potentially caused by speaking what he believes to be true, or the harm potentially caused by not speaking what he believes to be true? Gelber wants Folau to be a ‘role model’ and use his platform carefully, and responsibly, to minimise harm — but that is precisely what he was attempting to do.

“Folau has failed to appreciate the special responsibilities he carries as a role model for young people everywhere.

He is entitled to his religiously influenced view. But as a role model and national sporting star he should not have chosen to air a view so imbued with prejudice on the stage that is social media.

The best take-home from all of this should be a greater appreciation of the fact that words matter, and that the more powerful the speaker, the more aware of this they should be.”

What’s really going on here is a value judgment, from Weber and Gelber, that Christian beliefs are nonsense, ‘imbued with prejudice’ and so airing them is, essentially, always harmful (and again, a caveat, Folau’s answer would have been much less controversial if he’d broadened it immediately to include himself as a sinner, as he did in his follow up, rather than answering the question as framed).

Perhaps we’ve given them the ammunition for this belief by assuming we can operate in a secular world with totalising ‘natural’ arguments, rather than asking for our religious ones to be accommodated (like in the marriage debate), and by not denouncing those who do attempt to respond to sin with judgment (and exclusion) rather than with costly, sacrificial, love.

Love isn’t love; that’s a fluffy logical nonsense… but.

The cross is love. 

A loving response to God’s judgment, and God’s own invitation to be reconciled to him, by grace, not because we’re more deserving than anybody else but because we accept the invitation.

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Dizzy about Izzy: Why ‘religious freedom’ is much less important to our society than being able to discuss questions of substance

The fallout from Israel Folau’s un-nuanced (both theologically and pastorally) comment on social media last week continues. Lines have been drawn. On the one hand, he’s become a champion for free speech and religious freedom, amongst pastors, political conservatives, and Libertarians… on the other, he’s become a homophobic ‘demon’ in the eyes of atheist commentators (and former Wallabies), sponsors, and the LGBTIQ+ community.

Sydney Anglican Archbishop, Glenn Davies, said:

“Israel Folau should be free to hold and express traditional, biblical views on marriage and sexuality without being penalised, just as other players have spoken out with their differing views…”

Peter FitzSimons weighed in on why ‘religious freedom’ shouldn’t cut it (along with this, he asks some legitimate pastoral questions about the way Folau’s un-nuanced answer might cause damage, that are worth hearing and heeding):

“…the greatest of all rugby values is inclusion. We want everyone on board: white, black, tall, small, fat, thin, abled, disabled, straight, gay, men, women, young, old, etc. Saying gays will burn in hell really is anathema to that. What has shielded Folau from a stronger reaction, so far, of course, is the ‘‘freedom of religion’’ line.

See, if any other famous sportsperson had said: ‘‘I think people who are gay should be roasted on a fire forever more, because, well, that’s just what I think,’’ their own lives would be hell in an instant. It would be classic homophobia, and we just don’t do that shit any more, and certainly not in the public domain.

But, if you say: ‘‘I seriously believe, as a grown adult, that there is a really good supernatural being, called ‘God’, in a paradise above the clouds called ‘heaven’, and a really bad one beneath us, called the ‘Devil’, living in ‘hell’, and though God must have created some beings as being attracted to their own gender, because he created everything, he still so hates his children for having that same-sex attraction, he will send them to hell …’’ we’re all meant to back off.”

MP Tim Wilson, a gay man with a particular expertise in human rights (and the way they bump against each other), and some strong opinions on the necessity of religious freedom came out in defence of Folau’s right to say things he disagrees with

“Respecting diversity includes diversity of opinion, including on questions of morality… Targeting Folau falsely feeds a mindset that he is persecuted for his opinions. Everyone needs to take a chill pill, respect Folau’s authority on the rugby field, and also recognise that he is employed in a profession that values brawn over brains… It is ridiculous for sponsors to walk away from Rugby Australia because of Folau’s opinions,” he says. “Companies have the freedom to sponsor organisations that share their values, but it would be absurd to make a collective sponsorship decision based on an individual player who isn’t hired based on his opinions. If Qantas and other sponsors punish Rugby Australia they’d be saying Australians can’t associate with them if they have religious or moral views.”

Folau, himself, has tweeted since the scandal, suggesting that he is being persecuted for righteousness. I see his point, in that he has attempted to speak truth about the eternal destiny of a segment of the community, and what could be more loving and righteous than that… and yet, I don’t think he answered the question well — and my problems with his answer are largely aligned with the pastoral objections FitzSimons raised:

“But whatever happens, you must reflect on the effect your words have most particularly on troubled teens – many of them, undoubtedly in your own community – struggling with their sexuality.

Do you have the first clue of the agonies they go through? Do you know how those agonies must be compounded by a respected figure like yourself saying they deserve to burn for all eternity? Most of us can laugh off such nonsense. But what of the kids who are 14, raised in it, and born gay? What of them right now, Israel? How can you visit such pain upon them?”

This is exactly why I think Folau should’ve been much more careful not to create (or legitimise) a separate category of person called ‘gay people’ — while sticking with his truth claim that those who reject God face death and judgment, while those who turn to God (repent) are given eternal life through the loving sacrifice of Jesus. It would’ve been nice for his response to be about good news — that we are all sinners who face a shared future without Jesus, but God loves all people enough to offer us a way out… Jesus’ love is for gay people, straight people, and “white, black, tall, small, fat, thin, abled, disabled, straight, gay, men, women, young, old, etc” — he’s much more inclusive than the Australian Rugby community (who only want you if you love Rugby).

If there’s one thing you can bet on in the current political climate it’s that haters are gonna hate; or polarisers are gonna polarise. On any issue. The collective ‘righteous mind’ kicks into overdrive on any issue that can be turned into a political football that can serve a cause.

We’ve lost the ability, as a community (and as individuals) to talk about things that matter — rather than how we feel about things that matter.

But here’s the thing… Debates about free speech, freedom of religion, and the polarised nature of any public conversation in the current environment are getting in the way of our ability to exercise free speech, and religious freedom, and to actually have conversations about things that matter… and maybe what we should do is just model those conversations, rather than speaking about why they’re important. Obviously all these issues are like a scrambled egg; and they’re very difficult to unscramble… but we perpetuate the scrambledness by scrambling to talk about those secondary issues and how this is an exemplary case, rather than dealing with this as a legitimate public conversation that needs having.

We shouldn’t really get bogged down into the conversation about whether or not Folau should be allowed to say what he says (clearly he should), our time would be better spent on whether or not what he says is true or helpful. The best way to honour his speech and legitimise it, is to engage with it.

If we make religious freedom, or the freedom to not be offended, or popular community held beliefs the issue we discuss in the fallout of Folau’s comments, and not their substance, we’ve already lost. The conversation about what sort of speech we should allow is a ‘secondary’ matter; and it fills almost all the airtime that we should be given to the primary matter; if we had public conversations well (and if we’d stewarded our place in public conversations better in the past) we wouldn’t have to spend all this time talking about what is or isn’t acceptable. If Folau is being ‘persecuted’ because people are trying to exclude him from the public conversation, then the LGBTIQ+ community has been, historically, persecuted in exactly this way in Australia for years; excluded from conversations about what is good, true, and beautiful, when it comes to life in this world…

What’s really at stake here is a conversation about whether there’s any legitimacy to religious belief, or any possible truth at the heart of Folau’s view of the world, and the default assumption from people like FitzSimons is that there isn’t — and that such speech has no place in the hard secular world we now live in, by making the case for free speech, or religious freedom, rather than for religious truth (or even the legitimate place potential religious truth has at the table in a pluralistic society), we’ve allowed FitzSimons and others to move the goalposts from a world that may include a transcendent reality, to a world where only matter matters — a material world.

The tragedy here, is that whatever truth, or untruth, or lack of nuance there might be at the heart of the substance of Israel Folau’s comment on the eternal future of ‘gay people’ gets lost in the noise. And I’d have thought the possible eternal destiny of anybody was maybe worth pondering before we jumped in to temporal tribes and started beating the stuffing out of this football in order to score as many points against the dreaded ‘other’ as possible.

It’s one thing to talk about what Folau got right, or wrong, it’s another thing entirely to argue about whether he was right or wrong to say it; and whether such speech should be allowed; I fear that we Christians have jumped into the second conversation, rather than showing why the first type is actually profoundly good and valuable to our society.

This isn’t about religious freedom; or it shouldn’t be. It should be about whether or not Folau’s statement is true.

We’ve jumped to asserting that Folau should’ve been able to say what he believes, rather than trying to establish the goodness, truth, or beauty of what the Bible actually teaches about life, death, and judgment — about the potential eternal destination of all people.

We’ve, by default, slipped into discussions of a temporal, or immanent, nature — political or secular concerns — rather than talking about things that are transcendent or spiritual. Which is to play the game on the wrong terms; to adopt a ‘limited end’ or a truncated, flattened, vision of the world.

How will we then pull back the curtains of reality and try to talk about the substance, and the legitimacy of ‘transcendence’, if first we’ve adopted a posture to this conversation that makes the important bit ‘should Folau be allowed to speak’ rather than ‘was Folau right in what he said’?

Isn’t the latter of much more importance to everyone?

Isn’t that importance what actually legitimises the offence his free speech may have caused?

I’ve always loved the way atheist magician Penn Jillette (who often reminds me of Peter FitzSimons) responded to being given a Bible by a man who believed he was going to Hell

“It was really wonderful. I believe he knew that I am an atheist. But he was not defensive, and he looked me right in the eyes and he was truly complimentary, it didn’t seem like empty flattery… and then he gave me this Bible. And I’ve always said, I don’t respect people who don’t proselytise. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell and not getting eternal life, or whatever, and you think, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward, and atheists who think that people shouldn’t proselytise ‘just leave me alone and keep your religion to yourself’ — how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytise? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them? I mean, if I believed, without a shadow of a doubt that a truck was about to hit you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point when I tackle you… and this is more important than that… this guy was a really good guy… he was a very, very, very good man… and with that kind of goodness, it’s ok to have that deep of a disagreement, I still think that religion does a lot of bad stuff, but in the end, that was a good man.”

I’ll be banging on about Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for some time, I reckon, but his work on moral psychology and the way we polarise and how dangerous that is, should be a must-read for anybody interested in public conversations and civility. Here’s a quote that I reckon cuts both ways in the fallout around Folau — the public conversation is full of blind people with different views of what is sacred, and so different participants who see the ‘other’ as deluded.

I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds. The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality, and at some point somebody comes along to knock the idol off its pedestal. — The Righteous Mind, page 33-34

When he says this he’s not talking about religious delusions, but the common Western myth that the rational mind is a bigger deal than ‘the passions’; the “worship” of reason in western philosophy, it’s not a long bow to draw to make a connection between the worship of reason and the modern western blindness to the possibility of transcendence, or supernatural or religious truth (though Haidt, himself, is not religious). He talks about this tendency we humans have to hold things as sacred, and what that means for our ability to demonise the other in a way that explains the zealous and religious nature of the fallout around Folau’s comments, from FitzSimons, Qantas, and the rest, as much as it explains Folau’s comments.

Whatever its origins, the psychology of sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities. When someone in a moral community desecrates one of the sacred pillars supporting the community, the reaction is sure to be swift, emotional, collective, and punitive. — page 174

Haidt makes the point that rich, robust, committed disagreement — deep disagreement like Jillette talks about — is actually vital for the pursuit of truth and goodness; but this requires people speaking from conviction in conversation together with people who hold different convictions, not speaking about civility, or pursuing some sort of uniformity of opinion and declaring that civil. He says we need to listen to people who don’t think like us if we genuinely want good outcomes.

“… each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).” — Pages 104-105

When it comes to middle aged white atheists and their concerns about people talking about Hell, we need a public conversation shaped more by Jillette than FitzSimons. The only way for us religious types to get there is to be more like that bloke with the Bible.

Image Credit: Flickr user Tim Snell, under Creative Commons license

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What I’d say to Israel Folau (and those who read his comments about God’s plan for gay people)

God’s plan for gay people is the same as his plan for everyone else; and his offer for gay people is the same as it is for everyone else: Jesus; forgiveness and eternal life in and through Jesus. If a gay person rejects God’s plan — and this offer — then their destiny is the same as the destiny of every person who rejects God. Death and judgment.

Israel Folau found himself in a little bit of hot water during the same sex marriage plebiscite; earning some anger from the wider community, and some comparisons to the prophet Daniel (who refused to bend the knee to an idolatrous regime in the Bible and ended up facing lions who were meant to eat him for his troubles) in the Christian community.

The temperature of that water is heating up a little more after a tweetstorm this week, following this instagram post.

If the image quality isn’t up to scratch on your device; a commenter asked ‘what was God’s plan for gay people?’

And Folau, perhaps still inspired by the Daniel story, courageously answered (emphasis his):

“HELL… Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

Now; the Aussie equivalent of Nebuchadnezzar’s royal guard (King Neb was the king who reluctantly threw Daniel to the lions), Rugby Australia will be ‘speaking’ to Folau about his tweet — and perhaps the corporate danger presented to Australian sporting bodies when sporting superstars cause community outrage… this story ominously mention’s Qantas’ sponsorship of the Wallabies, Rugby AU CEO Raelene Castle said:

“We are aligned in our view that rugby is a game for all, regardless of sexuality, race, religion or gender, which is clearly articulated in Rugby’s inclusion policy.

“We understand that Israel’s comment has upset a number of people and we will discuss the matter with him as soon as possible.”

So. What’s wrong with Israel speaking out to articulate his religious convictions? Nothing. Really. The marketplace will decide what views are and aren’t acceptable — and how to accommodate difference; and it might be lions for Israel (just not the British variety), though ultimately his on field talent will probably protect him (in ways that it might not your Joe average, with similar views).

But, just as Rugby AU would like to talk to Israel about how he uses social media, I’d have a few tips for him from Team Jesus. These are offered humbly from my experience in Public Relations, and as a pastor who cares about how Christians engage with the LGBTI+ community

The first is: don’t make the mistake of reducing a person’s identity, or standing before God, to their sexuality.

Israel should’ve rejected the premise of the question — if he was going to answer at all. By answering he turned ‘gay people’ into something other than ‘people’ — and singled them out in a way that makes it seem like God has a special plan just for their lives; just for being gay, when he says ‘their sins,’ it’s hard not to see it directly connected to just the sins he is being asked about.

Not reducing people to their sexuality (or not accepting the premise of the question — which was obviously a trap) might’ve avoided a bunch of controversy — because it’s not being gay that earns judgment from God… it’s the very sin that Daniel refused to commit that earns judgment — idolatry — turning from God to worship anything else. Because that idolatry leads to death and earns us the death penalty. It’s ultimately rejecting Jesus, and so joining in with the world as it crucified him that makes God’s punishment just — it wasn’t Jesus on trial before Pilate on that first Easter; Jesus is the judge of the universe; it was humanity — us — on trial.

In Romans 1 which is a text in the Bible that talks about homosexuality and God’s design for life, the root cause of God’s judgment is, essentially that we humans “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Now; sex is a created thing, so our desire as modern western types to find our satisfaction and identity in sex, and pursue life — or ‘worship’ — on those terms rather than pursuing God above all, and having him shape our lives (including how we deal with sex and our sexual attraction) is what earns us judgment. To buy into the idea that being gay earns you God’s judgment is to somehow treat a particular group of people as worse than all the rest of humanity; it’s not a thing the Bible does (you won’t find a verse that isolates gay sex from any other sin — including straight sex outside of marriage, nor will you find it outside an explicit reference to idolatry). Gay, straight, or bi — we earn God’s judgment because we reject him; and, because none of us meet his standards for eternal life — absolute perfection (sinlessness).

Sexuality is complicated too — inasmuch as sexuality is part of a person’s identity, there are plenty of same sex attracted Christians around who have chosen to put Jesus first, so they are ‘gay Christians’ — their attraction and identity are part of what they bring to Jesus, and part of what they sacrifice when they turn from worshipping other stuff to worshipping him. Their sexuality is not what condemns or saves them, what they do with Jesus is. Gayness isn’t what earns people judgment; what someone does with the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is an indicator of who occupies their hearts and shapes their desires.

The second thing Israel should’ve done was to be really careful to make it clear that all have sinned. Including him — there’s less distance between me and my gay friends (or him, and his) than this tweet suggests. 

To sin is to fall short (that’s literally what the English word means)… it’s also to transgress God’s law — and the first commandment in Israel’s ten commandments (the nation, not the footballer) is to have no God before God (Exodus 20:3), and to worship him only. Sure. Many gay Aussies put many things (not just sex) before God in their lives… but so do many not-gay Aussies. God’s plan for all people who reject him is judgment; death, even… but that’s not just for gay people (and, it’s not even because of someone’s sexuality). Here’s a couple more things Paul says in that same letter to the church in Rome.

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
    there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.” — Romans 3:10-12

… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. — Romans 3:23-24

It might seem tricky to capture this in an instagram comment or tweet — but I’ll put a suggested response at the bottom…

It’s not that Israel was totally wrong about the destiny for people who sin (had he broadened the category of people he was talking about to ‘all sinners’ — well, Romans says:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 6:23

Here’s my third suggestion; and it’s probably the biggest.

Make a bigger deal about the goodness of Jesus so that repentance is about the positive step of turning to him because he is better than alternative gods, and the turn involves good news not just escaping punishment. 

Israel’s tweet holds out a little bit of the good news of life following repentance, but it’s kinda buried under his leading words. There’s a good case to be made that Israel has the order of operations a bit wrong in his picture of what God wants for people — the idea that we repent of our sin and then turn to God rather than turning to God and away from our sins (because of the goodness of God revealed in Jesus) is an interesting one; especially if God actually calls us to him, so that coming to life (away from death) is at God’s invitation while we’re still sinners. Here’s a couple of things Israel might consider.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. — Romans 5:8

It’s unlikely (though possible) that fear is going to motivate people who’ve rejected God to switch worshipping pleasure, sex, and self-determination — which seems to be the strategy in Israel’s comment — what’s perhaps more likely is understanding exactly who it is they’ve rejected — the God who gives life and love, and sent Jesus to reconcile us to himself. The truth that should set people free is that Jesus is better than sex, or any alternative ‘created thing’ we put in the driver’s seat of our life; the other truth is that it takes a work of God’s Spirit to make this change possible. Because when it comes to God’s plan for people, ideally, Paul has a bit more to say:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. — Romans 8:1

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

So. How would I have answered the question: what was God’s plan for gay people? If I was Israel…

“That’s an interesting question — because it assumes somehow that God’s plan for gay people is different to his plan for anybody else just because they’re gay. It’s not. God’s best offer for all people is Jesus who came so we might ‘have life to the full’ forever — his plan for people who trust him is good and loving. Turning to Jesus changed how I think about life, including sex — but what we Christians believe about sex doesn’t make much sense without him. My hope is that all my friends — whatever their sexuality — might have a look at the life and teachings of Jesus. I’d be happy to help you find out more.”

My fourth piece of advice, as an added bonus, is the suggestion that with great social media power, comes great responsibility — and Israel, as a public Christian, should be stewarding his platform (and his talents) with wisdom and boldness for God’s kingdom. He’s got the boldness bit right; and we should applaud him for that. It’s clear he’s more worried about God than man… but his words have the power to do more than just turn off some sponsors, or have his contract torn up… It’s interesting to read the rest of James in that light. It has wisdom for how to use social media, like:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” — James 1:19, 26-27

Something strange is happening at the ACL…

If you’ve been around these parts for a while, then you know that I’ve been vociferous in my criticism of the Australian Christian Lobby — not so much for its politics (though it should be reasonably clear by now that I think their platform is too narrow when it comes to issues that Christians should be politically engaged on, and that some of the positions they take are more identifiably ‘conservative’ than ‘Christian’), but for its co-opting of the word ‘Christian’ and its inability to connect the positions it advocates with the Lordship and way of Jesus. I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of lobbying if it represents a sort of use of the power of numbers and claims some sort of Christian constituency who should have our way in politics, rather than advocacy where we make a case for what is right for all (and especially if it is at our expense, and for the sake those at the margins of our community)…

But.

It’d feel a little remiss not to acknowledge that this change is happening.

There’s been a regime change at the ACL, with longtime director Lyle Shelton taking a step that I think had a particular sort of integrity — making it clear that his platform and concerns align with conservatism, not just Christianity — by jumping to the Australian Conservatives. A new director, Martyn Iles, has emerged in his place and there has been a subtle, but significant, tone change in his approach to politics and Christianity… he keeps writing about Jesus.

For years it felt like Jesus was ‘he who should not be named’ in ACL publications, but in blog after blog, Iles is grappling with how the Gospel shapes his politics. Now, I’m not sure I land on the same positions on most things having done that grappling, and doing this runs the risk of co-opting Jesus to a political agenda rather than having Jesus set the political agenda… but it is refreshing (and the Christian Left in Australia could learn something from this).

Here’s a paragraph from a recent post on identity politics in our universities:

The problem is resolved through character, especially the kind of character that Christ gives us.

Indeed, we are called to follow Christ’s example who, although He was omnipotent (all powerful), He “made Himself nothing” (Phil 2:6-8) for the sake of others. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” says the Apostle Paul (Phil 2:4-5).

All people, regardless of privilege, status, or tribe are capable in Christ of individually growing in character. The uniqueness of Christ-like character is its deeply others-centred, self-sacrificing quality. It places the real interests of God and neighbour at the very core and kernel of our being…

… The great tragedy of the postmodern world is that the call to character is rejected. People are exponents of their tribe and the only real way to improve your moral standing falls to the powerful to change their political beliefs and acknowledge the culpability of their tribe. This is infantilising. It denies the truth about human beings. It denies the possibility of real character. It denies the gospel.

How refreshing — the example of Jesus, on the cross, being held up as an example for us to consider, and a call to others-interest above self-interest; which does have to be the foundational principle for how we approach the fraught territory of identity politics, and current conversations about gender and sexuality. Here’s more from the follow up post (it’s not just a one off).

Flag-wavers from the various movements that spring from a postmodern base claim that their end goal is equality.

If only they knew that the greatest equality in the world is found in Christ, who is Himself the Logos who they reject.

All are made in the image and likeness of God, born into one human family (Gen 1:27). That is equality.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). That is equality.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God for salvation to all who believe (Rom 1:16). That is equality.

For those believers, all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28). That is equality.

The utopia the postmodernists seek is found in the Logos, not outside of it. John saw a vision of His coming kingdom and it was a mish-mash of minorities “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9).

Again, I’m not endorsing the position they adopt (or not not endorsing it — I would point out that the ‘mish-mash’ of identities represented in Revelation don’t lose their tribe, language, ‘people’ or nation, but rather bring those to the table in something bigger), I’m simply pointing to a refreshing change in modus operandi for a peak lobby group seeking to operate in our political sphere as Christians. Christian politics is bigger than deciding if you’re from the Christian right, the Christian left, or the Christian centre — though our theological positions will often land us more naturally in one of those camps… it’s about the pursuit, for anyone who follows king Jesus, of a politics that is Jesus-centred (not just ‘centrist’ politics). It’ll mean we bounce to different positions on the political compass, or spectrum, on different issues, and if you’re predictably right or predictably left on every issue then there’s probably some work for you to do in assessing how much that is a product of a political ideology that isn’t the ideology of the Gospel. It’d be nice for the ACL to be less predictable… and this seems a step in the right direction.

It also seems to represent a movement away from playing the game of secular politics on hard secular terms that exclude religious ideas from being discussed, and I welcome that, and the idea that being shaped by Jesus should impact the way we Christians participate in the world (and in politics). It also makes the grounds for dialogue between Christians much more fruitful because we’re being asked to work from our shared assumptions about Jesus to develop a Christian position (whether we agree with where Iles and the ACL land or not, at least we can engage from some shared presuppositions). What it does for dialogue between Christians and non-Christians remains to be seen, but the next step might be to work out how to do the ‘Righteous Mind’ thing from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who points out that having some empathy for the other is vital to effective persuasion (but it might require that you, yourself, be persuaded):

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

Seven habits for highly affective Christians: 1. The habits of story (telling, listening, and playing)

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” — Colossians 3:16

I quoted Alisdair MacIntyre in the intro to this series; and though he’s a ‘great one’ I’m going to render his idea slightly differently in this post. He says, in After Virtue:

“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”

I think we can understand that last question slightly differently by tweaking it:

‘Of what story or stories do I inhabit?’

There’s a link between inhabiting a story (or an identity) and our habits (just as there is between our environment, or habitat, and our habits). To know how we should feel and act rightly, or coherently, requires us to have some sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going; to have a story.

So, when it comes to habit forming the habit of reflecting on our story, and potential other stories we might inhabit seems to be ground zero. What might this look like?

We could spend a significant amount of time deliberately immersed and engaged in quality stories — most significantly, but not exclusively, the Bible.

We could try our hands (or minds) at telling or crafting stories as a spiritual discipline geared towards fostering our redeemed imaginations. 

The message of Christ is a story; a compelling one. The ultimate ‘true myth’ or fairy tale that turns life into a comedy, rather than a tragedy. Understanding stories, the shape and power of stories, is pretty important if living in a story with some sense of what heroism looks like, the enemy looks like, and where we’re going, is what helps us develop character… but this means not only should we immerse ourselves in the Bible’s story by reading it, and finding ways to appreciate it (like a good kids story book Bible), but we should get better at understanding and appreciating good and beautiful stories. The more I get my head into mythology and its importance in shaping cultures and communities the more I’m sure the story of the Bible, centred on the death and resurrection of Jesus, has been so effective in shaping the world we live in because it really is the greatest story; and the more conversant we are with stories the better.

Also, the more we see our lives in storied terms as part of this grander story, the more we might be able to bring about change in our own spheres… if we’re able to imagine (or conceive) of a different ending for each little episode in our lives because of this big one, it might help set a course for us. Stories —whether history or biography or fiction expand our horizons and allow us to see the world differently. I think Tolkien’s masterful essay On Fairy Stories should be almost compulsory reading for anybody enrolled at Bible college, but probably for all of us.

The way this plays out for me is in a commitment to reading good fiction and watching popular television (it’s fascinating to watch how basic narrative plot lines are used to over-produce or over-engineer even terrible reality TV), but also to be wary of the power of story for setting our desires towards things other than God (and the desires of our kids and congregations). Stories where the protagonist (or author) is not just like us also teach us empathy as we immerse ourselves in them.

Because stories are powerful I want to curate them for our kids and engage in them with them (and engage well with them with other adults). We read lots to our kids and want to encourage all of them to be readers; but I also tell an episodic, serialised, adventure story a few nights a week featuring the three of them bravely and imaginatively facing down monsters or baddies that they invent (mostly giant animals); I also turned our last big family holiday into a picture book using a couple of apps, and I’m keen to do that again.

Video games are a powerful medium for stories and imagination, whether they’re linear adventures or open world. Our son loves them (like I do), so my plan is to indulge that love, but to always join him in it, and to build and journey through different worlds with him, and as they get more complex using the games and their stories as a chance to talk about decision making and his imagination. It’s probably not a terrible thing to normalise the idea that he uses screens in my presence not tucked away in his room.

The best stories are the ones we imagine and then inhabit in an embodied way — not just a digital one (one of the things I love about the kindy we send our kids to), so, like many parents, we’ve got a full dress up box and a yard full of different bits and pieces the kids can improvise with (especially when they’re playing together)… I’m much more concerned that they do this as they grow up than that they do ‘homework’.

The way this plays out — though I’m wanting to get better at this — in my preaching is that I don’t want to devalue the arts or culture, or demonise it, but engage with it well (and sympathetically) as legitimate expressions of our humanity and our desires; and to recognise the way these stories shape the purpose of people around us because they connect with the stories our communities, cultures, and nation lives by. My rarely updated Like But Better, my review essays of the Marvel/Netflix universe (like this one), and my reviews of stories like NoahMoana, and Wonder Woman are examples of me trying to do this… but my favourite place in all the virtual world for modelling this is Christ and Pop Culture… being a better reader, viewer, or audience member for stories helps us become better readers of the Bible’s grand story, and better participants in God’s unfolding story in history.

This means I want my talks to feel more like a narrative to live in than a set of propositions that I’m inviting people to agree to. When it comes to our embodied participation in stories, this has helped me recapture a sense of the providence and goodness of the sacraments, and to want to sacramentalise (or re-enhant) lots of physical objects and practices (not in an idolatrous way, just in a way that helps everything that has been made reveal the divine nature and character of God). C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image was useful on that front for helping me see just how much we’ve evacuated any ‘enchantment’ from mundane things (a concrete example of this is the way we preached about Hot Cross Buns over Easter; my hope is that people will buy them between Christmas and Easter next year, while they’re on the shelves of the supermarkets, and ponder their significance.

Christians could join — or host — book clubs — or even TV show clubs — in the community beyond the church (though even in the church is better than devaluing stories or seeing them as trivial distractions from the real deal of following Jesus). Failing that we should talk enthusiastically about stories with our friends online.

These could involve picking challenging and compelling (even just popular) stories that cultivate empathy and the imagination, or that pay attention to the world and invite you to do so in new ways; trusting that because of the storied quality of the Bible this is useful time even if it doesn’t produce conversations where you can draw out the parallels between a story and truths revealed about the world in God’s story. Also, in terms of cultivating the affections, instead of asking ‘what did you think about that story’ and breaking down its mechanics or execution, we should ask each other ‘how did that story make you feel’.

Seven habits for highly affective Christians: Introduction

I’ve been thinking about formation lately — how I might become more like the person, specifically the Christian person, I believe I should be, but more importantly, how I might pass that on in an exemplary fashion to my kids (especially if the world wants to form them into something quite different), and to those I teach and pastor.

One of the challenges I face simultaneously as a parent and a pastor — and for myself in terms of my own life in the world — is, I think, not just convincing my kids (or people at church) to believe the story of Jesus is true but to feel like it is true. Not simply to have Christian beliefs but Christian affections. I haven’t found a huge library of resources in my own church tradition for this distinction, and I’m still stumbling my way around; it seems to me that we assume feelings have to be generated from belief, and if it comes the other way around we are suspicious that it’s manipulative.

At the same time, one of the challenges we face in the west — both in the church, and the world we live in — is that belief and feeling are almost subsumed into second place behind ‘working’ — being effective. Again, this is a challenge I personally face too — the benefits of having archives for my blog is you can dig back into past me and find a little pragmatist/utilitarian and watch the wheels fall off as my values shifted. It’s not that I’m anti-effectiveness, or excellence, or results. I’ve largely just changed metrics so that what I’m interested in is the cultivation of both belief and feeling alongside the cultivation of character. Character is the result — not success or productivity. Back when I was a ‘utilitarian’; I was calling myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’; suggesting that the right thing to do was the thing that produced the most converts to true belief… the more I thought about ethics (and how hollow it was to make results the ‘end’ or purpose of action rather than goodness) the more I became interested in virtue ethics and the place of character; and the role of a ‘story’ in shaping character, but also of habitual action.

One of the things that shifted me from utilitarianism to a more character focused ethic was reading Augustine, and because of Augustine, reading Aristotle, who split intellectual virtue (reason) and moral virtue (ethics):

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II

I’ve largely been shaped by a culture (both in and outside the church) that emphasises teaching rather than practices as the way we are formed as people. I say this because I’m not claiming to speak beyond my own experience here, yours might be different. It’s not that I haven’t also learned through practices; learning via practice is inevitable. It’s simply that I haven’t thought about my habits as the pathway to moral formation or the pursuit of what is good; I’ve thought of that as something to be pursued on the basis of what we believe to be right (and of helping other people believe right things). Interestingly, Aristotle doesn’t say that the habitual formation of virtue is in competition with being effective; he saw goodness in terms of being connected with the ‘end’ or ‘telos’ — a purpose fundamentally connected to the nature of an object.

We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy. Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II

The question is who, or what, sets the parameters or definition of ‘what makes a (hu)man good’ and what work we should be doing. There’s a fundamental view of these questions at play in our education system; but when it comes to Christians we have a clear sense of what makes us good, and what defines our work. Our ‘end’; in terms of our ‘purpose’ is to image God — to glorify him in relationship with him, by reflecting the character of God as we live — we have a specific picture of what that looks like in the person of Jesus, and so Paul talks about us being ‘transformed into the image’ of Jesus. That’s what our fundamental purpose is (or our ‘chief end’); we do this by being ‘united with Christ’ or ‘in Christ’ as ‘the body of Christ’ and our work, then, becomes to be like Jesus, in partnership with other Christians. Or, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12:

There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work… Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. — 1 Corinthians 12:6, 12-13

We’re to do ‘God’s work’ in co-operation with the body God has put us in (the church) — that’s ‘our own work’ — or as Paul says a little later in the letter (having discussed the ‘way of love’ as a habitual practice (1 Cor 12:31-14:1), imitating Paul as he imitates Jesus (1 Cor 11:1), “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

If we’re going to cultivate virtue our habits have to be aligned with becoming like Jesus and doing God’s work in the world. I suspect a pretty nice ‘proof text’ for this, if you wanted one, is Matthew 28:18-20, the ‘great commission’ — I’m struck by how much I’d read this in my utilitarian days as basically being about converting as many people as possible to an intellectual idea, rather than being about the harder work of re-forming re-created people so they don’t bear the image, or imprint, of whatever character their habits have formed as they’ve worshipped something other than Jesus, but instead are ‘disciples’ of Jesus; those disciplined towards practicing his teaching.

It’d be easy to turn this discipline thing into following a bunch of rules — and then being judgmental of ourselves and others when we inevitably fall short of the standard of perfection; but the Romans  8 picture of the Christian life is one where our transformation is an ongoing process that doesn’t seem to finish until the story finishes and we are ‘glorified’ (Romans 8:28-30). But in the meantime, rather than rules shaping our lives, I’m interested in the idea that we are more shaped by story.

Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue was really helpful for me both in how it framed the alternative worldly ethical system to virtue, particularly a sense that we’re all part of some big system which has to be managed via bureaucratic processes (or economic ones — so that, for example, we don’t form children as people but as economic cogs), and more than that, in making this connection between virtue and story:

“Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” — MacIntyre, After Virtue

I’m also convinced (in part due to James K.A Smith) that we are affectionate creatures before we are intellectual creatures, and that we cultivate our affections by habitual actions directed towards an ‘end’ by a story that we participate in; and by philosopher Iris Murdoch who suggested that a fundamental ‘virtuous’ habit is to give ‘loving attention’ to others and the world as a habitual orientation.

“The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking. The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed on the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy, and despair…  Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is.” — Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

There are a few convictions underpinning the following habits… I’m convinced that my formation as a person, the formation of my children and my pastoring of a church, should involve helping people habitually live in the story of Jesus, so that we are shaped by our telos to do the work God has called us to do (and that by habitually living in this story we are doing the Great Commission work, which involves our purpose; namely, to ‘glorify God’). I’m convinced this is about forming people who love God and believe we are loved by God; that it isn’t just about intellectual virtue but about our affections (and that the contest in this world is a contest about who or what we worship and the end we are living for). I want my kids to love God more than they love sex, money, or the pleasures of this world — I want to love God more than I love sex and money and the pleasures of this world. I’m convinced that one of the things that has happened as our view of world has become ‘disenchanted’ is that our imaginations have been stunted; that when Paul says ‘do not be conformed to the patterns of this world’ but ‘transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:2) part of this is about idolatry, but part of it too, is about what idolatry does to our thinking and imagining (Romans 1), and that Colossians 3 (where many of these habits are derived from) encourages us to re-imagine the world by changing how we see it, and our place in it, and this is part of what Paul is saying when he says “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).

I’ve been reading a bunch of books around practices and habits (largely because though I love Smith’s You Are What You Love, I found the practices, which I’d describe as ‘medieval’, left me wanting something else, see my series on ‘the Worship Wars’ for more on this). I particularly enjoyed Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, Mike Cosper’s Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World, and David Fitch’s Faithful Presence: Seven Practices That Shape The Church For Mission. These books are chock full of habits and practices and ideas for cultivating a new way of seeing and being in the world. I’d like to do lots of them, but I felt like some of them required some sort of ‘ground clearing’ exercise first — that I couldn’t jump from zero to 100… and some of them seem, frankly, beyond my modernist-influenced-propositional-logic shaped rational brain; I feel like I have to become a more affective person before I could effectively adopt them.

The next seven posts will explore some of how I’m thinking about these in the categories of myself, parenting, and pastoring. It might take me a while to unpack them, so here’s the list.

1. The habit of story (telling, listening, and playing)
2. The habit of singing, reading and listening to poetry (starting with the Bible)
3. The habit of silence and space (including digital silence, and working less)
4. The habit of giving
5. The habit of ‘gathering’ with the body (including feasting together)
6. The habit of presence and encouragement
7. The habit of prayer

If you’ve thought about practices/habits, and especially about cultivating your affections — I’d love ideas for what could bump any of these off the list.

,

Steve Smith: A Barabbas in need of a Jesus this Easter

“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” — Jesus (Matthew 7:2)

What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!” — Matthew 27:23

Picture this.

There’s an unjust empire; an enemy. There’s been a promise of a level playing field, a fairer approach to life. But the promise is trodden into the dirt, and you and your comrades are left to take matters into your own hands. You reach for the sandpaper to hone your weapon so it swings more sharply. Then, before you know it… before you’ve achieved anything… the empire comes down on you. Crushing you. The crowd, who moments before were on your side — cheering on your insurrection; seeing in you the courage and conviction of a champion — sniff the wind and they turn on you. Baying for blood. Your blood. Waiting for you to be made a spectacle; calling for your execution. You walk a lonely path, surrounded by guards, people hurling abuse at you…

Your friends are going to be publicly humiliated; shamed; destroyed; beside you.

It’s curtains.

This is the story of Barabbas. The ‘every man’ — the ‘son of the father’ (literally)… just as the captain of the Australian cricket team is our ‘every man’ — our chief ‘representative’ (or so we sometimes speak); how appropriate that his name is also the ‘every-name’: Smith… Because it’s also his story. Steve Smith’s story.

Barabbas the ‘every man’ was a first century insurrectionist who counts Good Friday as his luckiest day… because instead of the crowd calling for his blood, another stood in his place. Maybe this Good Friday could be Steve Smith’s lucky day?

For Barabbas, there was another ‘every man’ earned the attention — the outrage — of the crowd, and took the death Barabbas deserved, lives exchanged… He’s there for Smith too. Same deal.

So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him… 

“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.

“Barabbas,” they answered.

“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!”

“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” — Matthew 27:17-18, 21-23

Without Jesus entering the scene you can imagine the crowd directing its outrage, and anger, the sheer tonnage of pent up bloodlust, at Barabbas. Crucifixions were the most popular show in town. They still are. They were designed not just to punish guilt, but to bring shame on the offender. To humiliate and destroy a reputation. To bring a person into disrepute.

Steve Smith is walking in the footsteps of Barabbas this Easter.

He led a motley crew into enemy territory. The hostility in this test series is seemingly unprecedented. Smith carried a Rabada sized chip on his shoulder into Cape Town — the ICC deciding to clear South Africa’s champion for strong and aggressive contact made with Smith in the previous test (overturning a two match ban in what seemed to many to be a miscarriage of justice). Smith’s team mate (and comrade) Warner carried the anger of not just an angry clash with South African Quinton De Kock over offensive remarks made about his wife, but of a couple of South African administrators joining in the ‘fun’ in a photo that exacerbated the offence. I can understand their anger. Their desire to swing their weapon. To wreak havok on their enemies. To overthrow a tyrant… to carve out space for themselves. To right wrongs. But of course, two wrongs don’t make a right. Their guilt in these situations is reasonably clear; what happened in the first three tests was actually South Africa playing the ‘mental disintegration’ game better than the Australian team who previously claimed mastery… most insurrections are an attempt to overthrow a tyrant but end up looking a lot like tyranny… or worse than the tyranny they replace.

Smith and co wanted justice. They felt the need to hone their weapons. They roped in a comrade and attempted an insurrection. They were caught. They faced justice… leaving Smith a dead man walking; to be crucified beside his two friends.

The best piece of commentary on this fiasco I’ve read thus far was this piece titled “Disgraced ‘New Bradman’ left to search for salvation” — it rightly draws implicit parallels to the shame culture and the public spectacle at the heart of Rome’s crucifixion strategy.

Wrapped inside Smith’s cheating in South Africa is personal disgrace, a public crucifixion and a mystery about human psychology…

And then:

The cycle we are in is: detection, punishment, fallout. And it is the fallout that is most complex, because it places Smith (and others, but mainly Smith) at the old crossroads between ignominy and salvation.

And:

“Many will not care, but he must be in turmoil. Hell must be raging through his soul.”

Smith is a guilty man. He did the crime. He’s caught in the fallout. And it’s a terrible crossroads to be caught at with only your own cross to carry… if you’ve got to save yourself.

Enter the baying, outraged, crowd. Whose job, it seems, is to amplify the fallout and decide whether redemption happens, based on some sort of fickle whims and where they (we) are most likely to get out taste of blood. The crowd which operates not on guilt, but on shame… and whose hunger is fuelled by outrage, which is like a drug. It’s like when a dog gets its first taste of blood and then can’t get enough.

And this is where things get messy for Smith and co. The International Cricket Council punished their transgression for breaking the rule, a punishment was meted out appropriate to their guilt. A one match ban and a fine for Smith and a fine for Bancroft… the sort of punishment handed down for similar (though less ‘three stooges’ performances around the world, following a certain precedent). The crowd bayed for more blood, and the ACB did a Pilate; it decided to give the crowd what they wanted, and to punish the trio not for their guilt, but in order to shame them; to punish not for a rule being broken, but a standard being breached. For ‘bringing the game into disrepute’, Smith and co had to be made disreputable. It had to be clear they didn’t represent the game, or represent us.

We’re increasingly living in a shame based rather than a guilt based culture here in Australia. Social media is a big part of that where we all get to play the angry mob. In a shame based culture it becomes necessary not just to punish a wrongdoer for guilt proportionate to their crime, but for shame, proportionate to the response. The punishment for shame is to ostracise or cut off a wrongdoer from their community. Guilt is about a transgression being wrong, shame is about a person being wrong. Shame is met with dishonour and disendorsment. With humiliation. It’s the ugly side of our outrage culture. It’s particularly ugly for the victim… but it’s also ugly for us when we find ourselves in angry lynch mobs baying for blood and then realising that it is on our hands.

When Jesus said ‘judge not’ (one of the most commonly quoted verses in the New Testament) he followed it up with the words “for in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” This is scary… because when it comes to the words of the crowd later in Matthew’s Gospel it’s clear they’re, by their own standards, earning judgment for themselves. If an innocent man is worthy of death — how much more the guilty, and how much more those who were guilty of calling for blood simply to satisfy their own self-interest.

Character matters; as I argued in my last #ballgate post… but these sorts of public situations — our outrageous clamouring for blood — reveal something about our own character. Something deficient.

We are the crowd.

And so we set a certain standard; a measure; and it will be given to us. At the end of Jesus’ trial (and Barabbas’ great escape), Pilate tries to wash his hands of the blood of Jesus by pointing out that his blood, instead, is on the hands of the crowd.

“I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. — Matthew 27:24-26

Barabbas goes free; Jesus gets flogged then crucified… but the crowd… they’re stuffed.  The measure they use will be used against them.

Smith, in the depth of his own personal hell… facing his own crucifixion, could do with finding Jesus.

But the crowd could do with the same…

Because without him, the fallout continues… what goes around comes around, our measure will be used against us… in the trial of Jesus it’s very quickly the outraged crowd in the firing line — blood on their hands. Blood on our hands… If we decide we want to play the shame game, not just the guilt game, and so mete out disproportionate punishments for ‘disrepute’ or totally subjective charges built around ‘measures’ of the community, we too become subject to those measures, it’s us in the firing line too.

And that’s a scary thought.

To be stuck in that cycle of detection, punishment, fallout — but to move from detective to detected… from crowed to punished…

It means that like Smith is in need of a Jesus to take his guilt and shame, we too are waiting for a Jesus. How sweet, might it be, for Smith-as-Barabbas to find Jesus this Easter; to see himself in the story as a dead man walking who is miraculously saved — offered mercy, a stay of sentence, at the 11th hour with an innocent one to take his place.

We, in the crowd, we need Jesus too. Because the measure we use will be used against us, and we will all be found wanting — and if all our conduct was made public there’d be plenty of fodder not just for guilt, but for its more nebulous counterpart, shame, with its arbitrary punishments dished out only in proportion to scale of a crowd’s anger determined largely by a dark and unpredictable whimsy, and just how much the media needs a story.

The thing about Jesus is that he adds a couple of stages to the cycle…

Detection. Punishment. Fallout. Redemption. Forgiveness.

He stands in our place — he dies in our place — the place of Barabbas, the place of Smith, the place of the crowd… and offers to take the guilt and shame we each deserve… to change the ‘measure’ from ‘judgment’ to ‘mercy’…

We, as the baying crowd, could do with a little bit of a measure change this Easter; and the best way to do that is to weigh up Jesus. As I’ve been following the Smith story I’ve had this song, Gracious Redeemer, by Austin Stone bouncing around in my head, especially the ‘no guilt, no shame… new life, you gave’ refrain. What good news it would be for Smith, the every man, to find Jesus in his place this Easter. And for us.

I was lost in sin, held captive by my fear
’til your mercy showed your hand was reaching near
My God, you came and made a way for me
You made a way for me

My Jesus, gracious Redeemer and friend
There’s nothing like Your love without end
My hope was purchased by the blood of the Lamb
My Jesus, Redeemer

You defeated death, You trampled over sin
You’re the Risen King, You’re coming back again
Oh God, You came and made a way for us
You made a way for us

No guilt, no shame
no curse, no chains
new life, You gave
Redeemer

My debt is paid
my soul now saved
oh God, You came
Redeemer

Image source.