The internet, the Reformation, women teaching, and the priesthood of all believers (how a ‘democratised’ platform might keep us reforming)


Image: Behind the scenes of Christian Twitter

There’s a conversation going on in the Christian twittersphere right now about the challenges posed by the internet for a sort of traditional complementarian view that women should not teach or exercise authority over men. There’s a stream of complementarianism that would extend these words from Paul to Timothy far beyond the event of the gathered church (and streams within complementarianism that see this prohibition of ‘teaching and exercising authority’ as a very particular role within that gathering; it’s a broad church).

The firestarter was this piece from Tish Harrison Warren on Christianity Today ‘Who’s In Charge of The Christian Blogosphere’, there’ve been responses (apart from Twitter flame wars) from writers like Jonathan Merritt, Wendy Alsup, Hannah Anderson and Rachel Miller. These are all worth a read and a mull over (and I’m sure there are plenty more to read too). I’ve been sharing a few of these on Facebook, and I suspect some of the people joining in on the discussion have perceived my obtuse quoting and introductory comments like ‘Interesting…’ as endorsements; it’s not necessarily any one piece here that I endorse (though there’s much to appreciate in many of them, and I have learned from them (or been taught by them)), it’s the conversation itself I find fascinating because what is playing out here is a new reformation of sorts; the question will be what scope and size of change this reformation brings… it’s possible that the democratised landscape where there’s already lots more diversity simply means conversations like this are a flash in a pan, where once they might have overhauled the church as we know it…

There’s an irony here that each of these writers writes from the Protestant tradition and what’s at stake is how a new communication medium makes us rethink the role of authority and who is in the ‘priesthood’. In the year where we’re marking 500 years since Luther used the printing press and a stream of fellow pamphleteers to bring down the Catholic establishment; the challenge these writers are responding to, or conversing around, is one brought about by an even more frictionless and democratised communication platform. It might seem odd that it has taken so many years of the Internet for us to get here… except that it’s not odd, because what is happening here is another reformation of sorts; another challenging of the establishment ‘priesthood’ (at least as it operates, if not as it is conceived, within some streams of the ‘complementarian’ church).

There are legitimate criticisms directed at this conversation from those who aren’t stakeholders in it; it seems wrong that the controversy only really kicked off the way it did when a woman, contributing to Christianity Today’s campaign to #amplifywomen, wrote about some of the dangers (to the establishment/’orthodoxy’) presented by this new platform, why single out a blogging woman like American blogger Jen Hatmaker to raise concerns about teaching and authority outside ‘church structures’ when we haven’t kicked up the same stink about controversy-monger/outrage-peddler Matt Walsh (who, for what it’s worth, is Catholic, so there’s a sort of double irony if what he’s doing is acting like a child of the Reformation). It feels like an attack on the ‘theological left’ when we give the ‘theological right’ a free pass; and worse, an attack on a woman, when we give men a free pass.

It’s not a mistake to make this a gender issue though, and an issue prompted by women teaching with some sort of authority; at least if we view the conversation in the schema of the Reformation using its categories; because it really is a question of whose voices are priestly, who can speak as part of, or on behalf of, the church — and what happens when these speakers depart from orthodoxy? What would Luther have done to the next generation of Luthers who out-Luthered him? If you’re a keen enough student of Reformation history you’ll know that the fighting about Orthodoxy 2.0 didn’t stop after the schism from the Catholic Church, and that the seeds of what we’re dealing with now, in terms of a very diverse publishing industry for Christian readers (much more diverse than the duplication of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible) kicked off with the Reformation.

It’s easy to scoff at this conversation (as some are in the habit of doing on social media) especially when people are trying to tease out what exactly a woman’s role could or should be in the church (if you’ve already decided to embrace a more egalitarian framework). But this is a question of the sort of practical order that prompted the Reformation, presented, in part, by a very similar technological advancement. The introduction of a ‘democratising’ piece of technology in the printing press meant lots more people could read lots more stuff lots more quickly… and social media/the blogosphere with its essentially frictionless and costless publishing is the printing press on steroids, and it could (and maybe should) have a similar seismic impact on the church. For good or for ill.

And that’s why this conversation is an important and interesting one.

It’s asking what responsibility in the face of almost unfettered access to a platform should look like (which we should be asking in an age of fake news, and Donald Trump anyway).

It’s asking what role the established institutional church, its traditions and its office bearers should play in determining what teaching is orthodox or Biblical (in content and mode); an irony faced whenever the anti-establishment movement becomes the establishment…

It’s asking in what sense we really believe in the priesthood of all believers, and what accountability in the life of the church looks like beyond those who take ordination vows or vows that submit themselves to church discipline within established structures (cause we’ve seen some pretty heinous forms of people setting up their own platforms apart from accountability (like a church in Seattle)).

It’s asking in what sense the Reformation really happened; do we really have a priesthood of all believers and what does that look like for women, and how do we have a priesthood of all believers with a 1 Corinthians 12 picture of church life and specific roles, and a sense that some of these roles might involve gender…

It’s we’re asking how the internet and the life of the universal church beyond a particular locality is like, or different, to a community that lives and gathers together as a particular expression of the body of Christ; and where authority fits in this picture.

It’s asking all these questions in the face of this new technological age which does inherently favour a particular theology and practice. The Internet is not neutral when it comes to these questions. A democratising platform operates in favour of egalitarian practices. Australian author Jane Caro made a pretty great case for this in an article back in January that is now paywalled; but I managed to quote this paragraph from her on Facebook at the time:

“As education and knowledge spread, Enlightenment followed theReformation, and then all the liberation movements that emerged thereafter, including the abolition of slavery, child labour, and increased rights for women. After all, if every man could have his own relationship with God, why not every woman? Why not every slave?

This democratisation of the word of God led inexorably to democracy itself; predicated on the idea that all men (even, perhaps, women) were created equal. Everyone ended up entitled to not just a relationship with God but with a vote and a say. One followed inevitably, I think, from the other. As those in power understand only too well, once a few difficult questions began to be asked, a great many more would follow.”

Whichever side you land on these questions there are lessons to be learned from the Reformation; even stepping aside from which side of the Reformation had a grasp of the truth there are lessons to learn here. You could be a Catholic complementarian, or a Protestant egalitarian, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two and history would be informative here. This isn’t just a conversation that matters for those facing the reformers with a new media strategy (and as a protestant in a Reformed denomination it shouldn’t surprise you which side I think had the better material to work with). There’s a pretty compelling case to be made that the Reformation ‘won’ where it won precisely because of its media strategy, and particularly because the media practices of the reformers lined up with their theology. You couldn’t really be a Catholic and employ the techniques the reformers employed if part of your theology was a belief that somehow the priesthood was set apart from the rest of the church not just in function, but by language, to play the game of engaging with the masses in the vernacular was to cede quite a bit to the reformers in a way that would’ve started to give some credence to their broader critique; while on the flipside, believing in a ‘priesthood of all believers’ meant there was less centralised control over the messaging of the Reformation, and anybody who had access to a printing press could, and should, use it to proclaim the theology of the Reformation; the Gospel.

The media practices of the Reformation were one of the driving forces behind my thesis (which looked at the media practices of the wisdom literature, Paul, Augustine, and Luther as historic case studies of communicators who had their practice shaped by their theology), I say this to acknowledge that this is an area I think is much more fascinating and fruitful than the average person on the internet… and to acknowledge that I may well be overthinking this present conversation; I’ve done lots of thinking and writing about this stuff… and lots of this thinking was prompted by an excellent Economist article How Luther Went Viral by Tom Standage, who would later write an excellent book on ‘democratised’ communication via Social Media called Writing On The Wall that’s worth a read if any of this interests you at all (here’s a TEDx talk with some of my thoughts, and a review of the book). In the Economist piece, Standage says:

“IT IS a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.”

This is, in many ways, a summary of the current discussion (and what has prompted it), but it is Standage describing the Reformation. Here’s his description of the mechanisms of the viral Reformation:

“The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.”

And here’s where his opponents, the Catholic establishment, failed:

“Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

Another key factor behind the success of the Reformation, according to Andrew Pettegree, a scholar Standage quotes (from a book called “Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion”) was the sheer volume of work published and distributed, even though it was published against the weight of traditional institutional authority:

“It was the superabundance, the cascade of titles, that created the impression of an overwhelming tide, an unstoppable movement of opinion…Pamphlets and their purchasers had together created the impression of irresistible force.”

Standing in the practical tradition of the Reformers should mean looking at new technologies — especially ‘democratising’ technologies that level the playing field by giving all people a voice — as opportunities to share the Gospel. To embrace new technologies to share our theology is part of our DNA… and at some point sharing, writing about, and discussing the Gospel is going to feel a lot like teaching… which presents some real challenges to people whose theology and practice is to see teaching and authority in the church as the domain of men. We might talk about a priesthood of all believers; but in practice in most churches in our tradition, we’ve very much got a priestly model tied to the pulpit, eldership, and the male-dominated (or exclusively male) governance structures of our churches. This isn’t a new question. Complementarians have had to grapple with women who write books for many years, and often do make a distinction between what happens in corporate worship and what happens in the broader life of the church; this is a distinction often not recognised by people outside the big-R Reformed scene; some of us make much of ‘WORSHIP’ in the super-capitalised Lord’s Day sense (others of us are puzzled at where the idea that there’s a major difference in the life and practice of the church between the Sunday gathering and all other communal life as depicted in the New Testament actually comes from).

For the big-R Reformed complementarian types there’s a scary scenario where one might have to put themselves in the shoes of the Reformation era Catholics to figure out how they could’ve kept the farm in the face of a new media strategy and new orthodoxy, because the risk, if this group’s position is correct, is that it will be overwhelmed if the response isn’t nimble and imaginative, but also theologically coherent.

For those of us who stand in the Reformed tradition but are more inclined to be ‘reformational’ (always reforming) than historically reformed, there are some opportunities here to ask ourselves some pretty confronting questions about whether our media practices actually do line up with our professed theology; a priesthood of all believers; both men and women. And this is why I, personally, think this conversation is particularly important and worth following even if some of the articles linked above don’t really nail where I’m coming from or think we should be going…

Luther was sure his words were going to be held to account by God; and in some sense his speaking was an act of attempting to hold others to account to God’s word, but also to traditions he believed the church had walked away from. We can’t simply dismiss the voices of our forbears as though we moderns are more enlightened or our pressing questions more pressing… In purely effective terms, Luther is almost without peer as a communicator and an example of someone who grasped hold of a new technology to great effect. He’s also, for all his faults, a great model of harnessing the power of new mediums to promote theological reforms he believed were necessary, and grappling with the questions of institutional authority that follow… these words from the Diet of Worms (where he may or may not have said ‘here I stand, I can do none else’) are a reasonable starting point, and perhaps ending point, in this conversation for all of us:

“I am bound by the texts of the Bible, my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience.”

What that looks like… well. Let’s keep talking, and listening.

 

Benedict Option or Golden Rule?

“We faithful orthodox Christians didn’t ask for internal exile from a country we thought was our own, but that’s where we find ourselves. We are a minority now, so let’s be a creative one, offering warm, living, light-filled alternatives to a world growing cold, dead, and dark. We will increasingly be without influence, but let’s be guided by monastic wisdom and welcome this humbly as an opportunity sent by God for our purification and sanctification. Losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul. Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires.” — The Benedict Option, pg 99


The Benedict Option? Or is it?

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher has been making waves long before the book was published so much that many have seen the book as a refreshing opportunity to get some clarity from Dreher about exactly what it is he means when he speaks of the Option; is he talking about withdrawing from the world? retreating to a bunker? being the church in the world? or simply a strategy for disciple making in the modern west?

He’s been accused of calling Christians to head for the hills; and accused those who say so of misrepresenting him.

He’s been accused of responding to the changing world with fear; and accused those who say so of misrepresenting him.

He’s been accused of suggesting Christians abandon worldly institutions (like the political realm); and accused those who say so of misrepresenting him.

I’ve read lots from Dreher (both pre- and post- release of the book), and lots of people talking about The Benedict Option. I think the difficulty as I’ve read the reviews and his responses is that I think Dreher has been misunderstood, but I think he’s also misunderstood the responses (and fuelled them), and that the problem is that Dreher is attempting to present a series of practices — an orthopraxy — for any Christians to reinforce and preserve our faith in a hostile world (he goes so far as to suggest Muslims should do this too), but he fails to account for how different belief systems — orthodoxies — view the world and God’s work in it. Because Dreher writes so broadly, for Protestants, Catholics, and his own Orthodox tradition, and assumes you can work from a right orthopraxy upwards to an orthodoxy, he’s been ill-equipped to handle responses that read from an orthodoxy downwards. The real problem is that his orthopraxy is actually a product of his orthodoxy, and it never really escapes that, but there are many, many, principles and practices he recommends that can and should be adopted by people whose orthodoxy is in the reformed, evangelical, tradition.

“People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right? And I’m like, ‘Yes!’… But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care” — The Benedict Option, pg 142

Another problem is that there are several times where he wants to have his cake and eat it too; he says, for example, that he’s not advocating withdrawal, but then he says Christian parents must pull their kids out of public schools and into either home schools or Christian liberal arts institutions, that Christian workers should abandon ‘contested’ professions (or be pushed out) and be entrepreneurial, starting great businesses but only hiring Christians (and that we should also buy Christian); even to the point of uprooting from life in hostile environments. There’s a protectionism at the heart of his approach to the church and the world.

The Benedict Option sees centripetal force — creating more pull in the church than in the rest of space — as our strategy in a post-Christian world; and life as a competition between the gravitational pull of two bodies — the ‘world’ and the Gospel. To be super confusing, in this diagram ‘the world’ (the earth) is us, the ‘world’ is the cosmos. Gravitational force is ‘centripetal’ so replace the ‘sun’ here with the ‘son’ (for the ultimate Jesus-juke)… but also the church, the Gospel, and God.

The problem is that the centrifugal force created by our motion, that keeps us orbiting around the sun, is also an important part of the picture (both in the diagram and in the church). Dreher’s  approach to being Christian in the world and engaging with the world is centripetal (pulling people in) rather than centrifugal (sending people out); and there’s probably a case to be made that the church should be both at the same time; that we should be creating a sense of loving, Gospel-shaped, community that is so beautiful as to have its own gravitational pull, but that this community should shape us so that we can respond to and participate in the world outside the church without fear of being flung off or caught up by the gravitational pull of some other body.

Dreher tries very hard to be optimistic and bold but he does so in the face of a tsunami-like narrative regarding a current cataclysm for the church that is, in part, of his own making and imagination. I don’t mean that it isn’t true; I mean that he is the prophetic voice proclaiming it as true. It’s his account of history and the present that his solutions are confronting (though he marshals plenty of supporting voices). He wants to simultaneously build an ark so that the church can survive and one day thrive, and play the weatherman proclaiming that the flood is coming. It’s not new to have to balance a message of salvation and judgment, but if one thinks the flood is different (has been here for much longer, namely, since the crucifixion of Jesus), or that the design for the ark is faulty, Dreher’s rhetoric can feel panicked and urgent. A little bit Chicken Little; not because the sky isn’t falling, so much as that it fell some time ago… and it’s actually that it’s really starting to bite us now. It’s also not that Dreher’s solutions lack creativity — his chapters on work, on education, on politics as local institution building, and on community (both local and church) are fantastic and contain plenty of fodder for churches to chew through. I’m also a bit confused about how he offers his historical account of where things went wrong largely focused on ideas (until he gets to the industrial revolution), and then his solution is largely focused on practices.

I share, to some extent, Dreher’s analysis of what he calls liquid modernity and the pressures the modern world places on Christians, I share the sense that part of the solution is a radically different community-based approach to life in this world. I’ve written about the Benedict Option already a couple of times — once thinking about Christianity as an X-Men like mutation, the other considering aggressive secularism as something like a zombie apocalypse; and I’ve considered what sort of recalibration of church life might be required in a “post-truth” world (and earlier started penning some ‘theses’ around an ongoing ‘reformation’ of the church). I share Dreher’s communitarian vision, and the sense that these must be communities built on rhythms and practices (liturgies) even, that counter the ‘liturgies’ of the false worship around us. I’ve read enough Stanley Hauerwas, James Davison Hunter, and James K.A Smith (and enough Augustine, and the Epistle to Diognetus) to be on board with the central thrust of Dreher’s solution; we need to invest our time and energy into creating communities geared towards the formation of Christians who will face a world hostile to Christianity. This is probably urgent. It has probably been urgent for some time.

“Here’s how to get started with the anti-political politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbours. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department” — The Benedict Option, pg 98

You can see why people are confused. In the same paragraph Dreher calls us to secede and to participate in public life. And this is the tension that drives the book (and arguably the tension underpinning our life as Christians who are ‘in the world, but not of it’). The answer to this tension, and where I think at times Dreher doesn’t quite hold the tension, is that we Christians might not be ‘of’ the world; but we certainly should be for it. There’s a couple of things in this quote, and the book, that bother me in terms of his theologies of art and technology (he values ‘high’ art over pop culture, and ‘local’ low-tech forms of media over ‘high-tech’ globalised forms, and that will be the subject of a future post, another future post will tackle the education stuff he talks about).

I don’t share Dreher’s sense that the tipping point is the sexual revolution (and increasing activism about LGBTI rights); I think we’ve needed this solution for some time. We’ve already had our imaginations and desires conscripted by capitalism and an anthropology that sees humans as economic units who should be educated so that we can get a good job, develop new technology to control the world, and buy the stuff we want. We needed recalibrating long before corporations were signing up as LGBTI allies. I share the concerns of many that when Dreher writes, his perspectives (even as he travels abroad) can’t escape his whiteness, or his Americanness; now, the tagline of the book is A strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation”, so I don’t want to assess him for not having a broad enough scope; but there are plenty of marginalised communities operating within America as churches already, and instead of talking to them, Dreher headed off to a monastic community in Europe, and talked about the Mormons. The point at which the rubber really hits the road for me in terms of disagreement with Dreher, and how his orthopraxy clashes with my orthodoxy is on the question of education, and the best way to form our children to be Christians in the world. I know there are those within a reformed framework that share Dreher’s thoughts about the dangers of public education; but I don’t want to shape my kids to live in the world by having them box at shadows from the safety of a ‘home school’ or exclusively Christian school context (Dreher is down on church schools where many of your kids peers will be non-Christians who’ll pull them away from Jesus); I want my kids to learn to be in the world as Christians by being in the contested space of the world, with me (and their village) alongside them, not thrown into the world as adults for their first real ‘fight’ with people whose experience and understanding of the world is utterly foreign to them. I do share Dreher’s love for liberal arts educations though; and think Christians should be proactively starting alternative educational institutions for all built on this model because it is better for everyone.

80% of the Benedict Option contains really good and vital ideas and practices that should be factored in to how we approach life as the church in the world. I think what’s missing, or different, from a Reformed Evangelical perspective, is a vision for how to be in the world confident that it is God who saves and sanctifies and he does this through the Spirit, by faithAs someone in a different camp to Dreher, I think he puts too much faith in works to shape us, and is too afraid that the world will claim us; if you stand in the Calvinist tradition we certainly have a role to play in raising our kids in the Gospel-shaped community of the church, teaching them the Gospel in both word and practice, but we do this confident that it is ultimately God who acts to save, not our investment in our children. This should allow us to confidently engage the world with the belief that we have a more beautiful and compelling story that will be effective for those whom God calls, by the Spirit, through our presence.

“We have talked so far in this book about what it means to create the structures and take on the practices that train our hearts to be the Lord’s good servants first, even to the point of sacrifice. This is what the Benedict Option is supposed to do: help us to order all parts of our lives around him” — The Benedict Option, p 194

One of the issues with Dreher’s work, and the ensuing conversation, is that he really has considered and articulated a response to most objections; it’s just unclear which statements to weigh more heavily; ultimately your take on this book will be one of choosing which paradoxical bits to emphasise, or if you can live in tension; so he says:

“Communities that are wrapped too tight, for fear of impurity will suffocate their members and strangle the joy out of life together. Ideology is the enemy of joyful community life, and the most destructive ideology is the belief that creating utopia is possible” — The Benedict Option, pg 139

Yet so much of The Benedict Option reads to me like Moana’s father and his vision for community life on a dying island. So much of its strategy seems to be ‘stay on the island, the island is safe, good, and beautiful, and people have all they need here,’ and yet so much of the solution to liquid modernity seems actually to be found in the Gospel continuing to go out into the world, to challenge the powers and authorities of this world. This paragraph features everything that is right and wrong about The Benedict Option:

“We should stop trying to meet the world on its own terms and focus on building up fidelity in distinct community. Instead of being seeker-friendly, we should be finder-friendly, offering those who come to us a new and different way of life. It must be a way of life shaped by the biblical story and practices that keep us firmly focused on the truths of that story in a world that wants to obscure them and make us forget.” — The Benedict Option, pg 121

This vision is contradictory to an evangelical orthodoxy — a belief that the Gospel is the central story of the world and the church community — and that the Gospel is the story of the son of man coming to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), and that we, as the ‘found,’ via the Spirit, become seekers in turn (John 20:21, Matthew 28:18-20). Dreher has emphasised the need for a centripetal community that has its own centre of gravity, at the expense of the centrifugal force created by the Gospel at the centre of our community. The Christian life is the life governed by this tension; by these twin poles simultaneously holding us close to God, and throwing us into the world as his people. It’s also possible that it is in part being thrown into the world that shapes our love for God and the Gospel. The challenge of course, facing the church, is that the world has its own centripetal pull on our hearts — that’s how idolatry works — and part of the work of formation (and how the Spirit appears to work to form us) is making sure how hearts keep being pulled by Jesus with more force than the world can exert. The solution the Benedict Option offers in part, to the pull of the world, is to avoid that pull altogether. It seems, in part, that mission beyond the boundaries of the community in Dreher’s world is a specialised role (and perhaps this is a result of his orthodoxy shaping his orthopraxy), not a role of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ or the body of Christ corporately in the world (except in creating the centripetal force of Christian community).

Just as there’s much to be said for Dreher’s emphasis on practices that cultivate a love for, and trust in, God, I think there’s a good positive case to be made for many of Dreher’s options — like starting counter-cultural liberal-arts schools built on the assumption that a person is more than their economic contribution, or creating ‘thick’ local communities built on charity, or becoming ‘social entrepreneurs’ whose goal is to make something good for people rather than operate for profit — as positive ‘neighbour love;’ good things that we can invest in both as Gospel witness and as expressions of common grace for our neighbours. Where I feel the solutions of his ‘options’, based on the Rule of St Benedict, fail is in their centripetal impulses, their protectionist streak, and their failure to genuinely grapple with the scope of Jesus’ command to love our neighbour, and the universal imperative at the heart of Jesus’ so-called ‘golden rule’. The institutions built via a true Christian option that follows the so-called golden rule, and the command to love our neighbour, will be equally good and available to everyone; public institutions for the common good; not simply private institutions for Christians.

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

One problem with The Benedict Option is that it ultimately fights fire with fire; the world is increasingly going to force Christians out, says Dreher, it will create institutions that do not make space for Christian belief to flourish — including public schools — it will be harder for Christians to maintain jobs in both the public and private sector… and his solution is to create our own exclusionary spaces; not totally exclusive, certainly, we’re still to provide hospitality in our monasteries to those who are curious, but we should keep our kids from the influence of non-Christian peers.

The irony seems lost on Dreher; that as the hostile institutions of our culture (public and private) take steps to keep people from the influence of Christians we would do the same in our own ‘mirror’ institutions and communities. The golden rule is not ‘treat others as they treat you’ but ‘as you would have them treat you’… note that Jesus says here that this ‘sums up the Law and the Prophets,’ so it shouldn’t surprise us when he returns to this theme a bit later in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus is asked what the greatest commandments are for his people; the ones that should organise life in his kingdom. My sense is that Dreher emphasises the first, without thinking about how the second flows both out of, and into the first.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22:36-40

Now, it’s fair to say that Dreher’s work gives us plenty of equipment for obeying the first commandment, cultivating a whole-hearted love for God (as opposed to for the world — another big theme in Matthew) and this is a pressing priority in a world where belief in the God of the Bible is contested (to use Charles Taylor’s terminology for our ‘secular age’), and where this contest is increasingly hostile (not just lost in our hearts being captured by alternative visions)… but the ‘as’ in ‘as yourself’ is important; it contains an echo of the ‘golden rule’ — if our solution is not the solution we’d like to see our neighbours practice to us, it’s not the answer for how we engage with them. He also attempts to address these two ‘love commands’:

“Though fear in the face of these turbulent times is understandable… the Benedict Option ultimately has to be a matter of love. The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ, and dwelling with our neighbours in love, it ceases to be Benedictine… it can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or saving the world.” — The Benedict Option, pg 237

The problem is perhaps best expressed in the question Jesus poses in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who is my neighbour? My fellow Christian? Certainly. But also the people on my street, in my city, and ultimately in the world beyond my national boundaries and the west. He explicitly cites these two commands here, It’s just the failure to mediate them through the golden rule that breaks part of his project; if our neighbours really did have the words of life in their secular agenda, would we not want them to do all they could to bring it to us? How would we have them love us? If we have the words of eternal life, how should we then love? This is where a centripetal model of being the church doesn’t cut it; and where we’re to be centrifugal; to go out; just as Jesus ‘went out’ to us.

One of the best things about The Benedict Option, and the Rules of St Benedict is that they are corporate in their orientation. One of my bugbears with the recapturing of liturgy and practice as tools for formation is that they almost always seem self-interested; like a sanctified masturbation (to borrow from Fight Club’s line about self-improvement); Christian love is love that overflows out of the self and is directed towards God and other. You might argue that a sort of personal love is vital for other love, but I think the practices we see promoted in the New Testament church are largely oriented towards the body of Christ, not just the self. The Benedict Option nails this; I think; in its rich communitarian vision, and this is perhaps a positive product of Dreher’s Orthodox orthodoxy (where protestants/evangelicals tend to be a little more individual in our outlook). But one of the problems with the Benedict Option is that it is not other-focused enough, because in many cases, neighbouring stops at the boundaries of the community (while including visitors to the community). It’s far more concerned about how the world might shape us than certain about how we might, through God’s sovereignty and the Spirit, shape others (and shape ourselves as we seek this).

It’s of course, also interesting, when it comes to the life of the church in a hostile world, that the way Jesus ultimately obeys both these commands is in the hands of the hostile empire, and with his own hands spiked to a bloodied timber execution device… arguably this is what we should expect as Christians operating in the world. 

At one point Dreher urges us to ‘rediscover the past’ (page 102) and he heads to Norcia where the modern Benedictines have re-founded a community based on the Rule of St Benedict at the fall of Rome; I suspect he should have looked further back than 1,500 years ago, to what it was that helped a crucified king overturn the very empire that had crucified him; ostensibly as a sign of its power, to crush his claims to the throne. Here’s what the Epistle To Diognetus puts forward as a summary of the Christian strategy in a pre-Christian world; the first half of this quote emphasises the difference in Christian community and practice (and the tension of being in, but not of, the world), while the second half suggests this practice is ‘other-oriented’:

But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Dreher rightly emphasises that our practices should draw people to us, but what the book lacks is a confidence that these same practices should also unleash us confidently upon the world, from the safety of such a community. He suggests beauty will be part of our witness, but it’s the ‘beauty’ within the metaphorical monastery, and our alternative communities; rather than the sort of faithful presence that James Davison Hunter champions.

“In an era in which logical reason is doubted and even dismissed, and the heart’s desire is glorified by popular culture, the most effective way to evangelise is by helping people experience beauty and goodness. From that starting point we help them grasp the truth that all goodness and beauty emanate from the eternal God, who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. For Christians, this might mean witnessing to others through music, theater, or some other form of art. Mostly, though, it will mean showing love to others through building and sustaining genuine friendships and through the example of service to the poor, the weak, and the hungry.” — The Benedict Option, p 119

There’s lots to love about this quote; you’ve just got to hold it in tension with his call to move to rural areas apart from hostile civilisation that will counter-form us if we stay… I’m all for Christianity being a creative force from the margins; but I think out ‘marginalisation’ is felt more when it’s buttressed against the ‘centre’ than when it is removed from sight from those we are seeking to reach (or when we are removed from the reach of the ‘centre’ ourselves).

Dreher is also worth heeding inasmuch as he recognises that our job as the church now is not to win the culture war; but we need more, it’s not enough to simply become a ‘counter-community’ that centripetally draws people in. God is a sending God; we’re sent into the world as Jesus was sent into the world, commissioned to ‘go to the ends of the earth’ with the promise that God is with us… this isn’t a calling to go out and set up centripetal communities — new Israels — but to be a beautiful, alternative community, that goes into the world confidently modelling the beauty of our community and our trust in God even as it crucifies us. To be the sort of faithful witnesses envisaged in Revelation, a set of instructions for life as exiles in a hostile world; in Babylon… in Rome.

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

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

Perhaps rather than a plurality of ‘Benedictine communities’ across different orthodoxies (including Dreher’s suggestion that muslims and jews might adopt the same strategy) a better solution in the ‘secular age’ of ‘liquid modernity’ that is hostile to non-consensus views is to model how we wish to be treated; perhaps a confident pluralism is more in line with the golden rule and our hope; not confident that we will win our place in the world, but that the ‘categorical imperative’ of doing unto others as we would have them do (and as Jesus categorically did as a ‘categorical indicative’) is actually the right thing to do, and the right way for us to be formed, because we are confident that Jesus is victorious. Here’s how writer John Inazu (who wrote a short response to The Benedict Option) describes his strategy for life in the post-Christian world; in his book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference:

“The goal of confident pluralism is not to settle which views are right and which views are wrong. Rather, it proposes that the future of our democratic experiment requires finding a way to be steadfast in our personal convictions, while also making room for the cacophony that may ensue when others disagree with us. Confident pluralism allows us to function—and even to flourish—despite the divisions arising out of our deeply held beliefs… Confident pluralism explores how we might live together in our deep and sometimes painful differences. We should not underestimate the significance of those differences. We lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, and the meaning of human flourishing.”

The way to operate well in this world, following the golden rule, while also cultivating the sort of thick communities that help us love God and offer others the sort of love that we have had him offer us, as his co-missioned church, might not be to shut ourselves off from those who disagree with us, but rather to make space for them to speak, confident that when we also speak, our story is better, our community richer, and our practices more compelling to those whom God calls. Confident that the prayer of Jesus will be answered in us as we are sent into the world by Jesus to love like Jesus.

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” — Jesus, John 17:15-19

What is preaching? A conversation with Sam Chan’s Preaching as the Word of God

From time to time I write about preaching. The stuff I write about preaching isn’t necessarily going to be all that interesting to you (and sometimes these posts blow out in length), but preaching is what I get paid to do, so it probably pays to think about it sometimes, and it’s nice to be able to look back on how my thinking has developed over the years.

This is a post about preaching, and more than that, it’s a review of a relatively academic book on preaching, Preaching As The Word Of God: Answering An Old Question with Speech-Act Theory by Sam Chan. This is a very important book on preaching, and if thinking academically about what preaching is, or having a thoughtful academic approach from an academic/practitioner transform your practice sounds like a good thing, then you should read the book before you read the rest of this review.

It might help to think of the question at the heart of this book as the question of whether preaching is like holding up a cricket ball to be examined and understood, or as like bowling a ball with intent. That might help when we get into what speech-act theory is all about.

A primer on how/what I thought about preaching before this book

I read lots of book reviews; and write a few. I have a personal bugbear with book reviews that assess a book through some sort of unacknowledged/unexplained bias and or system; and I have issues with book reviews that don’t seek to use the thing they’re reviewing as a conversation partner; that simply assess a book through a grid and don’t look at how the book might modify the grid, or the grid might modify the book, a good book review — a review essay — takes readers somewhere new because it’s a re-mixing of the ideas of the book through the head of the reviewer. Those are fun. That’s what this is, and it’s what I hope to do whenever I review a book, or I can’t be bothered…

Sometimes I review preaching books like The Archer and The Arrow, Hearing Her Voice, and Saving Eutychus, and I use these books as opportunities to extend the conversation (and my own thinking) about what preaching is (or at least what our churches try to do on a Sunday). I wrote my Masters thesis on persuasive communication and how to do it ethically as well; this was about more than preaching (in that it was about public Christianity), but it also provides a lot of my framework for preaching and thinking through books like this. I’ve touched on it in posts about how ethos, pathos, and logos all need to be part of our preaching, and also about how ‘word ministry’; or the proclamation of the Gospel, is not just the spoken monologue, but can include singing (including the non-verbal communication bits (our pathos and ethos) both music and movement) and other media. I say all this, and link to all these, because nothing appears in a vacuum. I’m about to engage with a new book on preaching, and it’s worth declaring what my assumptions/framework are up front. Here are some of the things I thought about preaching before reading this book, in sum.

  1. Preaching is preaching (the Greek κηρύσσω) when it is the proclamation of the Gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus. Other forms of public speaking are not really preaching, because the preacher acts as the herald of the king. There might be other types of speaking that Christians engage in in public.
  2. Preaching is a corporate act of the gathered body of Christ (ala 1 Corinthians 12) no matter which individual speaks, all are speaking (and engaged in the act) just as when I make words with my mouth, my lungs, vocal chords (and hopefully brain) are engaged. It’s not the act of a special ‘set apart’ priestly mouthpiece from God who speaks to the people of God. It is for both believers and unbelievers because the Gospel is what both believers and unbelievers need to hear (with slightly different rhetorical ends, but it is possible for one piece of communication to say more than one thing to different people at the same time).
  3. Preaching is tied to who we are as the church — we are the body of Christ, we are the bearers of his image in the world (and image bearing is a vocation tied to representing the name and nature of God and his kingdom in his world), and we are ambassadors for Christ and ministers of reconciliation between humanity and God (2 Corinthians 5).
  4. Preaching is one of the things the church does, along with the sacraments, as the essential function of the church in the world, and the church for the church. The sacraments are also essentially preaching (just with more than words, ala 1 Corinthians 11:26), and it is possible that preaching is essentially the same as the sacraments because, basically, when we gather in the name of Jesus, Jesus promises to be there.
  5. The authority behind any preached word comes from God’s word (it’s that we proclaim), it is the proper explaining of how God’s word in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus, and how Jesus being Lord shapes the way we live now as the people of his kingdom. It also comes from the role of the Church, and via the work of the Spirit. It isn’t human authority, and it isn’t in the hands of an individual, no matter how persuasive they are.
  6. Preaching involves words, but it also draws on (and draws credibility from) the life of our community-in-the-world, and the life of the speaker-in-the-community (our ethos), and our ethos is to be shaped by our message if we want to preach ethically and with integrity. You can’t have words without an ethos helping those words be interpreted and persuasive any more than you can have ‘the word of God’ without the God who speaks. Separating logos from ethos is like trying to separate the persons of the Trinity. Our message is Christ crucified for us, sinners. We preach as sinners being reshaped by the message of the Cross (a message that represents God’s power, but is weak in the eyes of the world). Part of our ethos and our pathos will involve the connection of our words to communication mediums that support the message and help produce an appropriate emotional response, not simply an appropriate rational response (and the medium is the message, so good preaching-as-communication involves thinking about what the best medium to effectively carry our message is, and what mediums (like singing) might support other mediums (like speaking) so that the body might preach Jesus together employing a range of gifts and methods).
  7. Preaching also, in order to be effective communication, involves some sort of listening to God (in his word, that we’re aiming to preach), to the people we speak to — outside the church in order to understand the barriers to the Gospel, and in the church in order to understand where the pull of ‘false gospels’ is being felt, and where people need reassurance and encouragement.

These are the basic assumptions I brought with me as I read Sam Chan’s new book on preaching

A brief overview of Preaching as the Word of God

Like me, Sam Chan thinks preaching is a really, really, big deal. This relatively recent book (based on an older dissertation) takes the reader through what the Reformers, specifically Luther and Calvin, believe about preaching, what the Bible suggests preaching is from the Old Testament to the New, and then gets super fun using speech-act theory to support his conclusion that when preaching really happens (according to a defined set of parameters), God is speaking. When we preach, according to certain criteria, God speaks. Preaching is God’s word.

I like it. I mean, I guess I’ve just outlined a framework where this idea seems relatively uncontroversial. And while there are certain bits of that framework that don’t necessarily get a run in the book, the book doesn’t contradict any of them (as far as I can tell), and I’ve been bouncing some of these ideas back and forth with Sam since finishing the book. But what I really like about the book is not so much the stuff that agrees with what I already thought… no. I like the implications of the way Sam gets there; via the Reformers, the Bible, and speech act theory, some of the stuff he suggests should change how we approach not so much the content of preaching, but the delivery, our intention, and our understanding of what is happening (and of our responsibilities as speakers and hearers). Now. The book is relatively academic, but it’s a fruitful read (and a challenge) for anyone who preaches or wants to be a preacher… since I don’t have any major disagreements with its thesis; indeed, I wholeheartedly agree… so rather than reviewing the book the ‘old fashioned’ way and telling you what it says, I’ll explore some next steps in the conversation from my own dabbling with speech-act theory in my thesis. Sam has been pretty generous as a dialogue partner online so I have some sense that he’s at least intrigued by where this stuff goes… but he’ll, like anyone, have right of reply here.

It’s worth saying that in a year where lots of people are wanting to celebrate the Reformation, preaching was a really big deal in that movement… and preaching of a particular sort. Gospel preaching. And this book is a worthwhile reminder that Gospel preaching isn’t just incidental to the life of the church; in some ways it is the life of the church. One of the things that struck me about Luther as I read his works during college, and again as I read Sam’s book, is that if anything Luther held the preached word as more important than the other sacraments (and I use those words provocatively and deliberately to suggest that Luther essentially treated the preached word as a sacrament where God is present in preaching in much the same way as he is present in the bread and wine). This book is a bracing picture of what preaching could and should be if we approached it in the Spirit of the Reformation, the Spirit of the New Testament, and, arguably, necessarily, in the Spirit of Jesus. Cause it’s ultimately the same Spirit.

What is speech-act theory?

So let’s do a bit of a breakdown of Sam’s argument here and some of its implications. First, it’s handy to get a little bit of a primer on speech-act theory. It’s a theory that when you first hear it, especially as a Christian, just seems relatively obvious. Words do stuff. Spoken words are actions that achieve results (wedding vows are a good example). Separating word and action doesn’t really work in our experience of the world (I’d argue for an Act-Speech theory too… that actions can communicate things, that we as images communicate by being and doing… but that’s far beyond the scope of this piece and you should read my thesis to get some of the thinking there). A ‘speech act’ performs something… in some sense it creates a reality, whether it’s a promise, a proclamation, an order, an invitation, a warning, a thanking, or a greeting (this isn’t an exhaustive list).

Sam does a really helpful thing of regularly summarising his argument so that you stick with it all the way through; what follows under these headings are the numbered summaries of his argument from the book, but I’ve split them into the component parts of a speech act, and then responded a little to advance the conversation (either by agreeing and considering implications, or positing some alternatives to consider).

The Locutor: who speaks on God’s behalf; or who speaks on God’s behalf?

1. God is a God who speaks his word.

2. God raises, commissions, and sends human messengers to speak on his behalf.

3. These human messengers are anointed, gifted, and empowered by the Spirit, who is the author of the word of God.

This whole speech-act thing is great, and these three points are foundational to the argument — but I want to broaden them a little bit… because where Sam goes here is basically to say that the individual preacher has this particular role in and for the church (and that the church is part of commissioning the speaker as a preacher); he suggests that preaching is an individual function, and certainly, in a descriptive account of what happens in our church services where the ‘preaching’ happens, this is true. There is a preacher, and they play this role, and hopefully they’re gifted… But here’s where I want to tweak things slightly — to suggest preaching is a corporate function of the body (working together in its various parts).

What if the ‘human messengers’ commissioned to speak on God’s behalf are coterminous with ‘the church’, that this commission is corporate, not individual; so it’s the body of Christ, which is ‘anointed, gifted and empowered by the Spirit’ and when the one speaks in our gathering, as the ‘mouthpiece’ they speak for the whole body; as part of the body, appointed by both God and the body to speak in this way; so ‘preaching’ shouldn’t just be seen as the job of the preacher, but of the body; and this is a bit of a game changer, because if we conceive of preaching in reformed terms, as Sam wants us to, we conceive of it not as a priestly act of a priest, but as a (even ‘the’) priestly act of the priesthood of all believers; which means the preacher isn’t detached from the body to speak to the body from God, but is, as part of the Body, speaking God’s word to the body and to the world the body is ‘incarnate’ in… which, in practice, means the preacher not thinking of themselves as a specially called individual — God’s gift to the church — but as the person appointed by the body to speak on its behalf and for its good. The ‘body of Christ’ is given life, and nurtured, by the word of God and this nurturing happens, in part, through preaching.

corporate model like this changes, for example, the way the preacher conceives of their task; the task becomes to listen carefully to God’s word, but also to listen carefully to the body (in order to speak corporately). This challenges an evangelical practice where preaching is essentially priestly in a pre-reformation sense; a special commission some how set apart from the life of the body, not from the life of the body. The preacher speaks the word of God, certainly, but it’s like they get amputated from the body of Jesus to do so, and then turn around and speak back to the body. In a practical sense the way this priestly thing works out is that the preacher sees their primary job as speaking for God to the body; rather than speaking God’s words as the body to the world (actively listening to other members, being supported in prayer, expertise, and the enrichment that comes from multiple perspectives from different ages, stages, and experiences of life), and also speaks God’s words to the body for its building up; its mutual edification.

Do I do my job best locked away in an office with the Bible and some commentaries open, typing into a word processor for 30 hours a week, or do I do my best listening to the wisdom of the body talking to others, with the Bible open, and thinking through how the passage best speaks to the diversity of people in the body, and to the world in a way that makes what is being said plausible and engaged, rather than detached and idiosyncratic. Let’s take Paul’s metaphor of the body seriously; and metaphorically — a metaphor is not an exaggeration of the true state of affairs, but an accessible simplification — a sign that points to a greater reality — a ‘simplification’ you use to make something more complex understandable… so when Paul speaks of the church as a body we’re not meant to think he’s over-applying the reality of our union (with Christ, by the Spirit), but pointing to a deeper mystery. And we might, to use Paul’s metaphor, understand preaching — as in the spoken word in the gathering — as the act of the body’s mouth; when my mouth speaks it is connected to my brain, powered by my lungs, informed by my eyes and ears… and representative of the rest of me (and my actions) if my words have integrity.

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.…there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” — 1 Corinthians 12:17-20, 25

The Locution: if we’re going to speak the word of God, what do we say?

4. These human messengers do not invent their own message, but receive it from God’s revelation; these human messengers faithfully proclaim this received message by preaching the message without modification.

5. In a general sense, any message received from God would be the word of God. But, in a special sense, as a result of God’s progressive revelation, an important content of the word of God is the Christocentric gospel. In this special sense, the word of God is now not only the word from God, it is the word about God, namely, his Son. This message is continuous with the message of the OT prophets, which was subsequently inscripturated as OT Scripture, but it is also a climactic new message that has only now been revealed through the preaching of Jesus and the apostles, which has now been inscripturated as NT Scripture.

One way of thinking of the locution is that it’s the message; it’s what is transmitted from speaker to audience. But the thing that separates ‘locution’ from other forms of communication is that it is part of a speech-act — it is spoken not just transmitted, or read. The message in this sense starts to include the ‘medium’ which is part locution, part illocution (the next bit); and here’s where some of my thesis intersects with Sam’s work; because in some sense the act of preaching is where the communication maxim “the medium is the message” kicks in a bit (which is from media ecologist Marshall McLuhan); the way this plays out in preaching is that somehow what we locute — the Gospel — is connected to who we are (appointed speakers of the Gospel; God’s ambassadors/image bearers), and in some way the act of speaking, as a dynamic and relational act is a ‘medium’ choice that reinforces the nature of the message (and that it comes from the God who speaks). This also helps speech-act theory integrate with classical ‘oratorical’ theory — where each ‘speech act’ incorporates elements of logos, ethos, and pathos — the locution is in a sense the overlap between ethoslogos and the action of speaking (I’d argue pathos is more caught up in the illocution but not totally removed from locution because we speak words that move our emotions too, not just speak emotionally).

There’s a reason God’s message is best spoken, not just read, that preaching is a thing and we don’t just hand out Bibles. It’s because God is a dynamic and relational God, and somehow our locution and our illocution is an opportunity to model that. Here’s more from the book, and they’re important, because it’s at the heart of Sam’s thesis that preaching is speaking the words of God, that we understand what the ‘word of God’ looks like.

In one sense, Christ is the Word because he is the Word from God; he is the climactic revelation from God. As the Son sent by God, he speaks the Father’s message on the Father’s behalf; as God incarnate, his words are also God’s words. But in another sense, Christ is the Word because he himself is the message. The message from God is about Christ; the referent of the word is Christ himself—his person, work, and message. He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament message of eschatological salvation; he is the Messiah who will usher in the kingdom of God and bring salvation and vindication for God’s faithful people.

Therefore, today, God reveals his message of the gospel to his commissioned, Spirit-anointed preachers through the reading of the word and the proclamation of the word. This word is a Christocentric word, namely, the gospel that calls all to recognize Jesus as the Christ and to live a life of trust and obedience in Christ. In turn, the Christian preacher is to proclaim this Christocentric gospel message, and in doing so, preach the word of God. This message should be consistent with the message of the gospel in Scripture; and the hearers can confirm this by examining the Scriptures.

The question to determine whether or not God’s word is being spoken at this point in a speech-act, according to Sam’s thesis is:

“Does the preacher’s locution correspond with that of the gospel message of Scripture?”

The Illocution: If we’re speaking the word of God how do we say it?

“the illocutionary act is the performance of an act in saying something. It corresponds to the force of what has been said.”

In terms of speech-act theory the illocution is what makes the speech an action (so a ‘promise’ (‘I do‘) not just the words used in a promise (‘I do’) — it’s the difference between me reading aloud the words of an oath on a page and making an oath).

It might be helpful to think of the locution as a ‘ball’ and the ‘illocution’ as the throw. If the locution is the content of a speech act, the illocution is the act itself; the manner in which it is delivered consistent with its purpose and function. So if the ball is a cricket ball the ‘throw’ might, depending on context come from a bowler, a fielder, or a member of the crowd; each ‘ball’ is the same, but the meaning is different because of the context and understanding of the action (one is bowling, one is fielding, one is fetching).

In a speech-act, the locution is what is said; the illocution is how it is said (and what makes the ‘locution’ something more than ‘just words’). It’s partly context that determines this; including our expectations of the locutor (so, neither a fielder or a spectator ‘bowl’… but a fielder ‘becomes a bowler’ when they give their hat to the umpire and take their mark). It’s ultimately context that enacts the speaking of certain words to make them a ‘speech-act’; the words ‘I do’ become a vow in a wedding, rather than simply an expression of my opinion, or description of my actions (“do you eat chocolate?” “I do” is very different to the act of saying “I do” in a wedding ceremony but the same words). This context also includes things other than who the speaker is, who they’re speaking to (and the recognised conventions this creates), it also includes intent. So, to pick up the cricket analogy again; we know a ball is bowled in cricket when the bowler bowls to the batsman, and there are rules around what is recognised as a legitimate bowling action (behind the crease, between the popping creases, below the shoulders of the batsman), there’s also a certain force required and the intent to get the ball into play, but there’s still, in terms of how we assess the bowling, a required interaction with the batsman (this is where the next bit, perlocution, comes in). An over in cricket is not just six balls, but six balls bowled from bowler to batsman. A speech act is not just words, but words spoken in a particular context with a particular force.

It’s useful to think about illocution as the thing that makes you feel the weight of the locution so that it is an action (a bit like how ethos and pathos intersect in the old rhetorical triangle). And one act of speaking might have multiple illocutions; multiple purposes, and this depends on the contexts. A ball bowled in cricket is bowled to terrorise a batsman, to be hit by a batsman, to get a batsman out, to excite the crowd, to encourage the field, and to please the captain; the same ‘ball’ bowled can do all these things. And it’s the same with a speech-act; there can be multiple illocutions at play. And Sam argues this is true in preaching. It’s not our job simply to say ‘ball… ball… ball’… we actually want the ball to do something. Here’s Sam’s next point:

 

6. The human preacher preaches with a divinely commissioned intention, which is an expression of God’s purposes, on behalf of God; and God achieves his purposes through this human proclamation.

This is where we move from content to method; and though experience listening to some sermons that don’t nail the ‘gospel message of Scripture’ might suggest otherwise, there’s nothing particularly controversial in Sam’s thesis until this point. But this is where things get interesting. There are some popular approaches to preaching that see our job simply as describing the word of God propositionally; our job is to simply show what God’s locution is; one way this happens is in a certain sort of expository preaching.  Sam suggests this evangelical sacred cow is not all it is cracked up to be; that it may, in fact, be undermining what preaching should be. He’s quite charitable about the theory behind expository preaching, but asks a legitimate question about whether it might actually be imposing a pretty modern construct on a text that had a purpose apart from the delivery of authoritative propositions. He suggests it’s possible that our approach of turning the Bible into propositions (bits of data), or put another way, treating it as a ‘locution’ not a dynamic speech-act where illocution matters too, might rob it (and our preaching) of its speech-act nature (a way of thinking about this might be to say that when we do this the Bible, God’s ‘living and active word’ simply says something, but if the speech-act thing is captured in our reading and preaching, the Bible does something again, and the challenge of our preaching is that our spoken words don’t just say something, but also do something).

“The merits of this approach are that it is founded upon a high view of Scripture—for Scripture is the word of God—and it emphasises the need for objective controls in preaching, namely, Scripture itself. However, this approach is not without problems… often, this approach is somewhat dependent upon a “propositional” view of revelation, for the preacher is essentially gleaning ideas, concepts, principles, and propositions from the scriptural text. But this reliance upon a “propositional” view of revelation would share some of the weaknesses of such a reductionist approach. Further, much of the literary genres of the Bible are not easily reduced to propositions or principles. Is such preaching, then, committing the so-called “heresy of propositional paraphrase”?

Sam says expository preaching reduces the speech act to locution, so the word of God in the sermon is basically the bits where the Scripture is quoted, paraphrased, and explained, and “there is little attempt to recapture the illocutionary act of Scripture.” So sometimes, for example, when we preach a passage of narrative with the ‘three points and an application’ model, and we do this by picking out details and ‘facts’ rather than by telling the story, we rob the passage of its function (and thus, it’s meaning and purpose). He suggests, using speech-act theory and this concept of illocution, that we should not just be transmitting the locutionary content of Scripture, but that we should be seeking to preach in such a way that the purpose of a particular piece of scripture is achieved in our speaking; our illocution when we teach a passage should line up with its illocution (especially in the context of the whole Bible, so as it helps bring the Gospel to people in different contexts to produce different actions (promise, threat, etc) and these actions are shaped by the text. There’s a responsibility here not just for the ‘mouth’ of the body; the preacher; to speaking well, but for the rest of the body (and other hearers open to the premise that God might be speaking) to be playing a role “to check that the locution of the proclamation is indeed identical to that of Scripture.” Expository preaching makes this a bit easier because all the audience has to do is make sure the preacher is saying what the text says, not also doing what the text does, but the challenge of Sam’s thesis (which draws on the methods of preachers in the Bible, not just their content), is to aim not just to ‘teach’ the locution (the Gospel) but to bring it to bear. We don’t just hold up the cricket ball so all might see it’s a ball, we bowl it with the force required to achieve a purpose; God’s purpose, and just as a ball well-bowled achieves a variety of purposes depending on who you are relative to the ball (batsman, bowler, fielder or spectator), the preached word does this too, as Sam puts it:

And not only that, it must recognize that there is a variety of illocutionary acts that accompanies the single locutionary act of the gospel. In the proclamation of the apostles, the gospel message (“we preach Christ crucified”) is accompanied by a variety of illocutionary forces. For example, it is a promise to those who believe, an urge to repentance to those who don’t believe, a blessing to the faithful, a curse to the unfaithful, an encouragement to those who suffer, a warning to those about to fall away, a command to persevere, an assertion of a historical fact, an explanation to those who ask, an apology against the attackers of Christianity, and so on… there is a variety of illocutionary forces at the level of a single passage of Scripture, the level of a single book and its genre, and at the level of the entire canon. Thus, it also follows that there is a variety of illocutionary forces that accompanies the single locutionary act of the preached gospel. And a holistic understanding of preaching will appreciate this. In other words, it is important to maintain the distinction between the locutionary and the illocutionary act; for although there is only one locutionary message, there can be multiple illocutionary acts that accompany it. Thus, an approach that emphasizes one particular illocutionary act, such as “teaching” or “explanation,” and equates this with “true preaching,” has unfortunately confused the distinction between the locutionary and illocutionary act, and has become reductionistic in its use of illocutionary forces.

…when the gospel was preached by Jesus and the apostles, it was accompanied by a variety of illocutionary forces—promise, exhortation, encouragement, command, warning, blessing, assertion, explanation, judgment, etc. Thus, here, the preacher has a choice of a variety of illocutionary forces with which to preach the gospel; the preacher is not restricted to only one particular illocutionary force. In the same way that Jesus and the apostles used different illocutionary forces for different audiences and contexts, the contemporary preacher might also choose to use different illocutionary forces. Therefore, we cannot say that there is only one illocutionary force that is necessary for the preached gospel to be the word of God; there exists a variety of illocutionary forces that may accompany the preached gospel as the word of God.

 

So Sam’s question about whether a bit of preaching is a speech-act where God is speaking is: “Does the preacher’s illocution correspond with that of the gospel message of Scripture?” What is the illocutionary force?”
And it’s useful to think, briefly, about how we go about doing this, how we illocute, not simply locute. How we preach the purpose of the passage not just display the passage. How we approach narrative as narrative, not simply as a text to turn into propositions (Sam follows Kevin Van Hoozer in suggesting that both genre, and the passage’s place in the ‘canonical’ context of God’s grand ‘gospel centred’ acting in the world is really important for understanding the illocutionary force of a passage). We don’t just read Old Testament law as commands for us, but as part of the canon that shows how these laws help us understand the story of Jesus, so the illocutionary force isn’t in making people feel the weight of obedience to a command from the Old Testament, but in understanding the function of these commands.
But part of capturing and expressing the force of God’s word might also include things we might describe as media, or delivery decisions (just as a bowler at the top of his run considers pace, and line, and length, and swing, and seam position): do I shout, or whisper? What tone or expression or emphasis do I use? What body language do I employ? How do I distinguish in manner between, for example, a threat and a promise? How do I shape the delivery of the message in order for it to be heard according to its purpose (this leads into the next bit, the perlocution)? It also includes questions of audience like ‘what is my relationship to these people? How will they understand the nature of these words?

I know a promise is a promise not a threat, even if the same words are used, because somehow I’m geared to feel the difference not just by the words used, but how they’re used (and who is using them).

 

The perlocution?

The perlocutionary act is the performance of an act by saying something. It corresponds to the effect of what has been said.

The question at this point is: how much responsibility should the preacher take for the response to the preached word?

Can we talk as though we are responsible for the response to the preached word, or as though the response to the preached word should be part of how we measure the efficacy of preaching? Should we, for example, determine how good a preacher is by how persuasive they are? By how many people are persuaded? Or be aiming at persuasion at all?

And if the answer to the first question is ‘none’, then how much should persuasion be a factor in our preaching (how much should we think about the result for the hearer, not simply the act of speaking (locution and illocution).

For Sam, because of a theology I share, which sees God responsible for the effect of the preached word (and the effect produced by the Spirit), the answer to the first question is that God is ultimately responsible, and the speech-act is complete, so far as the speaker is concerned, with illocution, rather than the effect. The perlocution is the responsibility of the Spirit working in the hearer. Here’s Sam’s point 7:

7. Nonetheless, because of God’s “hidden” intention, and because of the different roles of the preacher, the hearer, and the Spirit, the ultimate result of preaching among the hearers is not a criterion for determining if the word of God is preached. Thus, the status of the preached word as the word of God is independent of its results. It is precisely because the preached word is God’s word that the preacher is not responsible for the hearer’s response and the hearer is accountable to God for his or her own response.

And a couple more quotes to flesh out the summary of his position above:

“The aim of preaching, as I have argued, is to perform a speech act on behalf of God…  in order to perform a speech act on behalf of God, the preacher’s locution and illocution are to correspond with God’s locution and illocution.”

“The distinction between the illocutionary act and the perlocutionary act is crucial. The preacher is responsible for the illocutionary act, which in turn is dependent upon the locutionary act. But the preacher is not responsible for the perlocutionary act. Instead, it is the Holy Spirit and the hearer who have the dual responsibility for the perlocutionary act, that is, belief and obedience.”

He draws on Paul’s words regarding his own approach to preaching (and ministry) to conclude:

“The proclaimer cannot coerce, manipulate, or force a hearer to believe or obey. That is, although the proclaimer must ensure that the gospel is illocuted, the speaker cannot ensure that the hearer responds with faith and repentance. The hearer is responsible for his or her response, not the proclaimer. Thus, a proclaimer is to illocute “Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23) without resorting to “wise and persuasive words” (1 Cor 2:4), that is, to coerce or manipulate. For that would be to confuse the illocutionary with the perlocutionary act.”

 

Now it would be possible to take this point of Sam’s on board and therefore not see preaching in terms of its fruit at all; or even to not aim to persuade as the human vessel of God’s speech. And exactly how this works out in the wash is one area where we hit the limits of Sam’s book (it can’t do everything), but also where my thesis picks up; I wrote mostly trying to figure out how we should be God’s communicating people in the world — how we might bear his image and so glorify him — and then approach worldly methods of communication like rhetoric, oratory, and public relations; how we might ethically engage in persuasion using some of these tools; rather than engaging in manipulation; how we might recognise the theological limits of our involvement in producing a result, not have our faithfulness measured by results, and yet still seek a result, and see results as a good thing to humanly pursue, and even to celebrate.

Here’s some stuff from my thesis:

“Most communicative acts, as actions of the sender, are produced for a purpose; this purpose may simply be to transmit the information, but usually the purpose is to produce a “perlocutionary effect” – such communication aims to bring sender and receiver to a common understanding of the information, and apply its implications. At this point communication becomes an exercise in persuasion, and while the sender cannot dictate the recipient’s response, they can “strategically” consider the desired perlocutionary effect in the communicative act. This consideration will affect the choice of content, genre, and form within certain “rules of the game,” supplying a context such that both sender and receiver are aware of the implications of the act.”

I go on to argue in this thesis that speech-acts that are open about their intent to persuade; and the ‘perlocution’ they intend to achieve are not manipulative, and are actually more ethical than communication because, in acknowledging the intent up front (or through genre/convention — and I think a ‘sermon’ carries with it a particular contextual expectation where the listener, Christian or otherwise, expects to be persuaded to act according to the word and authority of God mediated through the preaching). The key control here is that the what (the locution: in this case the Gospel) is thoroughly embedded in its connection to the who is speaking (the locutor: in this case, as above, the preacher/church/God); and for it to be ethical (for the ‘ethos’ component to work; the perlocutionary affect needs to reflect the life, or desired life, of the speaker, not just the audience).

Paul also says:

“Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” — 2 Corinthians 4:2

And this has often been used to suggest that Paul swore off persuasion the way it was practiced by first century orators; I’d counter that this is actually a rhetorical practice/strategy and ‘commending himself’ is actually a perlocutionary effect produced by his strategy (the sort of effect he relies on elsewhere when he says ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ’). But. We’ve got to hold this alongside Paul’s statements about his own perlocutionary goals in his ministry (which includes his preaching); and it’s worth noting that his goals are to produce people just like him in their shared being just like Jesus — people who imitate him as they imitate Christ; but also people who by the Spirit are brought into the body of Christ-in-the-world — the church… the messengers who are commissioned to live and carry this message.

Like Sam, Paul suggests the heart of God’s locution (or his message as one speaking God’s word to the world (as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20), is the Gospel. His illocution is shaped by the Gospel too, inasmuch as it includes not just shaping his illocutionary speech-acts with the Gospel (renouncing ‘powerful’ and ‘underhanded techniques), but also shaping his ‘act-speeches’ — his ethos — around the Gospel. Here’s how the Gospel shapes Paul’s locution, illocution, and understanding of perlocution in his preaching speech-acts from 2 Corinthians 4… and this does support Sam’s conclusions about who produces the perlocutionary affect:

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ… 

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. — 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, 10-14

But this belief that it is God who will raise us from the dead by his word, and bring ‘light to our hearts’ so we might know the power of the Gospel truly; free from blindness, does not stop Paul believing that somehow he is involved in securing a perlocutionary affect, and so aiming his communication to that end.

In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul spells out why he preaches the Gospel the way he does in Corinth (despite their preferences for flashy persuasive speech from people they pay to influence (orators). And having spelled out why he does not take up certain rights as a preacher, he says:

 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” — 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

This becoming is to produce a perlocutionary affect — it’s to win as many as possible. It’s also a reflection of the Gospel (parallel this with Philippians 2 and Jesus ‘making himself nothing’). How he understands himself (and the church) as ‘locutors,’ his methodology, his message, the force he gives it (in 1 Cor 1-4, and 2 Cor 3-5) and his intended results, and how that shapes the other elements so that they are in harmony. We see Paul shift methods and emphasis in his locution (and illocution) throughout Acts based on who he is speaking to (so compare his preaching in Athens, before the Pharisees and Sadducees, and before Felix or Festus), though the perlocution he aims for, under God, in this shifting strategy and method seems consistent, that people might know Jesus as Lord. And this is, I think, part of why he sees himself speaking the word of God (and it’s why Sam’s book is a good one for us to grapple with).

To pick up the cricket analogy, this means that while we expect good bowling to produce wickets, and we value wickets, and bowl with the intention of taking wickets, we measure the bowling on the effort of the bowler, on the quality and consistency of the balls delivered, their integrity within the team context and that they bowl in such a way that wickets are a reasonable expectation based on past experience and a reading of the present conditions. It’s not wickets being taken that determines if a bowler is bowling for Australia, but that they are selected to represent our nation and are doing what they are appointed to as part of the team (and on our behalf).

This is a great book on preaching not just because it is carefully thought through and argued, and not simply because it brings some fruitful modern insights into language and communication to give us a sense of what is happening as we preach, but because it reminds us as hearers and speakers of God’s word that preaching is powerful, and more than this, that God is a God who speaks and life happens.

A tribute to my dad, for the occassion of his 60th birthday

I love my dad.

I don’t just love him, I’m proud of him and proud to be like him in many ways.

I might not say this enough, and there’s years of hurtful stuff (including punches) flung at him while we were both figuring out who I was in my teenage years that I probably should work harder to undo with my words now… but I’m really, really thankful that my dad is my dad.

I’ve been struck, as I get to know my own son, he’s almost 4, at just how much it’s going to hurt me when history inevitably repeats and he first tells me he hates me. Or that I’m stupid, or fat, or apelike… sorry dad. I really am proud of you, you’re not stupid, or ape like, and I’m always told I look like you, so hopefully you’re not ugly.

I’ve also been struck by what I want to, and don’t want to, pass on to and teach my son. And I’m struck by how good a job dad did with shaping me in a way that means, on the whole, I’ve made reasonably good decisions.

I don’t know if I’d be me, or dad would be the dad he is now if it weren’t for those stormy adolescent years either. But I certainly wish I’d been able to see some of this stuff more clearly then, and that while we had slightly different visions for what my life could be, or should be, his was a voice I should have listened to more… this isn’t to say he got everything right, or that he gets everything right, I don’t want to lionise him in de-aping him… but let me tell you, for this auspicious occasion (his birthday was yesterday), some things about my dad. Perhaps you know him, and perhaps these will be some things that you know about him, or perhaps you’ll be surprised by some of this, perhaps you’ve never met him (or me), in whoch case… indulge me.

I’ve come to understand that dad does things excellently because he’s driven by passion — not for himself and his own name — but for the inherent value of things themselves, for the benefit of others, and to the glory of the God who makes excellent things too… whether it’s a song on the guitar, a well crafted table tennis point, a video game or gadget review in a national publication (sometimes when it was too socially awkward to admit dad was a minister I had the fallback option of telling people he was a freelance games reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald (which was true), sometimes I’d mumble the ‘minister’ bit and rush into the cool job so the conversation I was in would go there), a font (like Foxjump, the font Tourism Tasmania once used to brand the state, or the in house fonts for Mitchelton Presbyterian Church), odd bits of furniture, Bible talks, books (one on the Vic 20 computer and one on preaching)… dad is driven and disciplined and sets out to be a master, an artisan, because small stuff matters, because it says things about big stuff. And, I suspect, cause there’s joy in detail as much as there might be the devil. I realised recently when talking to someone about the experience of eating breakfast at a cafe with dad that he is basically a Platonist… there’s an ‘ideal’ form of everything (including eggs) out there, and all the ‘things’ of this world are opportunities to get close to that ideal (but sometimes they can also be judged against that ideal, so dad’s eyes will be drawn to the smallest inconsistencies)… I think this idealism is part of the drive, it’s not so much perfectionism (perhaps I’m recognising some of this in myself), but a wanting to get as close as humanly possible to these ideals (the difference, I think is one involves a striving for improvement, while the other involves always measuring yourself against unrealistic standards, I suspect it’s a mistake to see these as exactly the same thing). Not everyone sees the world this way, and seeing the world this way would be crippling if it weren’t matched with curiosity, imagination, intelligence, discipline, courage, and ability. What makes dad truly special is his God-given combination of these. What is, I think, the challenge of his ‘genius’ is realising that most of us aren’t wired this way, and it’s not just that we can’t see the world the same way, but that even if we could, we couldn’t do much about it… this difference can be hard, especially if people misunderstand the motives and expectations (even for those of us whose biology and environmental upbringing disposes us to being just like it). I don’t care as much about kerning or alignment as dad (but I care more about fonts than most people, statistically speaking). I, like many of his students, trainees, and staff, have endured robust critiques (according to his standards) of work I’ve produced. I’ve given up trying to write a non-run on sentence and adopted all manner of punctuation quirks like semi-colons, em dashes, parentheses, and ellipses in order to avoid comma pedantry… but mostly these bits of who dad is come together for my good, and the good of others. I’m a better writer (and preacher) because of him and this drive for excellence, and this is the testimony of many, many, others. It’d take me a long time to list out the ways these qualities manifest themselves on the ground in dad’s life, but I suspect this would be the testimony of many witnesses… One of the harder things, I suspect, for dad, is that he’s known as a practitioner of ministry when almost all his practice and preaching is driven by a coherent theological framework that is misunderstood (even by me), and I suspect he’d rather have passed on that, than a love for fonts, design, and 22 minute sermons (ask him about Deuteronomy 30, pronouns in Ephesians, and the destruction of the Temple sometime). I love that I’ve always been encouraged to dig deeply and imaginitively into God’s word, and to look for connections that make Jesus richer and more compelling and interesting. Two people I really, deeply, respect have commented to me recently about just how rare this capacity is, and I guess I’ve always taken it for granted as the way things are done.

I suspect it was not just misunderstanding each other, but also my taking dad for granted (and mum too, but it’s not her birthday) that was actually at the heart of our conflicts in my adolescence… but perhaps this is at the heart of the problems in most relationships everywhere, so that’s not all that profound…

This year at church we’ve been looking at Matthew’s Gospel, and at how Jesus is the archetypal epic hero. There’s this literary convention, or observation of how stories work, called ‘The Hero’s Journey’… the hero’s journey starts with a sort of willingness, a call to adventure, a willingness to take on the status quo and to bring change that is necessary and good. There’s a sort of contrarian streak at the heart of the hero, and dad and a bunch of his mates owned and embodied that streak for some time (within the context of our denomination), and they marked it by wearing red socks to the business meetings of the church. It’s interesting now that dad is no longer apart from the system… he ‘is’ the system… to be someone coming into the same system with the same contrarian instincts, but I do love and admire the way that dad has largely managed to be a gracious and generous contrarian with a modelled commitment to the greater good and even the ‘system’ (even when it is frustrating). The status quo of our denomination, as I’ve entered it, is very different now to what it was then, and this is doubtless a result of the work of the red sock brigade, and I want to honour them, even if they’re now the establishment… dad and his mates didn’t just say what the problems were, they created alternatives, they didn’t just throw stones, they created a Christian journal (before the world of the Internet) that went a little bit global, it seems to me that they did this to love and serve others (and to challenge the establishment.

Dad also married up. A great example to me and one I’m thankful I learned from. It shouldn’t be all that special to not be insecure about your wife’s brilliance, and, positively, to make space for that brilliance to shine. In fact, I don’t think it’s that special. I take it for granted. It seems normal. It blows my mind that it isn’t. And that’s another good thing I got from dad (still trying to figure out how that works with small children though).

There’s a line dad used in his induction speech last year, when he became ‘the system,’ or rather ‘the moderator,’ here in Queensland; where he said he hoped that his ministry to date, his life, had been marked and defined by ‘zeal for the Gospel’… it reminded me of the phrase from Psalms that people quote about Jesus in John 2,’zeal for your house will consume me’…that is dad. Consumed (maybe sometimes too comsumed, as I’m discovering as I try to figure out where the ministry role ends and I begin) by the work of the Gospel. There’s not, I don’t think, many idle moments in dad’s brain, many moments where he’s satisfied with what is, rather than driven towards what could be, and particularly when he’s not thinking about how to help more people follow Jesus. I’m thankful for this zeal, perhaps mostly because it is a thing he did pass on. By example and perhaps even deliberately. This Jesus stuff really matters. If it is true (and I believe it is), it’s the best and most important, most precious thing that you can give your children… or to anyone. I’m not sure exactly what worked for me here… but something did, and I’m not sure that there was any great parenting strategy on mum and dad’s behalf, other than perhaps to help us see the cost and to explain why the cost was paid gladly (most of the time).

Something remarkable has been happening in my relationship with dad over the last few years, as I’ve entered the family business, there’s a new sense of respect or recognition, that goes both ways. Maybe I’ve become a real person (I haven’t called dad any names for a few years). Maybe parenting has changed me. Maybe grandparenting has changed dad… but some of my favourite memories don’t come from childhood (though I have lots of good ones), but from the sense of serving in the trenches with the old fella. I remember playing soccer with a bloke in his late 30s or early 40s, back when I was a precocious teen, and I chipped away at him once about when he was going to retire. He said his goal was to play a few games with his son. Dad isn’t really a sports guy, but I think I’m enjoying the sort of thing this other dad was hoping for… one of the things that does blow my mind a bit is that the way dad makes space for mum to be mum is also there in how he now lets me be me… I say some relatively outrageous and provocative stuff when I channel the red sock thing, but I never doubt for a second that dad will be there supporting me, championing some things, listening to others, being proud right back at me. I suspect the older-younger dynamic in systems like the Presbyterian Church that have structured themselves to avoid violent inertia always advantages the ‘older’… you could, if you were ‘the system’ never listen to a younger voice, you could have the sense that your time to be influential has finally come, but dad hasn’t done that with me, and he hasn’t done it with others. He’s spent his time this year encouraging others… especially young blokes planting new churches. Though perhaps again this is the fruit of his labours… if you invest your time in changing the system, and training and equipping  young blokes to love the Gospel (and a 22 minute sermon where the Gospel is clearly communicated), maybe when you listen to them they end up saying stuff you’re happy to listen to… even if they don’t get the significance of Paul’s pronoun use.

What happens when you put all this stuff together in real life, under the sovereignty of God, are some pretty great things, for our family, for the church families dad has been part of, and for the denomination (and beyond)… that again, I’ve taken for granted, or appeared to, but, hey dad! I noticed (I’m sure others have too). Thanks for all of this. I’m proud of you, I love you, and I’m more and more ok with it when people say I’m a bit like you.

Happy 60th birthday dad!*

 

*Oh yeah, dad isn’t 60 for another couple of birthdays, but I thought I’d get in nice and early.

 

 

3 other ways the church can counteract abuse by following Jesus

I’m not a huge fan of the e-magazine Relevant, for a lot of reasons but perhaps because I’m not sure self-description via a name like ‘Relevant’ is the best way to achieve the thing you’re describing. Also, I’m not totally sure that ‘relevant’ is what we are necessarily aiming for as Christians, in terms of our relationship with other views of the world (all of which are derived from other forms of worship). If I was going to run an e-mag I’d call it Plausibly Weird. But that’s neither here nor there, except to say that in keeping with the name Relevant the site has published this piece 3 Ways Women’s Equality Can Counteract Abuse, which essentially makes a claim that complementarianism as practiced in evangelical churches is inherently patriarchal and abusive. It seems to be also arguing that the answer to this abuse is egalitarianism.

Now. I want to say that I share many of the concerns of this Relevant article; I’m certain abuse is much more prevalent in the Reformed Evangelical church than it should be (and it’s safe to say that because any cases of abuse in the church are too many). I’m certain that some theological visions which fall within the definition of complementarian theology but are actually misogynistic (so not at all complementary) are used to harm women in our churches. I’m also so uncomfortable with the desire to resolve some paradoxes about the difference and equality of men and women in God’s design for human relationships that I see at work in both complementarian and egalitarian camps as they form around this discussion that I don’t actually want to be identified as either. But I do think complementarians are right to point to the difference between men and women, and to desire that difference be on display in our communities, and I do think egalitarians are right to point to the equality between men and women, and to desire that difference to be on display in our communities. I don’t think many communities nail these desires simultaneously, because we’re bad at living in tension, mystery, or paradox. We want resolution, and often our desire to be relevant shapes how we approach these tensions, but sometimes it’s our desire to be irrelevant (or counter-cultural) that shapes our response too. And the thing about paradoxes is that you can have both. I’ve read quite a few things in the last week or so that are totally uncharitable about complementarianism, equating it with ‘blaspheming against the Holy Spirit,’ and now with abuse. I think it’s fine to suggest complementarianism as it is practiced in our churches can provide cover for abuse, and can be harmful if it isn’t built from the Gospel, and even (as I believe) that it is just as harmful to a paradox at the heart of male-female relationships as egalitarianism (which is also, I think, a well motivated, but often flawed, attempt to articulate how we should live well together as people).

The logic of this Relevant piece is to:

  1. Define abuse as the use of power and control to cause harm.
  2. Define patriarchy as systemically enabled abuse.
  3. Define complementarianism as a form of patriarchy, and so a form of abuse.
  4. Suggests that even if complementarianism is not a form of abuse, it enables it.
  5. Suggests securing equality is the way to prevent abuse.

There are several things I like in the suggestions put forward by the Relevant piece for limiting abuse within the church (especially her second and third points), and it’s worth reading and being challenged by, but I have my own suggestions for how we might fight abuse better. I have grown up around the complementarian scene (though my experience is that healthy complementarianism looks and feels a lot like egalitarianism in most spheres); I do not recognise this scene in the description from the article (though I have seen evidence of this sort of complementarianism, and I’m not going to suggest that just because complementarianism doesn’t look like this, that it’s necessarily the answer, or the right position).

This belief gives men the role of authority over the wife and children, and only allows men to be church leaders. Women are expected to submit unilaterally to men, fathers, husbands, pastors. While many churches who subscribe to this encourage men to sacrificially lead their wives, there is still a power differentiation (emphasis mine). Men are still given the final say, and it still falls on the scale of patriarchy.

Equality alone won’t solve our problems — and the heart of what’s good about complementarianism (what it aims to get right (though it often misses)) is that it realises that equality alone (in an unequal world) isn’t enough; that what is required of men in the church (and for the world) is more than equality; it’s generous service. Equality is about justice; generosity goes beyond justice to love. This is where I think the answer to the problem of abuse in the church is actually found in the bolded sentence above; I want to argue that a properly ‘sacrificial’ relationship (marriage or church) involves a power differentiation; but that differentiation falls in favour of the powerless, not the powerful. The solution is about understanding that sacrifice goes beyond equality; because that’s what we see in the Gospel (it’s also what we don’t see in abuse, or in churches where leadership is about power).

My job as a church leader, and a husband living the Christian story, at least as I see it, is to show my wife and my church that I would lay down my life for them — giving my strength for them — because I actually consider them more valuable than me. This is the burden of Christian leadership. Though they are, in nature, my equals, I’m to give my power for their benefit, to see them flourish. If I don’t want to do that, then my options were a) don’t get married, and b) don’t be appointed as a leader of the church.

If you are a man appointed as a ‘leader’ of the church, I think this is your job too (it’s also the job of anyone who has ‘strength’ or power within the context of the church, so if you’re a woman who leads in any capacity including in churches where women are ordained (ie non-complementarian churches, this is how I think the Bible depicts leadership, and orients us towards power).

1. See Jesus as the model for relating to each other; and the Gospel story as the story our relationships are meant to display

The world teaches us that power is a good thing, and evil or abuse is a twisted application of power; where one party (or group) takes that power and uses it to keep themselves in power. We see this all the time in interpersonal abusive relationships (family violence, etc), but this also happens systemically as people build institutions and processes that serve their own interests.

What we’re told by the world — and what the Relevant piece picks up as wisdom, is that the opposite of power, or abuse, is equality.

Equality is the opposite of power and control, and leaders in the anti-domestic violence movement have long been proponents of equality-based relationships. — Ashley Easter, ‘3 Ways Women’s Equality Can Counteract Abuse,‘ Relevant

Equality is certainly better than abuse. But equality isn’t the opposite of abuse. It’s the absence of abuse. It’s the middle; the ‘mean’ between two extreme approaches to power. It’s certainly better than evil, but it’s not necessarily good. The most loving use of power is not simply to give excessive power that you’ve accumulated to others as an act of creating equality (which is important), but also to use whatever power you have left for the sake of others. That’s, for example, what it appears Zaccheus (a powerful and privileged guy, even if he was short and unpopular because of his abuse of power) does when he follows Jesus; he doesn’t just return what he has unjustly accumulated, but is generous with all that he has:

“But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything,I will pay back four times the amount.” — Luke 19:8

If we take the story of Jesus seriously and apply it to our relationships, and to how we approach worldly power, then there’s a much better good than equality — and I’d argue this is to be the good at the heart of our relationships and systems — it should shape how leadership works in Christian relationships (and all the stuff on how these relationships are to be structured in the New Testament are reflections on what it looks like to be Christlike in these relationships).

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus — Philippians 2:1-5

The assumption of equality in our union with Christ drives Paul’s logic in this passage, but the product of this realisation that we are equal is not to pursue systems that are focused on equality; but for us to ‘in humility’ pursue inequality. I think this is particularly the task of those who have power to give up for the sake of others, not so much for those who are already considered, or experience, being beneath others. The pattern here is where the subjugated are raised up precisely because the powerful lift them up.

The world as it is — the status quo — has distributed power to particular groups of people; typically men, typically those who are highly educated, typically from dominant racial and cultural groups within a place, and we often give positions of authority to people who we perceive to be powerful (really, this means people just like me). This presents a bit of a problem in the church if there’s a sense that to be given authority or power is to be invited to lead just like the world leads; via the application of power. The challenge for people like me is not to pursue equality — but to lower myself so that my experience is not equal at all, but one of servanthood. So that I can speak of myself like Paul does as he reflects on what it means to follow the crucified king:

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

 

2. See Jesus as the model for approaching power and leadership; and so Christianity as a race to the bottom, not a race to the top

The Relevant article argues that doing away with any difference between genders (or rather sex and gender) at the level of roles in church community and in our relationships (egalitarianism) is the way to prevent abuse; it’s certainly a way that might do what it argues, especially in terms of undoing unjust systems (though I think abuse happens when people’s hearts cause them to cling to and wield power). It’s arguably closer to getting the answer right than the alternative it critiques… but I’m not sure it is the only way, given point 1, or the best way to approach power and abuse in relationships where ‘leadership’/headship falls to one gender (and whether that’s the case Biblically is beyond the scope of this piece to demonstrate/unpack).

Inasmuch as I think the Bible asks us to be mindful of the difference in roles (and mindful of equality in personhood)it seems to me that it says in this race to the bottom, Men should aim to get there first on behalf of their wives (so that our marriages reflect something); and so we should lead in sacrificing/serving. And this is true too within the body of Christ — the church — our leaders should be exemplary sacrificers. Servants. Not power-hungry authorities who abuse, or do anything that looks like abuse. We should long for our leaders to be models of the Gospel; examples for all of us. But also, we should all want that of ourselves — the role we’re all called to play in the church is to be imitators of Jesus… and this is what Jesus does with power in the example we’re asked to imitate:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! — Philippians 2:6-8

It seems to me that this self-sacrifice — this race to the bottom, not the top — if it was displayed by men in marriage and church leadership (well, in all our relationships) would not so much be about equality but about service and love. That’s not to say women can’t also follow this example, they should, but the challenge of leadership is to use whatever the world might consider strength to provide a context in which those the world views as weak can live the lives they were (re)created to live.

I think this would be a better antidote than equality than the one the Relevant piece offers… though I share the concerns the piece raises about the current state of play in some outworkings complementarian theology, which seem to equate leadership with being elevated into a position of power and influence, rather than seeing people placed in a vulnerable position of service/sacrifice.

“Since abuse is motivated by power and control, and patriarchy is a system based on power and control, it is not surprising that abuse is prevalent in these [complementarian] circles. Even writer Jason Meyer from The Gospel Coalition (a mainstream Complementarian parachurch organization) states that Complementarianism asks women to “take the most vulnerable position,” and can “quickly become a dangerous position when [these] views get distorted.”

If it feels like those not leading Christian community, but those being led, are in the most vulnerable position — if it feels like, to use a Biblical metaphor, the sheep are more in danger from the wolves than the shepherd — or that they’re in danger from the shepherd — then something has gone very wrong with our theology and our practice.

If this is how complementarianism is described and understood in its most honest and vulnerable moments, then there is something very wrong with it as a theological system.

Christian leadership imitates Jesus, and as such it is not about power being used for one’s own benefit, but about power being given up in sacrifice for others such that it looks like (or is) the laying down of one’s life for their good. That’s what a shepherd does when confronted with a wolf (though power, at that point, is also used to turn wolves away from the vulnerable sheep, and this is why, I believe, the Bible does conceive of a role in the church for people the world might perceive as strong. To stand between the wolves and the sheep, not to lord their strength over the flock). In a world where abuse happens; and a world where feminism is required because equality doesn’t exist except in theory, we need people who give their worldly strength for the sake of the abused and the vulnerable; not to make the abused and vulnerable feel abused and vulnerable in a different pen.

3. Listen to voices that are excluded by applications of power that look more like worldly power (the sword) than like Jesus (the cross); and make sure they get heard

This is a big role for the powerful in the eyes of the world, not just all of us. We operate in a world where privilege does seem to sit with educated, wealthy, white, men. The insights from feminism and elsewhere about patriarchy and how power forms self-perpetuating systems are worth listening to; but if you’re a white, educated, wealthy man who is used to listening to other people just like you, then you’re going to be blind. And if you’re the people occupying positions that look like the positions of worldly power in our world (and so speaking), you’re going to be the blind leading the blind to more blindness. Power often blinds us to the plight of the oppressed (that’s why privilege has become such a big talking point lately, and why it’s natural for white men in leadership to be suspicious when privilege gets raised as a rhetorical device… privilege is fundamentally about bias, and bias is often unconscious and a product of systems and cultures).

If we never listen to those we’re called to serve and sacrifice our power for; and if we never give their concerns the strength of our voices, we’re not doing anything to fight the system, or doing anything to provide a safe pasture in which those we lead can grow and flourish.

I’m uncomfortable with complementarianism as a system in theory because it seems to emphasise different over equal (and it does this at the level of definition where it says ‘equal but different’ when it could conceivably be expressed and practiced as ‘different and equal’). My own discomfort with how complementarianism plays out in practice, in our churches come from a sense that we tend to get power wrong in ways that do fit the definitions of ‘patriarchy’ because leadership often looks like ‘using power’ in a worldly way. It doesn’t feel like the Gospel is very good news for women in some of the ways I’ve seen headship and male leadership and authority play out in churches when, for example:

  • Our practices exclude and silence the voices of women far beyond the sort of limits Paul seems to have in mind in anything he says about the roles of men and women (Paul seems to, for example, have a place for women prophesying in a church context and we have no place sense of what ‘prophecy’ is apart from a sermon in our particular circle, and yet the sermon is ‘teaching’ and the responsibility of an ‘elder’ and our system has both teaching and eldership as offices held by men, Paul also doesn’t seem to say much about the sort of church governance/decision making stuff that our ‘elders’ in my denomination do in rooms where only men speak and vote)… this exclusion also limits the ability for whoever is speaking too and on behalf of the body in preaching is a man who doesn’t listen to women such that he also speaks for them and their concerns (and this plays out in the way men speak about pastoral stuff like sex, lust, modesty, abuse, work/vocation, etc).
  • We’re not prompted, as Christians, to be leading the fight for the good of women not just inside the church and our structures, but outside the church, but instead we’re told that feminism is a dirty word and a threat to Biblical understandings of sex and gender. Especially when we take what are very limited differences between the roles of men and women in marriage and church (structures that are meant to reflect the relationship between Christ and us, and the cross) and apply those differences to, for example, the question of whether women can have careers that involve ‘authority’ (like teaching in schools, politics, the army, or the police).
  • When women aren’t given space to use their God-given gifts to serve and build up the whole body (because we’ve collectively failed to imagine church gatherings as anything more than an opportunity for the leader to speak and teach with authority, leadership as more than preaching (because of the centrality of Bible teaching (logos) in our evangelical church culture at the expense of communal life and the power of Godly example (ethos), and our limited imagination of what the logos bit is (teaching, not prophecy etc), or life as the church as anything much more than the gathering (so leadership is limited to a role, that is largely visibly exercised by a man for half an hour on a Sunday, and then invisibly most of the time while this man is shut off in his office preparing the sermon)
  • When the women we do hear from publicly in complementarian settings speaking of their ministry roles are usually the wives of a minister who are heard from when they speak at conferences or ‘ministry wives events’ about their role supporting their husbands and being mothers, and figuring out the role of the ministry wife… Many of the times I’ve been present for these moments it feels like listening to someone with Stockholm Syndrome; and no matter how benevolent a captor their husband (or church) is, they’re still a captor; and Christian authority — shepherding — isn’t about keeping sheep captive, but about giving them safety and space to flourish.

Being white and male and educated and in a position of some sort of leadership that the world might recognise as having some sort of responsibility or authority means that I, and others like me, have a voice and a platform; and to some extent the Bible seems to suggest that there is a platform that comes from leadership in the church that is expected of certain men within the church. Being a leader like Jesus, who leads by giving up power means not using this power for self-interest, or as an act of power, but using it for the benefit of others, considering them, through humility, more valuable than myself.

It means seeing the pulpit more like Golgotha than Caesar’s rostrum.

It means seeing my job as one of listening and amplifying the Gospel-driven concerns of the bit of the body of Christ I lead, and so speaking (from my ‘strength’) on behalf of this bit of the body. And this means listening to people who don’t have the power or platform to speak for themselves both in the church community, and in the community-at-large.

It means seeing church as much more than just an event I lead on a Sunday where I’m the ‘main act’, but the main act being an act of the whole body, and the life of the body being much more permanent and all encompassing than the hour the body is gathered around the talk give.

For what it’s worth, I’m a big ‘priesthood of all believers’ guy because I’m big on what Paul says about the body of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 12; there’s nothing I do as a Christian that isn’t a product of me being part of the Body of Christ, and an application of the Spirit’s power — the same Spirit that vivifies and invigorates the rest of the body. No man, or woman, in the church is an island. No leadership is exercised as an individual apart from the body, it is something done for the body, with the body, attached to the body. I also don’t think all leadership comes from holding a position or a specific role; I think we’re all called to lead each other to Christlikeness by our example, as we imitate Christ… but there are roles described in the New Testament that seem to either assume a male is doing this thing, or be explicit that a role is a role, within a particular context, for a man (ie men are ‘husbands’, ‘fathers’ and in 1 Timothy, ‘Elders’).

I don’t think the problem the church faces, when it comes to abuse, is difference, so it follows that I don’t think equality will solve the problem (so I’m not an egalitarian).

The problem is sin.

The problem is a worldly approach to power and strength.

The problem is that I, given the opportunity by birth and circumstance to wield power, or to grasp more power, will, by default, take that opportunity and use it for my own interests and the interests of my ‘system’ or tribe (the people who give me more power, or perpetuate my place in the world).

The problem is that we have normalised the cursed pattern of behaviour from Genesis 3 and haven’t figured out how the Gospel challenges that norm.

The problem when it comes to different roles in the church is that often we approach this leadership as an invitation to wield individual power apart from the body of Christ (the church), rather than as a role we play because we are given responsibility and authority by God and the church as part of the shared life of the body.

Whatever this specifically male role in marriages (Ephesians 5) and the church (1 Timothy 2) looks like it can’t look like the application of worldly power out of self interest, or to abuse others.

 

The answer to the problem is not equality, it’s not better use of worldly power, it’s the Gospel. It’s Jesus. It’s his example. It’s giving up power for the sake of others; not taking it to wield it for your own sense of the good, or for your own good.

It’s leaders and husbands who have the mind of Christ in their relationships; not the mind of Adam.

It’s leaders who follow his example.

This can’t be abusive, or even a non-abusive “benevolent dictatorship” as the Relevant article describes ‘well-intentioned’ complementarianism (unless Jesus is somehow an abusive benevolent dictator)… not all uses of power are inherently abusive; some are loving (when power is given for the sake of others), some are just (when power is used against abusers to end abuse).  Jesus does use power. He does rule, but he rules those who follow him, and he rules by laying down his life, and by taking it up again to judge those who oppress and abuse; including those who claim to be shepherds but turn out to be wolves.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2:9-11

Pluralism, same sex marriage, and the silencing of the lambs: charting a new way forward for Christians in Australia

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” — Jesus, Matthew 10

If some of the hyperbole I’m reading online is to be believed, the ‘enemy’ of the Australian church now has a face. And a name. Michael Barnett. His face and name might be familiar to you if you tuned in to the SBS show Living With The Enemy a while back, because he and his now husband, Gregory Storer, spent some time with Sydney Anglican, and fellow blogger, David Ould (I wrote about the show back then). I’ve been chatting online to both Gregory and Michael in the midst of this latest issue, and will feature some of that conversation below. I think rumours of Michael Barnett being the enemy are greatly exaggerated, and I do wonder if we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to how we Christians with traditional views on marriage speak about our views, and what we ask for in our political context.

The situation

Michael Barnett is a campaigner for LGBTIQ rights (not just a same sex marriage campaigner) and has been tweeting in support of a group called Pride In Diversity. Lots of Australian companies have signed up with Pride In Diversity to ensure work places are safe places for members of the LGBTIQ community. The list of companies includes IBM, and Macquarie University, and those companies happen to employ members of the boards of the Australian Christian Lobby and its affiliated training centre the Lachlan Macquarie Institute. Michael has publicly pressured Macquarie and IBM to act according to commitments they’ve made to the Pride In Diversity movement, and this is, in turn, being linked to the Coopers brewhaha (see my reflections here) in a narrative that says, essentially, ‘same sex marriage campaigners (especially activist members of the LGBTIQ communityare out to destroy free speech and religious freedom, the stakes on the marriage debate are higher than the marriage debate’.

I want to say at the outset that I wish we’d get better at talking and listening to each other across the divide on this issue, but that if you view the issue of same sex marriage, and other LGBTIQ rights through the lens of human rights where opposition to change is communicating that LGBTIQ people are sub-human, then I can understand the tactic being employed here with companies who’ve signed up to say they recognise the full humanity of LGBTIQ people. It’s also a shame that Christians in general aren’t better at understanding the position of LGBTIQ people and their desires (and I’m not casting aspersions at the particular individuals caught up in the campaign here, I’ve had some interactions online with Stephen Chavura, and met Lyle Shelton, and while we disagree on this stuff, I believe they do their best to be compassionate and empathetic across this divide). I have, however, been present (both in the flesh and virtually) when Christians have specifically claimed that we do not need to understand the desires of the LGBTIQ community, and I think that’s a terrible indictment on us all. I’m slightly (though not overly) concerned, as a Christian, that there might come a time when holding a traditional view of marriage within the Christian community will be cause for similar action from LGBTIQ rights advocates, and I’m hoping to articulate a middle way that listens to the concerns of LGBTIQ people (including Michael Barnett, see below), but charts a way forward for Christians.

I do think religious freedom is at stake in this debate, free speech even, but I think we (Christians) are actually doing more against these noble common goods than those who are fighting back after years of having their freedom to define marriage according to their own religious beliefs (religious freedom), and to call their relationships marriage (free speech). I’m hoping to demonstrate that this isn’t a disingenuous shifting of the goalposts, but is actually the way we should always have been understanding this issue Biblically.

The ACL’s Lyle Shelton framed the issue this way:

“The message from the activists is clear: if you don’t support our campaign to change the Marriage Act then you have no place in Australian society. The unrelenting, uncompromising, totalitarian nature of these activists should concern every Australian who wants to be free to believe in marriage.”

I wonder if the words ‘unrelenting, uncompromising, totalitarian’ could equally be thrown at Christians by members of the LGBTIQ community who are pursuing changes to the Marriage Act? And I wonder if, properly understood as a religious freedom issue, we might not be better off, as Christians, throwing our support in behind changes to the Act in order to preserve our ability to believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I don’t want this to be purely a pragmatic way to respond to what seems to be the inevitable changing of the Act. I don’t want it to be a thing we do because we fear that if, or when, we lose this ‘fight’ we will be facing an ‘uncompromising, totalitarian’ ruling class who want to stamp out our views. The fear driven ‘slippery slope’ rhetoric in this discussion serves nobody, but it is quite possible that having been perceived as uncompromising and totalitarian in our attempts to maintain our position on the definition of marriage at law, those who oppose us will treat us as we’ve treated them (and it’s interesting that the ‘golden rule’ for Christians is not ‘do unto others as they do to you’ but ‘treat others the way you would have them treat you’). I don’t believe we should respond pragmatically — to secure a certain sort of treatment — but rather our response should be driven by a consistent theological position — including a theological understanding of what it means to be human (which is that to be human is to love something ultimately (worship) and be shaped by that love), and this golden rule.

Like Lyle Shelton and Stephen Chavura, because of my Christian convictions, I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, entered into for life, and I believe this because when Jesus spoke about marriage he said:

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ — Matthew 19:4

However, unlike Lyle Shelton and the Australian Christian Lobby, and many other Christians campaigning to maintain this definition of marriage — Jesus’ definition of marriage — in Australian law, I do not think the view Jesus takes on marriage is necessarily the view that should define marriage in Australian society.

I believe that on the whole, people do better if they love Jesus, and order their lives (and their sexuality) around that first love, but I accept that many of my neighbours do not love Jesus above all else, and have that love shape how they live and love. I think we make a positive case for this by living good, and beautiful lives, as a community, amongst our neighbours. We make the most compelling argument for our way of life by living it, and explaining how our lives reflect who Jesus is.

A religious freedom solution in our secular, pluralist, democracy

We talk about religious freedom being at stake in this marriage debate, and yet we refuse to afford religious freedom to our LGBTIQ neighbours when it comes to how marriage is defined in a secular, pluralistic, democracy. This is our context and it’s worth briefly unpacking what each of these words means.

Religious Freedom

On the whole, Christians who advocate for religious freedom — like Freedom for Faith — do a fantastic job of advocating for religious freedom for people who are not Christians; we’re consistent in our advocacy for our Jewish and Muslim neighbours and their freedom to worship, even though we believe they worship a false understanding of God (even if they’re also Abrahamic religions, they worship a God who is not Trinitarian, and deny the divinity of Jesus… much like the Pharisees were participants in ‘man made religion’ once they failed to recognise the divinity of Jesus).

While atheists and other members of our community who do not identify with an organised religion might not consider themselves religious, and so subject to the need for protection of religious freedom, there are a couple of things I think we Christians need to consider.

Firstly, when we talk about religious freedom we all also want freedom from having religious views (including functional atheism)  imposed on us by law, part of religious freedom is freedom from the undue influence of other religions.

Secondly, as Christians, we believe that all people are ultimately worshippers even if they are not participants in an organised religion. This isn’t to say that there is no such thing as atheism, or that atheism itself is a religion (I’ll leave that to David Foster Wallace in This Is Water), rather it is to say that we all love and desire things in ways that allow those loves and desires to shape us (sometimes there’s ‘one thing,’ one ultimate love, other times people are polytheists and love many things that compete, or cooperate). We Christians recognise that this ‘worship’ is a religious belief that shapes the way people approach life, sex, money, work, knowledge… everything really. Including, importantly, how we believe humanity and marriage should be understood and defined.

That LGBTIQ advocates for same sex marriage view this as a human rights issue, and want to define marriage differently is an expression of what Christians should understand as religious views of the world (even if they don’t themselves understand things this way). When Paul does the ‘everybody worships’ thing in Romans 1; when he makes the case that everyone is religious, he says:

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator”

Our own theology makes this a religious freedom issue.

Secular

Secular does not technically mean that our public is free from religious interference, rather it means that there is no state religion that dominates all other religious views. This tends to mean that our law does not favour one religious belief over another, though a way this is commonly understood is that we should keep religious beliefs out of decision making; that we should make decisions on the lowest common denominator for the common good. I’ve suggested that we’d do best if people with religious beliefs acknowledged those beliefs, and the different impacts they have on religious communities, and that the secular state should attempt to make space for these community views to govern interactions in the ‘commons’We should say more often that our view of marriage doesn’t just come from nature, but from Jesus, and it is legitimate for people who believe Jesus is God to follow Jesus’ definition of marriage.

Pluralistic

That we’re pluralistic acknowledges that not only are we secular (with no state religion) but there are many religious views held and communities created by citizens of Australia, and the people who hold these different views can and should expect to be able to practice them in our nation (provided they don’t cause significant harm to other citizens). A pluralist approach to politics makes space for a plurality of views rather than enshrining the views of a majority (or coalition of minorities) over other minorities.

Christians, based on our theology, should be relatively comfortable operating in a pluralistic context. We are free to be pluralists, but not polytheists. The distinction is important. Christians are called to absolute fidelity to the triune God in our worship. We are to organise our loves around our love for God (which is why we’re to love the Lord with all our hearts, then second, to love our neighbours as we love ourselves). We are monotheists. In the Old Testament this monotheism meant there was no place for idols in Israel. Faithfulness meant the utter destruction of other gods in the hearts (and land) of Israel. But we are not in Israel. Australia is not the kingdom of God; the church is.

There’s still no place for idols in our hearts, as the kingdom of God, and we should take the metaphorical sledgehammer to those idols (or perhaps cultivate a love for Jesus that expels other gods and loves from our hearts). And there are implications here for same sex attracted Christians who hold to conservative/traditional theological convictions, just as there are for heterosexual Christians who hold to these convictions. Christians in the New Testament also recognised that the rules for Israel no longer applied — they certainly preached and lived in such a way that they hoped idols and false worship would be shown to be less valuable, good, and beautiful than the true God, true worship, and thus God’s design for humanity and relationships) — but they didn’t take a sledgehammer to other people’s Gods. This is also how the Old Testament prophets seemed to approach the idols of the nations around Israel — using rhetoric to remove the idols of their ‘power’ (like Isaiah 40, which describes how an idol statue is made from the wood that the craftsman then uses to cook his dinner, and offers the analysis that this probably isn’t what a god should be like). When Paul gets to Athens he shows what pluralism looks like for Christians. He seeks to understand the desires of those in the city that lead them to worship things other than God, and then he has a conversation with them. He doesn’t try to legalise Christian worship and make other forms of worship illegal. Christianity — at least theologically, if not always historically — makes space for other religions, and other gods, outside the hearts of those in the church; that’s part of what distinguishes it from other forms of organised religion.

Democracy

The nature of a democracy sometimes feels like it’s a case of majority rules, when we might be best to think of it as we all rule. Democracy does away with monarchy, and it stands in contrast to other forms of government where a powerful autocracy, or to totalitarian regimes where ideological groups or communities rule over people from outside that particular caste. The beauty of democracy is not found in populist politics, but in the way it views each citizen as equal, and in the promise that those who govern govern for all, to protect different minorities and communities not simply to reflect the will of most of the people. That we are secular and pluralistic and that we believe religious freedom and freedom of speech are common goods or human rights reflects that we are also democratic.

The proposed solution

A solution on the marriage equality issue that is democratic, pluralist, secular, and allows freedom of religion is an outcome that should be desirable to all. Sadly it often feels like we Christians want a solution that continues to recognise our beliefs at the expense of the beliefs of others; and we fight for this in ways that are more populist than democratic, and more theocratic than secular or pluralist (even if we predominantly make ‘natural law’ arguments for maintaining a traditional definition of marriage).

There is another way, one that few public Christians and representatives of traditional churches seem prepared to make. We could, as lovers of religious freedom, support changes to the Marriage Act to be more pluralist, secular, and democratic, where we offer our support to changes that recognise other religious beliefs in the common law, but maintain our own approach to marriage as individuals and within our communities. This would mean being free to hold and act according to personal convictions (though probably not in state institutions), while being prepared to let others do the same.

It seems so simple. We could say “I support your right to define marriage as you see fit, and to have that definition recognised in our nation’s laws, while holding my own convictions about what marriage is that are different, but also recognised in our nation’s laws.” We could say that understanding that the LGBTIQ community desires marriage equality for reasons that are essentially religious (as we understand religion), and that this is from a conviction that religious freedom is a good thing. Which is what we keep saying.

I can understand why it’s not simple, or why people don’t seem prepared to make it. Sometimes it’s a result of our historic privilege, and the belief that Australia is a Christian nation (or at least has been at the ‘establishment’ level); though it’s debatable whether this has ever been the case outside the elite, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case now (despite the census data). Privilege is hard to give up, especially for conservatives who tend to see this history as a good thing, and change for change’s sake as a bad thing. Sometimes this opposition is based on a belief about what is good (according to God’s design), and attempt to be loving (even in ignoring the desires of others). I’m not sure this is a feasible option given that Romans 1 says that the loves and desires produced by false worship now shape people because God makes it that way, and I’m not sure it’s truly loving to fail to understand others or offer them the freedom and privilege we enjoy. I’m also fairly sure that many of the reasons people give, like ‘won’t somebody think of the children’ or ‘this will ‘normalise’ something that is not natural (ie children have a mother and a father)’ are the result of people who’ve missed the memo; that these things are already ‘normal’ and that this comes from the bottom up in our society (via culture), and that this ‘new normal’ also seems to come from God in Romans 1. If the Christian framework is true then these are bad arguments that can’t convince, and if the Christian framework is not true then these are bad arguments that won’t convince.

But it won’t work!

One of the things I often hear when I raise this idea is that the campaigners for LGBTIQ rights want more.

That this campaign for marriage (and human rights/equality more generally) is a slippery slope. That “they” hate us and are out to get us. And they are people like Michael and Gregory. This is the thin end of the wedge in some great anti-Christian conspiracy. Now, this might certainly be true for some. But let’s get the golden rule back in the mix; even if it is true, we’re called to love people and treat them as we would have them treat us. It’s also very possible that people like Michael and Gregory intuitively recognise the irony of us Christians calling for ‘religious freedom’ and labelling our opponents as totalitarian, unrelenting, and uncompromising — when we also won’t listen to, make space for, or compromise with their positions, and that this irony is actually something more like hypocrisy, and it does actually cause hurt because it communicates that we actually don’t see the concerns of this community and its desires as fully or equally human to our own.

The objection I hear is that doing this won’t work.

That these campaigners want more and they won’t rest until they get it… despite their consistent statements that they want a particular thing, that they believe is a right according to their understanding of what it means to be human. We do tend to conflate a whole bunch of issues into a narrative (usually a narrative of fear) — and so the 18C stuff (which is about race) gets thrown in the mix here too (although, to be fair, the modern ‘left’ do this with the whole ‘intersectionality’ thing too). Losing some of the privilege we’ve enjoyed via a bad approach to democracy while white, protestant, men have been largely the ones in power is probably going to involve some real pain for us too. But maybe that pain is good, and maybe it’d be less painful if we’d been doing the ‘golden rule’ thing.

Now. One of the ‘golden rule’ things I’d like to try is to actually listen to people and take them at their word. So I asked Michael on Twitter if this sort of ‘pluralist solution’ would work for him. I first had a bunch of replies from Gregory, Michael’s husband, on Twitter, which he has given me permission to quote here, and then I had an email exchange with Michael. It seems to me that they (as in these two individuals, not the entire LGBTIQ community) would be happy with such a solution, and that Michael’s campaign is not about silencing Christians, but rather about securing the sort of equal rights that Pride In Diversity allied companies sign up for… and maybe the sort of equal rights they’re asking for actually do line up with our desire for religious freedom, and freedom of speech, and we need to start practicing what we preach.

I outlined the position I’ve gone into in more depth above in an email to him, and his response included these words (if they aren’t totally representative of how he’d respond to all these extra words here, he’ll have right of reply in the comments, and I’ll be sending this to both Michael and Gregory):

“Thanks for your thoughts.  I appreciate your thoughtfulness. This is how the story goes from my perspective. I just want to get on with my life, but since beyond 2004 I’ve been trying really hard to overcome the discrimination LGBTIQ people face in society, mostly because of the impact of the ACL and their supporters… I don’t want to take down the ACL and LMI boards but when Lyle Shelton names me in his blogs I feel I have no choice but to explore those possibilities.” — Michael Barnett

I had a longer back and forth with Gregory on Twitter.

Me: If I’m happy for people to live freely/for secular laws to govern all, does this satisfy goals?

Gregory: I’m not an expert on the requirements…

Gregory: It certainly is the ideal situation for all.

Me: Can a Christian hold traditional views within the church/progressive views outside the church & not be a hater?

Gregory: of course, I know lots of them

Me: If Christians were better at a ‘generous pluralism’ understanding the LGBTIQ community’s desires and limits of our ‘moral frame,’ and so were ok with SSM etc…Would it be appropriate for such Christians to hold public positions in ally organisations?

Gregory: They already do.

Me: cause the ‘enemy’ narrative is: once we lose this, we lose ‘everything’ and that there is no public place for us.

Gregory: “That is not true and not the case.”

Gregory: “There is no reason why people can’t live together in harmony.

Now. You, Christian reader, might not be prepared to take Michael and Gregory at their word, or might not be prepared to see them as representative of the whole (unless they’re the ‘villains’ who are out to get us). But I’m, because of the ‘golden rule’ going to take their words on faith, and believe that a generous pluralism is the way to go on the question of the definition of marriage and religious freedom. So I’m going to approach this latest kerfuffle as it is; not a reason to be hysterical about the future for those who hold traditional marriage, not a reason to jump on the bandwagon with Andrew Bolt and other commentators who want to use it to fuel outrage and division in the Australian community; but as an opportunity for us Christians to consider how we might better practice what we preach on religious freedom, and how we might be good neighbours in our secular, pluralist, democracy.

The _____ captivity of the church

Sometimes I think we Christians after Christendom think we’re William Wallace. That we’re in front of a shield wall firing people up for the battle we face… when, actually, we’re already not just prisoners of the enemy, but serving the empire we think we’re standing against. We talk about the world now being ‘Babylon’ and don’t always confront how much Babylon already infects our hearts. Here’s a piece, in part, inspired by Martin Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity Of The Church

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” — William Wallace in Braveheart

Freedom.

Religious freedom.

Freedom of speech.

It seems we Christians are a bit obsessed with questions of freedom at the moment. We’re positioning ourselves like an army of Scots ready to fight to maintain our independence from the empire. We’ve got thought leaders who are bracing us for impact, telling us that we’re in the middle of a battle that will decide our future; the battle for our freedom. These freedoms. Hard won freedoms. Freedom from the tyranny of Babylon. Freedom from bending the knee to Caesar and his rainbow sash.

The problem is we talk about religious freedom and how important it is, while we the church are captives in Babylon; and if we think freedom looks like Babylon-lite we’re in big trouble. If we think freedom is simply the ability to maintain a distinct sexual ethic we don’t realise just how much we’ve already been captivated by a world that is an entirely different kingdom to the one we live for if we follow king Jesus. We’re so focused on sex, that we fail to realise that we, mostly, already belong to ‘Babylon’.

We’re captives.

We’re political captives.

We’re economic captives.

We’re captivated by a counter-Gospel. We’re narrative captives, enthralled by Babylon and its shiny promises and explanations about who we are, and what we’re for; blinkered so that we don’t often look beyond our defaults; the status quo of our immediate context and culture.

We’re captivated in our hearts, and our minds, in our desires and in our imaginations.

But still. We picture ourselves as William Wallace, just without the face paint (and so we end up looking a whole lot like Mel Gibson, it’s ok to be a raving lunatic if you’re in character, elsewise, not so much).

We think our freedom is at stake; that it is under attack.

Apparently our real enemies; the ones who will decide our fate, are those who’ve risen up from the margins of the empire who now threaten to take control of everything, or at least to wield disproportionate influence as they capitalise on our collective guilt and shame at how our culture has treated those who are different. We don’t feel guilt, or shame, not in any way that manifests itself in sitting down at the table to make reparations and to reconcile, anyway. We might have changed some of our practices so we don’t do conversion therapy any more or kick out our same sex attracted children (hopefully); we celebrate celibacy for those in our community who are same sex attracted, sure, but we’re not particularly on the front foot explaining to same sex attracted folk outside our community how Jesus is the best possible news for them, and better than any desire for earthly things, including sex, we’re not particularly interested in how life in a contested, pluralist world might be safe for them. It’s not just Christians, or the last vestige of christendom/Old Testament morality that cause bullying, or discrimination, or the world to be unsafe for those who statistically, are not normal. It’s the human heart. It’s the beastly part of the human heart. We’re like chicks, who turn our beaks on the little bird in the clutch who is different, and peck at them until we feel secure, and they are broken beyond recognition.

Well. Now these marginalised folks are at the head of an army; they’ve rounded up the forces of Babylon, both the politicians, and the market forces — corporations — and they’ve brought that army to our shield wall.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

We get these bracing call to arms type blog posts on all the big Christian platforms. We get books trying to chart a strategy for the church going forward in a hostile world where our freedom is under threat.

Freedom.

Religious freedom. That’s our shtick; and partly because we so value it for ourselves, it’s one of those things, those common goods, that we want to fight for for everyone else. We tend to see ourselves as the warriors fighting the good fight for freedom on the frontline. William Wallace in a battle raging against the ‘secular’  empire. And by secular this is the sort of hard secularism that sees no place for worship, rather than secularism as ‘no religion is favoured’ pluralistic secularism.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

Only we can’t really say that. Or rather, we can’t really say that and mean it. Because our freedom is already gone. We’re already captives. When it comes to Babylon, they’re not at the gate banging on the doors using the new sexual revolution to break down the walls. We’re already captives, and have been for a long time. This stuff on sexual difference is just, perhaps, the last defence to fall before we capitulate, bend the knee to Caesar and kiss the ring. And that we don’t realise we’re already captives makes our resistance pretty pathetic and futile.

We think we’re fighting the good fight here on same sex marriage and safe schools. But the truth is, we’re already captives to Babylon in so many ways that this resistance is pathetic, and unless it leads us to seek freedom in a whole bunch of other areas where ‘Babylon’ has infiltrated, we’re in a bit of trouble.

But the other truth is that Babylon in the Bible isn’t just judgment from God (as we’ll see below); it’s opportunity. It’s an opportunity to reach people outside Israel, and outside the church. Babylon is our mission field, and always has been. And the thing that keeps us focused on the main thing — joining with God in bringing dead people to life through the Gospel — is realising that we’re in Babylon, not Israel, that our neighbours are facing death for rejecting God, and that we’ll be part of God inviting them out of Babylon into a new kind of citizenship.

If we really want to resist Babylon in order to be part of winsomely calling people from death to life, there’s a whole lot of stuff we might need to free ourselves from first. We have to figure out how we’re distinct from Babylon (or should be) in order to reach Babylon with the Gospel (oh, and we need to remember that because we’re not Jews, we’re actually converts from Babylon, Babylonians who’ve decided to follow a different king, that our job isn’t first to identify with Israel and its story, but to appreciate that because of the one faithful exile, Jesus, we are brought home to God and made citizens of something new); we also need to be clear about what ‘Babylon’ means as a metaphor in a Biblical sense (beyond the exile).

There is a sense that God’s people being scattered into Babylon is both vital for his mission to see his image bearers spread over the face of the earth (Genesis 1), and judgment for failing to do the job of being his image bearers in the world; a case of God achieving his purposes through judgment. There’s also a sense in which exile into Babylon is judgment giving people a taste of what it seems they desire — to not live like his people; it’s a purifying thing. This is where his judgment in response to the impulse at Babel — where a bunch of people didn’t scatter, but instead stayed together to build a big, central, tower — probably an ancient ‘ziggurat’ (a staircase into the heavens to make themselves gods) — fits in with his plans for the world. These people rejected his call to go into the world, they built a tower for their own name to make themselves gods ascending to the heavens, and were scattered as a result. It’s this moment, in the Biblical narrative, that creates nations like Babylon, and there’s some pretty interesting historical ties between Babel and Babylon, so that in the first century, the historian, Josephus, says:

“The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion”

The Babylonian captivity of Israel

When Israel was carted off into exile in Babylon the first time around, what got them there, what got them in trouble, was they were already Babylonian at heart before the armies arrived. They were captivated by Babylon before they were captives in Babylon.

They’d already rejected God, and what should have been their distinctives as his people, and they’d turned to idols instead.

They’d signed up with their hearts, and exile was a case of them becoming what they loved. In the book of Ezekiel we get an explanation read by people in Exile about why they’re in exile in the form of the words of the prophet who warned them what was coming.

There’s this scene where a group of Israel’s leaders rock up to Ezekiel to ask him what God says, and it turns out they’re in trouble because they’ve ‘set up idols in their hearts’ — abominations one might say… it turns out they’ve already deserted God. They’re already captives in this sense, even if the physical takeover is not yet complete (though it is for the first readers of Ezekiel)…

 When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’ — Ezekiel 14:4-5

The heart reality, the ‘Babylonian captivity’, is going to become the real deal though.

“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because you people have brought to mind your guilt by your open rebellion, revealing your sins in all that you do—because you have done this, you will be taken captive.

“‘You profane and wicked prince of Israel, whose day has come, whose time of punishment has reached its climax, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Take off the turban, remove the crown. It will not be as it was: The lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low. A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it.’ — Ezekiel 21:24-27

Exile is a judgment from God on those whose hearts have already gone from him; those who are already captives. The end of this Babylonian exile, according to Ezekiel, is the restoration of the crown to a rightful king of Israel. That’s Jesus. This restoration would also include a restoration of the heart, and a return from exile.

 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” — Ezekiel 36:25-28

The first Babylonian captivity of the Church

The ‘Babylon’ of Revelation is, first, Rome. It’s the Babylon Israel are still enthralled by; to the extent that when Jesus came, they joined the Romans in executing him. Israel is still in exile, they don’t have new hearts, and they haven’t recognised God’s king. They’re part of this Babylonian kingdom. It’s a picture of a beastly kingdom that has set itself up in total opposition to the kingdom of God. The kingdom we see launched by the death and resurrection of King Jesus. It’s a kingdom whose values are both the opposite of Jesus’ values, and that are so totalising, coherent, and integrated, that once you let just one bit creep into your heart, it’s a trojan horse that lowers your ability to fight the rest. When John starts describing ‘Babylon’ in Revelation he paints this vivid picture of a powerful and beautiful woman who rides a beast, and seductively takes people away from God:

The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

Babylon the great

the mother of prostitutes

and of the abominations of the earth.

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. — Revelation 17:4-6

This isn’t some mystery where we need a decoder ring, or to get in touch with our inner Nostradamus…

“The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” — Revelation 17:18

For John, in his day, this is a description of Rome. Rome who loomed large as the totalising persecutor of Christians, but also as a compelling, integrated and coherent picture of civilisation; where order was kept and maintained and the seduction of beauty and power was never far away from the stick of its military. The carrot and stick of Rome were the threat to Christians aiming to maintain their distinction as citizens of heaven who bow the knee to Jesus, not Caesar, so we have a little exchange between governor Pliny and Emperor Trajan where Pliny is trying to figure out what to do with the Christians, and Trajan says “if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.” And this lure, which caught Israel, also threatens the church — when John opens Revelation by directly speaking to the churches who first read this apocalyptic (revealing) text; that showed the real lay of the land, he warns the churches ‘not to forsake their first love’, not to be lured by Jezebels and the promises of false worship, not to become ‘lukewarm’ because of their own economic might within the empire… people in the church are in danger of forsaking Jesus and ending up in judgment, in Babylon.Everyone is an exile — you’re just either exiled from God, or from the beastly Babylon. Whatever happens their lives are lived in the physical reality of Babylon. They’re not home. And they’re treated like exiles too, by the world. The church is facing persecution for not bending the knee to Caesar.

Escaping persecution was so simple. You just had to sign up, totally, to the empire. To give in to Rome; to the empire; to Babylon; was to become an abomination; to become “children of the mother of the abominations of the earth.” Now this is pretty strong language, and for a long time the church has got itself in a spot of bother by using versions of the Bible that seem to single out sexual sin as the only sort of ‘abomination’ and abomination as a particularly insidious different type of sin. All sin is fundamentally an abomination to God. Stuff we might give a hall pass to out there in the public square — like greed — but also stuff we’re thoroughly conscripted into and captivated by as Christians — like lust, gluttony, and, umm, greed.

An ‘abomination’ was something put in the place reserved for God — in the Temple, at the altar, but also, fundamentally, in our hearts. An abomination is anything you replace God with. It’s the thing that turns us, as it conscripts us and deforms our behaviours (and so the image we bear in the world), in such a way that we become more like Frankenstein than human. We become vaguely human, in terms of what God’s kingdom looks like. The whole Roman enterprise — though much of it looked beautiful, ordered, and admirable — was built on an abominable rejection of God as God and Jesus as king.

When the Maccabees revolted against the Seleucid Empire (a hellenic kingdom), they were motivated, in part, by that empire fulfilling what they thought were Daniel’s prophecies about the abomination that causes desolation. It was all about God’s temple, and the altar, and the purity of whole-hearted worship that Israel was able to offer to God. So 1 Maccabees describes this abominable moment:

Now on the fifteenth day of [the month] Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah — 1 Maccabees 1:54

This sacrilege is later described as an abomination.

… that they had torn down the abomination that he had erected on the altar in Jerusalem; and that they had surrounded the sanctuary with high walls as before, and also Beth-zur, his town. — 1 Maccabees 6:7 

The Romans, when they destroy Jerusalem in 70AD, build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Temple. And some believe this is what the ultimate abomination Rome is going to carry out looks like. It’s abominable, no doubt.

But I think the ultimate abomination was what Rome — and ‘captive’ Israel — did to God’s ultimate temple. They executed him; utterly rejecting his rule; holding up a mirror to what the beastly kingdom looks like against the face of God’s king. The great irony is that this is where king Jesus is enthroned and his kingdom begins — the kingdom that would ultimately be the undoing of Roman rule and the downfall of the Caesars (if you take the long term view, and of course, the eternal view). We repeat the abomination that causes desolation whenever we put anything but God in the place of supremacy in our hearts — we were made to bear the image of God; to be walking ‘temples’ for whatever it is we worship (the things we love and serve).

The church’s job, according to Revelation, is to bear faithful witness in Babylon as people distinct from Babylon because we bend the knee to a different king — the king described in Revelation 1 who brings the kingdom described in Revelation 21-22, after Babylon is destroyed. In the meantime we’re to be faithful witnesses (see the letters to the churches at the start of Revelation), who call Babylon to repent; who speak truth to power; even to the point of sharing in Babylon’s treatment of our king. Or, as Revelation 11 puts it, when talking about the faithful ‘lampstands’ (which is what the churches are depicted at in the start of the book):

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

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

Avoiding ‘Babylonian Captivity’ in the early church

Avoiding Babylonian Captivity after Jesus is a matter of right worship; it’s a matter of being part of the return from exile promised in Ezekiel (and because we’re not Jews, most of us, a return from the exile where we’re humanity was kicked out of Eden). It’s a matter of participation in God’s kingdom, the church, following his king, Jesus, and having him rule our hearts via the Spirit; a removing of the ‘abomination’ of false gods that rule our hearts.

The point is — it’s not sexual sin per say that is the ‘abomination’ (it’s a form of it), it’s idolatry. It’s the participation in worship of things other than God, through undifferentiated participation in kingdoms that are not God’s. It’s captivity. And the thing about Babylon, ‘the mother of abominations’ is that it’s not just sex that captivates us and so makes us captive; it’s not just the ‘sexual revolution’ that aims to restrict our freedom… there’s politics (power), and economics (money), and philosophy/wisdom (education and a vision of the good life) in the mix too.

Early Christians, knowing what was at stake, were more William Wallace like in their ability to avoid this sort of captivity. They refused. They maintained a distinction that included sexual fidelity, and an approach to marriage that was counter cultural in the Roman world, but it included much more than this. Here’s a passage from a second century document called the Letter to Diognetus. It’s about how the Christians avoid being caught up in the trappings of Babylon.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.

They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead.

The writer of this letter says some other stuff too, including this passage on the stupidity of the idolatry of ‘Babylon’ from earlier in the piece…

“Are they not all deaf? Are they not all blind? Are they not without life? Are they not destitute of feeling? Are they not incapable of motion? Are they not all liable to rot? Are they not all perishable?

You call these things gods! You serve them! You worship them! And you become exactly like them.

It’s for this reason you hate the Christians, because they do not consider these to be gods.”

This is what it looks like to really fight for freedom — to be poor and make many rich, to be lowly, dishonoured, without power, marginalised, but to bless, honour, and do good. To be sexually distinct, to share a common table, to be living a different story because we follow a different king.

Getting out of Babylon now (or getting Babylon out of the church)

I look at how we play politics as the church and feel like there’s not a huge amount of difference to how politics get played by other ‘religious’ groups. The politics of power, of zero sum games where it’s our way or nothing. The politics of picking the people who best represent our views, rather than the people most qualified for the job. We try to play politics with everyone else, we’re just not very good at it (bizarrely, perhaps, because other people have cottoned on quicker that we’re more shaped by our loves than by ‘knowing the facts’, and so they tell better stories).

I look at how I approach money, and career, and security, and experience, and toys, and I think that there’s not much difference in my approach to consuming and my pursuit of luxury, than anyone else in my life (except perhaps that I earn slightly less because of career choices, but this just means I crave slightly more in an unrequited way).

It’s not just about sexual difference, this Babylon thing — though that is important, and our marriages should be rich testimonies to the love of Jesus, and we should love and nurture our kids. And we should fight the temptation to sexual immorality and the corrupting of our imaginations by a ‘sexular society’… but there has to be much more than that in our kit bag.

If we want to be people who aren’t captives, people who live as though ‘every land is like a homeland’ and a ‘land of strangers’ we need to be people who are so caught up in the vision of a kingdom greater than Babylon and a sense of certainty that our future is greater than the present, and the past. That the picture of life in Revelation 21-22 doesn’t just surpass Babylon, or Rome, but Eden.

This will mean a totally different approach to politics that is not wedded to a sort of conservatism where we’re trying to restore paradise lost (and end up building Rome)but a progressivism that shoots for the kingdom of heaven — the kingdom we are citizens of even now.

This will mean, in some corners of the world, divorcing ourselves from worldly political establishments (and not shooting for a wedding with any particular political party here in Australia).

This will mean we don’t seek to be at the centre of the empire culturally, or politically, or economically — to be at the centre would require the ’empire’ being at the centre of our hearts — an ‘abomination’ and a form of captivity… like Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. We won’t seek to be at the centre, but nor will we seek to be at the margins to the extent that we don’t participate in life with our neighbours. But we do need to be close enough to those at the margins to bless the people there, hear the people there, and be champions for the bringing about of change for the benefit of those Babylon treads on. Our distinctives on these fronts are to be prophetic and the noticeable and part of our appeal (think Daniel in Babylon).

This will mean listening to voices from the global church, from marginalised communities (from people who aren’t white blokes with multiple university degrees).

This will mean a totally different approach to economics. When John describes the downfall of Babylon he describes it with reference to its material prosperity — its luxury — and in terms of the downfall of a worldly economy built on the powerful controlling the goods of this world for their own benefit (and at the expense of other people — like those sold as slaves (Revelation 18:11-13) — and of the world itself which John says is “corrupted by her adulteries” (Revelation 19:2-3). The Babylon lost when God judges is not just built on sexual excess (though that is part of the picture), but on economic and political excess — a beastly and abominable approach to God’s world created by the worship of these things in the place of God. This sort of idol worship is totalising

This will mean a different approach to arts, and culture, and storytelling. The appeal of Babylon, in any form, rests in its counter-gospel and the way its gods are dressed up as appealing counterfeits to the real God. It’s no coincidence that even the word Gospel is ‘Babylonian’ (in the Roman sense); the proclamation of the marvellous victories of king Caesar. We need to be people who proclaim a different king in ways that call people to worship the one who ends our exile from God; the one who brings us out of captivity.

This will mean a different approach to personhood, discipleship, and education, that doesn’t see us just as solitary brains to be educated towards sanctification, but worshippers whose worship is cultivated in the ‘heart’, by practices, by stories, and in community where we follow our king by imitating him together, and show and reinforce our distinctive ‘story’ together.

This will mean a different approach to being the church. One that is not defensive or inwards looking, but that cultivates hearts that in looking to the king, and his way of life, joyfully and hopefully look to the lost sheep in our world; those crushed by worldly kingdoms, and offer them good news. Our practices and disciplines and the rhythms of our life together should, like the church from the Letter to Diognetus, be aimed at ‘making many rich’…  There are plenty of people at the margins of our society where the gospels of our ‘Babylons’ are exclusionary. Get an education; get a job; buy a house; collect experiences; be ‘free’… there are people for whom this vision of the good life is a millstone pulling them into depths of despair, not a picture of freedom at all. These are the people the freedom of the Gospel is for, and yet we spend our time hand wringing because the ‘elites’ don’t like us.

Babylon is a totalising system that aims for all of us — our desires, imaginations, beliefs, belonging, and actions… much as the Kingdom of God is a totalising system in a totally counter-Babylon, counter-Rome, way. These are where some of my misgivings about Christendom as an enterprise historically are located… we like to think the church civilised the barbarian empire… and in many ways we did… but we’re not so aware of the ways that this also allowed the empire to barbarianise the Church… and this was part of what Luther was getting at, in the Reformation he launched of the ‘Roman Church’ in a text like The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This is the scale of the challenges we’re facing as the church now, and it might not be the Benedict Option that gets us to where we need to be, but we don’t really have the option of not changing if we’re already captivated by the trinkets and baubles of Babylon and just waiting for the last little bit of resistance to crumble while we fight for ‘religious freedom’… we need to fight for religious freedom, certainly, but more than that we need to fight to be free from abominable religions that pull our hearts from God.

When Luther described his task of pulling the church out of what he perceived to be a Babylonian captivity, he recognised how hard this would be because the captivity was so entrenched by the traditions of the church…

“I am entering on an arduous task, and it may perhaps be impossible to uproot an abuse which, strengthened by the practice of so many ages, and approved by universal consent, has fixed itself so firmly among us, that the greater part of the books which have influence at the present day must needs be done away with, and almost the entire aspect of the churches be changed, and a totally different kind of ceremonies be brought in, or rather, brought back. But my Christ lives, and we must take heed to the word of God with greater care, than to all the intellects of men and angels. I will perform my part, will bring forth the subject into the light, and will impart the truth freely and ungrudgingly as I have received it.” — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Like many things, Luther saw the corruption of the way church was happening — removed from truths of the Gospel — as the work of Satan, work achieved through idolatry (any worship without Jesus); he says where we lose our centre — faith in Christ — we end up in judgment,  “removed from our own land, as into bondage at Babylon, and all that was dear to us has been taken from us.”

In this our misery Satan so works among us that, while he has left nothing of the mass to the Church, he yet takes care that every corner of the earth shall be full of masses, that is, of abuses and mockeries of the testament of God; and that the world shall be more and more heavily loaded with the gravest sins of idolatry, to increase its greater damnation. For what more grievous sin of idolatry can there be, than to abuse the promises of God by our perverse notions, and either neglect or extinguish all faith in them. — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

We need to be prepared to change; we, the church, need to acknowledge where we are captives, and we need to be prepared to reform. It’s a big deal, and it’s about much more than what goes on in our bedrooms.

“But you will say: “What? will you ever overthrow the practices and opinions which, for so many centuries, have rooted themselves in all the churches and monasteries; and all that superstructure of anniversaries, suffrages, applications, and communications, which they have established upon the mass, and from which they have drawn the amplest revenues?” I reply: It is this which has compelled me to write concerning the bondage of the Church. For the venerable testament of God has been brought into a profane servitude to gain, through the opinions and traditions of impious men, who have passed over the Word of God, and have set before us the imaginations of their own hearts, and thus have led the world astray. What have I to do with the number or the greatness of those who are in error?”

7 Types of speech that are more important than free speech for a civil society (and 2 for our role in it as Christians)

We’re told free speech is dead. And that the Coopers fiasco killed it (or revealed it to be dead, but let’s not get technical when making hyperbolic and overreaching claims).

But I don’t buy it. What we’re seeing in the rise of boycotts, no platforming, protests, and online outrage are exercises of free speech. Effective ones. So loud they drown out other positions.

Civil discourse relies on more than just free speech. Free speech means, essentially, that I am able to cover my ears and yell ‘la, la, la’ when I don’t like what you are saying. My children often exercise free speech in our household, and that doesn’t make for a more civil domestic situation.

Image: If there’s one guy who knows the cost of ‘free speech’ it’s Cicero. Who was executed and whose tongue was nailed to the rostra in the Roman forum, because of a series of speeches he wrote against Mark Antony. This painting depicts his arrest.

When we overreach in response to speech we don’t like what we’re revealing is just how good we’ve had it for so long. Our ideas; our positions; as Christians, have been the default. And it turns out they’ve been costly for people who don’t share them. And it turns out that part of the age we live in is that ideas are contested now. There are no sacred cows anymore. There are no ‘defaults’… at the moment it feels like the loudest voices are the ones that are winning, and we’re in trouble because we’ve been the loudest, freest voice for so long (did you know, for example, that the Bible Society is Australia’s oldest institution), and people are tired not just of listening to us, but of the way we exercise our freedom to speak without exercising a bunch of other civic virtues.

Free speech won’t, and can’t, secure a civil society. It’s part of it. But I’d argue a civil society is not where everyone yells at the top of their voices and the loudest voice wins; it’s one where all voices are listened to, and as many as possible are accommodated into the way it operates. This is what I mean when I use the word ‘pluralism’ — not that every voice is treated as true, but that every voice is listened to, and where the convictions are coherent, robust, and freely form a community of people within our society, those voices should be accommodated. Because that’s just — if I expect my views, and my community, to be accommodated, then I should extend that to others.

Seven types of speech more important than free speech for a civil society

Here’s a bunch of types of speech, built on the bedrock of free speech, that we need for a civil society. I’d suggest that free speech isn’t actually dead. What’s dead is a common commitment to these concepts as virtues, and it’s a mistake to lump them in all together to claim ‘free speech is over’… Most of these ‘types’ are explained with reference to how you get there from the Bible (cause most of the people who read this will be Christian, probably), but I think they’re pretty basic virtues for a civil society apart from Christianity too; it’s not that we’ve got a monopoly on civility, we do, however, have no excuse to be uncivil because it just doesn’t mesh with who we are as people who follow Jesus.

1/ Slow speech

Were you shocked by how many people talking about the Coopers stuff hadn’t even watched the video that started it (from both sides). One of the pubs boycotting Coopers admitted that they hadn’t watched it, but they were still prepared to grab the metaphorical pitchfork and head towards the large burning beer bottle.

We love a good hot take. A call to arms. The idea that our words might make a difference. Social media and clicktivism feed this. We feel like we’ve done something by clicking a link, or a virtual petition. We especially love hot takes that come from people we trust; from our ‘camp’… that’s why fake news has become so powerful, it’s always aligned to an ideology, and people like to be fed stuff that tells us what we already think. Algorithm driven social media platforms like Facebook feed this because they calculate what to serve up to us based on a growing sense of what we’re interested in. They feed us according to our self-interest. And that becomes a bit of a shortcut. Talk isn’t just cheap online; it costs nothing once you’ve got an internet connection. Media has been ‘democratised’… you’re a publisher. And we don’t just love a good hot take, we love being the first to share it in our circles, we love the likes and the acclamation (like old media loves good circulation numbers)… We also have FOMO (the fear of missing out). If there’s a bandwagon and it’s rolling and turning into some sort of juggernaut, we don’t want to miss out. So we don’t really have time to read and digest things (even the stuff we agree with, let alone other opinions), we just share stuff that we think lines up with some fundamental convictions about the world.

Ironically, the verse from James (in the Bible) that was used in that video is a good circuit breaker for outrage (with additional principles for ‘civil society’ for Christians).

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. — James 1:19-20

Just a few verses later, James also says:

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 1:26-27

2/ Loving speech

It’s pretty self-evident that you can use free speech to be a total jerk. And a bunch of people doing that makes society uncivil, not civil. Some of the points that follow are expanding on the idea that our speech should be loving if we want it to be worthwhile. Indeed, many of them are expanding on this verse.

 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. — Ephesians 4:15

The literal sense of the Greek word translated  ‘speaking the truth’ is ‘truthing in love…’ — there’s more than just speech in view. It certainly includes speech, and where Paul goes next in his argument talks about the types of speech that lead to a civil community (at this point he’s looking at the church). He says:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. — Ephesians 4:29-32

It’s not good enough just to have free speech, if we want a civil society our speech also needs to be loving.

This is all well and good within a community where identity is shared, and reinforced, as we speak to one another. But it should also frame how we speak with people outside our communities. We’ve too often traded loving speech for malicious speech (and by we I mean everyone, not just Christians), and that is a vicious cycle. A cycle of vice. A reinforcing feedback loop.

3/ Understanding speech

The sort of speech a civil society requires involves understanding one another. This carries a few things with it… it involves listening to others, it involves interpreting with charity so that when you respond, you’re actually understanding what the other person is saying, thinking, desiring, and experiencing. This involves cultivating empathy, and listening hard to people who disagree with us. It involves speaking with clarity, when we do speak, so that we to are understood — even if when we are understood people disagree with us still.

It’s very possible that we will never be understood; that the people we are speaking to will not be committed to this idea. But that doesn’t mean we should stop pursuing this ideal.

I think Jesus models this over and over again, in every conversation. He understands the pharisees, and the traps they’re trying to catch him in, and the state of their hearts, and where the story is going. He also understands the people he heals, protects, calls, and saves. He understands the deep desires that the woman at the well has, and why she’s at the well by herself in the heat of the day, and what she’s looking for in her relationships with the men of the town. He understands why the prostitute who washes his feet with perfume, tears, and her hair, is doing what she is doing. He understands what is happening at his trial, and how Pilate wants an easy out, and he doesn’t give it to him.

But I’m not Jesus. Lots of his understanding comes from unspoken stuff and the ability to pierce the hearts and minds of others… I don’t have that. I think we can be a bit more like Paul, who observes the rhythms of a city, listens to its people, reads the philosophers and poets underpinning the society, and speaks in a way that shows he knows what is going down… he gets laughed at by most, but he has done the work of understanding Athens before he opens his mouth in Acts 17 (and in other moments like when he’s on trial).

4/ Space-giving speech

There’s been a whole lot of boycotting and no-platforming going on lately. Especially in universities. We’ve decided that one of the best ways to use free speech is to stop other people speaking as our own speech-act. And we’ve realised that it’s more efficient to simply close down opportunities for people to speak from platforms we control, than it is to shout over the top of them. To no platform someone is to make a statement about the value of what they say, as we perceive it. It’s an act of speech but not an act of understanding.

Churches have been doing this for years. We have a platform. It’s often called a pulpit. We also have buildings. Most churches I know have policies about who they’ll let into the pulpit, and most churches I know who own buildings have limitations on the sorts of people they’ll allow to hire the venue and the activities that happen there. This is free speech — and it’s fine for us when it’s stuff we control… so I’m not sure we are in a position to make loud angry noises when our access to spaces we don’t control is cut off.

People who have websites/blogs do this too. I have a comment policy. I limit spam (though that is a form of free speech), and once or twice I’ve blocked comments I thought were malicious or slanderous. We also, rightly, have censorship laws, defamation laws, and other ways that we limit free speech for the good of the general population.

If we’re committed to free speech, we need to be committed to carving out space (physical and virtual) to speak from. It might be that it has been a bad strategic move for so many churches to now meet in space they do not own. One of the benefits of a freeish public square (especially a public square not controlled by the state) has been that the need for ‘temples’ for various ideas has dropped. We don’t need space for every club or society if they can hire a room at the library, or book the town hall… one of the costs of a fragmenting society will be a return to those sorts of ‘temples’ for different associations (including churches). That will be a financial cost, but it will also come at the cost of space being public and porous. People will have to decide to go into a ‘temple’ — a non-public space — and the people who are part of those temples will have to decide to leave and to listen to other ideas. Temples will become bunkers (except for polytheists). Churches could become bunkers too.

And when you get ‘bunkers’ you get stuff like fake news, and echo chambers, and a lack of empathy and understanding for the other. You stop getting a ‘civil society’ and start getting a tribal one.

I think we need to go further though. If we’re committed to free speech, we need to be committed to giving space to people who don’t share ideas, definitely in common places like universities and public venues (and arguably within laws and legal structures and how we define words like marriage). This is where the pluralism stuff really kicks in. We need ways to be different and clear in our speaking so that we might be understood, but we also need space for other people to speak too.This is why I loved this idea from the ABC’s Religion and Ethics guru Scott Stephens:

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.”

And why I think we should stop spending so much time as Christians building web space (TGC, Thinking Of God, etc) and physical space (church buildings with exclusive use policies) that reinforce the bubble. And start being generous space givers to other ideas, confident that truth wins, and our truth is true. This doesn’t always work. The podcast from the US called The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea shows that when other people aren’t committed to the same sort of civil society they’ll do their best to shut you down. But you don’t fight incivility with more incivility. And you don’t go into public space as Christians expecting anything other than crucifixion.

5/ Ethical speech

For speech to contribute something valuable to civil society it has to have a more civil society as its end; not just the self-interest of the speaker. Back when people were figuring out the power of human speech to persuade, and what limits should be put on that power if unscrupulous speakers were running around manipulating people by being super-persuasive, there was lots of ink spilled by philosophers and orators like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian on how to control the power of free speech for the good of society. There were lots of speakers who were great with words and fancy arguments (logos), that stirred the emotions (pathos), and moved people through fine sounding arguments to hold positions that weren’t good for them (but usually beneficial for the orator or whoever was paying the orator). The pen — or word — really was mightier than the sword.

These philosophers valued integrity, character, and virtue — and the sense that ideal speech both comes out of an ideal, virtuous, person, and shapes an ideal, virtuous, society. They often also wrote books on politics, and ethics, and oratory was the path to their vision of the good, well-ordered, ethical society. This worked best if they embodied the picture of the good, well ordered, society, and that created a sort of obligation underpinning speech. Speech wasn’t just ‘free’ — it wasn’t enough just to use flashy words that excited people and evoked an emotional response (though that is part of oratory) the control was your ethics. You didn’t just need free speech and the free exchange of ideas to produce a civil society. You needed speech shaped by action that shaped actions. You needed ethos. Character. You speech needed to line up with your actions, or pull you towards certain future actions if you were talking about a wrong you had noticed in yourself or others.

We’ve always, as humans, hated hypocrisy. And a civil society is one where people’s actions and words line up. Where our words oblige us to a certain sort of action. Where we say ‘tolerance’ and mean it. The apostle John puts the relationship with words and actions like this (and, on the whole, in this letter is making the case that our actions, and the experience of God’s love in them reinforces our speaking about the Gospel so that we can believe).

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

6/ Costly speech

This ethical speech idea underpins the idea that speech should actually be costly. Talk should never be so cheap that it doesn’t also involve action. You are the medium for your message. If we are ‘worshippers’ you are actually the medium for the gods we worship (be it sex, or Jesus, or any other thing we love ultimately). We are the model ‘citizens’ of the civil society we hope to see our neighbours live in (whether or not they worship the same thing as us).

The catch is, for Christians, our God is a crucified God. The message we speak is one that says love looks like self-sacrifice, but also that this way of living, exclusively, is the path to the true God. And people aren’t always going to like that. And, just as they killed Jesus for saying that other gods and kings (and god-kings, like Caesar) were false and that belief in them is totally permissible, but foolish, people will probably want to crucify us, even if we get our approach to speaking totally right. Aiming for a civil society doesn’t guarantee one, cause the barbarian impulse is strong in all of us. We do want, as humans, to tear down other societies when they do threaten us, or when we feel like they do.

As Christians the cost of living out our message — incarnating it, even — is that we’ll probably end up like Jesus. Or, as this quote I love puts it:

Incarnation means that God enables divinity to embody humanity.  Christians, like Jesus, are God’s incarnations, God’s temples, tabernacling in human flesh (John 1:14; Phil. 2:3-8).  Christians, spiritually transformed into the image of God, carry out God’s ministry in God’s way. Frequently incarnationalists relate to seekers from other world religions personally and empathetically (as Jesus taught Nicodemus).  Sometimes, however, they declare God’s social concerns by shaking up the status quo and “cleaning out the temple.”  The end result of incarnation in a non-Christian world is always some form of crucifixion.” — Gailyn Van Rheenen, Engaging Trends in Missions, 2004

I expect to be crucified — whether that’s laughed at, excluded, or anything up to execution, the goal of loving, costly, ethical, understanding speech for me is not just that in doing so I’ll definitely persuade everyone (though hopefully it’ll persuade some). My goal is that something like what happened at the cross will happen. That the person, or people, responsible for my pain, will, in inflicting it, see something true about what I’m saying and wrong about what they’re doing. That they’ll have a centurion moment.

My optimism is simply that God works through weakness and crucifixion. Which is the same optimism Paul brought to Corinth, a city obsessed with uncostly, unethical speech. Corinth loved flashy, substanceless, oratory that made them feel good about themselves and never questioned the status quo. Paul brought the message of the cross. In word, deed, and posture. And then wrote stuff to the Corinthians about their expectations (and his), stuff like:

“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” — 2 Corinthians 2:15-16

And:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” — 2 Corinthians 4:7-11

His goal in doing this in Athens, where he was mocked (but some were saved), and in Corinth, where even people in the church thought he could’ve been a more impressive speaker, was that in ‘becoming all things to all people,’ even a slave, he might win some to the truth.

Society more generally would be better, I think, if people weren’t hypocrites but were committed to the idea that our words create obligation. It’d bring an end to clicktivism, and we might see Kony in chains, research for motoneuron disease fully funded, and a bunch of other substantial changes in the world around us.

 

7/ True speech

A civil society is built around a shared pursuit of truth. That’s why civil societies have libraries, universities, and education systems. These often become weaponised in ideological wars. But truth matters. Pursuing it matters. Listening for it is a good thing.

One of the biggest problems with the idea that free speech is what really matters is that it’s exactly the line used by perpetuators of fake news, or people who are spreading untruths who have that brought into question (think the anti-vax movement).

True speech is better than free speech, and more costly. It costs time, attention, energy, listening, wisdom, critical self-reflection, awareness of bias (and privilege), observations of structural, cultural, and individual power at work in our truth-seeking institutions, and a bunch of stuff most of us just can’t be bothered with.

People like Augustine, ages ago, recognised that all truth is God’s truth, and his vision of a civil society, built from his confidence that the Gospel is true, meant he really valued education. And his writing, and practice, on education has shaped much of the way the church has been, historically, involved in providing a liberal arts (wide) education to as many people as possible, not just a theological education. Maybe it’s time we rediscovered this  — first the value of knowing about things beyond just what will get us a job and beyond the things we think simply because of our prior convictions (theological or a-theological), and then the value of getting the sort of education that threatens us and gets us to read beyond our circles.

Two types of speech for Christians within our society

These are all more important for a truly civil society than just free speech, free speech is like a gun. You can give it to people, but unless you model how to use it, it’s dangerous.

1/ Prayerful speech

It’s not just opening our mouths and speaking to the world that should create in us a sense of obligation, and reflect our ethic (how we live). Prayer does this too, but ‘vertically’ not just horizontally. Christians who are worried about our place in the world need to keep reminding ourselves whose world it really is, and whose we really are. And we do that through prayer. Prayer reminds us that God is real, and as we pray that his kingdom might come (because his king has come and the kingdom is launched in the church), that shapes a particular way of living for us. Prayer is a vital part of how we’re going to go about creating a more civil society in the church. A society that models something different and compelling to the world around us.

If we think we’ve got it bad, Paul says:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. — 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

And he says something similar reflecting on his situation where the state has put him in prison for his faith…

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” — Ephesians 6:18-20

Without ceasing… continually. We’d be better users of speech in the public square if we were doing more of this I reckon… Also. If we want to speak meaningfully into the public square, it pays to keep Paul’s advice at the front of our minds too. The government he’s asking for prayer for is a hostile government… ours isn’t that yet, but it could be, and even if it is… this is the sort of speech he urges us towards.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people —  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. — 1 Timothy 2:1-4

2/ Gospel speech

Oh great, you’re thinking, here’s the Jesus bit. I’ve been banging this drum for a while, but the reason to do all nine types of ‘civil’ speech outlined here is that we are citizens of a very different kind of civil society; a society built by the good news of Jesus — a message we heard about God’s great love for us despite our unloveliness. A society that ‘truthing in loves’ that good news to the people around us; in word and deed. The Gospel is the thing that should be shaping our ethos and our logos and our pathos. The words we speak, the lives we live, and the things we feel (like how we deal with fear and the threat of a changing world) all display what we think the Gospel (the good news) is. We all become the medium for what we think is true about the world, God, and life in the world.

If we live and speak the Gospel coherently it encourages people who already believe the Gospel to keep on keeping on, even in the face of danger and adversity. This is part of why Paul’s life — and chains — are actually an encouragement, rather than a discouragement, to the church. We serve a crucified king, and God’s power is displayed in weakness and its critique of uncivil, barbarous, societies.

The Gospel is good news because the society it creates is not exclusive in the way all other ‘gospels’ are. Think about what the average Aussie thinks ‘the good life’ looks like, and then ask how accessible that vision is for the poor, the widowed, the oppressed, the refugee, the broken, the depressed, the fragile, the homeless, the uneducated, the addicted… the Gospel is actually good news for lots of people in our world, even if the elite in our society want to paint it as a terrible and oppressive thing. Their visions of the good life are terrible and depressing.We have the words of eternal life, that create a civil society that is life bringing and inclusive. Words that create love, forgiveness, and mercy for our neighbours, fellow Christians, and even our enemies; not words that create outrage, boycotts, hate speech and lynch mobs.

Things feel like they’re really bad… the sort of bad Paul talks about in 2 Timothy 3-4. And I’m just going to leave this here… because it has what Paul suggests is how we should respond to this sort of world; the sort of speech we should be exercising.

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth… 

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. — 2 Timothy 3:1-7, 10-4:5

The Light Beer Apocalypse: 9 things a viral video reveals about the world

This week a Christian organisation, The Bible Society, hosted a civil conversation featuring political disagreement between two members of the political party who, at least in the short term, will be the people who determine the future of marriage in Australia. It featured some cross promotion with Aussie beer company, Coopers, who were going to release some special edition beers in support of the Bible Society’s 200 year anniversary. And the world exploded. Coopers backflipped on the deal. It’s a real brewhaha (sic).

Disclosure: I write for the Bible Society’s Eternity Newspaper. They’ve paid me for some stuff. I like them. I like the video (though I think it has some issues). I know the host, and like him. I think public civility is really important. 

You’d be forgiven, reading the response pieces around the Christian blogosphere (and the outraged responses in comments sections and the Coopers Brewery Facebook page) for thinking that the world as we know it is ending (or has ended), and that we find ourselves in some sort of (un)brave new world. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but I do think this episode is truly apocalyptic.

apocalypse (n.)
late 14c., “revelation, disclosure,” from Church Latin apocalypsis “revelation,” from Greek apokalyptein “uncover, disclose, reveal”

An apocalyptic text doesn’t really describe the ‘end of the world’ (not primarily), it reveals the world as it truly is. And that’s what has happened this week; the discussion around this video has been revealing both when it comes to the church, as we speak about issues our world disagrees with (and about our expectations about speech), and about our part of the world and its religiosity. Because what’s going on is really a clash between religious views of the world. A clash between the religious, the irreligious, and those who are fundamentally religious without realising it.

The religion of a section of the Australian left treats heretics with the same sort of sympathy that the church has, historically (when the church has been closely linked to the state and able to punish with the full force of the law); which is to say it seeks their utter destruction. Just ask Coopers (or read the one star reviews on their Facebook page, and see the pubs that are moving to quickly distance themselves from the company). And the thing about these moments of revelation is that they’re actually ‘apocalyptic’ in a true sense; they pull the curtain back and reveal the world as it really is, and give us a sense of the future as it could be. Stephen McAlpine’s posts on this story are worth a look (yesterday’s, and today’s), and ultimately his conclusions from the wash-up today look a bit like mine. Only I’m more hopefully optimistic about things than he is.

The conversation itself featured two politicians — a gay agnostic, and a Christian conservative. These white blokes trotted out well worn arguments for and against a change to the definition of  marriage in Australia over a light beer in a product crossover that has copped some flack. What was remarkable was that they were attempting to model civil debate, that they listened and disagreed respectfully. What is even more remarkable is what the fallout reveals about the end of the world as we know it. Twitter went nuts. Coopers was flooded with one star reviews on its Facebook page, accusations of homophobia (for a video they didn’t make, that featured a gay man who will potentially be the most effective advocate for marriage equality if the Lib/Nats move towards a free vote), and boycotts from individuals and pubs. Coopers released three statements; one in favour of dialogue on the issue, one distancing themselves from the video, and a third and final statement capitulating and signing up as paid up members of the marriage equality movement. They’re also pulling the release of the Bible verse beers… the Bible Society has been criticised for featuring two liberal MPs, but this criticism seems to miss the point that only Liberal MPs think this issue is possible to discuss anymore…

Personally, I’m tired of the idea that marriage is a zero sum game; that we (as Christians or conservatives) can only conceive of an approach to marriage that is a binary ‘no gay marriage’ or ‘gay marriage’ — this is where most of the anger seems to be levelled at us. Why we can’t do pluralism well and figure out ways to acknowledge the religious import of traditional marriage for some Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc, and protect that for both institutions and individuals within the community, while also acknowledging the religious import of changing the marriage definition for those who do not worship a god at all, but individual freedom, is beyond me. That’s my disappointment with the ‘debate,’ and why my position is closer to Wilson’s than Hastie’s.

Here are some things I think this episode reveals about the church and the world.

1. Our failure to practice listening as Christians means later attempts at ‘civil conversation’ fall on deaf ears

In terms of revelation, this reveals a certain degree of ‘out-of-touchness’ when it comes to Christians in Australia and our sense of just how distant our assumptions are from some people around us. That this video seems quite reasonable and good to us but to others is the stench of death (and the sort of thing that certain people believe should lead to the death of Coopers). If people are shocked by the vicious outrage in response to the video it probably represents how far removed some people advocating for traditional marriage are from the lived reality of those arguing for it.

There has been a tendency in some corners of the church — some that I move in — to suggest that we do not need to listen to, or understand, those asking for same sex marriage. Our job, we’re told, is simply to speak ‘God’s truth to the world’ not to listen to sinners or understand what they want; I can point to specific examples of this in the Presbyterian Church of Australia, and I’d say a new Sydney Anglican website on same sex marriage also does this when it employs slippery slope arguments and just generally fails to listen to what people on the other side are actually asking for and why, while ‘speaking faithfully’. The Bible Society is doing something different and commendable in this video, but it can’t escape the baggage of the Christian brand at this point.

It is possible that if the church continues apparently not listening our own speech will be treated the same way by those who disagree with us (and I think that’s happening), so it was nice to have this circuit breaker that said “hey, we’re not afraid to listen to a guy who disagrees with Christians, or even to give him a platform and share his thoughts with Christians all over the country”…

Our engagement in this debate as the church has involved a failure to listen, and so our arguments always feel like non-sequiturs, or nonsense, to the ears of people who have totally different understandings of what it means to be human. From where I stand, there has not typically been much sympathy for the desires of same sex marriage supporters or their view of the world; we’ve tended to impugn the motives of those asking for it, to see a bunch of other potential changes being ‘freighted in’, to be fearful of our own place in society, and there hasn’t been a real attempt, by Christians, to grapple with how our moral vision fits in a pluralist, secular, society where many of our neighbours don’t believe in God so reject the natural law arguments we serve up (Hastie offers a conservative, natural law, argument for maintaining the traditional definition of marriage).

This means it feels like we’re not interested in listening to, or understanding our neighbours, which means it seems disingenuous for us Christians to be making the case for civil discussions of the issue now. The great irony here is that we have a Christian organisation also giving a platform to a conservative case for same sex marriage from someone who is on the record as being sympathetic for a range of religious freedom concerns. If I was a non-Christian I’d be celebrating that a Christian organisation is providing a platform for that sort of view, and a conservative Christian politician is modelling actually listening.

2. The church needs to figure out how to operate in a pluralistic world… and fast

This video from the Bible Society was a nice example of a step towards pluralism. It doesn’t actually pick a side in the marriage debate, despite what those who’ve already settled on changing the definition of marriage might tell you. If we can’t figure out how to operate in a pluralist, secular, democracy then we can expect much more of the sort of treatment Coopers got from this video. And it’s not so much Hastie’s position (though he’s a Christian) that reveals the problem here, it’s a thoroughly consistent conservative position; it’s the ongoing sense that the future of the church’s witness, or our position in society, depends in some way on how this debate goes; it’s that the video presents the options on marriage as a binary choice between legislating same sex marriage, or maintaining the conservative position. This binary lacks imagination and backs us into a corner; if we can’t advocate a generous and pluralist solution to those opposite, then we can’t very well turn around and ask them for a pluralist solution (religious freedom) if/when they win. When it comes to same sex marriage it doesn’t have to be a choice between Wilson and Hastie.

Every belief about marriage is a position derived from a type of ‘religious’ conviction (a ‘theological anthropology’ even). A belief that there is no God brings with it a certain account of who we are, and opens up a range of potential visions of ‘the good human life’ — our ‘religious beliefs’ shape our understanding of what is and isn’t good for people. For the theist, the ‘good’ is the personification of the nature of God, for the non-theist the thing that acts as ‘god’ (a sort of organising force in the world) is the deification of the ‘good’ (in the case for same sex marriage the ‘divine good’ looks like love and individual freedom). We’re not good — many of us (Tim Wilson is an exception) — at accommodating different gods, or visions of ‘the good life’ in a shared political framework.

3. We need to be slow to overreach in our reaction to the reaction, because the outrage cycle is built on perpetual overreach

It’d be a shame to over-reach though, in terms of what the reaction to this video represents for us as the church. We’d need to do a good and careful job at parsing out exactly what people are angry at, and why, and whether they’re angry at Christians speaking at all, or angry because of the way Christians have spoken out on this… and we need to ask ourselves some pretty bracing questions if it’s the latter (and I think it could be, in part because as a Christian looking at how we speak about marriage, I think we’ve often got this wrong).

The thing about the outrage cycle is that it often involves a tit-for-tat ‘hot take’ driven over-reach, and there’s not always enough time given to that careful analysis of what is happening and why (this tends to be diminished the more somebody has been developing a systemised approach to understanding something more broadly, when it’s possibly a response to ‘data’ rather than anecdote).

We might be tempted to describe this as the death of free speech in Australia. It could be. Free speech is definitely under attack from a certain section of the Australian community; and the attackers do have some politicial clout. I’ll suggest below that Christians shouldn’t be into free speech, but costly speech, anyway… but I think it’s a mistake to think that the chattering class (who can be found writing opinion pieces, blogs, and comments below the fold on these pieces) represent the whole Australian landscape. It certainly doesn’t seem to value Tim Wilson or see his perspective as one shared by those outside a particular intellectual circle.  I spoke to someone yesterday who had reached out to Tim Wilson to see how he was coping with the fallout, and he’d remarked that the outrage simply proved his point. Not everybody in this world, outside the church, finds outrage appealing (just as not everyone in the church wants to join in the outrage but from the opposite end).

It’s possible that the hardcore, reactionary left is massively over-reaching in its response to this video (and Coopers is over-reacting, and responding far too quickly in response to this over-reach). I’ve written lots about marriage and same sex marriage, I haven’t hidden my Christian convictions, and yet I manage to have pretty robust and civil conversations with gay friends, my neighbours, my friends from the left, and friends from the right. The hard left gets a disproportionate and distorting influence on certain issues (including marriage) in the Labor Party, just as the hard right gets a disproportionate influence on certain issues (including marriage) in the Liberal Party.

I do think our problems, as the church, are more about a failure to listen, a failure to do pluralism, and some problems when it comes to what we say when we speak… I don’t know many people in the real world who planned to change their beer buying habits as a result of this campaign; I don’t know many people who have the sort of spare time that allows them to fill up the comments sections on different websites, or write one star reviews. We need to be careful not to over-react, in fear, to a noisy minority (while being careful in how we engage) because that actually serves to amplify the voice and impact of the over-reachers.

4. The new religion of the secular left learned how to treat heretics from the best… the church

In the 14th century there was a guy, John Wycliffe, who dared to translate the Bible into the language of the people. The church felt like its power was threatened by this dissenter. Sadly he died before they could kill him. So the church dug up his body and burned him. In the 16th century there was a guy named Servetus; his teaching was heretical and considered dangerous. Calvin reluctantly worked with the government of Geneva to have him executed. When religion co-opts political power, bad things happen to ‘heretics’… the state religion destroys them. The state hasn’t destroyed Coopers in this case (and the future of Coopers remains to be seen), but the treatment of the company, and its business, at the hands of their critics looked a lot like a witch hunt, a lynching, or a heresy purge. It remains to be seen whether Coopers’ repentance and contrition will save them — it would’ve saved a Christian in Rome, if they’d just chosen to bend the knee to Caesar… but it feels like the online outrage machine is less forgiving than Rome, and it’s certainly less inclined to forgive than Calvin was with Servetus. There isn’t much space for grace in the ‘gospel’ of the hard left. Just shame and destruction. The more we point that out not just by decrying it, but by modelling a compelling alternative, the better…

5. We need to tighten up our speaking; sometimes we can try to be too clever and homophonia gets us in trouble

The Bible Society has, for some time, had the slogan ‘live light’ as part of its brand. But its playfulness and lack of clarity about what ‘light’ is, has bitten pretty hard this week.

In its mission statement is says:

“Early in the life of Australia, passionate community leaders like Lady Macquarie created the Bible Society. They knew it wasn’t just government that could build a nation. It would need people of hope, people who live light.”

Indeed, its logo prior to this bicentenary celebration was this…


It’s not (though the tone of the video might suggest otherwise) really about treating the issue lightly (as though they don’t matter or should be laughed off); the two people conversing are very serious stakeholders in this debate mounting serious arguments for their position. It’s about bringing ‘light’ not darkness.

The bit of the verse featured on the Coopers carton in the picture above (a ‘light beer’) says:

“Whoever lives by truth comes into the light”…

That’s, of course, not the full story. It leaves ‘light’ a bit ambiguous. The verse that is, in part, featured on the Coopers cartons that support the campaign is John 3:21:

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.

This is about light as opposed to darkness; not light as opposed to ‘heavy’ (as in beer), or light as opposed to serious (as in discussion)

The context of this verse is:

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. — John 3:19-20

This verse is ultimately about Jesus. Coming to Jesus. Jesus is the light. He’s not darkness or watery beer.

Bible verses don’t work so well if we pull them apart and lift them from their context. And it’s especially dangerous to take a word like ‘light’ and be flexible with the definition for the sake of a clever campaign. Biblically, in the Greek, light in weight is ἐλαφρός while light as opposed to darkness is φῶς. It’s not a great bit of word play to let the definitions creep into each other. It’s confusing.

That the public conversation is now about how wrong it is for the Bible Society to treat such a significant conversation lightly shows that we have a real problem, in our culture, with homophonia. When words sound the same, we take the least charitable possible understanding in a way that serves our own purposes. But it doesn’t help when the people speaking are obscuring the charitable understanding they should be promoting… Sometimes we try to be too clever with slogans — so when we have ‘a light discussion about heavy issues’ in connection with a Bible verse about Jesus, that can catch us out. Mixing metaphors gets us into all sorts of trouble, and this campaign mixing a Bible verse, light beer, and a light hearted conversation is a bit confusing for all of us.

6. The Bible has useful principles when it comes to public civility; but its point is usually about something much more important than that

The video is meant to promote the idea that following the Bible’s advice when it comes to disagreement produces better outcomes (I think it does). It’s part of the Bible Society’s campaign to show how the Bible brings light to the world. What the video was meant to demonstrate, or reveal, is that it is possible that living in the light of the Bible, and its wisdom, produces better, more civil, conversations in public about significant issues. The way Wilson and Hastie attempted to model advice from the book of James does seem to demonstrate a virtuous type of public civility that I desperately crave in and for our nation. It’s not that the Bible alone produces this civility, Wilson isn’t a Christian, but the Bible does, or should, produce people who do this. The fuller context of James 1 says:

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

Now. I’m sure that being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry is good advice for civil conversation. But really… that’s not what James has in view — he’s writing to Christians (brothers and sisters) and the way we’re meant to approach speaking is connected to the ‘righteousness God desires’ and is meant to be about a connection between words and actions. There’s a lot more behind this verse than just a guide to civil conversation, and we’re not actually helping people see the value of the Bible by limiting its impact to ‘wise advice for everyone’… When Jesus talks about the Bible he says stuff like:

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me…” — John 5:39

It’d be interesting to consider how this shapes how we should speak about same sex marriage, or what our position we should be advocating with great civility.

7. Talk is cheap, but public speech should be costly not free.

As Christians we signed up to the idea that speech should be costly when we signed up to follow the crucified ‘word of God’… Jesus. I don’t think ‘free speech’ in a political sense is dead; words have always had consequences because speakers have always been challenged to back up words with actions (cost), because without that you’re a blowhard or a hypocrite.

The problem with the virtual outrage machine is that clicktivism costs nothing. People are free to jump on to a business’s page and destroy its reputation without ever changing their actions. This is what some now call ‘virtue signalling’ — for talking about virtue to be real not just a signalling exercise, it has to be backed up with action.

Ethical speech should not be free for Christians. It should be costly. Political speech should also be costly (I fleshed this out a bit more in a thing about how to write to your MP). Words for Christians need to be underpinned by action. We’re meant to do what the word says (to quote James). Speech should at least cost us ‘having listened’… but it must cost us more than that. If we want our speech to have integrity we need an ethos that supports our logos. 

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” — 1 John 3:18

8. We should live light in response to this apocalypse (and this doesn’t mean light beer or pulling our punches)

 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… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him — John 1:4-5, 9-10

The last few days has revealed much about the church, and much about our ability to have meaningful conversations in Australia. It has revealed the gap between what we think and believe about humanity and the world, and what the ‘world’ thinks about humanity. People outside the church have taken offence at a Christian organisation appearing to support a conservative political position because it lines up with Christian moral convictions. They’ve called even talking about traditional Christian views offensive, oppressive, and hateful.

It seems the deck is stacked against us; especially if this is some sort of majority position. If this is the case, we may as well be bold and be offensive for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. If people are going to be offended and mock us whether we make conservative political arguments from natural law, or for approaching the secular political realm as people who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus (and that this should shape our own politics and how we think of sex and marriage within our own communities, and in terms of God’s design for human flourishing), then why don’t we bring the real light?

“You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” — Matthew 10:22

Jesus says that’s what’s going to happen to us because of his name… and this isn’t some shibboleth test, but I’m not sure the name of Jesus got a mention in this little video. It might just be worth our while to be hated for living light — promoting Jesus in word and deed — rather than being seen to be pushing some sort of conservative political agenda according to the secular rules, or even to be seen to be advocating for the very good thing of public civility (as nice as that would be to see from my perspective as a citizen in the Australian public).

Here’s how this worked for Paul…

Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God. — 2 Corinthians 2:12-17

If we’re inevitably going to be offensive, let’s be offensive for good reason (and we might just be the aroma of life for some people) rather than carrying the stench of stale light beer.

9. We need less ‘hot takes’ and more cold ones

Hot take (n.)

“a piece of commentary, typically produced quickly in response to a recent event, whose primary purpose is to attract attention.”

Cold one (n.)

“a cold beverage, usually a beer”

I’m reluctant to add this post as another piece of chatter on this issue from the chattering class. Another hot take in a sea of outrage. Another rhetorical ship passing other ships in the night. I’d rather be a lighthouse than a ship.

I’d much rather have a beer with my gay friends and neighbours and really listen to them so that together we might imagine better ways forward than either binary solutions, outrage, or totalitarian solutions that aim to silence those who disagree with us. My shout (let me practice costly speech). It probably won’t be a Coopers this week (I confess, I’ve never drunk a Coopers), and it certainly won’t be a light beer, because I don’t want to mix metaphors, nor do I want to drink light beer.

But this sort of conversation should shed light on life lived together in the world, and on where my hope for my neighbours and our society is really found. The one who didn’t just ‘bring light’ to conversations, but who is the light of the world.

I don’t think civil public discourse is served all that well by fast, attention grabbing responses and conversation by hashtag. I hate boycotts — whether it’s Christians boycotting Halal certified food, or LGBTIQA allies boycotting Coopers. Boycotts are self-serving and self-seeking; they are the worst form of virtue signalling. Imagine how much more effective and persuasive it might be to write to Coopers and say “I don’t like that you’ve done this but I’m going to keep drinking your beer because I value you, it, and your workers”… We Christians don’t change hearts and minds through hostility (even if Coopers has backflipped), but hospitality, love, listening, understanding, and then carefully speaking the Gospel as it relates to an issue.

What saddens me is that as much as this has been a useful revelation about the state of public discourse in Australia, almost all of my Christian friends (myself included) have spent the last three days talking about beer, same sex marriage and civility, when we could’ve been talking about Jesus. Let’s aim our ‘living light’ or ‘keeping it light’ at that goal, even if apocalyptic moments like this one keep revealing that the world can be a pretty dark place.

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. — 2 Corinthians 4:1-6

Who do you believe you are? Why our ‘theological anthropology’ shapes how we do politics

I’ve spent lots of time (and poured lots of words here) trying to figure out why so many public Christian voices resort to making the case for Christian morality by appealing to nature, rather than the Gospel of Jesus. Whether these voices are trying to shape secular legislation according to the Christian view, to persuade, or simply to have a Christian position accommodated in a pluralistic democracy, the idea that somehow we’re better off making natural arguments than super-natural arguments has always struck me as odd and self-defeating, and, theologically speaking, pointless. I had an epiphany recently when I realised what’s going on is not just a question of different strategies for operating in a secular democracy (though for some this is a strategic decision (see the opening of this recent post)), what’s going on is a fundamentally different understanding of who we are as people and what makes us tick, and, from a Christian position, what is required to convince someone to live according to God’s design.

Our theological understanding of what it is to be human (anthropology) will shape our approach to politics (this is actually true even for those who think they don’t have a theology — what we think of the question of God, whether it’s the God of the Bible, the gods of other religious and philosophical systems, or the things we’ve replaced belief in gods with thanks to ‘enlightenment’… politics is a reflection of a theological anthropology.

Scarecrow or Tin Man? Are we shaped head first or heart first?

What’s going on in these differing approaches to the public square, particularly to politics, is a bit of a Wizard of Oz scenario. It’s like people making natural law arguments assume people around us no longer seem interested in a natural ordering of things because they are like Oz’s Scarecrow. Befuddled. In want of a brain; or at least, in want of right thinking. So the answer is to argue people into right thinking. I’m going to suggest below that we’re all more like Tin Man. The human condition is to be driven by the heart; specifically a heart beating for some ultimate love; a heart shaped by worship. I think this is a better accounting for why natural law has appealed, historically, when most people had some belief in a god (and where nature reflected that god), and for why natural law no longer has quite the same cachet in modern moral arguments; because we’ve filled that ‘heart slot’ with things other than God, or gods, and the things we fill that slot with shape the way we approach the natural world. Our ‘heart’… our ‘loves’… our ‘worship’… programs our actions and orients us to a certain way of seeing the world (and seeing/believing truth). When we make natural law arguments, we’re approaching Tin Man as though he’s actually Scarecrow.

The ‘Scarecrow’ view: moral problems are the result of wrong thinking about nature, so the answer is right arguments from natural law

I could while away the hours, conferrin’ with the flowers
Consultin’ with the rain.
And my head I’d be scratchin’ while
my thoughts were busy hatchin’
If I only had a brain.
I’d unravel every riddle for any individ’le,
In trouble or in pain. — Scarecrow, If I Only Had A Brain, The Wizard of Oz

Just over a month ago I had dinner with someone from the Australian Christian Lobby; I’ve long been at odds with the way the ACL approaches politics in Australia as a Christian voice, and I’ve long suspected this difference is the product of a different view of where humanity is going (in theology this is called a different ‘eschatology’). What became clear in this conversation is that the gap between what I think political engagement in a pluralist, secular, society should look like as Christians (and what might be effective) and what this new friend thought would be effective is actually the product of a fundamentally different view of the human person. A different sense, if you will, of what it means for us — and our neighbours — to be made in the image of God. It turns out how you view us as people, not just how we understand ourselves as re-created/re-born Christian people, but how we understand how humans tick, profoundly shapes the way you enter the political fray.

This seems obvious now, because at its most basic level, politics is about the organisation of people into life together in a polis (originally a city-state). How you understand people and what makes them tick will be

More recently I was discussing some politics stuff on Facebook with a very prominent Sydney Anglican who appeared to be arguing that Christians should take a natural law approach to arguing for a ‘classical’ definition of marriage in a secular context (he says his ‘classical’ approach is not a natural law approach, though I’d counter that any ‘classical’ approach from Aristotle to Aquinas looks and feels very much like natural law). When it comes specifically to this political question at hand he says:

“…the Creator plays no functional part in my case for classical marriage, other than that I happen to think that the way things ‘are’ is due to his good design, just as the fact that we can argue rationally is also merely because we are rational’

I’m not going to name them here, for to do so would distract from the point of this post, this isn’t a witch hunt, or a case of ‘discernment blogging’ or whatever people do these days when they disagree with someone… ultimately it’s an attempt to persuade them, and others, of the problems with this approach, or rather with this theological anthropology.

The approach taken by both this Anglican, and this member of the ACL’s team, is driven by a shared theological conviction about what makes people tick; one that looks very much like the Catholic conviction (perhaps best modelled by Aquinas) that reason itself will unlock, or appeal to, the image of God in all of us and allow us to know true things about nature and to act morally. Neither the ACL rep, nor the Anglican, sees this moral action as a saving work, but rather an action in line with God’s design for humanity.

This comes from a sense that a large part of how we are made in the image and likeness of God is reflected in our ability to reason. Here’s a section from the Catholic Catechism (Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 1, Article 1), titled Man: The Image of God:

“The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit. By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection “in seeking and loving what is true and good.”

By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an “outstanding manifestation of the divine image.”

Or as Pope John Paul II expressed it in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (a papal treatise basically on how natural law, revelation, and the image of God imprinted on us, must keep shaping our response to moral challenges of our time):

The moral law has its origin in God and always finds its source in him: at the same time, by virtue of natural reason, which derives from divine wisdom, it is a properly human law. Indeed, as we have seen, the natural law “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation”. The rightful autonomy of the practical reason means that man possesses in himself his own law, received from the Creator…”

And then:

“But God provides for man differently from the way in which he provides for beings which are not persons. He cares for man not “from without”, through the laws of physical nature, but “from within”, through reason, which, by its natural knowledge of God’s eternal law, is consequently able to show man the right direction to take in his free actions. In this way God calls man to participate in his own providence, since he desires to guide the world — not only the world of nature but also the world of human persons — through man himself, through man’s reasonable and responsible care. The natural law enters here as the human expression of God’s eternal law. Saint Thomas writes: “Among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in the most excellent way, insofar as it partakes of a share of providence, being provident both for itself and for others. Thus it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end. This participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called natural law.”

The Church has often made reference to the Thomistic doctrine of natural law, including it in her own teaching on morality. Thus my Venerable Predecessor Leo XIII emphasized the essential subordination of reason and human law to the Wisdom of God and to his law. After stating that “the natural law is written and engraved in the heart of each and every man, since it is none other than human reason itself which commands us to do good and counsels us not to sin”

Let’s call this a Scarecrow view (though I’m trying very hard not to argue with a straw man). In this view the image of God is closely tied to our capacity to reason and understand nature or ‘the order of things established’. And the image of God in us means we can think our way from nature to truth. We think, therefore we are, and when we think right we become more godly. This is why Catholics love the idea of natural law and natural revelation; because they truly are a path back to God (not simply evidence of God’s divine nature and character that should point us to God, but ultimately convict us for our failure to see and worship him (Romans 1:20-25)). In this view, a political issue like marriage, a ‘moral issue’ about how we approach the ordering of things (or people) in this world, is held to be more like math than music, such that its reality should be self evident, as indeed it has been, ‘classically‘… and the best strategy to argue for marriage, in this anthropology, is the way the ACL and this Anglican approach it… with good natural arguments. In sum, it’s the belief that right thinking about nature leads to moral action, and right thinking is possible for all of us because we’re fundamentally rational and reasonable beings. The anthropology at play here is essentially the anthropology of Descartes; we think, therefore we are (and we do). Our conscious, rational, reasonable, brains are in the driving seat and lead us towards right actions when logic and true thinking take over.

And this presents a challenge. Not just to smokers, drug junkies, and porn addicts who know what they do is wrong but do it anyway… but to those trying to make a classical case for marriage from natural law and failing. This is what the ACL does, what this Anglican does, and what other supporters of classical marriage keep doing. They argue for classical marriage on the basis of natural truths like men and women are different, and that difference produces children, and children have both a mother and a father, and marriage is the context that brings those things together… and those things are naturally true and yet thoroughly unconvincing for whole cultures of people who no longer believe that what is natural ought to be what we do as people. In fact; not only are they not convincing, but the very act of trying to articulate a natural law argument is howled down as hateful. Mounting a natural law argument earns you the sort of treatment typically reserved for heretics in theocracies (only we have laws against putting people to death in Australia… we are quite prepared to kill companies though… just ask Coopers Brewing).

The limits of a ‘Scarecrow’ view

This idea that nature reflects God and so understanding nature is possible for us as God’s creatures isn’t just a Catholic view. It is, as this Anglican calls it, a ‘classical view’ in that it’s a Roman view, or an Aristotelian view. It could just as easily be from the pages of Cicero’s On The Nature Of The Gods. But here’s the thing. We aren’t in classical Kansas any more. Natural law — the idea that there’s an ordering of things, and that this order, this ‘is’, ‘ought’ to shape how we do things — is fine in a context where people are theists who share ‘classical’ views about the relationship between nature and God (or gods), but post-Hume (who said that such ‘naturalistic’ thinking about morality is a fallacy), and in this ‘secular age’ where simple ‘belief in god’ (a default in a ‘classical’ age) is contested — natural law, or natural theology, just doesn’t cut it in politics. It’s a totally different language to the one people are speaking.

Natural law arguments have been compelling for much of human history, that’s why they’re the classical approach. But I’d suggest that’s, in part, been God’s common grace on display (including some part of the image of God still being at play in the hearts and minds of every human), and that it is, in part, that our rationality and the ordering of the universe is a reflection of who God is. It is true that we are capable of seeing truth about the world and behaving rationally (and we do this lots in science, or mathematics), but we seem, as humans, to be inconsistent in our approach to nature when we move beyond these ‘pure’ types of observation and into their application (like in the development of technology, and economics). When we start being able to be self-interested, rather than rational, with these natural laws we start putting ourselves in the driver’s seat, and shaping nature according to some other conviction.

When it comes to marriage, this classical ‘natural law’ model describes the approach taken to the world in many human cultures throughout history, but it doesn’t describe all of them, and it doesn’t account for what is happening now in the secular west. And, I’d argue, any theological anthropology worth its salt will account for human belief and behaviour everywhere and everywhen. 

Whatever model we adopt for understanding the human person, it needs to be able to account for human reality. Both human behaviour as we observe it at present (and through history), and for why natural law arguments — classical arguments — were once convincing, but no longer seem compelling or convincing for so many in the modern west. Why these totally coherent arguments, convincing for so long, now fail. I’m not totally sure this can be attributed to a failure to reason, or even a failure to understand (as though understanding the argument would be definitive and convincing because that’s how natural law works). The prominent Anglican making a rearguard case for ‘classical marriage’ said, with regards to a piece he is writing (this is part of the opening):

“The case for maintaining the traditional understanding of marriage is neither dumb nor mean, and nor does it depend on religion. But given the passionate nature of the debate, that case has rarely been understood before it was shouted down… I offer here my ‘eulogy’ to a venerable old argument that lost without ever really being understood.”

In this Scarecrow account, the problem with the case for ‘classical marriage’ is not inherent in the approach itself (and the underlying anthropology) but in the reception of the argument (or the coherence of the argument). Our problem has been a failure to make a rational case. I don’t believe this is true. It’s interesting that these words actually do hit the nail on the head when it comes to why the argument has not been received when it identifies ‘the passionate nature of the debate’… somehow our passions drive us more than our intellect.

The rational natural law case for marriage is basic biology (the anatomical difference between genders), and sociology (the relationship between marriage and ‘natural law’ families)… and if all we are is thinking creatures it should be an easy case to make. It has been an easy case to make, historically, when people have typically been theistic in their outlook, but has also, at least according to the Bible, not been so straightforward in times when that theism has looked like idolatry. There are a couple of pretty clear examples of the relationship between wrong worship and a rejection of the natural order of things in the Bible. First, in Leviticus 18, and then in Romans 1.

Both of these passages describe the utter rejection of natural law norms (sexual and otherwise) that come when people reject a God who orders things in the way the God of the Bible, and the gods of Aristotle, Cicero, and Islam ie the ‘classical view of God’ orders nature.

It seems to me, when it comes to marriage, that the problem isn’t that our arguments are incoherent or misunderstood, instead, that there’s some underlying change that has happened before we even get to the stage of engaging reason to begin with; natural law seems to be ruled out before arguments are even mustered, and I’d suggest this is because somehow in our belief about who we are as humans we are no longer simply subject to nature, but masters of nature, and natural laws can now be broken to deliver us our wants and desires. If Charles Taylor’s account of the place of religion in the public/political sphere in the secular west is right, then the classical view itself is now contested, and the starting assumptions in our political discourse are very different indeed.

What’s gone on… what gets us to where we are… is, I think, described by a different theological anthropology. A different understanding of who we are as humans and what makes us tick; one that explains both the power of natural law, and the strident and visceral reaction against natural law arguments in the modern west; one that includes reason, but sees our reasoning about the ‘order of things’ shaped somewhere before we engage the rational part of our brains. While this prominent Anglican pushes us towards a ‘classical approach’ to marriage drawing on Greek and Roman philosophy, and the theology of thinkers like Aquinas (a genuine philosophical and theological giant writing in a time when belief in a God underpinning nature was uncontested), and while this member of the ACL’s team builds his political strategy (making sound natural law arguments) from a Catholic anthropology, I’m going to suggest there’s a fuller picture of who we are as people that should be shaping our approach to politics (and this also underpins why I think playing secular politics by secular rules is a bad idea for Christians).

Where I think this view fails is that our approach to nature, at least according to the Bible but also in my humble estimation of reality, is twisted. We don’t look at nature and so see God. We look at nature and want to play god (pushing God out of the picture), or we look at nature and want to make it god (pushing God out of the picture). Natural Theology will fail us so long as we’re worshipping wrongly before we think about the ‘order of things’…

Ultimately, I think the problem with the Scarecrow Approach is that it does the same thing with ‘created things’ that the idolater in Romans 1 does. It looks to the natural order rather than the orderer of nature as the basis for understanding right living; there’s certainly, if we were blank slates, a reason to connect the natural order with the natural orderer (Paul explicitly does this in Romans 1), but the path back to Godliness or morality is not nature but God. At least, that’s the logic of Romans.

The Tin Man model

When a man’s an empty kettle he should be on his mettle,
And yet I’m torn apart.
Just because I’m presumin’ that I could be kind-a-human,
If I only had heart. — Tin Man, If I Only Had A HeartThe Wizard of Oz

So what if the Scarecrow model is actually inadequate; that our brains actually kick into gear not as the primary function of who we are, but as a secondary thing. What if we’re not first rational creatures (though we are rational), but rather passionate creatures. What if it’s our capacity to love and to sacrifice for that love, and to approach the world through a grid created by that love, that makes us truly human. And what if that love is actually first, and ultimately, a question of worship.

What if the best arguments for changed behaviour/morality are not rational arguments from natural law but arguments geared at our worship; arguments that challenge our affections; arguments that apprehend us with the nature of the divine and ask us to consider what we’ve popped into our ’empty kettles’ to push and pull us around the world. This isn’t to say reason isn’t part of reflecting the image of God, or part of how the world works and can be comprehended, but it does explain why when belief in God or gods (theism) is replaced with belief in the self (or gods of sex, pleasure or freedom) natural law goes out the window. It does explain why, in Romans 1, Paul describes the exchange of God for idols as resulting in our thinking shifting so that we perceive the natural as unnatural and the unnatural as natural… this comes because we first see ‘created things’ as the things to pop into the driving seat of our lives (and our thinking).

Natural law made sense in the context of widespread theism, especially monotheism (even in Plato with his ‘demiurge,’ and Aristotle with his ‘unmoved mover’). But people no longer recognise this ‘unmoved mover’ in the west; we are the movers and the shakers. We are in control. We westerners still worship, we are still driven by our passions, but our passions are directed at the things (and relationships) of this world; and this ‘religious belief’ includes the same sort of approach to heresy practiced by the church for many years. Heretics are dangerous, they challenge orthodoxy, and must be no-platformed, or destroyed.

Historically (and Biblically) when people worship idols they think wrong things about nature; they reject natural law (eg Leviticus 18 and Romans 1, which aren’t just about homosexuality, but about people moving away from the Genesis 1-2 ‘ordering’ of creation and relationships). According to the Bible (both in the Old Testament and the New) our failure to live according to the created order is the result of our hearts turning from God. The prophets (and Deuteronomy) anticipate a new heart that will allow God’s people to live right… not just the facts. This explains both the rejection of any sort of classical version of marriage, why ‘natural law’ arguments fail, and why there’s such an outcry when, say, the Bible Society teams up with a couple of Liberal Party politicians (one a gay agnostic, the other a natural law wielding conservative) and has them talk civilly about marriage as though it is even a legitimate conversation to be having.

While there’s a rich and coherent anthropology at the heart of the Catholic tradition that stacks up in a theistic environment, the protestant, reformed, systematic — the reformed anthropology — actually contains a fuller, richer, more compelling anthropology. It is more compelling because it sees us not just as computers who’ll function right with the right data fed into our brains, but as creatures who feel our way towards truth as well. It is also more compelling because it does a better job of describing what is real because it does a better job of understanding the relationship between image bearing and worship, and the relationship between our passions and our ‘rationality’. That before we are ‘rational’ beings we are ‘glorifying beings’ that we ‘have a God’ at the heart of our loves, and lives, and what we put in this slot shapes the way we think, and act, in the world. Romans 1 definitely has natural law or natural revelation (the sense that we can know about God from what he has made) at its heart; Paul is not just talking about morality derived from special revelation in Romans, and when he describes the corrupting power of a wrong natural theology (namely, the worship of nature) the way back isn’t just to look at the world right. In Romans 1 Paul says ‘the Gospel is the power of God’ and in Romans 8 he says (and just notice what he says ‘sets the mind’ here):

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.  The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. — Romans 8:5-8

The Reformed Tradition calls this effect of sin on our thinking ‘the noetic effect of sin’ — this is the idea that even our rationality is tainted by our desire to make things other than God ultimate things in our lives, the idea that we treat all things subjectively, rather than objectively. There are all sorts of models for what this looks like in real terms. I like the approach put forward by Swiss theologian Emil Brunner. I think this is a good explanation of why our ‘natural law’ arguments about ethical stuff falls flat, and why the solution is to see us as more like Tin Man — needing a heart correction — than Scarecrow — needing our thinking fixed.

“The more closely a subject is related to man’s inward life, the more natural human knowledge is ‘infected’ by sin while the further away it is, the less will be its effect. Hence mathematics and the natural sciences are much less affected by this negative element than the humanities, and the latter less than ethics and theology. In the sphere of natural science, for instance, as opposed to natural philosophy — it makes practically no difference whether a scholar is a Christian or not; but this difference emerges the moment that we are dealing with problems of sociology, or law, which affect man’s personal and social life.”

Our politics needs to grapple with this. Because at one level this is why we keep talking past each other if we’re relying on natural law and not connecting that the people we’re speaking to have fundamentally different ‘worship’ driven frameworks. Different ‘ultimate loves’…

If this is true then not only is engaging with the political realm with the Gospel a good strategy in a pluralistic democracy where it’s vital our views be properly represented in solutions that allow different communities to live well together, it’s also the best strategy to secure moral behaviour. Moral behaviour isn’t secured through reason unless people are bending the knee, and pointing the heart, towards gods that look much like universal reason and order, it is secured, rather, by the Spirit of God changing someone’s heart and kicking out other loves (what an old puritan preacher called ‘the expulsive power of a new affection). The Gospel is the wisdom and power of God; the message that invites us to apprehend the face of God displayed in Jesus, and so to worship him; and the thing that brings with it the expulsive power of a new affection)

Disrupting work in a disrupted age: Part 2 — the drive to work

Part one of this series considered the changing (disrupted) economic landscape and the future of work (and the idea of a post-work future), it suggested Christians might have reason to be optimistic about a disrupted future, perhaps especially if we take up the challenge of being disrupters — challenging the idolatry of work, and profit, the understanding of humanity that suggests we’re fundamentally economic beings, and the routines of work that mean we feel busier than ever. In order to get to a stage where some of these changes become plausible these next two posts are going to step back and consider why we work, what work is (and what its purpose is). 

The drive to work

Do you work to live, or live to work?

Do you work to pay the bills, or to change the world?

How do you think most of your friends would answer these questions?

Our jobs often involve repetition that is frustrating (not to mention the frustration around results) — and its not just the daily routine of alarm clock, breakfast, the commute, the recurring functions of your job (the admin, the reproduction of tasks, the meetings), it’s also the ‘rat race’ the work to eat/eat to work, and work to rest/rest to work cycles built into the monotony that become habitual liturgies in this worship. We’re shaped before we know it, and taught to love things (like money and productivity) by this frustrating and frustrating pattern but we keep doing it. We’re driven to. So why is that? What gives us this drive to work, or rather to ‘work-as-worship’? And why do we want to escape?

This little short animation that ran before Disney’s Moana over the summer is a nice little picture of the tension we live in.

When I ubered to the airport in Sydney a few weeks ago, my driver’s name was Roman. He’d come to Australia from New Zealand, but before that, was from the Middle East. We talked about parenting. About how hard it is. About the pressure society places on kids to grow up to fast, and about how parents get no down time. He loved Uber cause he could be home at dinner time, then head back out. He worked to support his wife and kids. He worked to secure their future. This purpose gave him the drive to do a relatively mundane job (and one he is way over-qualified for).

Here’s why I think we work. We work because we want to change the future; not just the present. We work because we want to carve something out for ourselves and those we love. We want to shape the world in some way — either directly in the act of making things, or creating order, or indirectly in what we use the products of our work for. The way we want to shape the world, the thing we want to carve out, or the version of ourselves we’re working towards are a product of our values (the things we love), and our values are a product of, or ordered by, our ultimate loves (the things we worship).

Work is an act of worship. And I don’t just mean this in the ‘Christian sense’ but in the David Foster Wallace sense of worship being the act of self-sacrifice for the object of our ultimate love. Work either is that love, or it’s a means to serving that love with what we’re paid for work (or both).

Work involves the sacrifice of your time, energy, some sort of ‘presence in order to apply energy’ (even if remotely and via a computer), effort, and intellect; ideally in work that sacrifice reaps something more rewarding than what you’ve invested into the enterprise, but these things are finite. Your time and energy are going to be exhausted. The number of breaths you take is finite. You have an expiry date. And in that sense everything we do is ‘sacrifice’ and the returns are limited. So the decision to go to work is a decision to sacrifice yourself to, or for, something. A cause, a company, your family, your experiences, your pleasure, your empire. If we’re driven to work for some finite thing, especially if we’re driven to work in order to get or consume more stuff because we worship wealth, and comfort, and ‘the things of this world’…. then as Wallace says, it ‘will eat you alive,’ the catch is, if we’re driven to work in a way that consumes us (without giving back), so that we can consume stuff (without giving back), then it’s also likely our drive to work is destroying the planet (ironic really, if we consider climate change and the emissions created by a consumer-first approach to driving to work (where apparently the average occupancy rate per car in Brisbane is something like 1.2 people)).

Brian Walsh wrote this book called Subversive Christianity: Imaging God In A Dangerous Time back in 1994. It’s one of those books that, when read in hindsight, seems prescient, prophetic even, and that you wish had been read more widely and taken more seriously by the church. He writes about work, and how Christians might subvert, or disrupt, how work happens. He talks about how the stuff that drives us to work — that we sacrifice for — is tied to worship.

“Modern culture has entered into a covenant with an unholy trinity. Three good dimensions of creation, three good dimensions of our culture-forming tasks have been absolutised. They have been erected as idols and they demonically distort our cultural lives. These three idols are scientism (the belief that science provides us with authoritative knowledge and functions as the omniscient source of revelation in our culture), technicism (the effective translation of scientific knowledge into power and control of the creation which promises us a scientific-technical omnipotence), and economism (the golden head of the idol that believes that a rising standard of living is the ultimate goal in life and the only route to personal happiness and societal harmony). The question for our time is whether this unholy covenant is still tenable. Do these gods deliver on their promises? Can we continue to make the sacrifices necessary to appease them? My answer to all of these questions is a resounding no…

Serving the three gods of scientism, technicism, and economism, our work lives (in both the shop and the office) are subjected to scientific analysis by industrial engineers and a whole army of consultants, to determine the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand using the best and quickest techniques to attain the highest possible economic good.”

Disrupting this drive to work

Walsh’s analysis 23 years ago is pretty similar to Rod Dreher’s analysis in his Benedict Option (and the observations of a bunch of other modern thinkers. His analysis is that it’s not politics or sex that presents the greatest danger to us in terms of ‘idolatry’ or Babylonian captivity; but economics.

The reason for this state of affairs—nothing less than a spiritual catastrophe in the Western church—is, I submit, the enculturation of the church. As a community of believers and as individuals we have, mostly against our best intentions, been thoroughly sucked in to our secular culture. This is what I mean by the term “enculturation.” Our consciousness, our imagination, our vision has been captured by idolatrous perceptions and ways of life. The dominant worldview, the all-pervasive secular consciousness, has captured our lives. And what is so intriguing about this phenomenon is that we were not taken after a long drawn-out fight. No, it happened in our sleep. You see, while we were fighting with each other about evolution, the infallibility of the Bible, spiritual gifts, and various other hotly debated issues, we were falling into a deeper and deeper sleep in relation to the cultural captivity of our very consciousness. We were asleep to the secularisation of our lives and of our most fundamental values. We simply bought into the materialistic, prestige oriented, secular values of our age without ever noticing that that is what was going on.

What he suggests as the antidote for this captivity is a rediscovery of our own story; our own worship; a new drive to work. If we’re going to disrupt the economic status quo (ala post one in this series) as Christians we need to consider how our drive to work might look different (the sort of work we do, why we do it, and how we do it).

Christians have a different approach to work because we have a different approach to worship (or rather, we worship a different God), and our worship is linked to bearing his image. We work because we’re created to work; created in the image of the God who worked to create the world (and then rested from this work). It’s in our nature. And our approach to work is shaped by our nature. Work isn’t just a thing we do, it’s part of our purpose, and that purpose is shaped by what we worship. Here’s Walsh again.

“When a community in a capitalist society insists that labour—the work of our hands, the toil of our brow—is good, it is being subversive. Why? Because when such a community breaks with the dominant utilitarianism, which sees work as a disutility and consumer goods as utilities, it thereby breaks with the whole movement of twentieth-century industrial capitalism. This movement has propelled us into energy and capital intensive production processes which produce more and more goods at an ever increasing rate, while also decreasing the quality of the products, decreasing the role of human labour, and decreasing the resources of creation. When that is the fundamental movement of a culture, then a community which says that work is good and more and more consumer goods and services is not necessarily good, that community is being subversive. Insisting that work is an integral dimension of human life (not to be contrasted as productive activity over and against consumptive leisurely activity), that it is a form of worship, that it is meant to ennoble humankind, that it should be dedicated to serving one’s neighbour and the stewardly care of the creation—all of these are subversive ideas. But Christianity is not only subversive in a culture such as ours; it is also deeply offensive to the dominant forces in our culture. This offence is related to what the Bible calls “the offence of the cross.”

…Dare we imagine an economics of equality and care in place of the economics of affluence and poverty? Can we imagine what would happen if we began to disciple our children with a prophetic vision and imagination? Can we imagine our work life to be at one with our worship—an act of service and praise, not a necessary evil on the way to an affluent lifestyle? In a production oriented society where meaning and worth are measured by one’s productivity in the market place, therefore defining retirement as a loss of worth and meaning, can we imagine what it could be like if the elderly had an indispensable role in our communities? Can we imagine a society which has broken through its morbid preoccupation with death and truly affirms life, not just at the fetal stage, but in all of its dimensions and stages? Is a relationship of friendship, instead of exploitation, with the rest of the creation imaginable? Is it imaginable that the mass media could be an agent of awakened social, cultural, and spiritual renewal, rather than the one thing that numbs us into cultural complacency and sleep more than anything else? And is our imagination spiritually opened up enough to conceive of a business enterprise that is characterised by stewardship, environmental responsibility, and real serviceability rather than profits, pollution and superfluous consumer goods? It seems to me that, in the midst of a declining culture, these are the kinds of questions that a prophetic imagination raises for us. We are called to be a prophetic community, a prophetic people. — Brian J. Walsh, Subversive Christianity

 

In the next post in this series, I’m going to suggest that this new drive isn’t just a new origin story (which is where Walsh starts), but a new end of the story; one that brings a new ‘end’ to our work (both in terms of a telos, and an ending of the story we’re living in). It’s not just who God is as we meet him in Jesus that should shape how we work and worship, but where Jesus is taking us, and what work will look like in the future (in this world, and the new creation). This story will change the way we approach work, because it changes the way we worship. It will make us disruptors of the status quo. In the final post I’ll consider what that might look like in real terms.

Why (with all due respect) adopting the rules of the ‘secular’ political game and pretending Jesus doesn’t profoundly matter to us is a dumb idea for Christians and we should stop

“I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to [talk about the Bible in parliament] today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.” — Australian Presbyterian, Autumn 2017, ‘Political Christians’

Legend has it that the game of Rugby emerged in the middle of a game of football (soccer) when a player from the Rugby School, William Webb Ellis, decided he was bored with the traditional rules of the game, so he took things into his own hands (literally), picking up the ball and running with it. He changed the rules; and started something new. Without his act of rebellion and imagination we wouldn’t have Rugby League (cause let’s face it, Rugby was an evolutionary step towards something less boring).

Sometimes it feels like our approach to politics in our secular liberal democracy is us refusing to change the game; and that’s our loss (and the world’s); because just like Webb-Ellis’ actions would create something new, our changing how we play ‘political football’ and not playing by the ‘rules’ could actually create something better than the political status quo, and especially our culture’s toxic definition of ‘secular’…

Australia is a beautifully secular country. We don’t have a state sanctioned religion; which gives implicit freedom to everyone those who believe in fairy tales, and those who don’t, to practice those beliefs alongside one another. We’re not just a secular country, we’re a pluralist country, a multi-faith, multi-cultural, country, and a liberal democracy where different communities and cultures live in relative harmony with each other, and share hospitality with each other across suburban fences and in our many restaurants. We do expect the government to step in when a religious practice threatens the safety or freedom of another, but this plurality is part of the beauty of Aussie life.

Our politicians are faced with the task of managing certain aspects of this shared life; they’re not, and can’t be, responsible for how we speak to one another over the back fence, in these local restaurants, at the supermarket, or be responsible for arbitrating how different religious groups dialogue about their differences, but they do have a role to play in listening to the voices of a diverse constituency and doing their best to represent and accommodate a wide range of views.

This is what true secularism is all about; unfortunately the label has lost some of its meaning in a process Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes in the introduction of A Secular Age. Taylor says we’ve, in the modern west, collapsed the way we see the world. He describes how things have moved so that where once everyone believed in the ‘supernatural’ or ‘transcendent’ reality and that this reality overlapped with the natural, we now believe in the natural alone (or he says we want to believe in the natural alone, but have this nagging, haunted, sense that there might be more). This belief shapes how we understand and use the word ‘secular’, which it shapes the sort of data, or argument, people of our age will accept. He identifies three different understandings of ‘secular’ at play in our age:

  1. Our ‘common institutions and practices’ are separate from religion; where in the past ‘in pre-modern societies’ the ‘political organisation’ was underpinned by the idea of God, you can now “engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”
  2. People now no longer believe in God so we should ’empty our public spaces’ of God, or any reference to ultimate reality, and should instead make decisions on ‘rationality’ as defined in different spheres (economic gain in the economy, ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ in politics).
  3. The conditions of belief have changed so that the assumption that God is real, or that anything super-natural is real is now contested.

It’d be a real shame if in order to protect the goodness of definition 1 (that allows people from a variety of beliefs to ‘fully engage’ in shared life) we, the church, adopted practices that reinforced definitions 2 and 3… It’d be a shame if we assumed that the way to protect people who don’t agree with us is to agree with their understanding of how the public should be shaped (such that only ‘the rational’ or ‘the natural’ is important).

I think there’s a real risk that our practices will do exactly this if we assume the premises of the second definition and let those rules set the parameters for how we engage in public spaces as Christians. This belief (definition 2) sets the ‘rules of the game’ when it comes to our politics. Or at least it seems many Christians engaged with the political realm believe that it does — and this isn’t limited to the Australian Christian Lobby (though this has been my very longstanding criticism of them; as an aside, I quizzed Lyle Shelton on some of this recently and his answers were quite similar to a thing I’ll quote below from the Australian Presbyterian).

There are lots of voices in our political process who believe this is the field that the game of politics in secular Australia should be played on; that this is the ‘common ground’ that people from all these cultures and communities can get together on. But it’s not. It’s a profoundly different account of the world — even of mundane created things in the world — to the view of the world held by Christians, and shared by many other religious communities.

Christians don’t believe the world looks like this.

Christians don’t believe the natural is all there is, or that it is the exhaustive source of true knowledge about how to live (or even the best source).

Christians believe in the supernatural.

Christians believe that the whole universe is created by God to reveal things about him; and that he’s not some being within the universe, but rather ‘in him we live, and breathe, and have our being,’ and that he made people to seek him.

Christians believe real love and the real flourishing life are found in his love for us and his purposes; not just for us, but for the universe and things in it.

Christians believe, for example, that the significance of something like marriage is caught up in it being created by God to do something magical (unite male and female as one flesh, with the possible fruit of new life (children)) and point to something supernatural and significant (the relational, Triune nature of God, and the relationship between Jesus and the church). 

If all we do is make natural arguments that play by the secularist rules we think are established, we’re not being truly secular and we’re not giving lawmakers any reason to make laws that accommodate our views when they’re hearing compelling arguments that don’t play by those rules but are caught up in questions about what love is, and what the good human life looks like (and these are ultimately religious questions). If we argue that marriage is fundamentally a natural law thing, that is about being a building block of society where children are raised by their biological parents and that is good for them, then we don’t just run the risk of those arguments falling on deaf ears (as they appear to be), we actually only tell less than half the story when it comes to why we, as Christians, believe what we believe about marriage.

There are some Christians who seem prepared to try to play the political game according to the rules set down by the secularists (and let’s use this as the label for people who hold to definition 2 above, as opposed to people who want to create reasonably good rules for how we might do life together with people from different religious or cultural groups). These are the people who don’t believe God should have a place in public life (but ironically those who sometimes seem to want God to have a say in everyone’s lives through an argument from natural law, it’s a weird ‘all or nothing’ approach).

When we play the rules this way — assuming the secularist view of the world and so arguing from nature and using reason so excluding the supernatural and therefore the Gospel — we do politics in a way that is largely indistinguishable from the way our non-Christian neighbours do politics, we actually serve to reinforce the secularist assumption about the relationship between faith and politics, and we approach politics as Christians in a way that legitimises the question ‘should Christians be speaking about politics’ or the related question ‘does politics distract from the proclamation of the Gospel’?

The Gospel of Jesus is fundamentally political. Gospel is a political word; it’s the announcement — the good news — of a victorious emperor’s enthronement or victory. Jesus is a king who announces a kingdom and calls people to join it. The Gospel should create good, and at times radically different and beautiful solutions to political issues because Jesus is lord over every sphere of life, and because there is actually no divide between the natural and supernatural; or the secular and sacred, even if in a liberal ‘secular’ democracy there is rightly a divide between church and state. That divide only truly works if the state knows the core business of the religious, and if the religious know the core business (and limitations) of the state. We don’t need the state to create radically different solutions to issues for us; in some ways it is better for us if they don’t, if we’re displaying a ‘counter-politics’ in our own solutions to issues, but a democracy does afford us the opportunity to have the Gospel on the table… so why would we choose to table something quite different? Just today I read this paragraph in the Australian Presbyterian, in an issue titled Politics? Yes! (emphasis mine):

Question: If Christians choose to be involved in public life how should [having God in the picture] affect their discourse?

Answer: I think it partly depends on context. There are some contexts where it is acceptable to talk about the Bible when you’re in parliament, if there is a common assumption that the Bible is a legitimate source of political wisdom. I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to do that today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.

I think this is profoundly bad advice (in the middle of a pretty interesting and compelling article). It rigs the deck against us, and not in a good ‘dying to self’ way where we refuse to play the ‘power’ game so caught up in how politics happens, but in the ‘undermining the truth that the Gospel’s power is displayed in weakness’ way; and in the ‘God’s power in the world is the Gospel’ way, and in the ‘any real change in people’s lives doesn’t happen via common sense but by the Spirit’ way.

People will laugh? Almost certainly (they did, for example, when Paul spoke to a bunch of politicians in Athens (Acts 17:32).

But why should politicians even consider why we find marriage so significant prior to mounting a natural law argument for it if we never tell people, and if the natural law argument is not compelling?

Why should they listen to us if we’re just playing their game, and playing it badly? And playing it in a way that actually undermines the things we believe about the world?

People will change their mind based on common sense and wisdom? Sometimes. Sure. Common sense and wisdom means we can all learn math, and how to write sentences, and a bunch of other stuff about the natural ordering of the world. The Australian Presbyterian article says some reasonable stuff about common grace and shared morality; it’s just… when Romans talks about the human mind and how idolatry corrupts it, it seems to be corrupted in a way that might make reasonable arguments less effective when it comes to areas of our life that are directly related to our idols (you know, like sex, sexual freedom, and the sense that a flourishing life comes apart from God) (Romans 1:21-32). Romans 1 seems to pit the ‘common grace’ idea built from our shared human nature still carrying the image of God, against the fruit of our rejection of God in favour of our own ‘images of god’ (idols), and God’s active judgment in response where he ‘gives us over’ to a wrong way of seeing the world that seems to be totally natural to us. It seems too, that the solution to this wrong way of seeing the world is God’s intervention and a ‘renewed mind’ that comes via the Spirit (Romans 8:5-11, Romans 12:2).

The miss-fire at the heart of idolatry in Romans 1 — replacing the creator with created things (Romans 1:25)  is the miss-fire at the heart of what Taylor describes in the Secular Age; it’s where we stop seeing reality as supernaturally given meaning by the transcendent God who made it, and start thinking only the ‘material world’ gives meaning. It’s where we stop believing God is necessary to explain the flourishing life in this world; that we can do that from nature using our own wisdom. That worked real well in Genesis 3. This miss-fire is one we repeat ourselves if we play the political game on secularist terms. We believe the world is part of how God makes his ‘invisible qualities’ visible; that it is not just ‘matter’ but the rules of our political system, as the secularists would have it, are that only matter matters.

Why would we play by their rules? Especially if they’re not actually the rules… No law says you can’t mention God in a submission to parliament that you make as the church; no law says politicians shouldn’t listen to religious people, or even act from religious convictions… our constitution protects definition one. Nothing enshrines secularist definition number 2 and so says law making is to be a totally rational exercise built on natural law arguments; that’s a choice. Our practices are leading to a particular sort of ‘secular’ outcome in terms of definition 3 where we’re going to make it harder and harder for people who don’t share our convictions to be convinced by us about their merit.

Why would we play by ‘rules’ that people have made specifically to neutralise an authentically Christian voice (or perhaps, rather, an inauthentic Christian voice, the voice that acts as a moral authority apart from the Gospel)?

To do that only reinforces our age’s wrong beliefs about the world, and it also enforces wrong beliefs about what we Christians are on about.

The answer to this question of how we participate in secular politics is not more nature; it’s not trying to play the game by these ‘rational’ rules; the answer is to promote a right, ‘enchanted,’ understanding of the natural world as the basis for making good decisions about life together.

It’s the Gospel. Even if people don’t buy it. Even if they laugh.

If ‘serving created things’ is the problem at the heart of idolatry and ‘secularism’, then why would we play by the rules of a game that says its those created things that determine truth and the common ground for good life together in our world? Isn’t it possible we achieve more for people by making the political case that we should see the world as it truly is (and as it has been seen for most of political history everywhere).

If the Gospel is what Paul says it is (the power of God that brings salvation — Romans 1:16), then why wouldn’t we include it in how we speak into a truly secular liberal democracy where all views are ideally held in tension.

If the Gospel is the thing that unlocks people’s ability to actually live rightly in the world, then why would we speak as though that is found anywhere else?

If the Gospel actually creates a compelling counter-politics to the politics of the world, and it is the way God makes himself known to us, and saves us, and creates his subversive kingdom, then why wouldn’t we take every opportunity afforded to us in political dialogues to make the case for its vision of love and human flourishing?

Why play by other people’s rules when it leads to us playing a totally different game?

Why settle for less? Why play a game that neutralises our home field advantage?

We can’t expect our law makers to make laws that accommodate our views if, at every turn, we speak into that process in a way that plays by rules of a totally different game to the one we play. And choosing to try to play a different game to the one we normally play doesn’t just take away our advantage by levelling the playing field, it makes us look like idiots and it destroys our ability to promote our ‘game’ as the one worth playing.

Why don’t we pick up the ball offered to us in a democracy that gives us the chance to speak (via submissions to enquiries, in conversations with our local members, and ministers, using whatever platforms we can find, including the floor of parliament) and speak the power of God? Why don’t we play our game on their field (because it’s actually God’s field, and our field, and letting them make the rules is odd)? Why don’t we pick up the ball and run with it until someone tackles us? While the crowd laughs and mocks? Which is presumably what happened to William Webb-Ellis. I bet he got pounded. But it seems to be worth it…

Disrupting work in a disrupted age: Part 1 — The end of the work as we know it?

In the last few weeks I took my 4th, 5th and 6th trips with Uber. This got me thinking some more about work, and about what it looks like for Christians to be disruptive in what some are describing as a ‘disruptive age’…

I think that’s one of our tasks as Christians; to disrupt the status quo in our world; to challenge human institutions set up around the insidious idols of greed and power, and the way these idols consume those at the margins of our society. This disruption of idols is part of proclaiming (and living in) a different sort of kingdom, in service of a different sort of king.

There’s been a lot of talk about Uber as a disruptor; a company that has harnessed new technology to disrupt an existing market (the taxi market). Just how disruptive Uber is; and how much it’s just a more efficient iteration of the existing industry is a bit up for grabs. But thinking about disruption in the context of my Uber trips and time at Hope St Cafe got me thinking that the Gospel should make Christians disruptive when it comes to work and how we think about the economy and our relationship to it. Here’s a neat little definition of disruption from Professor Kai Riemer from the University of Sydney.

“Disruption is actually a fundamental change in the way we view and use products and what we understand and take for granted about an industry, not just an improvement brought about by a new product or player.”

Here’s a little example of how the Gospel disrupts idolatry in the sphere of work and the economy in the town of Ephesus.

“A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all.  There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” — Acts 19:24-27

This is a disruption story.

The city riots. It riots because the Gospel challenges the economic status quo which is tied very closely to the idolatrous status quo. As humans, how we work — and view work within a culture — is always, fundamentally, a question of who, or what, we worship. The Gospel prompts more than simply an incremental improvement in the way we approach the economic status quo… it provides a whole new framework for how we think about the economy and about our humanity; we’re not just economic units (homo economicus), but worshippers (homo liturgicus) who shape the world as we are shaped by our gods.

To be a Christian is to be disrupted, and to become a disruptor... because we’re actually not pushing people out of false worship, and into truth, if we don’t change the way they think about work and bigger stuff like the economy, what it means to be human, and how we live in the world (and what our way of life costs others).

It’s not just that we no longer worship like we used to when we become Christians; this means we no longer work like we used to (or understand work like we used to).

The cross of Jesus changes our approach to life, and status, and people; and the story of the Bible, which begins with a God who creates (who works) and then rests, who creates us to create (to work), and rest, puts a particular value on work and sees it connected to who we are, who God is, and how we relate to God as image bearers who reflect who he is. Becoming a Christian doesn’t make work less valuable (though that has sometimes been a Christian misfire when we’ve devalued ‘secular work’ to make ‘sacred work’ (preaching the Gospel) the be all and end all); it makes work more valuable because it connects it to something bigger than our own little human kingdom; or to ‘human kingdoms’ (like corporate empires, or companies, or national economies), it connects it to the kingdom of God.

The age of disruption means what our society thinks of work, and how we approach work, is up for grabs. It is being redefined and that presents an opportunity for us, as Christians, to re-think the way we approach work amongst our neighbours. We haven’t been great at being different to our neighbours when it comes to work, lots of Aussies tacitly embrace what has been called ‘the protestant work ethic’ built on hard work, discipline and frugality, but more protestants embrace what I’d call the ‘western work ethic’ where we work to fuel our consumption, and to bring some sense of meaning and purpose to our lives. We work like Demetrius in Ephesus worked, and just like our neighbours work… when we could be working quite differently.

We should be theologically geared, or tooled, to think differently about work, because we think differently about our humanity and about God; and that difference should mean we’re able to challenge visions of work that express a different view of humanity and God.

The end of work?

 

In the last year I’ve heard a couple of Aussie Christian thinkers talking about the future of work for Christians, and for Aussies in general — one suggested that the future for Christians in industries like law and medicine will become fraught because of changing social views on sexuality, gender, and other things that’ll push Christians to the economic/employment margins, another was talking about entering the fray on weekend penalty rates because of the importance of protecting our ability to rest; a lesson in part taught by the Biblical concept of the Sabbath. His prediction is that work is going to creep into more and more time in the average week.

I didn’t get the impression that either of these thinkers (and they’re both pretty smart) were grappling with how technology might disrupt the status quo and change the nature of work; they both seemed to be talking about the future of work as we know it undisrupted work, the future of work as defined by companies whose interest is in sustaining current companies and incrementally improving current practices. I’d suggest both of them are inclined to be conservative in their outlook (politically, and socially) so more likely to be concerned about our ability, as Christians, to participate in traditional social institutions, and more likely to think in terms of incumbent economic institutions and concerns than disruptive ones. This video from the Harvard Business Review explains a bit of the dynamic between ‘incumbents’ and ‘disruptors’

The Uber-men

I like to talk to my Uber drivers. Last week I met Thiago, he’s a Brazilian university student; he’s got a background in Industrial Design, but he’s over here studying marketing. He’s also a Christian, and we talked about church, and Jesus. His Uber driving allows him the flexibility to study, to be involved in church, and to be in a financial position, in his sharehouse, to be generous and hospitable to people. We talked about some products he had ideas for; that he wants to develop and launch, and spoke a bit about Kickstarter, and the potential for designers to raise capital for projects via crowd funding.

Then, I met Roman, he’s from Afghanistan, via New Zealand, and he’s a dad with three kids; like me. Driving for Uber gives him the flexibility to be home at dinner time, to be there for his kids; like me he’s concerned about the way our culture’s environment and approach to work and life will shape our kids. He works hard so that their mum can stay home for these vital years, but he’s glad he doesn’t have to miss time that they’re awake. The flexibility of this type of work is important to him.

Work as we know it is changing; and there’s a couple of competing views of the trajectory we’re on; both to do with technology. New technologies have always changed the way we work; that’s the heart of what technology is; in one sense technology is about the tools we use to shape our world. In one view, technology will ultimately replace work altogether, we’re heading towards a ‘post-work future’ where everything is automated. Here’s a quote from a long-form piece in The Atlantic a couple of years ago, A World Without Work.

“When they peer deeply into labor-market data, they see troubling signs, masked for now by a cyclical recovery. And when they look up from their spreadsheets, they see automation high and low—robots in the operating room and behind the fast-food counter. They imagine self-driving cars snaking through the streets and Amazon drones dotting the sky, replacing millions of drivers, warehouse stockers, and retail workers. They observe that the capabilities of machines—already formidable—continue to expand exponentially, while our own remain the same. And they wonder: Is any job truly safe?”

In an alternative, still technology driven view, technologies will continue to ‘disrupt’ traditional patterns of work in much the same way that Uber is disrupting the transport industry (and providing new opportunities for work for lots of people); this new opt-in, flexible, type of work has been described as the ‘gig-economy’… here’s a quote from McCrindle research anticipating that this will shape the workforce of the future in Australia:

Firstly, they will live longer than previous generations, work a lot later as well – into their late 60’s, they will move jobs more frequently, staying about 3 years per job, which means they will have 17 separate jobs in their life time and work in an estimated 5 careers. They will be a generation of lifelong learners having to plug back into education to upskill and retrain throughout their lives. In this era of online services like Uber, Airtasker and delivery services, we have seen the rise of the “gig-economy” and more of this generation will end up being freelancers, contractors or contingent workers than ever before. Recent research shows that a third of the national workforce currently participates in contingent work, and more than 3 in 4 employers believe that it will be the norm for people to pick up extra work through job related websites or apps.

These are two very different visions of work, underpinned by technology — the ‘post-work’ future where almost nobody works but we enjoy machine driven prosperity (and work is largely in the creative/design space of technological innovation, or in the arts, including the ‘technological arts’), and the ‘gig-economy’ where we harness technology to be able to work on our own terms according to our own schedules and desires (which does have the potential to lead to very terrible ‘work-life’ balance, even more than the death of penalty rates on weekends). Both these visions remove some power and prestige from ‘status quo’ careers that occupy the centre of our society.

If the guy I heard speak about the future of work for Christians in Australia is right; if we’re facing a sort of pressure that will squeeze us out of roles at the centre of the social order (and of a particular sort of influence) and out to the margins, then the gig-economy offers a sort of refuge for us. He was relatively pessimistic about the impact of these changes; suggesting that for the first time, Christian parents in our country face the possibility that our children will not be as comfortable as we are; that they’ll be worse off. Which for many parents will be a sort of rude shock, and a thing that every part of our natural inclinations will rage against. It’s a very possible vision of the future. And this guy wasn’t offering analysis beyond the descriptive/predictive about whether or not this is actually a good thing for Christians… I think he’d also acknowledge that there are many ways that ‘less comfortable’ is both a good and necessary thing, and that there might be some good outcomes for Christians operating as a subversive community at the margins. I want to be hopefully optimistic, not just because such a position will remove us Christians from some of the gravitational pull of some big idols in our culture — power and wealth — and allow us to speak more clearly about, and less affected by, those idols, but also because real disruption comes from the margins. What marginalisation represents is an opportunity to properly innovate apart from the status quo; and the status quo is actually toxic; we’re no better than Ephesus in Paul’s day; and the Gospel should threaten the profits of those who profit from peddling destructive idols now, just as it did then. It can’t if we’re complicit in the systems that sustain those idols… and let’s not kid ourselves; the way we approach work is fundamentally defined by the gods (or God) we worship, here’s a little more from that Atlantic article, bolded for emphasis.

“Futurists and science-fiction writers have at times looked forward to machines’ workplace takeover with a kind of giddy excitement, imagining the banishment of drudgery and its replacement by expansive leisure and almost limitless personal freedom. And make no mistake: if the capabilities of computers continue to multiply while the price of computing continues to decline, that will mean a great many of life’s necessities and luxuries will become ever cheaper, and it will mean great wealth—at least when aggregated up to the level of the national economy.

But even leaving aside questions of how to distribute that wealth, the widespread disappearance of work would usher in a social transformation unlike any we’ve seen. If John Russo is right, then saving work is more important than saving any particular job. Industriousness has served as America’s unofficial religion since its founding. The sanctity and preeminence of work lie at the heart of the country’s politics, economics, and social interactions. What might happen if work goes away?

What if work as we know it ends? Is a life without work even a thing that is remotely possible or desirable given who we are as humans?

My own sense of where we’re headed as a society is somewhere closer to the McCrindle prediction than the Atlantic’s post-work future. Christians may well be excluded from ‘traditional institutions’ in this future because of our convictions, but these institutions might themselves have been disrupted (or marginalised). I’m also optimistic that our Christian convictions, and a more imaginative, non-status quo, vision of humanity, work and the world might lead us to be innovators and ‘creatives’ who benefit from these changes (though perhaps those benefits won’t be felt in economic terms). There is an opportunity, if the McCrindle conclusions are right (and even if the future looks more like ‘post-work’) for Christians to be disruptive in ways that reflect our rejection of our world’s status quo when it comes to the place of work in a materialistic, idolatrous (greedy) culture built on consumption and perpetual productivity growth. Part of us being truly disruptive will rely on us, as Christians, training a generation of innovators and entrepreneurs who look for opportunities to disrupt; particularly opportunities born out of our convictions about what is wrong with the status quo; particularly our society’s understanding of what work is, and what work is for.

But this might require us re-tooling the way we understand work in our world, and our place in it; it’ll definitely mean we need to be disrupted first, so that we’re able to spot the ways in which the idolatry of our age has crept into how we approach work, including the work we do, and why we do it. In this series I’ll unpack some more on the nature of work and what drives us to work, what the ends of work are (as opposed to the end of work), and think about how we might approach the future of work as Christians with a hopeful optimism and a desire to disrupt.

Matthew’s Gospel: Cool story; just enough dragons

I’m loving our current series on Matthew’s Gospel at Creek Road… the catch is that it might make blogging here a little more irregular than usual over the next 10 weeks.

It’s a series not just inspired by reading Matthew’s Gospel and noticing how much supernatural stuff is happening around its ‘epic’ story; it’s not just inspired by observing that Jesus follows the ‘Hero’s Journey’ common in many epics, it’s not just inspired by Charles Taylor’s analysis of the problem with disenchanted modern-western ‘secular age’ life, or by Tolkien and Lewis’s writings on the Gospel being ‘true myth’… it’s not just a series featuring some pretty fantastic (in every sense) graphic design stuff… It’s all of that… and it has a kids spot series thing with dragons! Cause in some sense the Gospel story is the ultimate dragon slaying story (I mean, seriously, read Revelation — that’s what Jesus does).

You can check out the talks from the series online, and the kids spots, and here’s 13 ‘studies’ written for our Growth Groups… plus some of the team will write blog posts like this one from time to time. Like this one I wrote this week. I’ve often been defensive when people have suggested that Christianity is akin to the belief in fairy stories; I recently decided to embrace it, this post explains why.

“Atheist philosopher A.C Grayling is one of those who wants to dismiss belief in more than the natural world as the equivalent of belief in fairy stories as though that’s a bad thing. He sometimes calls himself an ‘a-fairyist’ because “this properly implies that there is nothing supernatural in the universe – no fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses.”

No magic. No enchantment. Nothing to answer the longing of our heart for something more, except, perhaps, technology and science. It’s a soul-crushing story. And man-made technology can’t deliver on the desires of our god-made hearts. Technology over-promises and under-delivers. You just have to walk into a crowded space full of people alone-together; captivated by smartphone screens and desiring to be anywhere-but-here, or look at how technology is used to make us more efficient killers, or more brain-addled addicts, to see that technology crushes hope and desire as much as it might answer them.

The story of the Gospel answers our longing for meaning beyond simply the natural; in Jesus, the fully divine, fully human, hero we our desire for life to be enchanted is met with the one who shows us how the natural and supernatural overlap and are completely inter-woven, rather than separate streams of reality.”

Australian Stories: On resting in and wrestling with the paradox of modern Australia on Australia Day as a Christian

Twice a year I get invited to speak to a bunch of American (and sometimes Canadian) university students on an exchange program about ‘what it means to be Australian’… I confess it’s not a question I’d thought much about until my friend who runs the program asked me onto this panel.

On Australian Stories

I’ve been more deliberate in thinking about this question since the first time around; it makes me look and sound smarter; so I’ve become more deliberate in how I approach Australia Day, and in how I understand the ‘Australian Story’ (or, rather, stories). I’ve decided that the answer to the question ‘what does it mean to be Australian?’ is often profoundly shaped by how you understand the ‘Australian Story’ (and how many stories you recognise). There are, I believe, four fundamental stories always intersecting in the Australian identity (and in many Australian family stories, and so in many individuals).

  1. The Indigenous story: a story of invasion, dispossession and perpetual systemic injustice perpetrated by those in power, and reflected in the surrounding culture.
  2. The ‘Establishment’ story: a story of the expansion of the British empire (including membership in the Commonwealth, a system of government, an established religion and ‘establishment’ high culture).
  3. The ‘Convict’ story: a story of getting one over the establishment from back home; who sent our people to paradise as a ‘punishment’ for very small misdemeanours, who were brutal when we arrived, but who eventually released us into a land of opportunity. There’s an amalgam of these two stories in the ‘settler story’ which is a story of deliberate migration for new opportunity.
  4. The ‘Migrant’ story: this story is a more recent version of the settler story; it’s of people who’ve arrived post-establishment, seeking opportunity and prosperity. This included the gold rushes, the waves of immigration from Europe (especially Italy and Ireland), and more recently immigration from Asia. There’s a subset of this story that includes both refugees and asylum seekers.

Before being confronted with this question for the purposes of this class, I’d almost assumed that to be Australian was pretty much to be like me… to really love the idea of multiculturalism (especially the food); to have almost no sense of my ‘European’ heritage, and to believe that most of my view of Australia had been developed in my formative years growing up in a country town on the east coast. I was definitely aware that there were ‘other’ Australian stories out there that were part of the tapestry of Aussie life; the community I grew up in had a relatively large indigenous population, living in a city meant I’d spent more time with first and second generation migrant families from various places (especially from within Asia), and living in North Queensland and promoting Ingham and Charters Towers as holiday destinations built on their Italian and gold rush histories meant I was aware of different historic influxes of migrants who’d arrived in Australia seeking opportunity.

Despite being someone who’s possibly a bit of a European mixed bag of ‘establishment English’ (on my mother’s side), and Irish settler (though probably not convict side), I think the story I most closely resonated with was that of the convict; sent off to ‘purgatory’ by the stuffy British establishment only to end up in paradise. There’s an anti-authoritarian streak in Aussie culture borne out of this story, and reinforced by the possibly inept expressions of rule from the ‘mother country’ particularly in the trenches when we’ve gone off to fight for the Commonwealth. I’d say this is the story my public school education reinforced for me. I’ve become increasingly aware, the more I pay attention online to what Sydney Anglicans (as a generalised tribe) seem to believe about the ‘establishment church’ and Australian history (including the narrative that Australia was a ‘Christian country’ at European settlement) that there are other ‘stories’ out there that people tell about what it means to be Australian (my bias is to the convict/settler narrative I tend not to take this claim seriously because pretty much as soon as convicts were freed from having to go to church, they stopped)… I suspect, though I don’t have first hand experience, that this ‘establishment’ narrative operates in ‘establishment’ schools (especially church and private schools that come from the ‘establishment’ set). This is a different story to the anti-establishment story I’d had in my head about what being Australian is, and it leads to all sorts of different places when it comes to life now.

Stories matter. They really really matter. Our identity doesn’t just come from our tribe, or our ‘preferences,’ or what we choose for ourselves as though our humanity is some sort of blank slate that we, as individuals, are the only people get to write on. Your slate is written on before you are born, and as you are raised… and the thing that most shapes what is written is the story you are born into, and brought up believing.

On ‘Australia Day’ as contested ground in these Australian stories

The story we tell ourself about what it means to be Australian matters (which is why the ‘history wars’ were a thing when it came to the curriculum for teaching Aussie history in schools).

It shapes our understanding of what both progressive and conservative political agendas look like, because it orients us in particular ways to government, the world, our ‘history’, and the ‘ideal’ Australian story (typically subjectively viewed from our own story). Both the ‘establishment’ and ‘convict’ stories start at roughly the same point — some time around the 26th of January in 1788, which has become ‘Australia Day’ — which is a shame given that Australian history starts much, much earlier. There’s another story. One I’ve become increasingly convicted that I should be listening to in order to understand being an Aussie.

One of the results of being confronted with my default ignorance about what it means to be Australian by having to explain it to some outsiders (American students) is a desire to pay attention to other Australian stories. This has shaped the way I’ve understood and approached Australia Day this year. My neighbours are, mostly (to give them plausible deniability), like me. Their stories are like mine. Australia Day on our street has been one of the best parties of the year and it represents all that is good about my story. Over the last few years we celebrated this story in our Australia Day street party. Last year, our church family held a BBQ on Australia Day to celebrate the migrant story; and particularly that our church community embraces those who’ve come to Australia as asylum seekers (in this we were deliberately modelling an alternative Australian story; a kind of subtle protest movement against an Australia Day that has, in parts, become an ugly sort of ‘patriotic’ celebration of a particularly exclusive Australian story. This year, we did both these things again, but because I decided to consciously seek out another story, the first Australian story, I also attended a service of lament and prayer organised by a local Indigenous Christian Leader, Aunty Jean Phillips.

There were amazing things about this service that I’ll get to below; but it was a profound telling of that first Australian story, and the modern day implications of that story being over-written by other ‘Australian’ stories. The more I am confronted with this first story the more I recognise what drives the marches, the tent embassies, and the other efforts indigenous people make to have their story told, and the injustices it contains heard, recognised, and dealt with. I learned, as I listened in this service, that I shouldn’t speak as though there’s just ‘one first Australian story’… there were, I’m told (because this is how we learn stories) 300 indigenous nations living on this grand island. There are lots of stories about what it means to be Australian that come from our first people; and there’s little doubt that when European settlers declared Australia terra nullius and then set about establishing a colony of the commonwealth, part of what happened was a reflection of a desire to bring many of these stories to an end. And yet they, like the people who own these stories, survive. They survive as a testimony that terra nullius was a lie; as a testimony of resilience, and as a reminder that part of the settlement story was very, very, ugly.

There are things I love about my own ‘Australian story’… things I want to celebrate on ‘Australia Day’ that come from British settlement (but things that don’t necessarily need to be celebrated on the 26th of January).

I love our lifestyle, the laconic approach to almost everything, our in-built egalitarianism that means people are quite happy to think of our leaders as ‘mates’ (which also underpins the good bits of our democracy), there’s a dark side to this, of course, which manifests itself in tall poppy syndrome.

I love the sort of innovation that drives Aussies, born out of a need to survive in the harsher parts of our terrain. I love that some of our innovation is geared towards making laziness (or relaxing) more possible. One of my favourite things about visiting my pa, on the Campbell side, who was a sort of rural entrepreneur in country New South Wales, was finding little ‘fixes’ he’d installed around his house and shed (like belts cut in half and nailed to walls to keep the gates open or shut), this was a man who had owned stakes in produce stores, a piggery, and would buy farm machinery to on sell at a profit. When I think of what it means to be Australian, he’s the first picture I get in my head. I love everything about ‘Australia’ the image of my pa conjures in my head; I’ve got this romanticised notion of who he was, no doubt, and my own sense of what it means to be Australian includes the beaches of the north coast of New South Wales, and cane farmers, cane fires, and fishermen who run trawlers.

Now I’m citified, I love that being Australian means the easy availability of cuisines from many different cultures, and that my kids will go to school alongside people from many nations who now call Australia home.

I think it’s totally legit to look for an opportunity to celebrate these things. I love that I can do that with my neighbours and friends who share many of these loves (or similar loves when it comes to their own histories) and hold them as common goods that Australians enjoy as a result of our shared stories.

As a Christian, I also love that the Gospel of Jesus made it to these shores with European settlers (but hate how this Gospel is associated, forever, with what some of these settlers did), including, for example, the devoutly Christian governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, who it is said believed “that the Protestant religion and British institutions were indispensable both for liberty and for a high material civilisation” (there’s a Christian leadership institute named after Macquarie and a secular university). He was almost certainly a Christian (I mean, I can’t say that anyone certainly is), but also, certainly, part of the ugly side of Australian settlement. Here’s an excerpt from his diary.

“I therefore, tho (sic), very unwillingly felt myself compelled, from a paramount sense of public duty, to come to the painful resolution of chastising these hostile tribes, and to inflict terrible and exemplary punishments upon…

I have this day ordered three separate military detachments to march into the interior and remote parts of the colony, for the purpose of punishing the hostile natives, by clearing the country of them entirely, and driving them across the mountains.

“In the event of the natives making the smallest show of resistance — or refusing to surrender when called upon so to do — the officers commanding the military parties have been authorised to fire on them to compel them to surrender; hanging up on trees the bodies of such natives as may be killed on such occasions, in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors.” — Orders from New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie, 1816.

Australia’s history is messy. Ugly. This is true, as far as I know, of every human nation. We’re not unique in this; nor are we really unique in wanting to live in blissful ignorance, or comfortable denial, or to not be held responsible for the ugliness of our nation’s past. That this is true of all nations.

That I, personally, wasn’t responsible for the way Europeans arrived in Australia, doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from European settlement (in a way that others have not), or from the stories we’re told, and that we tell, about what it means to be Australian. This benefit is part of what people talk about when they talk about privilege; that, and that the ‘establishment’ looks and talks like me and largely identifies with the same story. The white bloke who signed that order quoted above, Lachlan Macquarie, looked like me; spoke like me; could well be my ancestor; and it’s a sort of chronological snobbery to assume that I would’ve been able to avoid the evil he was part of perpetrating through these orders had I been in his shoes. It’s absolutely true that I wasn’t responsible for how the first Australians were treated by British migrants, but I am, in part, responsible for how they are treated today. It’s possible that in denying responsibility for our history, we also avoid taking on responsibility for our future. It’s absolutely true that many Aussies aren’t racists and hate the situation our first Australians find themselves in when it comes to health, imprisonment, education and life expectancy; but it’s individuals who build and renew systems.

This all brings me back to the 26th of January; which, since 1994, has been a federally recognised and public holiday, celebrated nationally: Australia Day.

But whose Australia is celebrated on this day?

In which stories is this a day for celebration?

In the establishment story it represents the expansion of empire and the arrival of a certain sort of civilisation, technology, and worldview (including the religion of the establishment, Christianity).

In the convict story it represents the start of us getting one over the bigwigs who sent us to a country of sun and surf from their rainy misery; a chance for us to embrace our anti-establishment, egalitarian, tendencies and our valuing of mateship (and beer). 

In the migrant story, perhaps it is this settlement that made Australia a desirable destination to seek opportunity, prosperity or a fresh start.

In my own ‘story’; there’s little to no chance I’d exist, let alone exist in somewhere as amazing as Australia, if it wasn’t for European settlement, on this basis it’s hard for me to think that that first Australia Day was entirely a bad thing. It’s also quite probable that some sort of ‘conquest’ or settlement of Australia was going to happen without the British; and it’s possible that settlement would have been as bad, or worse, than British settlement… possible… but what we know for sure is that British settlement included such poetic instructions as ‘hang their bodies on the most public tree possible to terrorise their friends and family’… and that’s a real part of our history that we must confront, and be confronted by. It’s a part of our history that in some real way began around the 26th of January with the planting of the Union Jack on the shores of Sydney.

What are we celebrating on the 26th of January?

There are definitely good things that exist in Australia now because of how history has unfolded; there are things that are particularly good when viewed in the context of particular ‘Australian’ stories. But in the first Australians’ stories; well, I can, when I read things like Macquarie’s orders, and listen to the stories of indigenous friends and leaders of different indigenous communities, recognise that the 26th of January, this day, is not a day for celebration, but lament and anger. And it’s in moments like this that I need to consider the limits of my own story (especially its subjectivity), and ‘check my privilege’…

There are, also, things I don’t love about modern Australia; an ugliness that comes from, what I think in part is unchecked or unrealised privilege, and that is related, ironically, to our ‘settlement stories’. It certainly also comes from us wanting to honour the Australia shaped by people like my pa; the way of life and common goods they’ve carved out in living out the ‘settlement’ stories (either convict or establishment).

For many people there’s a good and natural desire to conserve things our ancestors have lived for and that have been produced through the ‘Australian story’ that is a sum total of all the Australian stories… but I suspect our treatment of asylum seekers is the product of a particular sub-story about what it means to be Australian… and I’m not sure this story is the one that should be our dominant story. But our treatment of asylum seekers (increasingly if the One Nation narrative picks up steam) comes from the idea that Australia is our country, and that our borders and lifestyle should be maintained against foreigners who come by boat and threaten our way of life. I hate what this leads us to do to those seeking asylum among us; those who’ve fled war, or persecution, who we lock up and systematically dehumanise for our own safety and security. I hate that we don’t recognise the inconsistency at the heart of this treatment of boat arrivals (and love the way I’ve heard the indigenous community speak of a desire to welcome and resettle refugees; which compounds the irony). I hate that we don’t recognise that this same desire to conserve a way of life is not something those who launched our ‘stories’ offered to the first nations people.

I hear indigenous Australians call for a change of date and I recognise the pain behind that call… and ultimately I think it’s the call of the indigenous community — the wronged — that we should hear.

It is clear that the 26th of January is not a day for unmitigated celebration of modern Australian life; and that the championing of a single Australian story is unhelpful anyway. If there was public will to change the date then that might be a very good thing indeed.

But my own (perhaps privileged) inclination is to leave ‘Australia Day’ on a contested date in order to make us sit with the paradox that is life in Australia. There is so much to love. So much to embrace. So much to celebrate. But there is also so much to hate. So much to overcome. So much to lament. And it is possible that attempting to do both — to experience the ‘contest’ of many Australian stories internally and to have that shape our own ‘story’ might lead to a better and more compassionate Australia; to a better future.

I’ve seen a few other people (all white so far, and mostly from the ‘establishment’ story) make this suggestion, and I’m offering it very tentatively; and I’m offering it largely because as a Christian I believe that grappling with paradoxes, rather than seeking neat resolution, is where real wisdom and progress towards what is good comes from. As G.K Chesterton put it:

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

I’d like Australia to get over the difficulty of combining our contested stories by recognising that there is meaning, and warning, and opportunity in the midst of the conflict, not in victory/simplicity (the One Nation approach), or in elegant conflict-avoiding resolution (a date change). But, I recognise that I say this as someone who has the privilege of a story free from being a victim of the ‘fury’ of one of these stories, and that the elegant solution of changing the date is far better than most of the alternatives… I suspect keeping it would mean not just us white Aussies lamenting at the evil in our own story; but hearing the voices raised in protest of our first Australians; and it would only be of any value if we were really committed to listening to these voices and having them change our shared story in ways that bring meaningful, tangible, change to our future.

Whatever happens with the date, there’s a way that is better by far in terms of bringing real change. The way of Jesus.

How the Gospel story ‘contests’ this contest, and provides a better resolution (and how Aunty Jean models this)

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

Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles…” — 1 Peter 2:10-11

There’s a tension at the heart of being a Christian when it comes to our national identity; we believe that God is sovereign and places us (as in gives us a place to live) as ‘storied creatures’ (who exist in time and space and do things, and inherit ‘stories’ from those who come before us), but we also believe that as Christians our story is profoundly changed from what it was before; in such a way that our first ‘belonging’; our first ‘story’ is not our family story, or national story, but the story of the mercy we receive through Jesus which makes us into a new family; a new kingdom (a kingdom of priests cf 1 Peter 2:8-10). We become ‘foreigners’ even in lands we call home; lands we’re born into, perhaps with thousands of years of family history.

This isn’t to say our place, and our stories, and our families, don’t matter; they still profoundly do. We’ve just got another story in the mix that trumps the default, self-interested, reactions that happen when human stories are contested like they are for us on January 26.

And this is why I loved Aunty Jean’s service of prayer and lament (which was not just Aunty Jean’s, but thoughtfully constructed by Brooke Prentis from Common Grace). Aunty Jean is passionate about her people; but passionately believes the best thing for them is not tied to the Australian story but to the Gospel story. She’s said this thing to me a few times, and said it in this service; the great hope for indigenous Australians is found in the cross of Jesus. And she means this. And she lives it. Lots of Aussies — indigenous and white — were protesting today, and I can understand this; Aunty Jean wants Christians to be praying; and what she models in this is a deep understanding of life as an ‘exile’; life as a foreigner in a country where her people have roots that are significantly deeper than mine; she lives as one who believes that forgiveness and embrace is the key to contested stories; not conflict and exclusion or exclusivity.

There’s a letter from the early church, the Epistle of Diognetus, which talks about what life as ‘exiles’ looks like. The writer (probably someone called Mathetes, says of Christians, that they don’t look profoundly different to the people of the surrounding culture; they don’t live in their own cities and speak their own language, they dress the same, eat the same, and mostly live the same in the ‘ordinary’ stuff… but somehow “they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” He says:

“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers… They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”

This epistle is a powerful sort of concept, and let me tell you, it’s powerful to witness. Because I see it in Aunty Jean. Aunty Jean who as a member of a people horribly oppressed responds in incredible love and compassion for her people, but extends that love to others, even to those who number with the oppressors. Aunty Jean who is a dynamo, who’ll embrace anyone who is prepared to journey with her towards a vision of reconciliation built on the mercy of God displayed in Jesus.

I’ve had the utter privilege of spending some time listening to Aunty Jean in the last few months, of hearing her vision for Australia, and for her people, of hearing her desire to raise up new indigenous leaders who are committed to the Gospel of Jesus, of wanting to see her people better embraced by the Australian church, and of wanting to see the church speak up with her in pursuit of justice where injustice exists. And I’ve caught a bit of this from her.

Our story is the story of a God who doesn’t just take ugly stories and make them new (which he does in us); he takes the ugliness of extreme human evil, and uses it for his good purposes. That’s what the story of the Cross is; the ugliness of the human heart on display, but the beauty of God’s reconciling love overpowering that evil (which is why I think there’s maybe some hope for Australia bringing our messed up stories together to make something beautiful). Our story is a story that calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus; the Jesus who calls us to love our enemies, and calls for the forgiveness of those jeering him as he’s crucified… which when you understand the whole point of the Cross — is actually a picture of what Jesus is offering all of us… and there’s no part of the lives, stories, and identities of those who follow Jesus where that call, and that example, does not reach. And wow. It’s powerful when you see that lived in the context of these conflicting Aussie stories surrounding Australia Day.

Our job is to take up the picture of the kingdom of Jesus we’re offered in his story, the Gospel, and in its ending, which is found in the last pages of the Bible, and to live lives oriented towards that. It’s a powerful picture and that’s part of what compels us to live as exiles. A picture of life where our old stories of pain, and suffering, and evil, are done away with and all things are made new. A story built on reconciliation with God, that leads to reconciliation across historic and present enmity, with others.

Aunty Jean is committed to a sort of peacemaking that comes from having the story of the Cross of Jesus as her first story. She, and Common Grace’s Brooke Prentis, definitely want us to hear the story of our first Australians, and to respond with love and compassion; but they don’t tell that story in a way that leads to guilt or in a way that amplifies the contest; they tell it in a way that helps us to see an alternative future. And they don’t just tell the story, they live it.

It’s the “privilege” of the victim in the utterly subversive way that the Gospel story is lived, to be the one who can magnify the truth of the Gospel by offering forgiveness (this isn’t a thing you get to force either… it’s just beautiful when you see it. And it’s the privilege of the “privileged” in the Gospel story, to be prepared to give up privilege for the sake of the other). When it comes to Australia’s history the ‘privilege’ line is pretty clearly not the Indigenous Australians whose ongoing survival seems miraculous,

This ‘Australia Day’, it was Aunty Jean (and those she leads by this example) who modelled a way forward towards a better Australia to me, and if it looked like her vision for Australia, it’d be a beautiful place worth celebrating on any and every day.