The Worship Wars (5): Fighting to win in a worshipping community

Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves… Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts. When we realize that worship is also about formation, we will begin to appreciate why form matters. The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves toward the kingdom, so we need to be intentional about the Story that is carried in those practices. — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

worship-wars

It has been a while since the last official post in this series, but there have been two more recent posts that really should make this a seven part series (it’s just that in part 4 I promised one more to tie things up; turns out I was wrong, and this is now the penultimate post because I split it in two).

So here’s a quick re-cap with tl:dr; summaries of each post so far.

  1. Part one argued that the fundamental truth about our humanity is that ‘you are what you worship’ and so suggested that the real worship wars aren’t so much about what style of music or liturgy your church employs on a Sunday, but about the war for our hearts, desires, and imaginations that goes on 24/7. Real worship happens as the habitual/liturgical living out of a story that shapes us by capturing our love so that we sacrifice.
  2. Part two argued that the fights about music in church got one thing right; how we worship really matters. It suggests that one implication of the battle for our worship between God and our idolatrous hearts is that gathering as the church on a Sunday is important, but won’t be enough to win the war.
  3. Part three explored this ‘worship as habits living out a story of the flourishing life’ (thanks James K.A Smith, Augustine, and the Bible) and the power of idolatrous worship by considering pornography use as a form of defective and deadly worship that conscripts the hands, hearts, and imagination such that a person (and culture) is shaped by this ‘shared’ worship.
  4. Part four started to chart a way forward in the worship wars; which involved: a) seeing ourselves as living in a world where lots of things vie for our worship because the evil one loves us to worship idols, b) knowing our enemies, c) seeing that winning the war requires real worship of the real God, d) seeing that attack is the best form of defence; that we beat idols via ‘the expulsive power of a new affection’ and donning the ‘armour of God’ (Ephesians 6) not just by guarding our hearts.
  5. As a bonus I considered how my weight loss program was a form of idolatrous worship built on these building blocks, and examined some unexpected consequences of adopting new habits.
  6. Then how going to Westfield to do my Christmas shopping was joining a bunch of worshippers in a modern temple.

It’ll be clear to anyone who reads the snippets of different books quoted in these posts that much of what I’ve written is simply articulating the framework James K.A Smith has been developing in his books Imagining The Kingdom, Desiring The Kingdom, and You Are What You Love. Smith loves Augustine and David Foster Wallace too, so I’ve very much enjoyed these works from the series because they are, in many ways, articulating a framework I’m deeply convinced of too… I’ve also just finished reading the most excellent and provocative Liturgy Of The Ordinary: Sacred Practices In Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Wells, which is a companion piece, of sorts, to Smith’s ‘Cultural Liturgies’ series. These books are a great resource when it comes to seeing the problem posed by our heart’s desire to be pointed at something (or claimed by something), but I’m not entirely convinced their answers (in sum: a return to ancient, tried and true ‘liturgy’) are for everybody. Smith’s emphasis is largely placed on Sunday-as-worship (and especially the liturgical shaping of a worship experience around word and sacrament), Wells expands Smith’s insight to consider how the shape of a classic liturgical service might be reflected in the shape of the everyday. I’m unpersuaded by this, at least so far as what worship that keeps my own heart pointed and ordered by the Gospel might look like, though I should say I’m thoroughly persuaded of their critique of a tendency for churches to respond to the way things outside the church are capturing our hearts by making church feel more like a cafe or the shopping centre… I also totally share their conception about what the ends, or telos, of worship and ‘church’ are, and how worship relates to the God we meet in the Gospel… I love this selection of quotes from You Are What You Love:

The practices of the church are also a spiritual workout, inviting us into routines that train our heart muscles, our fundamental desires that govern how we move and act in the world…

Our sanctification—the process of becoming holy and Christlike—is more like a Weight Watchers program than listening to a book on tape. If sanctification is tantamount to closing the gap between what I know and what I do (no longer reading Wendell Berry in Costco, essentially), it means changing what I want. And that requires submitting ourselves to disciplines and regimens that reach down into our deepest habits. The Spirit of God meets us in that space—in that gap—not with lightning bolts of magic but with the concrete practices of the body of Christ that conscript our bodily habits.

Christian worship is the heart of discipleship just to the extent that it is a repertoire of practices shaped by the biblical story. Only worship that is oriented by the biblical story and suffused with the Spirit will be a counterformative practice that can undo the habituations of rival, secular liturgies.

The Scriptures seep into us in a unique way in the intentional, communal rituals of worship. If we want to be a people oriented by a biblical worldview and guided by biblical wisdom, one of the best spiritual investments we can make is to mine the riches of historic Christian worship, which is rooted in the conviction that the Word is caught more than it is taught.

While worship is entirely embodied, it is not only material; and though worship is wholly natural, it is never only natural. Christian worship is nothing less than an invitation to participate in the life of the Triune God.

Those of us who inhabit postmodernity have so much to learn from ancient Christians… the rituals and liturgies of their surrounding culture were much more overt—for example, their civic political spaces were unabashedly temples, whereas ours traffic under euphemisms (stadiums, capitols, universities)—early Christians were more intentional about and conscious of the practices they adopted for worship. The heart and soul of their liturgical life hearkened back to Israel, but they didn’t simply “Jesufy” the synagogue. There was faithful innovation as the disciples sought to discern the rhythms and practices that would constitute the community of Christ. This included responding specifically to Jesus’s commands (giving us baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for example), but it also included careful selection, reappropriation, and reorientation of formative cultural practices into the repertoire of kingdom-indexed liturgy. Thus, over time, the body of Christ continued to discern the scripts that should characterize a worshiping community centered on the ascended Christ who prayed for kingdom come.

To be conformed to the image of his Son is not only to think God’s thoughts after him but to desire what God desires. That requires the recalibration of our heart-habits and the recapturing of our imagination, which happens when God’s Word becomes the orienting center of our social imaginary, shaping our very perception of things before we even think about them. So, like the secular liturgies of the mall or the stadium or the frat house, Christian liturgies can’t just target the intellect: they also work on the body, conscripting our desires through the senses.

All these are fantastic; but where he goes (and where Wells goes with him) will not, I suspect, work for us all; though I’d suggest they (and the others they draw on through church history and in the Bible) do provide the scaffolding for us.

Forming (or de-forming) worship in a gods-saturated age

Like Athens when Paul visited, gods are on every corner in our so-called ‘secular’ age; and this ‘habit-shaping,’ ‘ritual,’ worship takes many forms

Smith has quite a bit to say about how important the forms of our worship are, within the life of the church, not simply the content (which is pretty much taking Marshall McLuhan’s insights that ‘the medium is the message’ and applying them to the life of the church…here’s his critique of churches that have tended to simply imitate the ‘forms’ found in rival ‘worship’ (like the gym, or the shopping centre) by creating church services that are ‘hip’, consumer-driven things where worship is ‘expressive’ rather than enacted, habitual, ritual with a vision of the image of the ‘good life’ (Jesus), and a ‘narrative’ (the Gospel)  shaping these habitually repeated actions (so that the form is important).

With the best of intentions, this “expressive” paradigm is then allied to a questionable distinction between the form of worship and the content of the gospel. The concrete shape and practices of Christian worship, passed down through the centuries, are considered merely optional forms—or even whited sepulchers of dead ritual—that can and should be discarded in order to communicate the gospel “message” in ways that are contemporary, attractive, and relevant. In our desire to embed the gospel content in forms that are attractional, accessible, and not off-putting, we look around for contemporary cultural forms that are more familiar. Instead of asking contemporary seekers and Christians to inhabit old, stodgy medieval practices that are foreign and strange, we retool worship by adopting contemporary practices that can be easily entered precisely because they are so familiar.

“Rather than the daunting, spooky ambience of the Gothic cathedral, we invite people to worship in the ethos of the coffee shop, the concert, or the mall. Confident in the form/content distinction, we believe we can distill the gospel content and embed it in these new forms, since the various practices are effectively neutral: just temporal containers for an eternal message. We distill “Jesus” out of the inherited, ancient forms of historic worship (which we’ll discard as “traditional”) in order to present Jesus in forms that are both fresh and familiar: come meet Jesus in the sanctified experience of a coffee shop; come hear the gospel in a place that should feel familiar since we’ve modeled it after the mall. The problem, of course, is that these “forms” are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message. As we’ve seen already, what are embraced as merely fresh forms are, in fact, practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life…

So when we distill the gospel message and embed it in the form of the mall, while we might think we are finding a fresh way for people to encounter Christ, in fact the very form of the practice is already loaded with a way of construing the world. The liturgy of the mall is a heart-level education in consumerism that construes everything as a commodity available to make me happy. When I encounter “Jesus” in such a liturgy, rather than encountering the living Lord of history, I am implicitly being taught that Jesus is one more commodity available to make me happy. And while I might eagerly want to add him to my shelf of stuff, we shouldn’t confuse this appropriation with discipleship.”

Then he talks specifically about how these ‘forms’ work in the context of Christian worship, of the sort he believes offers a genuine solution…

“By the “form” of worship I mean two things: (1) the overall narrative arc of a service of Christian worship and (2) the concrete, received practices that constitute elements of that enacted narrative.”

Here’s one little bit of pushback on this stuff on ‘forms’ before we move on; as I was bombarded with preachy emails from The Commando during my 12 week fitness challenge, I couldn’t help but feel that he’d actually flogged his approach from the church, and there might be times when we’re actually just taking our forms back, as well as times when we might ‘plunder gold from Egypt’; if we pay attention to the ‘forms’ that form people it’s not totally beyond a robust doctrine of creation to spoil Egypt to preach Christ (that’s totally Augustinian, too, in On Christian Teaching). A ‘true form’ can be used by those peddling falsehood to achieve deformation; and we need to be careful that those ‘forms of historic worship’ weren’t simply the ‘mall’ of their day (so, for example, the Roman household, or association, or the ‘sacred’ practices designed by the culture of the church through the ages.

I’m with Smith on forms being as important as content; especially because I think there’s two more elements at play in how we do church/worship together (and how church works) that fit with this Augustinian paradigm (or indeed, with us being made as people who bear the image of whatever we worship, and people who are made to relate to others in cultures built around common objects of worship):

  1. The church and its worship is the plausibility structure for the Gospel; and the way we love and worship reflecting the Gospel helps us to believe, and non-believers to come to belief when they see us worship (see 1 Corinthians 14, and 1 John).
  2. Any persuasion to change is driven more by what we do (ethos) and imitation than by what we say; the quickest way to undermine what we say is to do differently.

The form of our community and its life and love together expressed in our shared practices has to line up with the message we preach about a crucified and resurrected Lord who loves us by laying down his life in our place to forgive our sins and restore our relationship with God. Our worship is our ‘shared practice’ of living out this message, and following the example of Jesus, of whom Marshall McLuhan said:

“In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same”

The shape of our worship matters, and I’m not so sure its enough simply for our worship to be reflecting on the Gospel story via historic liturgies, but also participating in re-telling the Gospel story via deliberate acts of sacrificial love that consciously reflect the message we believe and so shape us. That’s fundamentally what the sacraments do, of course. I’m sure that these ancient forms of worship that Smith is speaking about, and the applications of the elements of a liturgical service to daily life Wells puts forward do that; but they don’t exclusively do that (ie there are other ways to skin this cat), and I’d argue there’s a slightly more ancient form. I suspect the apostle Paul and the early church knew a thing or two about idolatry and worship and what it does to us, it’s pretty rudimentary Judaism and he was not a rudimentary Jew…

Forming practices that go beyond Sundays

In You Are What You Love Smith writes about what it looks like for a family to take the liturgical calendar and incorporate it into the rhythms of family life, and to build new ‘rhythms’ that spring from this shape, and that’s nice and has some appeal to me as I think about what sort of rhythms family life should take in the Campbell family, and what forms I want forming my kids (and us as a family). Both Smith and Wells see worship and liturgy going beyond Sunday, but because of their emphasis on capital-L Liturgy they put huge significance on Sundays-as-worship. Sundays most definitely are worship; and an especially important part of worship because they incorporate the gathered body of believers-in-community; and let’s not understate this as an important distinctive that comes with the Gospel. Lots of idolatrous worship is individualistic and so consumer-driven that you end up consuming others as objects, not sacrificing for them. Christian worship is distinctively corporate, and other-serving. This is why Sundays are important; but it’s also why the Sunday-experience of life together is limiting. I don’t think our consumer driven approach to worship as Christians is limited to the way Sundays happen; I think the way we think of ‘church’ as ‘event’ or even ‘church’ as ‘where I go to be fed/worship God’ rather than thinking of ‘church’ as synonymous with ‘people of God’ is just as damaging. There’s a danger some who might be more inclined towards Liturgy and tradition might bring the wrong expectations to those ancient forms; just as there’s a danger that this same attitude might lead some to create new forms. Here’s where I think the Bible pushes back at this… this is a contender for most quoted verse on my blog I reckon…

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Notice Paul doesn’t say:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters… view of God’s mercy… holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Worship is something we do, but it’s not just a thing we direct vertically; towards God; worship has a dimension that includes what we do with our bodies in this world and somehow doing what Paul goes on to talk about in the rest of chapter 12 (which is directed to other people) is proper worship of God.

Also, notice he doesn’t say:

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

This worship is an attitude; a deliberate, formative, direction of our bodies that is caught up with not being conformed (or deformed) by the world (powerful when read in the context of Romans 1), which is somehow caught up with the transforming and renewing of our minds.

Also notice what he’s actually saying is:

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

This is something the ‘brothers and sisters’ he writes to are to do together. Worship is caught up in the life of the church being lived as a living sacrifice. And he gets quite specific… Here’s a list of practices that have the capacity to be rituals just as powerful as capital-L liturgy if they’re caught up in living out our ‘view of God’s mercy’…

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

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

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. — Romans 12:3-16

What if we took this; not just the liturgical calendar (which might help us to view God’s mercy); and made it the blueprint of ‘church’ and of ‘worship’ that went a long way beyond Sundays.

Sounds nice; doesn’t it? What if our ‘worship’ was built on providing a community where the church could bless one another (and the world) by sacrificially offering our ‘gifts’; this list can’t just cover Sundays; it’s about what life together looks like. Shared life. Sharing the ups and downs of life.

Ideal even?

But perhaps it sounds too idealistic in our busy modern life. Perhaps though our busyness it actually a ritual, a liturgy, or a habit that reflects our worship of some other gods — career, success, money, our identity being caught up in our ‘job’…

Here’s the thing this is actually what the early church did. This is the ‘tradition’ of the church as it is established:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” — Acts 2:42-47

This is the sort of community life that made the Gospel plausible in the first century that attracted and cultivated disciples…

This is the Romans 12 ‘worshipping community’…

This is the ‘ethos’ that reflects the Gospel, and these are the habits of life together that reinforces the Gospel message that has just been preached in Acts 2… and

We’re not really told much about their Liturgy; but we can imagine their ‘liturgy’ from these verses; we know the sacraments were part of the life of the church from Acts and the other NT letters, but they seem to be incorporated into meals and the life of the ‘family’… not just on Sundays, but meeting together ‘every day’…

This is how to win a worship war; this is what helped the early church flourish in a world soaked with idols vying for their hearts; not least of which was the Roman Emperor via the Imperial Cult. This is the sort of thick community that was both present in the world such that they ‘enjoyed the favour of all of the people’ but also capable of keeping the church standing in the face of persecution from the empire; in fact, a little later, when the empire is just figuring out how to get Christians to recant and worship the emperor, in the governor Pliny’s correspondence with the emperor Trajan, this is how the official records describe the practices of the church:

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

This ‘fixed day’ was Sunday; we know from Justyn Martyr, who wrote a substantial amount about how Sunday gatherings worked in 150AD, that Sundays were important and had a ‘Liturgy’ from pretty early on; but somehow this Liturgy was not a replacement of the Acts 2 liturgy, but part of the rhythms of church life. Sundays seem to be an expression of the community of worshippers that exists throughout the week.

“…the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.” — Justin Martyr, First Apology

This approach to life; and Sunday; which is very much God-centred, and so, other-centred, is what worship looks like; worship isn’t just a me-and-God thing, but an us-and-God thing, and that’s a powerful antidote to the worship of the fitness program or the shopping centre (and why, for example, the Get Commando Fit program works so hard at building an online community of people who are ‘in the program’ with you).

The practices that are going to fight the counter-forming practices of the idols of our world; our technology (be it social media or pornography), our relationships, our diets, our exercise program… all these come with an embedded vision of the ‘image of the life we want’… living together ‘in view of God’s mercy’ won’t always feel totally different, because it will still involve sacrifice, and a relationship via ‘habitual action’ with the things of our world (people, food, exercise, and sex are all good things God made)… but it has to be consciously shaped by a different story in the context of a living, breathing, community shaped by the Gospel story, united in Christ, given the Spirit, and working out what it looks like to pray, learn, suffer, struggle, rejoice, mourn, serve, give, eat, sin, and forgive together. I want to build the rhythms of life in our family around the activities listed in Romans 12 (and in Acts 2, and in Colossians 3, and Ephesians 6…); but I also want them to shape how I approach being part of the family of God, so that catching up for a coffee or sharing a meal is both a habit, and an opportunity to relate in the sort of way Paul describes here; to share life-in-Christ. I want this sort of generous service of others to shape the way I encourage people in our church community to spend their time (and energy, and money).

Worship can’t be a thing we do alone; it works best in relationships where we’re conscious that this is the human task; that discipleship starts with these ancient practices that reflect our shared story. It’s these practices throughout the week, not just the ‘Liturgy’ of traditional churches as practiced on Sundays, that will form us, and our loves, in a way that destroys the idols that would take our hearts captive. In the final, or ultimate, post I’ll consider what place the big-L Liturgy Smith and Wells advocate can have in this worship war.

 

14 (not easy) ‘new years resolutions’ for Christians who want to live more radically in 2017

I’ve been reading lots about how our habits are a sort of liturgy (repetitive practice/ritual) that shapes us as people as they shape what we desire. I’m terrible at habits but the times ‘habit starting’ has worked for me have involved ‘new financial year resolutions’ like giving up soft drink for a year and diets like the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation and more recently the Commando’s equivalent. Changing at the level of the ‘habitual’ is important for any ‘big’ change in who you are or how you live; and while we’re inclined to think we ‘educate’ ourselves towards change starting with the head; it’s quite possible that we actually ‘worship’ our way to change; and that this involves our desires, our imaginations, and the sort of ‘ritual’ or habitual actions we adopt as we pursue the desired and imagined image of the ideal us. As Christians our starting point should be the image of us that God desires; and for many of us that ‘image’ might feel ‘radically’ different to the images of the ‘good life’ we see in advertising, ‘fitness program’ material, and on the screens of our TVs and phones.

We have this particular sort of ‘image’ our worship shapes us into…

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. — Colossians 3:9-10

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:18

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Getting there, making the shift from old creation to new; taking off vice and putting on virtue, is fundamentally a work of God recreating us; but inasmuch as we’re involved it’s a process that might start small, at the level of new habits kicking in so that we’re taking part in our new story, rather than being a thing where we flick a switch having learned some new idea and have that change overnight.

Habits matter. It’s a good thing to make resolutions to change small things.

Because change starts with the relationship between our desires and our actions (and in our ‘sacrifice’ of our selves as an act of ‘worship’ where we bear the image of the object of those desires) each and every unit of time we divvy up; whether its the ‘year’, the month, the week, the day, the hour, the minute, or the second, is an opportunity to worship, and thus to be transformed. Whether we’re being formed, or malformed; transformed or conformed…

Radical revolutions can start small if they’re applied for a lifetime — it can be a bit like a pilot at the start of a long haul flight, where one degree of difference in the direction you fly in makes a huge amount of difference on where you end up… but changing your habits can also involve big structural change; so here are some resolutions I’d love to see more Christians taking up (that I’d like to take up for myself too). A radical revolution might involve small changes, but it might also have a very different end point that you’re shooting for, and I fear some of our resolve, as Christians, as expressed in our resolutions and the ‘steps’ we’re prepared to take, is too small.

These are the things I’m aiming to do in 2017.  Some of these suggestions are ‘small’ habits; some are abstract; some are ‘measurable and concrete’; but they’re all attempts to think about what ‘offering your bodies as a living sacrifice’ might look like in the year 2017, and it’s worth noting that the ‘your’ in Romans 12:1 is plural; this worshipping is something we’re called to do together. Some of them are drawing together stuff I’ve been pondering, preaching, or writing about in 2016. Some of them are ‘heady’; like ‘read’, some are aimed at shaping the way we love, and some are more concrete ‘repeated actions’… but these are my ‘resolutions’; coupled with some that you might do to join me in this ‘worship’…

Work at seeing the world differently through ‘media’, especially stories, and find ways to discuss what you’re reading and watching with others

Real virtue starts with seeing the world as it really is, and people as they really are; which requires getting out of the confines of your own head and its imaginings and desires, and our tendency to see other people as objects for us to do things to, or with, rather than subjects. For the Christian, real virtue comes from seeing the world the way God sees it.

1. Find ways for the Bible’s story, centred on Jesus, to ‘seep into your bones,not just be a technical book of rules and propositions about God you break into arbitrary chunks. I’ve found that I read the Bible lots for work, and for writing stuff, and that this dampens my enthusiasm for the ‘story’ the Bible tells. I’ve found reading the kids their Jesus Storybook Bible is helpful, but this year I’m planning to try something a bit different. We’re actually doing this in our first series at church this year. I’m going to get a good audio Bible and practice listening to God’s word as a ‘story’ rather than trying to pull it apart via a chapter and verse approach, or doing word studies and stuff.

2. Read good Christian books; including one that is more than 200 years old for every two or three modern ones. You can find some ideas for new stuff to read here. I’ve flogged the ‘read old books’ from C.S Lewis’ intro to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation.

3. Read a book (or essays, or subscribe to some podcasts) from outside your tradition (even non-Christian ones) that’ll challenge you, maybe as often as you read an old Christian book; this will  also help you to understand, be sympathetic to, and challenge the ‘worship’ of those around you). Read some old ones of these too so you know where good and bad ideas come from… This is how we start being dangerous to the world, rather than having the world be dangerous to us. I gave a talk along these lines to a bunch of first year uni students at the University of Queensland this year.

4. Read, watch, or play some fiction that will help you understand other people more empathetically and to pay attention to why people live the way they do; but that might also help you understand the formative power of story (as you experience it). I was struck this year by how powerful video games can be for cultivating empathy; as I played games as varied as Fallout 4 and That Dragon, Cancer, The Last Of Us, and more recently a game called This War Of Mine; but novels will do this for you, so will TV shows, any good ‘story’ really…

5. Because people are ‘image bearers’ of whatever they worship; people are media, find some ways to hear the stories of people in your life; in your workplace, in your street, in your family… especially people who are different to you. I’m aiming to spend more time hearing the stories of the asylum seekers in our church community (stories like my friend Masoud’s), the stories of people I connect with through volunteering with the Micah Project, and hopefully the story of more indigenous Australians through hanging out with a local indigenous missionary. I’ve spent time doing all sorts of things with these groups already, I just haven’t been great at having my perspective pushed beyond my own reasons for wanting to love and help these local communities.

6. I also want to make good stories for my kids. While I’ve been thinking about how powerful stories are for cultivating virtue by helping us see the world, I’ve been thinking about how terrible Christian kids books are. Whether they’re little character studies of Old Testament characters, or just moral fables, they are bad; until you hit Narnia age. I love reading to my kids because it’s an important way to be present for them, but also to shape their imaginations, and I’m quite happy to read them great stories that aren’t ‘Christian’… but it’d be nice if there were more good stories out there that helped us shape our kids, stories that ‘catechise’. I’ve been thinking about what it would look like to write good stories that teach some of the concepts at the heart of the old catechisms to go alongside our Bible stories that teach Biblical Theology (I’ve enjoyed Kevin DeYoung’s The Biggest Story: How The Snake Crusher Brings Us Back To The Garden). So one of my resolutions is to try to make and tell good stories for my kiddoes, that may or may not be beneficial to other people’s kiddoes. I turned the photos from a recent holiday to Rainbow Beach into a picture book for my kids that aimed to show how rest, fun, ‘holy days’ and the beauty of God’s world tell us something about God, it’s not well written, but it is on high rotation, so I aim to do a couple more of these this year. If you’re the creative type maybe you could find ways to solve the problem of the world’s lack of good stories being told that shape our desires and imaginations in good ways (there could always be more of these), whether it’s for kids or adults.

Be mindful that your media practices (including the tools and platforms you use) are shaping you, whether you know it or not; so take control.

There’s a video that has gone viral this week featuring technologist Simon Sinek explaining why it’s not the fault of the poor ‘millenial’ that we’re so entitled and relationally bereft; it’s parenting and social media that are to blame. It’s an annoying video, but that doesn’t mean what he says isn’t true or worth heeding; there are three disciplines a sort of theology of worship/idolatry/who we are as people from Christian thinking, neuroplasticity, and a thing called ‘media ecology’ that all operate on the premise that you ‘become what you behold’… it’s true. And it’s not just the stories that shape us; Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’; which is actually the theory that our tools and platforms are just as likely to form us as the information they relay; only we’re less likely to notice. This means I’m re-thinking some of my ‘media practices’.

One of McLuhan’s major things is that our tools aren’t neutral; they’re forming us; but this doesn’t mean we should not use them, simply that we should be aware of this power and try to make sure we’re being transformed for good, not deformed. You can read plenty of stuff I’ve written on this stuff in the past, including a long series on how Facebook messes with your brain, but also some stuff on how we might harness this truth for good, including how to think about social media as Christians drawing on the insights of theology, neuroscience, and media ecology, some practical tips that apply this ‘approach’, and if you’re super keen you can check out the slides from a couple of talks I’ve given on this stuff (that mostly have good quotes from books and research).

7. Make space for silence. I was challenged by a New York Mag article ‘Technology Almost Killed Me‘ by Andrew Sullivan, one of the world’s biggest and most famous bloggers, who in many ways sounds a bit like me; his piece is worth reading, it has me convinced that silence and non-stimulation needs to be part of my regular rhythms. I like to convince myself that I wouldn’t go crazy if I was left in a room by myself with no wifi and no phone for two hours (I’d probably just fall asleep); but I’m not so sure, though I’d like to find out, so I’m aiming to not use my phone to pass time.

To ‘kickstart’ my new approach to my phone, I’ve deleted most of the apps that aren’t useful for particular tasks, or things I use for my job (so Facebook made the cut). My phone is for communication (including social media), for creativity (photos and making things like the picture book I made for my kids, and documenting events like Christmas carols and chicken wing cook offs), and for ‘utility’ stuff like managing my finances (and automating my house just a little bit). It’s not for gaming, for reading, or for killing time. I am one of those cliched types who look at my phone just before I go to sleep, and first thing in the morning… I’d like to change that, and part of what I’m resolving to do here is to start charging my phone outside our bedroom, and to not check it until I’ve ticked off a few important ‘to do’ items in the morning.

8. Make space for presence. This is a second ‘phone’ related resolution; and again, it’s pretty cliched. One of the things I did like about the Sinek video was what he said about phone use in meetings, at the table, and just generally when there’s another person in front of you. I find parenting quite difficult, but a lot of the time that’s because my kids are distracting me from my ‘distractions’… If you see me pull out my phone when I’m around you (unless it’s to find something online specifically related to improving the experience for both of us), call me out on it (don’t call me on it).

9. Move from ‘black glass’ to tactile ‘old media’ (or technology that has the ‘feel’ of old media) where that’s feasible. I was pretty convinced by Enchanted Objects, a book where the writer, David Rose, makes the case that our technology promises to do something about our lack of enchantment, but argues that glass screens are terrible substitutes for other types of ‘magic’… I think real re-enchantment lies elsewhere (and that technology over promises) but his critique of screens is powerful. I also want my kids to love books and reading; not being screen dependent, so I want them to see daddy reading books, not daddy staring at the iPad. I think this means I’m going to buy a kindle with e-ink, and use paper books as much as I can.

10. Use technology more intentionally to ‘offer myself as a living sacrifice’ — not some curated more appealing version of me, but perhaps the version of me that is inclined to love others not just serve myself. Technology can be harmful. Porn drives innovation in the tech space, and is also incredibly destructive, perhaps your resolution could be tackling that habit (which is a defective and damaging form of false worship). Social media does do odd stuff to our brains that leaves people more anxious and less deeply connected than previous generations. But technology isn’t all bad; making it, innovating, and creating with it is part of us fulfilling God’s design for us; where we are ‘creators’ who spread order throughout the world using the stuff he put in it. I love what technology can do for us; I’ve been blogging for more than 10 years, and that’s an integral part of how I process my thinking (and it turns out it has been good for other people too, or so they say). I love that I can skype my missionary friends in Tanzania, and we can keep tabs with our missionary family in Asia (though I’m slack at both of these). I love that my phone can be an asset for forming habits — via reminders (so long as I don’t just ignore them). I love that social media confronts me with the faces and stories of my friends and acquaintances from around the globe (and connects me with more people) and that this provides opportunities for me to communicate with more people, and to share in their stories, and to pray for and encourage others. For most of this year I’ve had a reminder in my phone to pray for and text encouragement to my Growth Group. Every day. At 7:30am. I’ve dropped the ball a bit on that, but need to pick it up, and perhaps cast it wider.

Technology isn’t neutral; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good. It is powerful. In my series on the impact of social media on the brain my conclusion was that an ‘incarnate’ model of mission involves deliberate change, cost, and sacrifice in order to be with other people, suggesting this also works virtually. I still think this is true. So I’m resolving to pray more for things I read on social media, to be more deliberately encouraging (and to build that into how I spend my time online), to continue being #thankful and sharing stories via Instagram, and to move thankfulness beyond just what is going on in my life to celebrating what is going on in the life of others. There’s also tools I’m hoping to use to ‘give’ more effectively; I’m going to more deliberately track my spending using this app called PocketBook, and this one called Tithe.ly to track my giving to church, and give small amounts as I make small sacrifices (like not getting a second coffee at a cafe). I’m hoping this makes giving (and saying no) a habit.

Pick some sort of change you’d like to see in the world and work towards it (with small or big steps).

Sometimes we’re pretty small when it comes to our sense of what can be achieved through making these seemingly small habitual changes. Sometimes our focus is just on what we can change about ourselves. And that’s boring and inward looking; and perhaps it’s also ineffective if, perhaps, the best way to change ourselves is actually to look outwards and ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice’… What was on your list? Eating healthy (yeah, that’s on mine too). Exercising more. Sleeping more. Doing bits and pieces from the lists above when it comes to how you fill your head… that’s all good stuff. But it’s a bit lame, and probably much the same as everyone else. What should our list look like if we’re becoming a ‘new self’? What does it look like not to focus on ‘self-improvement’ but ‘self sacrifice’ that’s both ‘in view of God’s mercy’ and in some sense a ‘view of God’s mercy’; a demonstration of what it looks like to be transformed into the image of Christ. The new you, as a Christian, is a pretty big deal…  but it’s not a thing you build by yourself, it’s an act of God that happens in us as our ‘worship’ changes. The way we see and live in the world changes…

 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What would it look like for us to take these words from Paul, and these ones from C.S Lewis in ‘The Weight of Glory‘, and apply them to our resolutions.

“…If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

In this most excellent sermon, Lewis wanted us to wrap our heads around who we are, and where we’re going, and to have that shape the way we live here and now. Where better to have that shaping take place than in our resolutions. Maybe read it before coming up with your ‘ambitions’ for the year. It’s bracing.

“A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.”

I’d love to be more adventurous in both my resolutions and what I think Christians can achieve (hey, maybe I’m a typical millennial with far too great a desire to make an impact). I’m convinced by James Davison Hunter’s stuff on how Christians are too bought into the idea that social change comes via politics in a way that might prevent us creating a presence in our community that brings real change; I’m also convinced that this sort of change is primarily driven by having an imagination for what things might look like if there was a little bit more of the kingdom of God in the world, and pursuing it. This shaped the way I wrote about voting last year, and about how to write to a politician about an issue.

I’ve spent the last few years volunteering with this group in my area called The Micah Project, who started as a social justice ministry of our local Catholic Church, and employ hundreds of people, who do stuff like getting a $40 million housing development off the ground to provide permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people, or, more recently kicking off a social enterprise cafe in two locations in our part of Brisbane to provide training and a workplace for their clients. This all started pretty small; now it is big. Micah Project’s CEO Karyn Walsh gave a pretty cool TEDx Talk on this this year.

Taking big steps can seem daunting, but when I think back to the last few years, we’ve made some pretty big ones as a family (from double income no kids, to both being students, to having kids, to ministry) and none of these seemed all that big in the moment.

These are some bigger steps I think it would be cool for people to take in order to be ‘radical’… I don’t know why resolutions always seem so small…

11. Consider how you’re investing your time, energy, talents and money into the mission of Jesus; and the growth of God’s eternal kingdom. Ask if you’re investing more into the lives of those you love via Gospel ministry or into other counterfeit ‘gospels’. Consider what you are an ‘ambassador’ for… Audit your bank statement, your calendar, and the stuff you’ve posted about on social media and ask not just what you’re seen to be living for in these bits of data, but what each purchase, appointment, and post, reveals you’re doing with these things you are able to ‘offer’ in sacrifice as your worship.

Your time, energy, talents, and money are the bits of you that get ‘offered in sacrifice’ to something, potentially to your ‘object of worship.’ The giving of these bits of yourself, and what you receive in return — whether it’s time at the gym exchanged for health and fitness, the luxurious holiday exchanged for experience, or the decadent meal exchanged for pleasure (and calories) — will form you into some ‘image’ of yourself and allow you to present that image. Being a Christian isn’t about not having nice things; it’s about not sacrificing yourself for them in a way that stops you sacrificing for God and loving others. Imagine ways you could give those things that would deliver satisfaction and joy to you (and others), and try doing that.

12. Pick a ‘social’ issue to own; some people to love, the sort of issue where you might previously have thought about writing to a politician asking for a law change, or maybe just a way you can love the people around you, your church, your family, your community) better… and dream big about how the world might be made better in this area.

13. Find some people who are already pursuing that dream and join them as a volunteer, or, start something new. Start talking to your friends who care about the same stuff. I’ve been inspired in the last few years by the people who care about asylum seekers, like those behind First Home Project, or Enough Room, or the geniuses behind the Thankyou range of products, or, locally, the people who decided the best way to do something about abortion was to start the Priceless Life Centre, which cares for women with unexpected pregnancies. All these endeavours, like Micah Projects, started with a few people with an idea.

It’s not just boring to limit your activism to writing letters or changing your Facebook profile picture or signing a petition, it’s ineffective and props up the assumption that politicians can and should solve all our problems; they may well be part of the solution, but why not resolve to transform something a bit beyond yourself.

14. Quit your job, or drop a day or two a week, and pursue that thing, or just do it to free up time to love the people around you. This sort of big change cascades down to all sorts of habits; it totally, by definition, changes the rhythm of your day, week, month, or year. I guess this is a thing we already did when we enrolled to go to Bible college; though I’m still far too ‘busy’… The first two sets of resolutions were geared around how to use ‘spare time’ and energy, and what to do to free some more spare time and energy, but perhaps big structural change is actually what’s needed to shift your habits in ways that’ll get you somewhere more helpful in the long run (or eternally).

Some of our society’s biggest idols are caught up with career success; money, identity, all that stuff… and this often goes hand in hand with ‘busyness’… worship of anything requires sacrifice. If you’re too ‘busy’ to pursue the stuff that excites you, and especially to pursue the kingdom of God via both the proclamation and living of the Gospel, then maybe you’re doing life wrong, and maybe the best way to get rid of those ‘idols’ is to kick them to the kerb by working at loving and serving Jesus instead, not just conforming to the default patterns of the world.

Just how much are you prepared to resolve to change this year? And where are you hoping your resolutions will get you? Stuck in the mud, or to the seaside?

 

The Book of Strange New Things and our hunt for Utopia in the face of death

“… he used often to say, that the way to heaven was the same from all places, and he that had no grave had the heavens still over him..” ― Thomas More, Utopia

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The first strategy computer game I ever played was a relatively obscure Amiga game called Utopia. It introduced me to Pachabel’s Canon in D, to real time strategy games, to the idea of space colonisation and at least conceptually to the concept of utopia. Utopia comes from Thomas More’s book of the same name; it literally means (from the Greek) ‘no place’ (there’s a bit of a play on ‘eutopia’ which is pronounced the same and means ‘good place’; but it’s a sort of ideal place that one either hopes to create, or that we use as the sort of vision of what could be that we compare all other places against; it’s like the platonic ideal of what any community, city, or nation could be. In some sense when we try to make the world a better place; or to create some sort of new place, be it in our homes or communities, we’re working towards some sort of utopian vision.

Its opposite is dystopia, or in the Greek ‘bad place’; and so much of our modern angsty teen fiction is dystopian; taking places in the sorts of worlds pictured by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell; where everything is falling apart, but most especially human civilisation.

Most of us, more or less, as we get older, feel like the world we live in is more dystopian than eutopian; that’s why the ‘2016 sucks’ thing is a meme, but it’s also true in our personal lives the more we confront death, illness, disease, and human corruption and evil.

Most of us like the idea of striving towards a (e)utopia; so dystopian stories have protaganists who are challenging the status quo to inspire us while offering a sort of resonance with the world we live in, or some explanatory power for why life is what it is, utopian stories invite us to imagine the world as it could be, but they feel so other-worldly and distant.

In Utopia (the game) you play a commander tasked with establishing a colony on a series of planets inhabited by alien races; these races are always hostile, and so your Utopian vision is eutopian only for your own colonists; and it is achieved by military might and conquest, while the island of Utopia in Thomas More’s Utopia was created via conquest; Utopia’s Hythloday, returning to England, suggests that utopias built by princes committed to war are no eutopia at all, and this is part of the problem a true utopia must address.

“In the first place, most princes apply themselves to the arts of war, in which I have neither ability nor interest, instead of to the good arts of peace. They are generally more set on acquiring new kingdoms by hook or by crook than on governing well those that they already have.” — Thomas More, Utopia

 

Michel Faber’s The Book Of Strange New Things is both a utopian story and dystopian story; and brings both the space colonisation of Utopia (the game) together with More’s utopian vision. It is a story straddling two world and telling two simultaneous inter-woven stories about a married couple living ‘places’ apart; Peter, the husband, in a potential eutopia, a new space-colony where he’s sent as a Christian missionary to evangelise the indigenous residents (the humans are the aliens here) at their own request, Bea, the wife, stays at home as the world falls apart in an cataclysm that looks much like John’s apocalyptic vision in Revelation.

Faber wrote this story, what he says will be his final novel, as his wife fought terminal cancer; apparently composing, and reading her, six lines of the novel a day towards the end before sending off the completed manuscript as she died. This real-world dystopian story adds a degree of poignancy to the novel where the strain of being galaxies apart with very different missions in very different places proves costly to Peter and Bea’s marriage.

The Book Of Strange New Things is a deeply religious book, in that it’s not just about the difference between eutopia and dystopia, but where God is in both, and where he is in the gap between our hope for reality and reality itself (or perhaps even how God bridges, or doesn’t, certain gaps). It’s a powerful and challenging story; there’s some theological stuff in there that is thought-provoking, and some that I found grating.

Faber is not a Christian, but he grew up in a Christian family and he’s certainly trying to salvage some of the more beautiful and hope-giving parts of his upbringing as he processes the real world of pain and death through the lens of a corporation working towards its utopian vision on a new planet, and his dystopian earth. His Christian protaganists embody the very best things about liberal-evangelical Christianity; there is much to Peter and Bea’s approach to God, church, faith, and mission in the book that I love, but some stuff in how they approach the Bible, humanity, prayer, and God that might have made Christianity more comforting, not less, for the protaganists and for Faber and his wife, Eva.

It’s hard to write about just how profound The Book Of Strange New Things is without talking about the story in a way that might involve spoilers.

Peter is selected to travel to this far away planet, dubbed ‘Oasis’ to be a missionary to the native Oasans; hominoid creatures with faces that look like walnuts. The colonisation program is run by a corporation dubbed USIC; it is dependent on the support of the Oasans who provide food, but USIC’s utopian vision (largely true to More’s) requires the colonisation be peaceful and non-imperialistic (how else can the corporation sell its vision to the sort of ‘good’ people it requires to build a new eutopian society?). The Oasans have previously had contact with another missionary, originally supplied as a chaplain to the colonising team of engineers and construction workers to help with their displacement from life back home. They’ve heard bits of the Bible, which they call The Book Of Strange New Things, but the first missionary has gone AWOL and, in protest, the Oasans cut off supply of food. Peter is very important, pivotal, to the Utopian vision; but he doesn’t know it. Bea, his wife, is not selected to go with Peter on the journey, so the novel opens with their goodbyes, and establishes just how difficult a move to communication-in-absence will be for them; Peter highly values intimate face-to-face contact, and is suspicious of technology; the deep intimacy their marriage is built and thrives on will be supplanted, for a time, with communicating via a text-only tool called ‘the shoot’. Both Peter and Bea came to Christianity from messed up ‘origin stories’ — Peter was a drug dealing, drug stealing, addict, while Bea was abused by her family, and then, it seems, by others. They are very real; and their descriptions of life in their church and community are quite beautiful reflections on what it means to be Christ to others.

Once he makes the ‘jump’ to Oasis, Peter grapples with life in the USIC compound, and its utopian vision, while finding something like a sense of a eutopian vision as he lives amidst the Oasans. The Oasans have largely learned english through Bible studies, and trade with USIC (for medical drugs); they’re particularly excited about Jesus (and not at all excited about Old Testament stories of war and victory); they re-dub themselves, by order of conversion, as “Jesus Lover Number X”. Peter concludes that these aliens are largely without sin; but that their fervour for Christianity is driven by the hope of avoiding death. They are genetically frail, with no capacity to heal themselves so that any wound is fatal. These are bodies that need escaping… While Peter is coming to terms with his mission to the Oasans (which is flourishing) and the USIC colony (which is struggling), and the different utopian visions he’s encountering on Oasis; Bea’s world, earth, is falling apart. There are deadly storms, volcanoes, and wars. There’s economic collapse which sees the system in the home city in England totally collapse (starting with the banks and supermarkets). Crime is rampant. Peter and Bea’s church falls apart when the pastor who replaced Peter embezzles money and has an affair. Their pet cat which is something like a child to them is tortured by local teens and put down. Rubbish piles up. People turn to alcohol and the street smells like vomit. Wild storms break their windows and fill the house with mould. Everything is ‘not good’… it’s dystopian. It’s armageddon. It’s exactly the sort of thing USIC is relying on to drive demand for their Utopia.

The gap between Peter and Bea widens not just because of the physical chasm between them, but because their experience, their communication, their realities are so different; and it’s not just a question of whether their love can survive, but whether faith and hope can survive too across this gap. There’s also a real question being asked about where real hope is found for humanity; because death continues in the utopia of Oasis; and communities built without friction, conflict, intimacy, or love, don’t seem to offer much hope to anyone. Everyone in USIC compound operates as the sort of ‘buffered self’ described in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. They don’t share their stories with one another; in fact, to do so is discouraged. They just do their jobs; they’re homo economicus; humans whose sole purpose is to produce results that will create USIC’s utopia. Peter needles away at their buffering layers of protection; always on the look out to bring the barriers down, to learn something of the more porous, more dependent, humans within these artificial shells. But at the same time he’s buffering himself when it comes to communicating with Bea; she is porously leaning on him for support in processing dystopian earth, while he can’t, or won’t, put words to what’s going on for him, or in his mission and he struggles to care about anything that isn’t totally proximate to his day-to-day reality, and his pursuit of his own personal utopia; a community of Oasan Jesus Lovers. His buffers are down in the Oasan community; where he sub-consciously ‘goes native’ such that he achieves a certain amount of clarity about USIC’s vision.


As a brief aside, I’m not sure aliens can be ‘preached to’; nor are they necessarily in need of ‘redemption’… redemption, in the real book of strange new things, the Bible, is for the whole frustrated creation but it comes via the redemption of God’s fallen image bearers (Romans 8). Sin, ultimately, is about humans deliberately choosing not to bear God’s image; to represent him. It’s a human thing caught up with our telos; our created purpose. It’s quite possible that if alien life is found those aliens will be ‘without sin’ (I tend towards thinking this won’t happen, because I think because the universe is centred on Jesus, it’s also geared towards being ‘centred on humanity’). This, to me, undermined the premise of the story a little, though the story is fiction and does at least imply they aren’t sinful…


Bea, who’d led Peter into Christianity, ultimately tosses in her faith, or seems to; the dystopian reality becomes too much, especially in Peter’s absence. The story ends with Peter handing the Oasans his Bible, tearing down his ‘buffers’, and making a hasty return to earth; because he realises his place is by Bea’s side. He’d rather be in a dystopia offering hope through intimate love, than removed from the face of suffering in a ‘Utopia’ still confronted with the reality of death. But we’re left hanging on the question of what he finds when he gets there; and even whether this was the right thing to do.

Death looms large in this story. One of its defining and haunting messages is perhaps that no eutopia can be found in a world where death happens, only dystopia. Real hope has to confront death head-on. It can’t just sanitise the information we receive and hide us from messy and sick people so that we pretend it’s not there. People on Oasis still die; sometimes suddenly, and death still hurts and haunts even in a culture where attachment is discouraged (USIC selects its workers largely on the basis of having no attachments at home, and a likelihood that they won’t forge them on Oasis).

The tension in the narrative hangs on what a good life looks like in the face of death; and whether this goodness is best expressed pursuing a potential utopian future, or amidst the suffering in the dystopian reality; a tension no doubt supplied by Faber’s own life. Questions within this frame are raised about where God is in proximity to death, and what hope looks like amidst death with or without God. This is also where protaganist Peter’s Christian faith, and mine, significantly diverge, and where, perhaps, some real hopeful answers to Faber’s questions; human questions can be found. One thing I love about The Book Of Strange New Things is that there’s enough ambiguity in the ending, and Peter’s journey, that I’m not totally sure where he ends up on this particular question. Peter is essentially a neo-gnostic; his belief is that we’re a soul in a sack of meat; where, in a recent post, the secular neo-gnosticism believes we’re a sack of meat driven by our ‘mind’ and our ‘feelings’, Peter still believes there’s a transcendent part of us waiting to escape to a truly Utopian future (the last bit of The Book Of Strange New Things he translates for the Oasans is Revelation 21-22). Peter’s hope is not in the resurrection of our bodies; bodies destroyed by our dystopian existence and ravaged by sin, disease, and death; but in our soul’s return to God. And this hope is not enough.

Not for Peter. Not for Faber.

Peter loses his faith; or at least embraces doubt. In part because he is confronted with the miracle of embodied existence, but also because he consciously decides that real treasure; real ‘utopia’ is embodied, and is about being with the one you love in the midst of dystopian circumstances. His closing words are extra poignant given what was happening in his life are a powerful account of where Faber may or may not have found some sort of utopia in the midst of his suffering. After his wife sends him a message urging him to stay on Oasis and not return, Peter says:

“Safe or unsafe, happy or unhappy, my place is by your side. Don’t give up. I will find you.”

And as he prepares to board the ship back to earth, he ponders the words of Matthew 6, and 28, that he has committed to memory.

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ He thought of Matthew’s last words, and the meaning they could have for two people who loved each other: I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

He’s turned those words in on themselves; made their focus embodied life here and now, but this is a product of Peter’s emaciated Gospel; his neo-gnostic gospel offers no real hope in the face of death, and it’s that Gospel Peter was leaving; the idea that hope in the face of death is about escape from this existence, and the miraculous reality of our bodies, left Peter running towards embracing this embodied existence. I don’t feel like either of these options offer real hope in the face of death and dystopia; certainly not the sort of hope that makes our hearts sing, and our bodies strive. It’s not the stuff dreams can be made of; because our dreams, and the singing hearts that inspire us towards anything are the product of our embodied existence.

Faber is right that real hope in the face of death must be embodied. I’m just not sure this means we need to toss the Christian God out of the picture. Because the Christian story is the story of God’s embodiment; that a divine person, Jesus, fully becomes a human person.

Real hope in the face of death isn’t about changing Jesus’ promise “I am with you always” to be about your presence with the person you love (though it might shape your presence with the one you love); it is found seeing ‘God with us’ as a fundamental promise that begins now, and stretches into eternity, beyond death; a promise that creates a utopia.

Real hope doesn’t just confront death head-on, it confronts it fully acknowledging that we are embodied creatures; and this is what perhaps is satisfying in a secular sense for Faber, and readers who’ve moved beyond belief, with the ending of the story. Peter acknowledges death as an embodied person by heading back into dystopia to love with his presence amidst suffering; there’s a sort of immanent hope in this, that our momentary experiences of suffering might be relieved or shared in the context of love… but this is also where Peter’s Christianity is ill-equipped to help him serve either the Oasans, Bea, or the USIC utopia.

Peter’s Christianity is described, sympathetically, throughout the book, but what he does with death is on display when he’s invited to speak at the funeral of a USIC employee, Art Severin. He breaks with convention by bringing Art’s buffers down; sharing much of his life story (from his files) with the assortment of colleagues who made it along for the ceremony. His message of hope in the face of death is a message of dis-embodied hope; of the release of Art’s soul:

Art Severin isn’t here anymore; he’s somewhere else, somewhere where we can’t be. We’re standing here, breathing air into those funny spongy bladders we call lungs, our torsos shaking slightly from the pump action of that muscle we call a heart, our legs getting uncomfortable from balancing on our foot-bones too long. We are souls shut inside a cage of bones; souls squeezed into a parcel of flesh. We get to hang around in there for a certain number of years, and then we go where souls go. I believe that’s into the bosom of God. You may believe it’s somewhere different… ow you’re in the next life, where your body won’t let you down anymore, and you don’t need insulin and you don’t crave nicotine, and nobody betrays your trust, and every mystery you racked your brains about is clear as day now, and every hurt you ever suffered is OK now, and you’re feeling pity for us down here, still dragging our heavy bodies around.’

This is a demonstration of the neo-gnostic anthropology he spells out as informing his approach to the physical differences he encounters in the Oasans.

“In the eyes of God, all men and women are naked. Clothes are nothing more than a fig leaf. And the bodies beneath are just another layer of clothing, an outfit of flesh with an impractically thin leather exterior, in various shades of pink, yellow and brown. The souls alone are real. Seen in this way, there can never be any such thing as social unease or shyness or embarrassment. All you need do is greet your fellow soul.”

Much like the secular neo-gnostic advocate of a non-binary approach to gender, Peter believes the body is a meat sack and the real us lies somewhere within (or beyond) that physical reality. As he brings the Gospel to the Oasans he starts to realise that the death of the body really matters to them (it’s later that he realises they can’t heal themselves, and that ‘our bodies are miraculous’); this exchange comes as he tries to help them understand that God’s people are the church (ฐurฐ in Oasan, because they can’t say ‘s’ or ‘ch’ or a bunch of other sounds). Kurtzberg is the chaplain who went AWOL…

Jesus Lover Five, in the front row as always, swayed to and fro in disagreement. ‘ฐurฐ iสี ฐurฐ,’ she stated. ‘We are we. God iสี God.’ ‘When we are filled with the Holy Spirit,’ said Peter, ‘we can be more than ourselves: we can be God in action.’ Jesus Lover Five was unconvinced. ‘God never die,’ she said. ‘We die.’ ‘Our bodies die,’ said Peter. ‘Our souls live for ever.’ Jesus Lover Five pointed a gloved finger straight at Peter’s torso. ‘Your body noรี่ die,’ she said. ‘Of course it will die,’ said Peter. ‘I’m just flesh and blood like anyone else.’

Jesus Lover Five had fallen silent. Peter couldn’t tell if she was persuaded, reassured, sulking or what. What had she meant, anyway? Was Kurtzberg one of those Lutheran-flavoured fundamentalists who believed that dead Christians would one day be resurrected into their old bodies – magically freshened up and incorruptible, with no capacity to feel pain, hunger or pleasure – and go on to use those bodies for the rest of eternity? Peter had no time for that doctrine himself. Death was death, decay was decay, only the spirit endured.

Peter’s new gnosticism is hopeless; it’d only be a real comfort to us if our experience of existence — our humanity even — was not so thoroughly linked to our bodies. It’s a promise of no longer being human; which is not good news at all, and which undermines the very good news at the heart of the Gospel; that Jesus became human, not just as he walked the earth, but eternally. The Oasans challenge him to reconcile his view with Corinthians; Peter realises they’re talking about 1 Corinthians 15, which in a hint of Faber’s own dissatisfaction with Peter’s answer, Peter realises he hasn’t memorised because he has never preached it. His Gospel is, at this point, only half a Gospel. He flicks his Book Of Strange New Things open and reads:

“So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption,’ he recited, ‘and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ Reading the words aloud, Peter reconnected with why he hadn’t ever used them in his sermons. The sentiments were sound enough but the rhetoric was a bit more bombastic than he felt comfortable with. To do those words justice, you’d need a highly dramatic delivery, a touch of thespian pomp, and he just wasn’t that kind of orator. Low-key sincerity was more his style. ‘What Paul is saying here,’ he explained, ‘is that when we give our souls to Christ, the part of us that dies and decays – the body – is clothed with something that cannot die or decay – the eternal spirit. So we have nothing to fear from death.’ ‘Nothing,’ echoed several of the Oasans. ‘

That’s not at all what Paul is saying. But this view, this negative view of the body-as-temporary-meat-sack, underpins Peter’s faith, his sense of human dignity and his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus itself; what’s a little odd is that his approach to ministry, his ‘missiology’ is very embodied and ‘incarnate’ and this is so thoroughly inconsistent with his actual beliefs.

He only wished he’d had the chance to explain more fully how prayer worked. That it wasn’t a matter of asking for things and being accepted or rejected, it was a matter of adding one’s energy – insignificant in itself – to the vastly greater energy that was God’s love. In fact, it was an affirmation of being part of God, an aspect of His spirit temporarily housed inside a body. A miracle similar, in principle, to the one that had given human form to Jesus.

Peter’s Jesus is only ‘temporarily’ human, as we are, and so the hope his Jesus offers beyond death is something like being reconnected to the source of the ‘energy of God’s love’… which is so ephemeral as to be almost totally meaningless. Before he realises how death is a looming and distressing reality for the Oasans; driving them to Jesus; Peter kicks off his mission and his delivery of the Book of Strange New Things with his translation of Psalm 23.

And, from the first page, he read Psalm 23. ‘The Lord be He who care for me. I will need no more . . . ’ and so on, until he reached ‘I will dwell in the home of the Lord for ever.’ Then he read it again. And again. Each time he read it, more of the Oasans read it aloud with him. Were they reading or reciting? It didn’t matter. Their communal voice was swelling, and it sounded melodious and clear, almost entirely free of vocal impairments. ‘He bid me lie in green land down. He lead me by river where no one can drown. He make my สีoul like new again. He lead me in the path of Good. He do all thiสี, for He be God.

Psalm 23 is not simply a promise that our souls will depart an coagulate in some sort of nebulous divine life; it is a promise of re-creation; that the image God breathed into; the human body he formed will be raised and restored to its former glory. The Psalm is full of references to Eden; to the creation of man; but also to the ancient ceremonies of restoring an exiled ‘image’ of God (a statue) to its function of serving and representing God in his temple. The promise of a restoration of the soul is not some empty ‘you’ll depart and that longing will be quenched’ but rather ‘you’ll be made new and given divine life’; embodied life, as one of God’s creatures made in his image. It’s the promise of Romans 8; which the redemption of the cosmos (God’s grand temple) depends on. It’s a promise — a hope — that hinges on the rest of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, the hope of real full-bodied resurrection free from the scourge of death and disease; and of our dystopian inclinations; where our humanity contributes to the ongoing sense of eutopia, rather than bringing ruin. This isn’t just about some sort of releasing of our soul… if only Peter had been more inclined to hang on to the truth at the heart of this passage; if only Faber himself found comfort in these words… because this is the real hope that drives us towards utopia…

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man. — 1 Corinthians 15:42-49

It’s a promise — a hope — God guarantees by the now-permanent humanity of his son; the one whose body exists beyond death, who offers a true Utopian vision; who bridges the gap and provides the way ‘to heaven out of all places’; a path from dystopia, and a vision of hope beyond pain, suffering, and death, a eutopian vision that Peter ultimately couldn’t bring himself to give to the Oasans in translated form (except that he hands them his own complete Book Of Strange New Things).

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” — Revelation 21:1-4

Both the novel The Book Of Strange New Things and the real Book Of Strange New Things are worth reading; both offer Utopian visions. Both know that our human intuition that real hope is embodied is real. The novel takes that intuition and invites us to ground our response to death to being with those we love in our dystopian here and now; the other is profoundly good news; eutopian news; that both invites us to see that the here and now matters, and that love helps, but also offers us hope through and beyond death when we taste the love of the infinite God who made the world utopian, and who, rather than standing distant from our suffering and death, entered into the dystopian frustration our sin causes to do something about it.

 

 

18 things you might not know about being born on Christmas Day

Today is my birthday; yes I share a birthday with Jesus and no, that doesn’t make me the messiah; I’m just a very naughty boy.

You may have wondered what it is like being a Christmas baby; you may not have. If you haven’t, then you’re part of the problem. If you have, then here’s some insight, totally from my own experience…

1. The more you know about the history of Christmas the more you might want to point out that Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born on Christmas Day but you really were.
2. Everyone remembers your birthday… except maybe on the day.
3. You’ll get ‘combined’ presents sometimes; sometimes worth 150% of the value of a birthday or Christmas present… but if you organise it ahead of time you can put the purchasing power to good use. Just don’t get a tent when you’re 12ish and never use it.
4. You wonder whether it might be nice to have a whole day devoted to your birthday on the actual day.
5. When you have kids and one is born on the 22nd of December you’ll be thankful for small mercies.
6. People will often make jokes about you sharing a birthday with Jesus; suggesting you must be just like him, there’s a payoff if you get a job telling people how great Jesus is.
7. As a kid you’ll think it sucks that you don’t get school birthday parties and everyone is on holidays for your actual birthday. The 25th of November is a reasonable idea.
8. You’ll believe the ideal birthday is somewhere around June-July, and after your eldest, that’s when you’ll aim to have your kids. You’ll notice that your siblings are born between May and August.
9. You’ll think it’s an advantage that when someone says happy birthday to you, you have the ready made reply ‘merry Christmas’.
10. You’ll appreciate that every Christmas after your birth you can claim to be ‘the best Christmas present’ your parents ever received; and you’ll know it’s true; even if your dad gets a great gadget (or Sonos speaker).
11. You’ll realise there’s some mileage to be had in everyone feeling sorry for you.
12. When you meet another Christmas baby you’ll bond instantly. You’ll also be thankful you’re not born on February 29.
13. Whenever you give your date of birth anywhere public, a penny will drop about 3 seconds later, and you’ll have to have ‘that’ conversation. It’s worth making bingo cards.
14. You will, at some point, realise that pity parties are no fun and Christmas is less self-interested (and less given to disappointment and anti-climax) than a birthday, with a much more powerful story, and so, of much more value to the people in your life. Birthdays eventually become a scary reminder that you’re getting closer to death; Christmas is a reminder you no longer need to fear death.
15. It is kinda fun that everyone gets presents on your birthday, but that your haul is twice as big. So long as you forget that everyone gets a birthday; but only you have to wait exactly 12 months for one installment of presents (other December babies get it just as bad… aim for July).
16. You’ll always have Boxing Day the day after your birthday; and it is the best day of the year.

17. Everyone will ask you what it is like to have your birthday on Christmas Day; that question will puzzle you because you have not experienced the alternative and you can’t really tell how much your unique birthday has made you the person you are.

18. You’ll wonder of getting a job that makes Christmas one of the more important dates on the calendar was a great idea; but then you’ll remember point 14.

On Christmas and Temples: how the coming of Jesus challenges us to see ourselves as givers not consumers

I went to temple today. A modern, secular, temple where I was surrounded by hindus, and sikhs, and buddhists, and muslims, and atheists… A temple that today was extra glittery, and sparkly, filled with magic, and crowded; oh so crowded. It was packed with worshippers.


Image: A snapshot from my trip to the temple today where I scored a park in front of this sign…

Temples don’t have to be obviously religious, or even obviously connected to a god. Temples are places where we practice our worship together. They are places where our gods; and the image of our gods, is revealed; when we know where to look. They’re places we go for stories about what the good human life looks like. And Christmas is a time for worship. In his famous This Is Water speech, David Foster Wallace said:

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

In a passage in his novel Infinite Jest, Wallace writes a dialogue between two characters, Steeply and Marathe, about temples and worship and a third person’s ‘worship’ (Tine)… it builds on his fundamental insight about the way us humans work… we’re worshippers. Fanatics. Looking to give our love to something that we hope will love us back.

“Marathe had settled back on his bottom in the chair. ‘Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple.” ’

‘Oh Jesus now here we go again,’ Steeply said.

‘As, if you will give the permission, does this love you speak of, M. Tine’s grand love. It means only the attachment. Tine is attached, fanatically. Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.”

Steeply made motions of weary familiarity. ‘Herrrrrre we go.’

Marathe ignored this. ‘Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.’

‘How are your wife and kids doing, up there, by the way?

You U.S.A’s do not seem to believe that you may choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.’

Steeply laid a hand between his misdirected breasts: ‘Ohh… Canada….’

Marathe leaned again forward on his stumps. ‘Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice.’

So I went to the temple. The temple to probably the most popular god in Australia; the one that promises and promotes a vision of the good life that I even find myself subscribing to; a picture of humanity that teaches: I consume, therefore I am, or perhaps I am therefore I consume. My local Westfield shopping centre. As I walked through throngs of smiling happy people, ate food from the far flung reaches of the planet alongside families who may have come together from even further afield, as the artificial light bounced off tinsel and sequins and Christmas stars and bathed my fellow humans in its soft glow, as carols pumped through the sound system following us on our pilgrimage, and as I spent my dollars on trinkets and baubles designed to express my love for my family this Christmas season, I did feel like I was having something like a religious experience. There is something beautiful about the way the shopping centre can bring people from all walks of life together in a levelish playing field (I mean, I avoided Myer and the expensive looking jewellers today so it’s not totally level, but you don’t know unless you stare at the collection of shopping bags in someone’s trolley or pay close attention to the quality of their shoes and handbag if someone is your equal or not). The shopping centre aisles feel like an equaliser until you really pay attention; digging beneath the hypnosis the centre foists on you as you walk through the doors. But I wasn’t paying attention to this stuff. I was hypnotised. I was bought in; a sucker for the sales pitch put before me by the centre’s preachers. I spent more; gave more of myself; than I’d planned. I’m not sure if I was manipulated because I certainly feel like I did this willingly as an act of greater love for my family. I did, for a moment, wonder how much my experience echoes the experience of people who might wander into church with us tomorrow for Christmas; perhaps ticking off something else on the Christmas checklist.

James K.A Smith, working with the same fundamental picture of the human being as David Foster Wallace, that we’re, fundamentally, worshippers, talks about the shopping centre (or mall, because he’s American) as a modern temple. He describes how the mall-as-temple shapes us and orients us to see the world, and ourselves, in this particular way; as consumers.

This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires. It compels us to come, not through dire moralisms, but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life… The symbols and colors and images associated with their religious life are readily recognized the world over. The wide circulation of these icons through various mediums even outside the sanctuary invites us to make the pilgrimage in the first place. This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us.

This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life. (Yet one should note that it has its own modes of exclusivity too; because of its overwhelming success in converting the nations, it is increasingly difficult to be an infidel.) And it is a mode of evangelism buoyed by a transnational network of evangelists and outreach, all speaking a kind of unified message that puts other, fractured religions to shame. If unity is a testimony to a religion’s truth and power, it will be hard to find a more powerful religion than this catholic faith. And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season.

This isn’t just a metaphor for Wallace or Smith; they’re actually convinced that participating in life as worshippers shapes us, and what and where we choose to worship has the potential to be very good, or very bad, for us in terms of how we understand ourselves and the world around us. In Smith’s treatment of the ‘mall’ he points out that our experience as shoppers are liturgical; shopping centres work to form our habits in particular ways, forming us as we take part in their vision of the good life, as we participate in the story the marketers are telling us, and so have the rhythms of our lives slightly altered. He points out the shopping centre shapes us so that we think of ourselves as consumers and of consumption as the path to joy, or this good life. Only life as a consumer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It leads us to consume others; it only works if we’re able to be hypnotised to the point that we think the success of our relationships; our families; depends on buying them the right thing, or if we’re able to get past the fact that all the presents we buy at Christmas ultimately don’t deliver the lasting satisfaction we hope for; so we go back day after day, week after week, Christmas after Christmas, looking to scratch this itch. Smith talks about our vain attempts to buy redemption at the shopping centre; to consume our way to happiness; he says it should be evident (because we keep going back) that this is a path that doesn’t satisfy, that never actually delivers a good life and this sort of worship transforms us in harmful ways, but also has us pin our hopes on things we end up sending to landfill:

By our immersion in this liturgy of consumption, we are being trained to both overvalue and undervalue things: we’re being trained to invest them with a meaning and significance as objects of love and desire in which we place disproportionate hopes (Augustine would say we are hoping to enjoy them when we should only be using them) while at the same time treating them (as well as the labor and raw materials that go into them) as easily discarded.— James K.A Smith, Desiring The Kingdom

I know the truth of the ‘landfill’ thing too well, because today as I did my ‘Christmas shopping’ — as I participated in worship Westfield style — I was buying exactly the same present I bought Robyn a few years ago, from the same place, because our kids had destroyed the last one. This stuff is finite; and profoundly geared not to permanently satisfy. How anti-Christmas…

The problem with picking things we’re going to bin as the things we attach ourselves to, and seeing the place we buy them from as our ‘temple’ (whether we know it or not), and participating in Christmas shopping as the ultimate form of modern, consumerist worship, and ourselves as consumers whose happiness depends on our consumption, is that we end up being consumed.

Wallace was aware of the danger of worshipping something like this; things that make us consumers not givers in our sacrifice. In This Is Water he says:

“And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

And then he turns to his own little excursion to the shops, to challenge us to break the way they deform us into selfish people who consume rather than truly love others… he invites us to head into the shopping centre eyes wide open. Into the checkout line where our consumer frustration kicks into gear because in consumer world our fellow shoppers are people in our way, or in competition with us for resources… when you view life as a consumer you tend to view other people a little negatively or judgmentally, and so Wallace invites us to see people differently by paying a different sort of attention; by becoming a different sort of worshipper (this is a passage directly before the bit I quoted above).

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…”

The goal of this sort of worship; and seeing; for Wallace, wasn’t better consuming but a totally different sort of us; it’s about overturning our tendency to see ourselves as consumers, it’s an invitation to think differently about ourselves, the world, others, and perhaps most importantly what the ‘good life’ looks like as we live in the world with others. Wallace wanted his listeners to free themselves from destructive defaults that come from wrong worship, malforming temples, and harmful attachments. He saw the sort of worship cultivated by temples with an agenda to make us see ourselves as consumers as dangerous, and suggested we had to pay attention in order to escape and to relate to others as givers not consumers. That was his vision of the ‘good life,’ at least as he invited others to see it.

“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.

This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Seeing the good life; freedom; this way will transform the way you participate in life at your local Westfield; it’s enough to challenge you to think about what you’re doing and to break the hypnosis of the light, and architecture, and sensual bombardment you face when you walk through the doors. But I’m not sure it’s enough to really deliver an answer to that ‘gnawing sense’; that haunting feeling of there being something more out there than Westfield and its retailers can provide for you. The problem with Westfield-as-temple is that what worship there delivers for you are just trinkets and baubles; they’re finite, fleeting, breaking, and boring.

The answer to this problem is in a new sort of worship that changes our sense of who we humans were made to be, how we ideally relate to others, and what a good life really looks like. The answer to this problem is actually to rediscover Christmas not as a consuming holiday, but a giving holy day. When the Apostle Paul wrote about us being worshipping creatures he had a particular picture of the good human life in mind. He had a particular sense of what Christmas is all about in mind too.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2. 

Consumption is a ‘pattern of this world’ and Paul’s answer to this pattern is to change the script; to not be consumers with our bodies, but givers, to be those who ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice’… It’s the Christmas story, and a new sense of what a ‘temple’ looks like, that allow us to truly love others, to in Wallace’s words ‘sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways’; to be ‘free’… We need a new temple, new attachments, a new story with a new vision of the good life, in order to become givers at Christmas, rather than destructive consumers. All this, for Paul, is caught up in what Christmas is actually about. It’s amazing how much it’s the anti-thesis of the Westfield ‘gospel’; or Westfield’s implicit and explicit account of what the good life is about; and what Christmas is about. Real worship; worship that doesn’t destroy us; is caught up in worshipping the giver of life. Real worship is caught up with recognising that Christmas is about the word that gave life and light to the world becoming flesh; becoming our temple. The temple isn’t just where we worship; it’s where we meet and see God and the image of the flourishing life; at Westfield that’s the mannequins and the posters and the glitz and glamour, at Christmas it’s the babe born in a stinking stable as a human who’d eventually be nailed to a cross. The Christmas story couldn’t be further from the tinsel and plastic prettiness of the modern Christmas shopping experience. The sacrifice Jesus makes begins in him taking on human form amongst dirty farm animals, first visited by stinking shepherds; it’s a form he still has now, a sacrifice he still makes, on behalf of the dirty and downtrodden who turn to him for hope.

The lie underneath Westfield’s ‘worship’ agenda is that finite things can satisfy the hunger for the infinite that only Christmas can. That Westfield so overtly harnesses and bastardises Christmas for its ends is truly shocking. If worship is, as Wallace puts it, trying to answer that gnawing sense of losing the infinite, Christmas is about us finding what was lost; or rather, it’s about the infinite making himself finite and knowable.

I walked through Westfield and felt empty and hopeless, hopefully people coming to church tomorrow to hear about God with us; who’ll be urged towards this new sort of worship; will walk in and out feeling filled with hope and pushed to love others because our gnawing sense of having lost touch with the infinite is answered when we look to the face of the baby in a manger; the infinite becoming finite as an act of sacrifice for us.

The Christmas story points us to true worship, and true worship is exemplified by those shepherds and later the wise guys from the East who recognised that Jesus really is ‘God With Us’… the real Christmas story stands in stark contrast Westfield’s Christmas; it overthrows Westfield-as-temple, and it points us to a sort of worship-driven ‘good life’ found in following the Christmas king. It makes us givers, not consumers; and involves God giving us life, rather than our false gods consuming us. This is perhaps one of the earliest Christmas Carols (after Mary’s at the birth of Jesus), from Paul in Philippians 2.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

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

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

 

 

 

 

Meat and more: You are more, but not less than, your body… and Christmas shows why ‘meat’ matters

“People need to realise it doesn’t matter what living meat skeleton you’re born into; it’s what you feel that defines you.” — Victor (in the video below)

This is Victor. Victor identifies as non-binary, and this BBC video features Victor explaining a little bit of life from a non-binary perspective. It did the rounds on social media recently. It’s an interesting and increasingly common account for what it means to be human. Victor’s account of what it means to be human is this: you are a feeling mind with a meat skeleton; but the real you is the ‘feeling mind’ part — your consciousness — and your body might get in the way. If that happens then feelings (your choice) trump meat (an unchosen thing you’re born with).

It’s true that we are both mind and body, maybe even ‘soul’ and body… and our accounts of what it mean to be human need to reconcile these two realities in a way that helps us make sense of our experience of the world, and in a way that helps us figure out what to do when our bodies and minds seem to be in conflict.

One of the things I’ve spent this year reading about, thinking about, and writing about is how Christians can respond with love and understanding to the growing conversation about gender identity and gender fluidity. A paper our Gospel In Society Today committee (a thing I’m on for the Presbyterian Church of Queensland) has put together on this issue will be released soonish, but this video was one of the stranger and more worrying parts of what is a complicated issue where one’s gender identity is not necessarily as simple as a binary view of either physical sex and gender makes out. Being human is not quite as simple as Victor suggests. Extrapolating an understanding of humanity and what a flourishing human life looks like — what shape our identity takes — from the experience and feelings of particular individuals (or any individuals) is not a great way to do anything (this is also true from the direction of ‘cis-gendered’ people backwards too, where ‘cis’ is a pre-fix for those whose physical sex and gender identities line up). We often have a tendency when dealing with the complexity of human existence to assume our experience is both normal and should be ‘the norm’ and that’s dangerous.

The view of what it means to be human that Victor in this video puts forward is an unfortunate extrapolation from the real felt experience of the few to the many. Your body isn’t just a ‘meat skeleton’ with the real you somehow immaterially enshrined in this skeleton; you are your body. There’s something a bit appealing to this idea, not just as it applies to the gender conversation but because our bodies are limiting when it comes to what we imagine flourishing to look like. I want to be healthy and fit; but my body lets me down in that I get sick and injured. I want to be able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, but my body can only occupy one place at any given moment, and my moments are limited. I want to be immortal, but my body is on the timeline to decay. I do want to be able to escape the constraints of my body; humans yearn for that; particularly we want to escape from the bits of our bodies that are broken and dying. It’s nice to believe that our minds are somehow the real us; that the real us doesn’t decay, disappoint, or die; it’d be nice if our bodies were just meat skeletons that we could augment or change based simply on how we feel without that impacting ‘the real us’ (except as we bring them in line with the real us).

But this idea that we’re just our ‘feelings’… that our bodies don’t really matter… This is the gnostic heresy of the secular age. And it’s not necessarily a great ‘secular’ solution to issues like gender dysphoria or gender identity either (though solutions that don’t deal with us as ’embodied beings,’ the idea that our bodies are able to be ‘unbroken’ via our minds, or that someone can simply ‘think themselves’ into a solution aren’t very useful either, but that’s a rabbit hole for another time). Victor also assumes a radical disconnection between our bodily experience and our minds that doesn’t seem to stack up with modern neuroscience (which suggests what we do with our bodies impacts our minds) either, but again, that’s another rabbit hole.

The secular age is a label philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe our current western world’s grand organising narrative; its ‘myths’; its account for what human life is; and thus what a flourishing life looks like. The secular age involves the death of the soul as a concept, because it involves switching a view of the world where both the spiritual (or transcendent) and material (or immanent) are real and important for a world where only the material matters. This leaves us with an interesting account of our human experience and what it means to be really human. Our new post-soul way of understanding the world from this immanent viewpoint replaces the ‘soul’ with the mind. We now see ourselves as immanent creatures and any gap, or conflict, between mind and matter in our experience will be left for us to figure out as we come up with a story that explains how to be human.  In this video with Victor it seems this movement involves creating a new duality between mind and matter — or your feelings and your body (how you feel things apart from your senses and the chemical make-up of your brain (and how that might be influenced by the activities of your body) is something not totally fleshed out in Victor’s anthropology).  Victor’s story is a story like this; in Victor’s account human history has been oppressive because we’ve understood physical sex (matter) and gender (mind) as being things that are best held together; or understood as being a single thing when real enlightenment allows us to see them as they truly are — different — so that true freedom is somehow found in transcending our ‘matter’ so that our sense of ourselves is found in our mind. Only, because the transcendent no longer exists as a spiritual account of reality that overlapped the material so that both were true and held in tension;  this transcendence comes from making one part of us less meaningful as we make the other bit more meaningful. Victor sees the material and the mind being, at times, in competition, and as a result says “you are defined by what you feel.”

Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy built from Plato’s understanding of reality. Plato taught there is a ‘spiritual’ world of ‘ideals’ and a ‘material’ world of ‘forms’ and the truest reality is the spiritual one, and the physical stuff is broken, and non-ideal, and to be transcended. Gnostics applied this to Christianity and came up with the belief that our bodies are utterly broken and sinful and awful and dirty and to be transcended. It taught that you were a soul; and that you were lumped with a body. The soul trumped the body. The body was a meat skeleton to be escaped from.

It’s the same story Victor is telling; this idea that you’re much more than a meat skeleton, if you’re even a meat skeleton at all. This ‘meat skeleton’ phrase reminds me of a couple of passages from three of my favourite ‘secular’ stories by three secular age writers; William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer which explores what might happen if we rely on technology to replace the transcendent. In Neuromancer you can get a chip implanted in your head that allows you to jack-in to cyberspace so that your body exists in the physical world (meatspace) while your mind is in cyberspace. Prostitutes in this world can hire out their bodies while their minds are occupied in the cyber world; so they’re called ‘meat puppets’… which isn’t so different from Victor’s ‘meat-skeleton’ only in Victor’s account your mind is the puppeteer, in control of your meat, not someone else. Case, the protaganist, was a cyber-cowboy (a hacker) who lost his ability to be part of cyber-space but is given it back in order to complete a big hack; he’s torn between two worlds; two realities; the transcendent reality of cyber-space and the physicality of meat-space; without spoiling things too much this para is from near the end of the book:

“No,’ he said, and then it no longer mattered, what he knew, tasting the salt of her mouth where tears had dried. There was a strength that ran in her, something he’d known in Night City and held there, been held by it, held for a while away from time and death, from the relentless Street that hunted them all. It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew – he remembered – as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong and blind way, could ever read.” — Neuromancer

Somehow Gibson is convinced that the body matters. Kurt Vonnegut explores the idea that we’re both ‘meat’ and ‘soul’, and that the key to happiness (and to seeing others properly) is about understanding each, then aligning them, in his novel Bluebeard. The main character, artist Rabo Karabekian, moves from this almost gnostic belief that they’re separate and irreconcilable; but that the soul is the true self to something that sees them as working together. So there’s this dialogue, where :

“I can’t help it,” I said. “My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.”

“Your what and your what?” he said.

“My soul and my meat,” I said.

“They’re separate?” he said.

“I sure hope they are,” I said. I laughed. “I would hate to be responsible for what my meat does.”

I told him, only half joking, about how I imagined the soul of each person, myself included, as being a sort of flexible neon tube inside. All the tube could do was receive news about what was happening with the meat, over which it had no control.

‘”So when people I like do something terrible,” I said, “I just flense them and forgive them.”

“Flense?” he said. “What’s flense?”

“It’s what whalers used to do to whale carcasses when they got them on board,” I said. “They would strip off their skin and blubber and meat right down to the skeleton. I do that in my head to people—get rid of all the meat so I can see nothing but their souls. Then I forgive them.”

At this point Rabo is operating with the belief that the soul is the ‘true’ self and the meat gets in the way… but he’s brought back to reality (or to real reality) in the closing words of the book; when he’s forced to see that when he makes art it’s actually his soul and meat working together (in a passage where the critique of trying to hold body and soul apart is a bit similar to some stuff Irenaeus wrote against the Gnostics in the second century). His art studio is a potato barn.

”Your meat made the picture in the potato barn,” she said.

“Sounds right, “ I said. “My soul didn’t know what kind of picture to paint, but my meat sure did.”

“Well then,” she said, “isn’t it time for your soul, which has been ashamed of your meat for so long, to thank your meat for finally doing something wonderful?”

I thought that over. “That sounds right too,” I said.

“You have to actually do it,” she said.

“How?” I said.

“Hold your hand in front of your eye,” she said, “ and look at those strange and clever animals with love and gratitude, and tell them out loud: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

So I did.

I held my hands in front of my eyes, and I said out loud and with all my heart: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

Oh happy Meat. Oh happy Soul. Oh happy Rabo Karabekian.

David Foster Wallace explores the relationship between the body and something more than the body at the heart of our humanity through the lens of learning to play tennis in both his celebrated essay on Roger Federer published as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in the New York Times (but as the title essay Both Flesh and Not in that collection of his articles and essays), and in his novel Infinite Jest which features a tennis playing prodigy as one of the protaganists. Wallace was, himself, a competitive junior tennis player so you sense that some of his insights into what it means to be meat are autobiographical; what’s a bit different is that Wallace seems to assume that you are first your physical body; that meat matters, and even that anything more that is out there is fed and cultivated by what we do with our ‘meat’… what we give ourselves to. With tennis as a bit of a metaphor for the life well lived, he explores the idea that transcendence is found by pushing our well-trained muscle-memoried bodies to new heights via the imagination; our bodies somehow show our minds what is possible because they act as some sort of sub-conscious us. 

“Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place.” — Infinite Jest

Then when Hal, the tennis prodigy, is being coached. His coach says the key to a sort of ‘flourishing humanity’ starts with our ‘meat’; that we’re meat first:

“‘Boys, what it is is I’ll tell you it’s repetition. First last always. It’s hearing the same motivational stuff over and over till sheer repetitive weight makes it sink down into the gut. It’s making the same pivots and lunges and strokes over and over and over again, at you boys’s age it’s reps for their own sake, putting results on the back burner, why they never give anybody the boot for insufficient progress under fourteen, it’s repetitive movements and motions for their own sake, over and over until the accretive weight of the reps sinks the movements themselves down under your like consciousness into the more nether regions, through repetition they sink and soak into the hardware, the C.P.S. The machine-language. The autonomical part that makes you breathe and sweat. It’s no accident they say you Eat, Sleep, Breathe tennis here. These are autonomical. Accretive means accumulating, through sheer mindless repeated motions. The machine-language of the muscles. Until you can do it without thinking about it, play… The point of repetition is there is no point. Wait until it soaks into the hardware and then see the way this frees up your head. A whole shitload of head-space you don’t need for the mechanics anymore, after they’ve sunk in. Now the mechanics are wired in. Hardwired in. This frees the head in the remarkablest ways. Just wait. You start thinking a whole different way now, playing. The court might as well be inside you. The ball stops being a ball. The ball starts being something that you just know ought to be in the air, spinning. This is when they start getting on you about concentration. Right now of course you have to concentrate, there’s no choice, it’s not wired down into the language yet, you have to think about it every time you do it. But wait till fourteen or fifteen. Then they see you as being at one of the like crucial plateaus. Fifteen, tops. Then the concentration and character shit starts. Then they really come after you. This is the crucial plateau where character starts to matter. Focus, self-consciousness, the chattering head, the cackling voices, the choking-issue, fear versus whatever isn’t fear, self-image, doubts, reluctances, little tight-lipped cold-footed men inside your mind, cackling about fear and doubt, chinks in the mental armor. Now these start to matter. Thirteen at the earliest. Staff looks at a range of thirteen to fifteen. Also the age of manhood-rituals in various cultures. Think about it. Until then, repetition. Until then you might as well be machines, here, is their view. You’re just going through the motions. Think about the phrase: Going Through The Motions. Wiring them into the motherboard. You guys don’t know how good you’ve got it right now.” — Infinite Jest

One of the more powerful things about Infinite Jest is that it explores how the addictions that shape our bodies ultimately shape our humanity; and this sort of tennis training is a sort of ‘rightly directed’ addiction (or is it); it seems better than being addicted to drugs or entertainment… two of the other pictures of meat-shaping (or miss-shaping) habits in the novel.

Somehow, for Wallace, we are inextricably embodied; our meat matters because it shapes everything else about who we are and how we flourish; and when we’re ultimately flourishing it’s because our meat and our minds are meeting; intuitively. When everything comes together in this tennis-as-a-metaphor-for-life thing we no longer notice the ‘dual’ reality.

You’re barely aware you’re doing it. Your body’s doing it for you and the court and Game’s doing it for your body. You’re barely involved. It’s magic, boy. — Infinite Jest

And in a moment on the court where things go wrong; when one’s body betrays you and you slip and fall… that’s when we know that our meat matters; that it’s not something to be left behind when we achieve these magical, transcendent, moments, but part of those moments.

It was a religious moment. I learned what it means to be a body, Jim, just meat wrapped in a sort of flimsy nylon stocking, son, as I fell kneeling and slid toward the stretched net, myself seen by me, frame by frame, torn open. — Infinite Jest

For Wallace our bodies, our ‘meat skeletons’, are actually the key to transcendence; not in departure from them but in that they are the key to truly understanding ourselves. He returns to tennis as a lens for that in his Federer essay, where he explores the idea that watching a tennis player who has achieved the sort of bodily self-mastery described in the novel is actually a religious experience as much as the one that he describes in the injury-inducing slip above, but in the opposite direction. We touch something radically true about ourselves when our bodies are vehicles for something more than just ‘the physical’; when our bodies and souls are in sync.

“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” — Both Flesh and Not

In the footnotes he gives us this exploration of this embodied understanding of our humanity.

There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!,” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot. — Both Flesh and Not

This sort of ‘reconciliation’ he’s talking about is the realisation that we’re not simply minds who have meat attached; but rather that our bodies are inevitably part of our humanity (and part of the limits of our humanity in this secular age), and the best vision of human flourishing he can arrive at from that point is not that real flourishing is about detachment from the body, but rather the body and soul working together to make beautiful tennis. Even if those moments are only fleeting and finite.

Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled. — Both Flesh and Not

For Wallace, watching peak-Federer was a vision of the best that could be achieved in our material world; and hinted at something more. Wallace, more than any other secular age writer, was haunted by ‘the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as he put it in This Is Water). Somehow, in Federer and his embodiment (and go read the essay) he finds some sort of solace when it comes to questions of bodily malfunctions, like those we’re confronted with in a broken world filled with broken bodies, like the kid with cancer who tossed the coin in the match he’s writing about, somehow this glimpse of transcendence through the body working in sync with the ‘soul’ and flourishing, somehow that helps Wallace understand what being human; body, mind, and soul, looks like. And it doesn’t come from transcending your ‘meat’ but achieving some sort of transcendence ‘as meat’…  

“[Federer] looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.” — Both Flesh and Not

These writers offer a nice ‘secular’ critique of Victor’s belief that we’re minds who need to transcend our meat skeletons. But the Christmas story is an even better critique; and one that affirms the good and true things Gibson, Vonnegut and Wallace are grasping for as they affirm the importance of our ‘meatiness’.

Christmas (and Irenaeus) as the answer to this modern ‘gnostic’ dilemma

The Christmas story is fundamentally the story of God meeting us in our meatiness… in meatspace… to provide this sort of ‘reconciliation’ between body and soul, and between the transcendent and immanent; this isn’t just ‘reconciliation’ in the David Foster Wallace sense of those fleeting moments in this world where things feel right; but a permanent fix that means that feeling isn’t just fleeting. It’s the sort of change that brings the transcendent, supernatural, ‘soul’ reality and the immanent natural material world of our bodies back into harmony in a way that deals with both our impending meaty death, and the ‘gnawing sense’ of having lost the infinite.

The Christmas story was the answer to old fashioned gnosticism; and is the answer to the fears of the secular age and its searching for a way to make sense of our ‘meat’ and our feelings in some sort of ‘reconciled’ order.

The Christmas story, what Christians call ‘the incarnation’ — where the divine ‘word of God’, Jesus, a person of the Trinity, permanently takes on human flesh — has always been the answer to gnostic tendencies; to our desire to find some key to escape the limits of our dying bodies.

The Christmas story — the story at the heart of Christianity; and indeed the heart of what Christians believe it means to be human and to flourish is a radical critique of both gnosticism and this new ‘mind over matter’ vision of the human body as a ‘meat skeleton’ to transcend.

The Christmas story teaches us that to be truly human is to have a body, and a soul. In the Christmas story we meet the truest human. You’re not just a soul with a body either; despite that apocryphal quote reputedly from C.S Lewis. You’re both. Paradoxically. Always.

The Easter story promises us that one day all our Christmases will come at once and our bodies will be made new, reconciled, and paired perfectly, with our souls. We’ll be flesh and light. And we get a taste of that now as we live out, and live in, the story of Jesus. This is the promise of the Christian story, one Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 15.

The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven.  And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” — 1 Corinthians 15:46-49

This isn’t to disparage our human bodies and the reality of life where our souls and bodies feel conflicted; but to point us to where real reconciliation is found; it’s in the death of death and in our bodies and souls being joined in an imperishable and harmonious way that lines up with the ‘heavenly man’; the one born as a meaty human at Christmas, and raised as a meaty human at Easter.

Gnosticism is actually pretty terrible news for us as humans; it leads to all sorts of awful self-hatred because being ‘meat’ is actually fundamental to our experience of the world and our ability to know things. It’s soul crushing even in its attempt to free us to simply ‘be a soul’… it isn’t a particularly helpful or possible vision of human flourishing whether it’s being pushed by Plato, or the gnostics of the early church (who denied the incarnation because their vision of God wouldn’t be caught dead in a dirty human body), or a modern day ‘non-binary’ philosopher like Victor. We can’t simply escape our bodies or pretend we are something other than our flesh, because we are actually ‘both flesh and not’…

There are very good reasons that gnosticism was viewed as a heresy; it’s actually the same reason that for many years the pre-secular age western world has seen our physical reality and a more transcendent reality both being parts of being truly human. It’s a very good reason it hasn’t been understood as being ‘oppressive’ to link our physical sex with our gender (even if our physical sex is sometimes non-binary, and some individuals do experience gender as less binary than we might). To be human was to be both body and soul; not just a soul with a body. The answer to the experience of individuals with non-binary sex or gender is not to ‘reconcile’ this divide by simply dismissing our bodies as meat to be transcended (or ignored); but rather to hope for soul and body to be brought back together; for those Federer-like moments to be permanent. This was the hope Irenaeus, a guy who wrote Against Heresies as the most substantive critique of gnosticism relied on in countering the belief that the human task was for the soul to leave the dirty body behind.

Irenaeus understood the present human condition as being one where our souls and bodies are ‘separate’ and where our impending death (and constant decay) are part of what creates this divide. His hope was for ‘recapitulation’ or a ‘re-creation’ — an intervention by God to address this divide so that our souls eventually find their right home in a re-created immortal body (Against Heresies Book 2 Chapter 34). We don’t reconcile this separation by denying the reality of body, or soul (or feelings), but by hoping for this re-aligning of the two where the alignment has been affected in our broken world, and the key to this reconciliation is not our own self-mastery of our bodies ala Wallace’s Federer, but the master of body and soul, the maker of our bodies and souls, meeting us in meat space and providing a path to reconciliation with the divine life. That’s the Gospel story; the Christmas story; the story that speaks into what it means to be truly human (even if this all sounds like some weird wizardry or hocus-pocus in our secular age). This was a story the western world took very seriously in understanding what it means to be human for a very long time.

For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons? — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 3 Chapter 19

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God—all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 1

Irenaeus fairly boldly declared that the Gospel story properly understood was enough to ‘ruin’ the gnostic account of humanity; and I think the Christmas story, the story of God-becoming-meat, is enough to answer Victors idea that our meat skeletons are unimportant when it comes to who we really are. You are a body. You are a soul. That these two parts of you aren’t always working in harmony doesn’t mean you need to escape your meat; it might mean that your meat and your soul need some work to reconcile them in a way that allows you to ‘flourish’…

We all feel bereft and have that ‘gnawing sense’ that these dead bodies aren’t delivering for us whether we experience that in the form of our gender not lining up with our sex, or the myriad other things that make our bodies feel like less-than-home; but for Irenaeus the answer to the gnostic desire to escape our meat was the picture of God becoming meat to meet us in our humanity and chart a way forward to our ‘meat’ being redeemed and made immortal; his hope is for the time promised by that first Christmas, when our bodies and our souls would be brought in harmony by the one who made both. Our problem is that the human default after our rejection of God’s design for us is this dying brokenness, where our souls and our matter don’t line up. Christmas, the incarnation, is the first step towards the death of death and the reconciling of our bodies and souls… it’s not tennis that gets us there; though tennis might point us there and be a taste of what’s to come.

Hope for humanity, in Irenaeus response to ancient gnosticism, in the Gospel story, and in a response to Victor’s modern attempt to free us to be truly human by separating ‘meat’ and feelings, isn’t found in departing from our meatiness, but in both being ‘reconciled’ and made new without the presence of death, decay, and disappointment. Without the sense of us not being at home in our broken and dying bodies. That’s the hope of Christmas, where the God who made us takes the first step towards having a human body broken and dying for us…

Here’s a bit more Irenaeus to plough through…

“But if the Lord became incarnate for any other order of things, and took flesh of any other substance, He has not then summed up human nature in His own person, nor in that case can He be termed flesh. For flesh has been truly made [to consist in] a transmission of that thing moulded originally from the dust. But if it had been necessary for Him to draw the material [of His body] from another substance, the Father would at the beginning have moulded the material [of flesh] from a different substance [than from what He actually did]. But now the case stands thus, that the Word has saved that which really was [created, viz.,] humanity which had perished, effecting by means of Himself that communion which should be held with it, and seeking out its salvation. But the thing which had perished possessed flesh and blood. For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, moulded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation of the Lord’s advent took place. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished. And for this cause the apostle, in the Epistle to the Colossians, says, “And though ye were formerly alienated, and enemies to His knowledge by evil works, yet now ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, through His death, to present yourselves holy and chaste, and without fault in His sight.” He says, “Ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh,” because the righteous flesh has reconciled that flesh which was being kept under bondage in sin, and brought it into friendship with God.” — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 14

A spoken word for Christmas

There’s an irony to telling the Christmas story via ‘spoken word’ when it’s the story of the word made flesh, but this is some great stuff from my friend Nat. He’s allowed me to share it here, and I’m not sure you’ll find it anywhere else. Have a listen. This might be especially helpful if you’re looking for some thing to play at some point in your Christmas service this year.

Here’s a link to the file to download it

Here are the words.

This world paints a picture that joy comes in the form of proof
Proof that you’ve succeeded if your house has a ginormous roof
We’re often torn in two and forming views
about our own self worth based on the next thing we’re looking forward to

But see, the bible is full of recitals
of all kinds of people with all kinds of titles
from those with good stature to those who were broke
whose lives looked fractured and at the point of no hope
from women who served well … to hurt women in search of a well
from royal officials to tax collectors to crippled beggars in the street
who when they met Jesus and found so much more joy than just renewed strength in their feet

See the reason for such joy in the lives of many
was because before they met Jesus their lives seemed so empty.

God has entered the world and he wants to walk with us in it,
our saviour has been born thats why we celebrate Christmas
Jesus is the light that shines bright to where you’re at in life
And the good news is that goes out to everyone in sight
See this relationship with God doesn’t start with us.
It doesn’t start with what we’ve done.
See it starts with coming to know Jesus Christ, our saviour, God’s Son
So Merry Christmas one. And Merry Christmas all.
And praise God that his love has been shown to you and me
And that at his son Jesus Christ’s feet, we can fall.
A saviour’s been born…

The music is from Whitesand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. θεός (Theos)

Definition: God

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

2. λόγος (Logos)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστός (kurios Jesus Christos)

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. ἁγίου πνεύματος (hagiou pneumatos)

Definition: hagiou: Holy, pneumatos: Spirit

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

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

5. τὸ εὐαγγέλιον κηρύσσω (to euangelion ho kerusso)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. ήθος (Ethos)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.σῶμα (soma)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to, and join, people in their lament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

sam_and_ellie

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

Sam: How come you’re never scared?

Ellie: Who says I’m never scared?

Sam: What are you scared of?

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

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

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

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

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

Sam: But you don’t?

Ellie: I guess not.

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

Well…

anti-trump-protests
An anti-Trump protest

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

Zombies, Trump, Identity Politics, and civilised self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zombies, Survival, and the Benedict Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jeremiah

Image: Jeremiah speaking truth to power

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

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

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

We need to rediscover the prophetic voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Know God’s word (hint: it’s Jesus)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kim-dong-kyu-phone

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— David Rose, Enchanted Objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,

— Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:1

Then he says:

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

— Ecclesiastes 12:6-7

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

letterwriting

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


Dear The Hon. Mr Dutton,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regards,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

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

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

writingtoapolitician

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

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

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

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

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

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

So be gracious and charitable.

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

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

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

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

So be wise and humble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So love with actions; not just words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

lutherhammertime

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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