Archives For Christianity

This is part 2 of a 5 part series on how the media you consume – in this case, Facebook – changes and rewires your brain, and what the implications are for people using Facebook, especially Christians. In the first post I looked at how your brain is rewired by the Internet in general, social media in particular, and Facebook specifically.

In this post I’ll consider what we should think about the idea that we’ve essentially rewired our heads to incorporate social media into the way we think and operate. I’ll continue to explore these questions in terms of media ecology, neuroscience, and Christian theology.

This post will look at how one might approach the truth that Facebook changes your brain from a media ecology and neuroscientific standpoint – should we be scared? Or is this just the circle of life? A description of the inevitable implications of the intricacies of life within our tech-fuelled environment? How much should we listen to the pessimists and their doomsaying?

facebook brain

The Media Ecology Framework

Every new technology brings change – and it brings the same cultural doomsday prophets with the same cultural doomsday predictions. Change happens (also XKCD). It happens through the tools we create, and as a result of the tools we create. Some of the change is good. New communication mediums make communicating more efficient, they broaden our reach, they provide new platforms for relationships with other people.

Nicholas Carr, whose book The Shallows featured pretty heavily in post one, is pretty pessimistic about the impact of technology – he also famously asked “Is Google making us stupid?” – and he tends to look back, somewhat romantically, at the way things were.

“Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged. - Nicholas Carr, Is Google making us stupid?

Carr isn’t saying anything new here. In fact, he’s (with Wolf) essentially saying exactly what Plato said/wrote when writing was invented, he was “quoting” Socrates in Phaedrus

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

Carr is right to sound the warning about the power of the internet – because most of us want to be in control of how our brains are being changed – otherwise we’re being coerced, manipulated, and captivated by the tools we use. But his pessimism is the same pessimism that has been expressed at every point in history. There’s nothing really to worry about in terms of the changes media theory wise – technology develops. It just does. These developments bring social and societal change. Some of these changes are good, some are bad.

The founder of Media Ecology, Marshall McLuhan has some pretty nifty stuff to say about technological changes in his Tetrad of Media Effects, it’s famous enough to have its own wikipedia entry, and you can read about it there – but his basic thesis is that new mediums, when introduced to the communication landscape – or ecology – effect the ecology, the balance of things. So the printing press changed the world by making the written word more accessible, cheaper to produce, and very linear in appearance (lines on the page) and logic. This changed the way people thought, and made communication more accurate and precise. McLuhan also wanted to make sure we didn’t just see communication mediums and technologies as neutrals – he wasn’t a big fan of Augustine’s wrong use/right use dichotomy that believed created things are simply inert – he recognised that things we create are created as part of cultures, with myths and uses – while they could potentially be extracted from those myths and used for something else, McLuhan said:

“Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.”

A Short Excursus on Augustine

People who’ve been reading for a while will know I’m a fan of the Augustinian maxims “Wrong use does not negate right use,” and that all gold is created by God and should be “plundered from Egypt and used for presenting the Gospel.” Augustine was talking specifically about a communication medium – oratory – when he wrote this.

I don’t think McLuhan’s position contradicts this. McLuhan isn’t talking about “gold” – neutral created stuff. He’s talking about the stuff we’ve made out of gold – so, for example, Israel should have known that taking the gold of Egypt, and building idols just like Egypt had, out of that gold, was a bad idea. They could possibly have used a golden calf, carefully, by putting it in a golden zoo in the palace or something.

This is a pretty outlandish hypothetical – Israel had real trouble distinguishing between right and wrong use, there’s an example with their use of  the bronze snake they make in the desert in Numbers 21. They’re being bitten by snakes as a judgment against their stupidity, when:

“The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”

By 2 Kings 18 the snake has become an object of worship… that Hezekiah has to smash.

“He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)”

Anyway. Excursus over. Back to the media ecology thing… there are two ways to think of the changes brought about by technology – instrumentalism, and determinism.

Determinists believe this change is inevitable, that the changes wrought by new technologies are unavoidable, and people are destined to become part of “the machine,” while instrumentalists believe mediums are simply instruments that are employed by people for their own ends. Then there are optimistic determinists and pessimistic determinists.

McLuhan is a determinist – but he, on good days, was pretty optimistic about where things were heading because he had an interesting view of the end of the world informed by an interesting Catholic theological framework. I’m more at the instrumentalist end of the spectrum – but I think you can only be an instrumentalist if you are aware of the changes wrought by new mediums. And most people aren’t.

Technology changes the environment it is introduced to, and changes the people who use it. Some people will like the change, others won’t. Some people will find a medium. Some people will be passive passengers in the process of change – some people will be agents of the change, fully aware of what they are doing. You don’t want to be the passive passenger, or you end up like this.

Image: The Matrix, a battery farm of humans. Basically. You need to decide between the red pill and the blue pill. Freedom to rage against the machine – or slavery. It’s not actually that extreme. Unless you want to be Amish. New tools usually replace old tools for a reason – they do jobs better, or jobs we couldn’t previously imagine doing. You’d be an idiot to insist on using a handsaw to cut down a massive tree once the chainsaw has been invented – but you’d also be an idiot to test how sharp a chainsaw is, with your hand, while it’s running. What we need to remember about the Internet is that it presents an incredible opportunity for people with something to communicate.

“The Internet is proving to be one of the most powerful amplifiers of speech ever invented. It offers a global megaphone for voices that might otherwise be heard only feebly, if at all. It invites and facilitates multiple points of view and dialogue in ways unimplementable by the traditional, one-way, mass media… “ “After a one-hundred-and- fifty-year hiatus during which the person-to-person aspect of media was overshadowed by centralized mass media operating on a broadcast model, the pendulum has swung back. Social forms of media based on sharing, copying, and personal recommendation, which prevailed for centuries, have been dramatically reborn, supercharged by the Internet.” - Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall, 2,000 Years of Social Media

From a media ecology sense – change is inevitable. What effect the change has on you is up to you. Forewarned is forearmed.

The Neuroscience Framework

This conclusion is, in part, supported by neuroscience. One of the big ‘tools’ in neuroscience, in terms of shaping your brain, is a thing called “mindfulness” – it basically boils down to being intentional in how you think as much as in terms of what you think about. Just knowing, and adopting or resisting the changes a medium brings is enough to avoid being trapped into mind-altering conformity.

This sort of thinking isn’t new – and while I’m not anywhere near qualified to speak about neuroscience and the efficacy of neuroplasticity in terms of actual medical care for mental health issues – and I’m not trying to do that at all – this quote from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (Book 3) is interestingly prescient.

“But surely we must admit that the mind is capable of healing itself. After all, it was the mind that invented the science of medicine for the body. And while bodily healings are largely dependent on the nature of the bodies themselves, so that not all those who submit to treatment show any immediate improvement, of the mind there can be no doubt: once it is willing to be healed, and heeds the precepts of the wise, it does indeed find healing. A medical science for the mind does exist: it is philosophy. And unlike medicine for the body, the help of philosophy is something we need not look to others to gain. Instead, we should make every possible effort to become capable physicians for ourselves.”

There are actually some neuroscientifically derived practical steps that we’ll look at in a future post – but most neuroscientists see the way our brains adapt according to the use of our technology as part of the ongoing process of evolution. Carr, for example, says:

“When a carpenter picks up a hammer, the hammer becomes, so far as his brain is concerned, part of his hand. When a soldier raises a pair of binoculars to his face, his brain sees through a new set of eyes, adapting instantaneously to a very different field of view… Our brains can imagine the mechanics and the benefits of using a new device before that device even exists… The evolution of our extraordinary mental capacity to blur the boundary between the internal and the external, the body and the instrument, was, says University of Oregon neuroscientist Scott Frey,“no doubt a fundamental step in the development of technology.”… The tight bonds we form with our tools go both ways. Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies.” 

The mental functions that are losing the “survival of the busiest” brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought—the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on when we reflect on our experiences or contemplate an outward or inward phenomenon. The winners are those functions that help us speedily locate, categorize, and assess disparate bits of information in a variety of forms.”…The brain of a person raised in the age of print, a person who learned from books and who read books in time of leisure or study, has a brain that is markedly different from a person who has learned primarily from images or who has watched videos in times of leisure or study… technology changes our biology, reshaping our brains, we become the product of our technologies in some deep and profound ways.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

This isn’t really neuroscience – but the concept of “synchronicity” or “spontaneous order” – which relates to the “hive mind” (see the first post in this series), is pretty interesting.

“Steven Strogatz, an expert in applied mathematics, uses to illustrate his theory of spontaneous order. In spontaneous order, Strogatz explained to an elite audience of entrepreneurs in 2004, live organisms and even inanimate objects fall into sync with one another in ways that seem unnatural and inexplicable… Steven Strogatz summarized his case for the prevalence of synchronicity at every level of nature, with examples from the subatomic to the farthest reaches of the universe. He pointed out more obvious examples like fish that move in schools and birds that travel in flocks. He tied in our human experience, as well. “We [humans] actually take pleasure in synchronicity,” said Strogatz. “We sing together. We dance together.” In fact, while he conceded the law of entropy that proves objects both animate and inanimate typically move toward disorder, he also claimed that the tendency toward the harmonization of objects might be an even more certain reality. “Sync,” Strogatz says, “might be the most pervasive force in nature.” – Jesse Rice, The Church of Facebook

Throw the research that shows our heart beats sync when we sing together into the mix and there’s a pretty interesting picture of what happens when humans gather together with the same mind. Neuroscientists, like media ecologists, will either be positive about these changes seeing them as the next step in our evolution (towards becoming Wolverine), or be against them because they think that process should be ‘natural.’

In biomedicalized societies, the concept of brain plasticity has generated much excitement giving rise to a new style of thought, connected to a booming industry of brain-based self-improvement or “neuroascesis,” particularly since the late 1990s. The idea that the brain has the capacity to modify itself through experience-dependent processes has pushed neuroscience towards a less deterministic and more interactional discourse. Aside from genetic programming, neuroplasticity is after all dependent on environmental inputs, and, as popularized accounts emphasize, the enrichment of a given environment can bring about reorganization and genesis of neurons. In adulthood, plasticity has been celebrated as the means through which recovery can occur after trauma and injury, and the mechanism through which new skills can continue to be learned throughout life. In contrast to the notion of the brain as a fixed organ, which determines certain behaviours or dispositions of a person, the plastic self is alterable, continually evolving and able to steer its own course into an open future by working on its material substrate, the metamorphosing brain. This plastic reason has radically recast visions of the brain giving it a sense of historicity, individuality, and situatedness, and assigning it the ability to respond to psychological experience as well as to generate it. In fact, it has become an ethical imperative to deploy one’s brain in ways that preserve its openness in order to maintain psychological health. In this imperative, adult neuroplasticity articulates with individualizing formations of risk and responsibility. Plasticity in the adult brain is thus seen for the most part as a positive thing—a process that should be harnessed in order to learn, change or recover, and sustained in order to prevent mental illness and the negative effects of ageing… 
“Plasticity in the case of adolescence is often framed differently—certainly in the debate about the effects of digital media. The adolescent brain, programmed to be in a much more pronounced state of synaptic plasticity compared to the adult brain, is rendered vulnerable and risky by virtue of its plasticity… Further, the stakes and consequences of neuroplasticity for adolescents are interpreted differently than for adults, for whom opportunities for neural change entail responsibility and provide hope primarily as individualizing practices. However, while the actual locus of change rests within the brain of the individual adolescent, the risks or consequences of these changes are imagined to occur at a much broader level. The stakes are indeed quite high as changes in individual brains are seen to have the potential to collectively shape the future of society.” Choudhury & McKinney, Digital media, the developing brain and the interpretive plasticity of neuroplasticity 

Because the changes wrought in your brain by these technologies are dependent on you using them actively, rather than passively – you are in control. The changes are what they are – some of them are positive, some are negative, some are only negative if you want to live in the world of yesteryear. I’d say the inability to think reflectively or deeply and the rewiring that turns people into bigger narcissists (which can only be the result of people seeking likes for their selfies) are mostly negative changes. Carr is worried about the effect the emerging shared digital consciousness is having on our brains – which are wired to seek that sort of connection, but maybe not in this way…

There’s another, even deeper reason why our nervous systems are so quick to “merge” with our computers. Evolution has imbued our brains with a powerful social instinct, which, as Jason Mitchell, the head of Harvard’s Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, says, entails “a set of processes for inferring what those around us are thinking and feeling.” Recent neuroimaging studies indicate that three highly active brain regions—one in the prefrontal cortex, one in the parietal cortex, and one at the intersection of the parietal and temporal cortices—are “specifically dedicated to the task of understanding the goings-on of other people’s minds.” While this cybernetic blurring of mind and machine may allow us to carry out certain cognitive tasks far more efficiently, it poses a threat to our integrity as human beings. Even as the larger system into which our minds so readily meld is lending us its powers, it is also imposing on us its limitations - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

But our brain being wired to be more social, or more connected to others – that’s probably a good thing. There are obvious caveats here based on how much you’re in control of the rewiring – and how much it’s on your terms, not the medium’s – but that’s a media ecology issue, not a neuroscience issue.

When we go online, we, too, are following scripts written by others—algorithmic instructions that few of us would be able to understand even if the hidden codes were revealed to us. When we search for information through Google or other search engines, we’re following a script. When we look at a product recommended to us by Amazon or Netflix, we’re following a script. When we choose from a list of categories to describe ourselves or our relationships on Face-book, we’re following a script. These scripts can be ingenious and extraordinarily useful, as they were in the Taylorist factories, but they also mechanize the messy processes of intellectual exploration and even social attachment. As the computer programmer Thomas Lord has argued, software can end up turning the most intimate and personal of human activities into mindless “rituals” whose steps are “encoded in the logic of web pages” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

It’s this conversion of our personalities and activities into binary bits and bytes that has Tim Challies worried about the effect of the Digital world.

“Time may well show that one of the digital world’s greatest effects on human beings has been to depersonalize us, to tear away our humanity in favor of 1’s and 0’s—to make us little more than their data. And increasingly we relate to one another as if we are not real people, not people with thoughts and feelings and emotions but people who are barely people at all. We relate to one another as if we are all computers, as if we are merely digital.” – Tim Challies, The Next Story

Once again, forewarned is forearmed. If you know the change is possible you can either prevent it – by avoiding technologies, or steer it, by using them deliberately and as part of a bigger mix of brain stimuli. In the next post we’ll tackle the question of our changing brain theologically.

In the next few days I’ll be unpacking an essay I wrote for my Licensing (you can cheat by reading the whole thing now) – the application of my Masters thesis on communicating as Christians using worldly mediums to social media.

facebook brain

This series could be more generically titled – all social media is messing with your head. Because all communication mediums mess with your head. And by mess with your head, I mean “rewire your brain.” And by rewire your brain – well, I mean that literally.

Have you noticed that you habitually return to certain things – even without thinking? I have. While I was procrastinating during my last little bit of college work I even found myself typing “facebook.com” into my browser, when I was already on Facebook. Then I posted a Facebook status about my mistake.

Do you think slow internet is just about the worst thing in the world? I’d hazard a guess that a significant number of “first world problems” shared online have something to do with phones, internet access, or happenings on social media.

It’s not just Facebook. But whatever your poison – social media is changing the way we live.

The systems are designed to keep you engaged. They are constantly adapting to maximise your eyeball time. Remember Farmville? None of my friends play Farmville anymore. I don’t play Farmville anymore – and yet, I’m still on Facebook just as much.

Mediums carry powerful myths, or are associated with powerful myths. These myths aren’t lies or fiction. In fact the truer they are, the more they resonate with our reality, the more compelling they are. These myths are the big narratives that get us to sign up to new platforms in the first place, the values that systems lock us in to, and celebrate. Facebook is no different. It has myths. It has values. It has a system that is designed to get you to participate, and to keep you coming back.

Facebook’s myths revolve around its “mission to make the world more open and connected, (PDF) because “the internet not only connects us to our friends, families and communities, but it is also the foundation of the global knowledge economy.”

Image Credit: Facebook.com, ‘Is Connectivity a Human Right?’

It is the most powerful teller of its own myth. And as the myth maker, and platform creator, it is in the driving seat. The changes it makes – to its design, or what you see in the news feed – are changes made in line with its values and “myth” – changes designed to keep you engaged for longer, building a more detailed profile, to keep you clicking and interacting – so that companies have more compelling reasons to spend money getting their product in front of consumers.

Facebook changes the way you think.

The more you use it – the more your thinking is shaped by it. It’s scary stuff. Especially because as you use them, and think the way they get you to think, your brain is actually rewiring itself. You are being conformed to the image of its world, participating according to its rules. And when it comes to Facebook – as we’ll see below – the results aren’t pretty.

Interestingly – this sort of conclusion is something of a venn diagram of multiple academic disciplines. Theologians, media theorists (especially media ecologists), and neuroscientists are all on the same page on this one. They all take the same data, and reach the same conclusions, down different roads.

The way we consume and transmit information changes us and our audience, potentially as much as the content we communicate.

In Christian theology – we are warned about worshipping idols (anything other than God) – not only because idols are poor substitutes for the very real God, not only because idols are hollow projections of our broken desires, but because idols work in an insidious way – the consequences of idolatry aren’t pretty. Idols shape those who worship them. We become what we behold. We were made to behold God – to be his image bearers, and once we tried to be “like God,” autonomously – that void became empty, and our hearts lead us where they will.

Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them. – Psalm 115 (about idols)

“The things we create can—and will—try to become idols in our hearts. Though they enable us to survive and thrive in a fallen world, the very aid they provide can deceive us with a false sense of comfort and security, hiding our need for God and his grace.” Tim Challies, The Next Story

What becomes mythic is only one step removed from becoming idolatrous. Tim Challies, The Next Story

Media ecologists are those who study the effects different communication mediums have on the world they operate in, and the people who use the mediums. Social media platforms like Facebook are communication mediums. Communication mediums don’t just carry data – they provide a context for the interpretation of data, and this influences the meaning of the data, and how it is understood. That’s a little technical – but think about it this way – I can tell my wife that I love her. Face to face. With flowers. Or I can post her a message on Facebook with a flower emoticon. The message is the same, the meaning is vastly different – it’s not just about physical presence (though that’s important) – Facebook brings with it a whole heap of assumptions about the value of messages – if I post the message on my wife’s wall, for all to see, that is different to if I send the message to her as a private message. Media ecology goes beyond understanding the impact of mediums on meanings – and looks at the impact of new mediums on the world.

“We shape our tools, thereafter they shape us.” - John Culkin

“Neil Postman, the late cultural critic and media theorist, pointed out that over time certain technologies come to be considered mythic, not in the sense of being fictional or legendary, but in the sense that they seem to have always existed in their current form. They have become part of the natural order of life. They become assumed, and we forget that they have not always been a part of our lives… In fact, mythic technologies seem impossible to change. It seems easier to change ourselves and adapt to the new technology than to change it. Often, we assume that we must or should change to accommodate the new technology… What becomes mythic is only one step removed from becoming idolatrous.” – Tim Challies, The Next Story

There is a growing consensus amongst neuroscientists – people who look at brains for a living – that our brains continue to change as we use them. Like any other muscle. That they are “plastic” – that what we do has the ability to form patterns in our thinking and processing. That we change our heads as we use our heads. That we change our heads as we use technology.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” – Daniel Siegel, The Developing Mind

 

We become, neurologically, what we think… But the news is not all good. Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit. - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

 

“But scientists are only now beginning to understand a further truth: technology is biological. Our brains actually change in response to new technologies. The brain of a person raised in the age of print, a person who learned from books and who read books in time of leisure or study, has a brain that is markedly different from a person who has learned primarily from images or who has watched videos in times of leisure or study.”

A person who is raised digitally becomes a digital person, with a brain shaped by the computer, the Internet, and the mobile phone. Though this may sound alarming, it seems clear that this is consistent with the way God created us. We are molded and formed into the image of whatever shapes us. – Tim Challies, The Next Story

Several writers have noticed the overlap between media ecology and theology,  the overlap between theology and neuroplasticity, and the overlap between neuroplasticity and media ecology – but there aren’t a whole lot of people out there putting all these insights together. There are a few good books to read at the end of this series. What is relatively clear – if you couple the insights of all of these disciplines – is that social media, as a created “thing” that we use to communicate, with increasing regularity – is messing with our heads.

The head-changing power of Facebook

Research shows that Facebook likes cause your brain to get excited, causing neurons to fire and wire, giving us little chemical rewards and causing addiction. The study scanned people’s brains while they were using Facebook

“We found that we could predict the intensity of people’s Facebook use outside the scanner by looking at their brain’s response to positive social feedback inside the scanner/ Specifically, a region called the nucleus accumbens, which processes rewarding feelings about food, sex, money and social acceptance became more active in response to praise for oneself compared to praise of others. And that activation was associated with more time on the social media site – Time Magazine, This is Your Brain on Facebook

The longer you spend on Facebook – participating in Facebook the way it is set up to reward you, hook you, and keep you coming back, the more Facebook rewires your brain in its image.

It makes you a more self interested person. We don’t need much help being more self interested.

It also makes you more distracted – especially coupled with the ubiquitous access that comes with a smart phone. You can get this fix any minute of the day (or night). It’s like giving a junkie a limitless, effortless, supply of their drug of choice. In their pocket. Always on tap. And the effect is a change in the default functions of your brain.

“Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.” - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

Carr’s book The Shallows is fascinating. When he talks about “The Net” in the below paragraphs he’s particularly talking about social networks. Social media platforms are designed to be addictive. They are wired not just in a way that reflects the human brain – but to appeal to the human brain – and because of how we use them, they end up changing, and in some cases, replacing, the brain’s functions.

“The Net also provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards—“positive reinforcements,” in psychological terms—which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions. When we click a link, we get something new to look at and evaluate. When we Google a keyword, we receive, in the blink of an eye, a list of interesting information to appraise. When we send a text or an instant message or an e-mail, we often get a reply in a matter of seconds or minutes. When we use Facebook, we attract new friends or form closer bonds with old ones. When we send a tweet through Twitter, we gain new followers. When we write a blog post, we get comments from readers or links from other bloggers.

The Net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.

The interactivity of the Net amplifies this effect as well. Because we’re often using our computers in a social context, to converse with friends or colleagues, to create “profiles” of ourselves, to broadcast our thoughts through blog posts or Facebook updates, our social standing is, in one way or another, always in play, always at risk. The resulting self-consciousness—even, at times, fear—magnifies the intensity of our involvement with the medium.

“The Net grants us instant access to a library of information unprecedented in its size and scope, and it makes it easy for us to sort through that library—to find, if not exactly what we were looking for, at least something sufficient for our immediate purposes. What the Net diminishes is Johnson’s primary kind of knowledge: the ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence.” Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

Carr’s argument – supported by other neuroscientists (see for example, Choudhury & McKinney, ‘Digital Media, the Developing Brain, and the Interpretive Plasticity of Neuroplasticity’, Transcultural Psychiatry) – is that we are externalising our brain. The internet is becoming part of how we think and store information.

Marshall McLuhan – the father of Media Ecology – believed the end goal of technology was that we would become indistinguishable from the machines we use. That seemed a little crazy at the time. He was writing before the internet – but now not so much. Choudhury and McKinney are excited about that.

The cellphone then is not ‘‘other’’ but exists as an extension of the mind’s capacity to store information or to communicate. Through feedback and feedforward loops that move across the boundaries of brain, body, and world, the distinction of brain and environment is collapsed…

…Taken a step further, the view of the socially extended mind pushes us to consider how the mind is also constituted in and is distributed across social processes and environments, and would thus include institutions, social structures, and discourses. – Choudhury & McKinney

Basically, these guys are saying when your mind is externalised into a social network you really do get a “hive mind” where we function like a swarm of bees (not simply within your own head, or through a sci-fi technological “telepathic noosphere”), but because our thinking is happening in shared spaces, influenced by all the participants in our network.

Carr thinks that’s bad. Others like McLuhan, Choudhury, and McKinney that it’s good, or neutral. But what are Christians to think?

Well. That’s the next post. But what do you think? Can you see how the social networks you participate in – or your smart phone – is changing the way you think?

This video is apparently old (Robyn tells me she saw it months ago)… but in the tradition of celebrities reading mean tweets about themselves (scroll down), here are some third world people reading first world problems to raise money for clean water where it is needed.

For $25 you can buy someone the gift of giving clean water to a family or community from TEAR’s Really Useful Gift catalogue this Christmas.

Here are some celebrities reading mean tweets about themselves on Late Nights with Jimmy Fallon…

 

Some Christmas videos for churches

You can find links to good videos for Christmas services all over the place at this time of year. Well. At Communicate Jesus anyway. Most of these feature the talents of some talented people from across the seas. If you want Australian made videos. Here are a couple.

Sand Bible (Luke 1-2, Matthew 2 – in sand) – Grab a five pack. With or without narration.

Sand Bible is a little project from some talented Brisbane brothers.

Or there’s this one – Love Came Down, from Creek Road Media last Christmas.

This is what happens when a bunch of old white guys talk about something they don’t understand.

Media theory.

Well, that, and hip hop.

Every man and his blog has already responded to this video – which has prompted not one, but two apologies from NCFIC – one of which is genuine and gracious, the other is an apology that people were offended at being called cowards. There’s a transcript of the video here.

Most of what needs to be said about how bad this video is has been said.

People like Owen Strachan, Thabiti Anyabwile, Tim Challies, Doug Wilson, Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, Joe Carter, and Justin Taylor have all chimed and said things I think are important. But what they don’t have…

They don’t have the video from the panel set to a beat. But I do. The beats come from the instrumental tracks on my (Reformed hip-hopping) friend Nat’s new albumSeven Scrolls of Suffering (get it here).

Most things are more persuasive when they take the Hip Hop form of a “spoken word” – so I put a beat behind that video above, and cut it down a bit. Into a video that shows what these guys actually think about hip hop, and another that shows what I think they should have said…

Two things the panel got right

I think it’s fair to say these guys actually do understand Hip Hop – they just don’t like it. What they don’t understand is the intersection between theology and a discipline called “media ecology” – it’s the field of studies developed around the work of Marshall McLuhan, the guy who said “the medium is the message”… This lack of understanding leads them to dismiss Hip Hop. But they get two things right.

1. As Christians – how we say things is important. Medium matters. The Bible uses and describes the use of many communication mediums that support the message. 

2. Mediums are not neutral – mediums influence the message, the recipients, and the messengers. 

The first one shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody, the second one is slightly more controversial and is one of the central tenets of media ecology.

One of Marshall McLuhan’s big insights was that when it comes to communication mediums we become what we behold – he was riffing off the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 115. Particularly when it came to the power of idols – which were first century communication tools.

4 But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
5 They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
6 They have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but cannot smell.
7 They have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but cannot walk,
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
8 Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them. 

A guy named John Culkin, one of Marshall McLuhan’s academic disciples said it this way:

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Think about what happens to the arms of a worker who switches from using a shovel to using a jackhammer.

That’s what happens to us when we communicate using different mediums. The mediums begin to shape us – so, for example, having the Internet in our pockets has probably rewired our brains to make us think differently, speak differently, and it has certainly changed the way we act. It is quite possible that Hip Hop, as a medium (a subset of music), equally has the ability to affect the communicator. But it’s probably not about the combination of beats and rhymes.

What they got wrong

And the guys on the panel are right to point out that when Christians use mediums, we need to “redeem” and “transform” them. One of the panelists, Scott Aniol, has expanded on what he meant here (I disagree with some of his conclusions, especially about whether or not Paul rejected oratory, or subverted it, but most of the working is sound). But they’re wrong to think that happens at the superficial level, by changing or removing a beat – or whatever the panelists think is what needs to happen when we play music or with film.

 

The transforming power of mediums isn’t really at the superficial level.

Mediums transform us because mediums have their own narratives, or value systems, that are used to differentiate them from other mediums, they are part of strong “myths” that create meaning for people.

We don’t “redeem mediums” at the superficial level, we do it by changing the narrative. We do it by not participating in these myths – but subverting them. By replacing them. With our own narrative.

It’s what the writers of the wisdom literature did with wisdom literature – wisdom wasn’t about what man observed as the fundamental ordering of the world, instead it was about the fear of God.

It’s what Paul did with oratory – which was all about the speaker. He made it all about the glory of Jesus instead. Jesus increased, while he decreased.

It’s what Reformed Hip Hop people are doing with Hip Hop. They’re not leaving the tools unchanged – because they are reshaping the narrative that comes with the tools. Every time they talk about why they rap. Every time they rap about Jesus and giving their lives and gifts to him, not about themselves, their winning of life, defined as sex, money, or power.

The medium is the message, the messenger is the medium, the messenger is the message

There are two big problems with the panel’s “media ecology” – one, is they appear to drastically downplay the content of a message, the other is they don’t see the messenger as the medium. Which is profoundly ordinary theology.

In the incarnation, Jesus was both medium and message – the word made flesh. Interestingly – he spoke in the communication mediums of his day – language is a medium. The alphabet is a communication medium – using a written alphabet profoundly transformed the cultures that became literate, and the cultures that didn’t. Jesus spoke the language of his time – using the forms of his time – like pithy wisdom statements, chiasmus, and parables. He lived a life that communicated, both through his actions and his relationships. The messenger is the medium. The medium is the message.

As we carry his message as image bearers we are both medium and messenger – and, in some sense, we’re also the message – as our lives give testimony to who Jesus is. That’s the “medium” at play in the Reformed Hip Hop scene – a bunch of people living as God’s people, as his instruments, in a culture that is full of people living for themselves. Paul calls those who follow Jesus God’s letter, the image of Jesus, and God’s instruments. We are mediums. The messenger is the medium. The medium is the message.

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. – 2 Corinthians 3:2-3

 

18 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.

 

In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work. – 2 Timothy 2:20-21

We overturn the myths that come with the mediums we embrace by replacing them with our own powerful narrative. The narrative of the cross.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. – 2 Cor 4:10-11

Three days in the belly of a boat

okene

Call him Jonah.

This is the look of a man confronting his rescuer after three days believing he was going to die. Trapped in the belly of a boat.

Back in June, a tugboat cook named Harrison Odjegba Okene spent almost three days in the upturned hull of the boat he’d been sailing in. 30 metres below the surface. A rescue diver sent to retrieve bodies found him. And was sufficiently freaked out when the hand he suspected belonged to a floating corpse grabbed him.

The story is here. But the really stunning bit is the footage of the rescue. Hooray for ubiquitous cameras.

He’d been on the toilet when the boat sank.

“He groped his way out of the toilet and tried to find a vent, propping doors open as he moved on. He discovered some tools and a life vest with two flashlights, which he stuffed into his shorts.

When he found a cabin of the sunken vessel that felt safe, he began the long wait, getting colder and colder as he played back a mental tape of his life — remembering his mother, friends, mostly the woman he’d married five years before with whom he hadn’t yet fathered a child.”

To make the sermon illustration complete, Okene is a Christian.

“I started calling on the name of God. … I started reminiscing on the verses I read before I slept. I read the Bible from Psalm 54 to 92. My wife had sent me the verses to read that night when she called me before I went to bed.”

Psalm 57 seems particularly apt.

1 Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
until the disaster has passed.

2 I cry out to God Most High,
to God, who vindicates me.
3 He sends from heaven and saves me,
rebuking those who hotly pursue me—
God sends forth his love and his faithfulness.

4 I am in the midst of lions;
I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts—
men whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.

5 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
let your glory be over all the earth.

6 They spread a net for my feet—
I was bowed down in distress.
They dug a pit in my path—
but they have fallen into it themselves.

7 My heart, O God, is steadfast,
my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and make music.
8 Awake, my soul!
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.

9 I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples.
10 For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the skies.

11 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
let your glory be over all the earth.

 

As does Psalm 61…

1 Hear my cry, O God;
listen to my prayer.

2 From the ends of the earth I call to you,
I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
3 For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe.

4 I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.
5 For you, God, have heard my vows;
you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.

6 Increase the days of the king’s life,
his years for many generations.
7 May he be enthroned in God’s presence forever;
appoint your love and faithfulness to protect him.

8 Then I will ever sing in praise of your name
and fulfill my vows day after day.

The moral to the story must surely be read Psalms when you’re on a boat.

To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. So said WWE icon Rick Flair (who could probably teach a little bit about rhetoric). That’s kind of the logic underpinning Joseph Romm’s Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady GagaRomm runs the website Rhetoric.com and applies his rhetorical skills on the Climate Progress blog.

While Romm doesn’t pay much attention to Cicero, he does offer a guide to eloquence based on looking at some of the most persuasive story tellers from the past and present. He reverse engineers the rules of persuasion from the world’s great orators – Jesus and Shakespeare, with a pretty cutting assessment of the communication techniques of modern politicians, and quite a sympathetic reading of Lady Gaga.

“If the Bible is the word of God, then rhetoric is God’s way of speaking. The Elizabethans certainly viewed rhetoric that way. One best-selling sixteenth-century handbook asserted that rhetoric makes the orator “the emperour of men’s minds & affections, and next to the omnipotent God in the power of persuasion.”

He suggests rhetoric isn’t much more than helping people to speak naturally in a way that understands what makes people tick.

“…from the very beginning, rhetoric teachers aimed to help orators speak more naturally, in a manner that as closely as possible matched the way people actually speak. Here is Aristotle discussing the importance of matching natural speaking: Your language will be appropriate if it expresses emotion and character…. To express emotion, you’ll employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discreet reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory…. This aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story.

Ultimately it’s a book about how to tell a story that persuades – particularly an extended story. And this is where I reckon it’s incredibly powerful for preachers. If you’re not thinking about how your sermons relate to each other, and to your church’s vision, and to the way you do things – and you’re not tying those together with some sort of extended, coherent metaphor or narrative, you’re being less than effective as a persuasive communicator. And that, ultimately, is what we’re on about as Christians.

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

Romm gives some tips drawn from his pool of experts, summed up in this list:

1. Use short, simple words.

2. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition is the essential element of all persuasion.

3. Master irony and foreshadowing. They are central elements of popular culture, modern politics, and mass media for a reason—they help us make sense of the stories of our lives and other people’s lives.

4. Use metaphors to paint a picture, to connect what your listeners already know to what you want them to know. Metaphors may be the most important figure as well as the most underused and misused.

5. Create an extended metaphor when you have a big task at hand, like framing a picture-perfect speech or launching a major campaign.

6. If you want to avoid being seduced, learn the figures of seduction. If you want to debunk a myth, do not repeat that myth.

I think most preachers have been taught 1 and 2, but it’s 4 and 5 that are key. I’d say you can even get away with not following 1 if your metaphor is powerful enough and infuses everything you say with a bit of life and verve.

Here. So you don’t have to buy the book (you should anyway). Is a bit of an expansion on some of these points.

Repetition and clarity

“Eloquence requires the repetition of words and phrases. Persuasion requires the repetition of slogans, sentences, and ideas.”

For Romm the key to repetition is something like sloganeering. You figure out the simplest and most punchy way to make a point. And you make it. Again. And again. And again. But you’ve got to aim not to bore your audience with the repetition – which means you’ve got to work hard at getting your weight behind the punch. He suggests the noble (and vastly underrated) chiasmus is a nice way to hammer home a blow. I quite like the idea of structuring speeches and sermons as something like a chiasmus.

“Perhaps the most elegant—and certainly one of the most popular—figures of repetition is chiasmus: words repeated in inverse order. Chiasmus is a great source of aphorisms. Mae West famously said, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” Ray Bradbury advised writers, “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance. Chiasmus makes for a memorable tweet, since it is pithy and profound.”

Clarity isn’t just about short words. It’s about removing impediments to your message. It’s ground clearing so that your storytelling can stand out – so that your metaphor is given the context it needs in order to shine. But it isn’t even just about vocab. It’s about clarity of emotion and tone as well. Making sure the mood and thus, in a speech, the medium, is apt to the message.

“Clarity is rightly seen as one of the most important virtues of a speech. If our goal is to persuade people honestly, then we should be as clear as possible about what we are trying to say. Clarity is most important when we are trying to convince people with the facts, with logic. As we’ve seen, however, truly persuasive speech requires a simultaneous appeal to mind and heart, logic and emotion, especially if you are trying to penetrate and change someone’s worldview.”

Stories as metaphors

“Memorable storytelling, whether in life or politics, is built around the same figures of speech used by the master storytellers, the ancient bards—metaphor, foreshadowing, irony, and especially extended metaphor, which is what some, like the linguist George Lakoff, call a frame.”

Romm argues that metaphors speak to us because they speak to our brains. They give us something that appeals to how we’re wired – words that evoke pictures. Speeches that are just words might fire up one part of the brain, but when you get people to visualise something, and give them a memory hook – it’s like injecting steroids into their head. Strengthening your message.

“Metaphors are not just a pleasing figure of speech we use by chance. They reflect the very structure of our thinking and of our brain itself. Edward O. Wilson argued in his book Biophilia, “The brain depends upon elegance to compensate for its own small size and short lifetime.” As we evolved, the brain “was forced to rely on tricks to enlarge memory and speed computation.” Hence, the human mind “specializes on analogy and metaphor, on a sweeping together of chaotic sensory experience into workable categories labeled by words and stacked into hierarchies for quick recovery. Metaphors enhance our memories in at least two ways. First, they create another place in the brain for a word or phrase to reside. People remember words better when they have multiple ways to remember them, such as combining repetition and a rhyme (“Double your pleasure, double your fun with Doublemint Doublemint Doublemint gum!”). In particular, metaphors create a visual aid to memory. Metaphor is “used for the sake of creating a vivid mental picture,” wrote the author of one of the rhetoric textbooks used to teach Elizabethan children.”

“Metaphors aid in memory a second way: They require the hearer or reader to think more, to light up more brain circuits, to figure out the connections and what they mean. As one study of “Figures of Rhetoric in Advertising Language” put it (in muddy jargon that no ad writer would use), “Effortfully processed information is more readily retrieved from memory than less effortfully processed information.”

It’s not just that metaphors are more memorable. Metaphors are also more compelling. Especially if they work at the level of providing a framework for people to think. Extended metaphors shape worldviews. They let us carry our stories across time and space. They help us link our stories together (a bit like Coca Cola’s “Liquid and Linked” approach to telling stories on social media)

“Extended metaphor is, for me, the most important rhetorical device. This figure is at the heart of some of Lincoln’s greatest speeches. It pumps the life blood into Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Political candidates with a strong extended metaphor have a long political life while those without one don’t have much of a pulse. Like the best figures, extended metaphors make ideas and phrases more memorable, expanding the vivid visual imagery painted by a single metaphor to create an entire mental mural for the audience. And like the best tropes, which “turn” the meaning of words, extended metaphors force you to think—and in a deeper way than most figures.”

This again, works because we think not just in metaphors, but in extended metaphors. Here’s how it works in politics. There’s not a huge jump to figuring out how we can make this work in preaching.

“Extended metaphors are essential to politics for several reasons. First, as we’ve seen, they are a key to great speechmaking. Second, we humans think with extended metaphors. So the best politicians naturally present themselves to fit our metaphors, linking those metaphors to their personal story, feeding the modern media’s growing interest in personalities and dramatic stories. Third, the best way to attack your opponent’s positive extended metaphor is to hit back with a negative extended metaphor. Put another way, rhetoric is the art of creating a persuasive story, the art of making—and unmaking—an emotional connection with voters.”

For preaching the issue isn’t so much conforming to the audience’s metaphor – it’s conforming the audience to a new worldview by the Gospel. Which comes packed with its own metaphors. So, for example, at Creek Road we link the Gospel, with our vision, with the way we do things using the metaphor of heart transformation. Being able to alter worldviews is vital for preaching – it’s a vital work of the Holy Spirit, who works through our preaching. But it’s an incredible challenge for us now – because we are both bombarded by tens of thousands of competing metaphors and advertising images every day (well, on the days you walk the aisles of a supermarket), and we are getting better and better at filtering out messages that we aren’t interested in.

“If you cannot change the public’s worldview, microcosm, paradigm, extended metaphor, or frame, then you cannot change how they perceive the facts. This is especially problematic in our time, a time when people can easily choose to watch only those media outlets that share their political views and thus pre-filter facts for them.”

One of the really nice things about Romm’s book, and one of the reasons it’s so readily applicable in a Christian context is that he values, rather than dismissing, the Christian tradition and its contribution to rhetoric. This isn’t a Christian book, but Romm uses Jesus as an example to back up many of these points, and acknowledges that Christianity brings its own inherent extended metaphor in the pages of Scripture.

“The systematic application of rhetoric is one of the few ways to create a worldview—what more profound paradigm is there in America than the Judeo-Christian ethic as created and sustained in the supreme rhetoric text, the Bible? In the beginning was the Word.”

 

This is a cool little quote from an article I’m reading for my second. last. essay. of my degree. Here’s the citation.

M.K Peterson, ‘Salvation and Health: Why the Church Needs Psychotherapy,’ Christian Bioethics, 17.3, (2011), 277-298

Anyway. It’s got a cool little intro on how the church changed the world because of how it changed medicine. It doesn’t have much to do with my topic (how our approaches to pastoral care might benefit from neuroplasticity). I love this stuff and this is definitely a “file for later” sort of post. This doesn’t make Christianity any truer, it’s not an argument for Christianity – but it does make Christianity vital. And it does make it better than alternative foundations for ethics and society.

Here it is.

“Medicine involves faithful presence to those in pain, even—perhaps especially—when hopes for “cure” prove illusory and the provision of care throughout a longer or a shorter span of life becomes the sum of what medicine can offer. This is no easy task. Our helplessness to effect a hoped-for cure can too easily turn to hatred: hatred of sufferers for failing to get well and of ourselves for failing to make them better. In the face of this temptation to impotent rage and to the punitive abandonment of the sick and suffering, medicine needs the church, whose experience of the faithful presence of God in the midst of suffering undergirds its own willingness faithfully to be present to the sick. Only so can the hospital—and the practice of medicine more generally—be, in Hauerwas’ words, “a house of hospitality along the way of our journey with finitude . . . a sign that we will not abandon those who have become ill simply because they are currently suffering the sign of that finitude” (Hauerwas, 1986, 81–2). If anything, Hauerwas may have understated the dependence of the practice of medicine, thus defined, upon the moral community that is the church. In a recent monograph, historian Andrew Crislip (2005) links the emergence of the hospital in the late antique period to the health care system of Christian monasticism. According to Crislip, monastic health care stood in stark contrast to pagan health care in its commitment to care for the crippled, the infirm elderly, and the chronically and terminally ill (Crislip, 2005, 9). “It was standard among ancient physicians at all times to reject chronic or hopeless cases. To treat a patient he could not cure would only diminish the doctor’s reputation, even if it might enrich him somewhat” (Crislip, 2005, 114). Thus, where pagan medicine emphasized prognosis, which allowed the physician to identify hopeless cases and refuse to take them, monastic medicine emphasized diagnosis, which allowed for appropriate healing and caring measures to be taken on behalf of any sufferer (Crislip, 2005, 18–9). There is, in other words, no abstract discipline called “medicine” that offers nonstigmatizing, compassionate care throughout the life cycle. In the West, at least, such medicine originated in specifically Christian communities and was undergirded by specifically Christian moral commitments

As the overtly Christian moral character of public life in the West fades into the past, it is thus unsurprising that we would see developments in the practice of medicine that undercut some of these Christianly informed aspects of medical care, in particular those that presume the ideal of empathic, personal connection between physicians, patients, and the communities and relationships in which both of these are embedded. Modern Western medicine is by many measures becoming more specialized, more technologized, and more depersonalized.”

 

Check this out. It’s good stuff from my friend Nat aka Sounds Like Dsipl. He’s produced this 14 track Hip Hop album including 7 collaborative songs with other people involved in the Change the Tape label (on Bandcamp | on Facebook). 7 Scrolls of Suffering. I don’t just like it because he’s my friend though. I promise. It’s good. Plus, you can pay whatever you think it’s worth.

Each scrolls tells a story about how people who follow Jesus overcame suffering.

Nat has had his own share of suffering and I love how much he loves Jesus, and other people, how he’s persevered and grown, and how keen he is to tell other people about Jesus using the mediums that he loves and has at his disposal.

Get it. Sling him a few bucks. Stick around for the bonus “scroll” in track 14…

I’m doing some bits and pieces of assessment for a subject I’m taking this semester on Christian Leadership. I can’t help myself when it comes to seeing leadership as getting the mix of ethos, logos, and pathos right. Because, well, I’m obsessed. And because I think leadership and persuasive communication are incredibly linked. And that leadership involves persuading people to live a particular way.

Anyway. Here’s what I’m thinking might be a nice way to sum up what these are and how they relate to being a leader. They even play nice with the Greek roots of the words…

Live the ethic. Explain the logic. Show the path.

I think there’s a fourth part to it – that’s also part of sublime communication. Making the links between the three clear by integrating the three, so that they’re almost interchangeable.

Live the ethic. Live the logic. Live the path.

Explain the ethic. Explain the logic. Explain the path.

Show the ethic. Show the logic. Show the path.

I am trying to find a more evocative word than “show”…

But I reckon you can apply this model of leadership to Jesus, and to Paul, and that’s part of what sets them apart as world changing leaders.

Everywhere I turn these days, in the pages of the Bible at least, but also in some thinking about media and communications stuff I’m blown away by how significant the “image of God” is in the storyline of the Bible. It is vastly unrelated as part of the narrative.

You can basically chart how well humanity is going at being human by how near or far they are from carrying out their function as image bearers. What their hearts are beating for. The heart functions as something of a yardstick for measuring imageness.

Like the whole story of the Bible, it culminates in Jesus.


Here are some of the things I keep noticing.

1. Bearing an “image” is about representation, not just replication. Images have always had an incredible power to communicate and change others. And have been used as communication tools by nations and religious organisations since Genesis was written. Idols in ancient near eastern temples were made alive by a ceremony where their mouths were opened. Once they were “alive” – they were believed to manifest, and speak for, the god they represented. Eden is a temple. Adam is God’s image in the heart of his temple. The word image in Genesis 1-2, and its near eastern cognates (words that sound like it in other similar languages), is almost universally used for these idols of gods and god-kings (kings who presented themselves as divine representatives).

2. We all bear the image of something – at the heart of Adam and Eve’s rejection of God was a decision to promote their own image. You can’t not bear an image of the god you worship – even if the god is yourself and your picture of success. I think it’s telling that while Adam was created in God’s image, Seth was created in Adam’s…

5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3

 

When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. 2 He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created.

3 When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. – Genesis 5.

 

3. The image we bear is closely related to the things we turn into idols. The things we get excited about. The desires of our hearts. Our hearts no longer desire God. They are broken.

“The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9

 

Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? – Ezekiel 14:3

 

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. – Genesis 6

4. Part of the brokenness we feel, and the longing we naturally have is to do with trying to recapture the image we were created to bear. This supplies the narrative tension in the Old Testament.

But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. – Deuteronomy 4:29

 

Then in the nations where they have been carried captive, those who escape will remember me—how I have been grieved by their adulterous hearts, which have turned away from me, and by their eyes, which have lusted after their idols. They will loathe themselves for the evil they have done and for all their detestable practices. – Ezekiel 6:9

 

“But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.” – Ezekiel 11:21

5. We can only recapture that image if God re-creates us.

Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’

6. The residual image of God in our humanity gives humans dignity and value, even if the image of God is no longer fully realised. It also enables us to know what “good” is, even if we can’t do it. I think this is the tension Paul is reflecting on in Romans 7 (which leads to Romans 8, which culminates in Romans 8:29).

7. We become, and bear the image of, the idols we behold. Part of the damage sin does to what it means to be human is that we can’t behold God the way we were made to. Our idols work because they shape our lives around our desires.

Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them. – Psalm 115

 

For their hearts were devoted to their idols. – Ezekiel 20:6

 

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. – Ezekiel 36:26

8. The tools we use shape us as much as we shape things with them. Nothing is neutral. The things we choose to use and make part of our lives rub off on us. We should try really hard not to become beholden to the things we hold or methods we use.

9. We can’t re-image God without a change of heart – the whole narrative of the Old Testament, culminating in becoming New Creations in Jesus, by God’s Spirit – can be understood as telling the story of humanity’s repetition of Adam and Eve’s attempt to make a name for themselves, not God (ie build their own image), and our inability to properly bear God’s image, even in our best moments. The promise of the new covenant and new hearts is a promise to restore the image of God and its communicative function in humans.

The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. Deuteronomy 30:6

 

I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart. Jeremiah 24:7

 

7 The path of the righteous is level;
you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth.
8 Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws,
we wait for you;
your name and renown
    are the desire of our hearts. – Isaiah 26

10. Jesus being “the image of the invisible God” is hugely anthropologically significant. Especially when we are being conformed into his image. This transformation isn’t just restoration, it’s renovation.

11. The image of Jesus is at the heart of Paul’s imitation of Jesus – especially, this is the image of Jesus on the cross as described in Philippians 2. It’s also at the heart of the ethos bit of our communication as Christians – people who bear the image of Jesus and become more like him through the transformation of our hearts.

12.The mission of God, and thus the mission of the church, is to see the image of God restored in people, by the Gospel of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. These people become communicative agents of God as they represent God through their changed humanity and heart.

I really really like this song. I can sort of take or leave the music (I like it well enough), but the understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to follow Jesus, that it presents is pretty spectacular.

I’m just a man of unclean lips, I’ve only seen a glimpse but everywhere I look I see His finger prints, all things were made through Him we received His revelation so we reflect it when we breathe and the concepts we conceive are born of spiritual seed manifest in the material realm as musical composition the rhythm of heart beats transformed by the Gospel and Godly wisdom I’m an instrument of His mercy, unworthy but still He uses me the beauty of the eulogy, through His death we are truly free free indeed, the condemnation and the bondage of our sin was abolished on the cross & He alone accomplished it God made Himself known exposing His own nature and His glory through His son, the revelation of Our Savior the fullness of God born in human form, deity in the flesh we need the Spirit and the Word to open our eyes so we can see correct – the Vital Lens

It’s from this album. Which is a free download from NoiseTrade.

Did you catch Q&A last night? I’ve largely given up watching Q&A, unless Malcolm Turnbull or Tanya Plibersek are on. They seem to be able to humanise the political catch phrases better than most. Tony Jones irks me. I’m turned off by the turnstile approach to pumping politicians through the panel who simply foist us with whatever party line there is to be foisted upon us, with minimal humanity, minimal engagement, and maximum robotechnics. Nobody seems to change their minds as a result of an hour of twitter interrupted grandstanding, and the show is so pitched towards the self-proclaimed intelligentsia that I actually feel a little bit dirty watching it. A case in point is the sycophantic applause bandied round on Twitter following K-Rudd’s Q&A performance, followed by the panning the general public gave him for nastily and arrogantly going for the jugular when he answered a Christian who held the position on gay marriage that K-Rudd himself had signed up for until a couple of months prior.

Q&A barely has mojo.

But I do tune in when there’s likely to be a discussion about Christianity – as was the case last night, in the Festival of Dangerous Ideas special edition, featuring gayctivist Dan Savage, feminist provocateur Hanna Rosin, feminist elder stateswoman Germaine Greer, and Peter “brother of Christopher” Hitchens.

Peter Hitchens is a Christian. Some time in his history a switch in his head flicked and he went from Trotskyist to Tory, from atheist to Christian. He’s an interesting character in part because he’s elegant and eloquent, but he’s also supercilious and appears curmudgeonly, and in part because he’s got interesting street cred as someone who significantly shifted his position on issues of politics, philosophy, and religion while in the public eye. He changed his mind. There are so few public intellectuals who do that. That alone makes him worth listening to. Even if listening to him is a pain. At times. Because he sounds like such a toff.

Last night on Q&A it was Hitch 2.0 verse the world. The champions of the world were Savage, Greer, and Rosin, with Jones offering a little support every now and then. Hitch held his own – he doesn’t back down from his opinions, he seemingly seems to see no reason to do so – he also refused to make eye contact with his fellow panelists, and was often guilty of dehumanising them or using personal pronouns in a less-than-vaguely dismissive way when referring to his fellow panelists. It was uncomfortable television.

Usually on Q&A there’s someone you can get behind and cheer on, or at least agree with. My ability to empathise with the panelists was pretty lacking last night. I came close to identifying with Germaine Greer, who was at least prepared to admit that the sexual revolution doesn’t come for free. When you read the transcript of the evening, Hitch 2.0 is much more reasonable than his manner suggested, and he was certainly shouted down whenever he spoke – by the other panellists if not the audience.

Hitch 2.0 opened with a defence of Christian morality, and something of a requiem to Christendom.

PETER HITCHENS: Well, Christianity more or less collapsed in Europe after 1914 and the First World War and when it ceased to exist, all kinds of other things rushed in to take its place. But mostly what’s rushed in to take its place is what I call ‘selfism’: the idea that we are all sovereign in our own bodies, that no-one can tell us what to do with our own bodies and that everything that we do is okay, provided we think we aren’t harming anybody else. Quite often the truth is that we are harming other people but hiding it from ourselves.

HANNA ROSIN: But who gets to decide what’s corrupt? So, you know, drinking, drugs, gay sex. I mean sort of where do you draw the line at what seems totally arbitrary?

PETER HITCHENS: Where do you draw the line? You draw the line fundamentally, as far as I’m concerned, around about the Sermon on the Mount and those instructions given to us and I have absolutely no shame in saying that I believe that the Christian religion was the greatest possession which the human race had, which it’s now, in large parts of the world, rather busily throwing away.

His big dangerous idea seemed to be that we’ve got to take responsibility for our actions, and admit that we’re inherently selfish. Which is beautifully orthodox Christian anthropology. He was, by word if not by tone, self-effacing and humble.

“DAN SAVAGE: Consent matters and harm matters. Consent matters and harm matters. If there’s consent and no one is being harmed it’s no one’s business what an individual chooses to do with his or her body.

PETER HITCHENS: Yes, but the question…

TONY JONES: No, I’m going to…

PETER HITCHENS: No. No. No. It’s so essential to answer this. The people who say that they’re not doing harm are invariably deceiving themselves. The people who divorce and say the children are happier as a result, they’re not.

DAN SAVAGE: And the government should rush in to prevent people from being self-deceptive if that’s indeed what they’re doing?

PETER HITCHENS: The teenager who takes drugs and becomes mentally ill and ruins his own life and that of his parents is doing harm to other people, but at the time they do these things they say “No, my body is sovereign. I am a completely autonomous person. I don’t harm anybody else. ” We lie to ourselves about this all the time. I lie to myself about it. You all lie to yourselves about it. You lie to yourself about. We know that we harm other people.”

Hitch’s criticisms of the Savage world view were coherent and are worth hearing. But this quote below is one of the examples of his refusal to engage person to person, as it were.

TONY JONES: Peter Hitchens, I’ll just bring you in here. You listened to that. I mean do you see anything sort of wrong with this concept of hook-up apps?

HANNA ROSIN: You’re setting him up. You’re setting him up. Say no. Just say no. Just for the surprise of it, just say no.

DAN SAVAGE: I’m going to get on grinder and see who’s on right now in this room.

PETER HITCHENS: Do you want me to say anything, or not? It seems to me that when intimacy is something which is profoundly private and often, if people are mistreated when they’re intimate with other people, they are severely damaged and the idea that sexual relations can be conducted in this casual and mechanical fashion is extremely cruel and crude and dismisses the concept of human love from a very important part of our relations and I think that’s a pity. He doesn’t think it’s a pity. He wants a crude and, as far as I’m concerned, individualistic, unrestrained and a totally selfish world.

DAN SAVAGE: And the transcendent can emerge from the crude.

PETER HITCHENS: There is a definite difference between me and him. I’d just like to emphasise it. I think a society in which his ideas rule will be one you will very much regret having created.

Here’s a nice little example of Tony Jones participating in the discussion…

PETER HITCHENS: (Indistinct) No, don’t stop me. The ceaseless (indistinct)…

TONY JONES: Excuse me, we have a question. We have a question on this subject.

MULTIPLE SPEAKERS TALK AT ONCE

HANNA ROSIN: Wait a minute. Wait. Wait. Wait. Can I…

PETER HITCHENS: …(Indistinct)…

TONY JONES: You’ll get a chance.

HANNA ROSIN: No. No. No. Just one thing…

PETER HITCHENS: You haven’t stopped anybody else.

HANNA ROSIN: One thing.

PETER HITCHENS: You haven’t stopped anybody else.

TONY JONES: I’m stopping you to allow a questioner to make a point…

PETER HITCHENS: Yeah, I know you’re stopping me. I noticed that, yes.

TONY JONES: …you can respond to.

PETER HITCHENS: Right.

Great hosting Mr Jones.

Here’s how Hitchen’s thesis for the evening plays out in his own brand of condescension come self-deprecation. It’s an odd mix for an Australian audience.

PETER HITCHENS: All revolutionaries…

DAN SAVAGE: …it will identify itself to you.

PETER HITCHENS: All revolutionaries claim to be fighting against the oppression of other people when, in fact, they’re fighting for their own personal advantage.

TONY JONES: On that one-liner we’ll move on.

DAN SAVAGE: I’m fighting for everybody.

TONY JONES: Sorry, go on.

DAN SAVAGE: Well, the gay rights movement is fighting for the advantage of being treated equally and being full members of society. We are not fighting to take anything from anyone else.

PETER HITCHENS: Says you.

DAN SAVAGE: That is not some selfish goal that we had in mind. Oh, it would be really fun to be equal under the law.

PETER HITCHENS: No selfishness involved in it at all. Not a bit. No.

DAN SAVAGE: No. I’m not trying to prevent you from living your life.

PETER HITCHENS: Well, of course I’m selfish but I don’t pretend not to be.

He does present quite a nice warning – he’s not fighting the cultural wars, he’s fighting a desperate rear guard action. This exchange was also a little heated.

DAN SAVAGE: How do you hope to bring about the world – to return the world to the state you would like to see it in without authoritarian (indistinct) …

PETER HITCHENS: Oh, I gave that…

DAN SAVAGE: You’re not going to get the pot out of my hands any other way.

PETER HITCHENS: I gave that up long ago. It would only make me miserable. I know that you people have won. All that I seek to do…

DAN SAVAGE: Which is why you have to be gay married now and do drugs now with the rest of us.

PETER HITCHENS: No, all I seek to do is to tell the truth about you and what you want while it’s still allowed to do so because you are so fantastically intolerant.

TONY JONES: Now, Peter, I’ve got to interrupt. What do you mean when you say “you people”?

PETER HITCHENS: I mean the cultural revolution. I mean the cultural and moral revolution which has swept the western world since the collapse of Christianity.

DAN SAVAGE: I’m not intolerant.

PETER HITCHENS: It changed our societies, as anybody who has lived through it knows, out of all recognition in the course of 50 years and in my view for the worst. He’s part of it. She’s part of it. For all I know you are part of it but I’m not.

DAN SAVAGE: You’re paranoid and you’re projecting by saying we are intolerant. You have…

PETER HITCHENS: See, this is the intolerance. Because I hold an opinion different from his, he has become suddenly a qualified psychoanalyst who can tell me – who can tell me that my opinions which I am entitled to hold.

DAN SAVAGE: You’re entitled to your opinions. You’re not entitled to your smears.

PETER HITCHENS: But are a pathology. And this is the absolute seed bed of totalitarianism. When you start believing that the opinions of other people are a pathology, then you are in the beginning…

DAN SAVAGE: You’re the one standing there pathologising other people’s choices.

PETER HITCHENS: …in the beginning of the stage that leads to the secret police and the Gulags.

DAN SAVAGE: You are the one sitting there saying that society is sick and damaged because other people are now free as white men used to be.

PETER HITCHENS: You’ll have the whole world to yourself soon. You can’t imagine anybody else is entitled to hold a view different from yours without having some kind of personal defect. That’s what’s wrong with you.

And this bit…

“DAN SAVAGE: You sit there pathologising other people’s choices. You sit there saying that other people being free to live their lives by their own light in some way oppresses you, when it oppresses you in no way whatsoever. You are free not to get gay married. You are free not to use drugs. You are free not to drink. You are free to stay married to one person for the rest of your life. You are free to stay home and raise your wife’s children so they always have a parent by their side. You are not free to sit there and say that other people being just as free as you are to live their lives and make their own choices in some way is damaging you personally, in some way is destroying society. People are freer now, happier now. It’s a less intolerant world than it used to be because people like me are now empowered to look at people like you and say you are full of shit.

PETER HITCHENS: This is so personal. Can I respond to it before the…

(AUDIENCE APPLAUDE AND CHEER)

PETER HITCHENS: It’s a rally.

TONY JONES: Okay.

PETER HITCHENS: It’s a rally.

TONY JONES: Hold on. We actually do need to hear (indistinct)…

PETER HITCHENS: While you do this – while you do this I can’t talk. While you do that – while you do that I can’t talk and you know it and that’s to your – and that’s to your shame because silencing opponents is a very wicked thing to want to do.

DAN SAVAGE: You’ve been a lot of things tonight, but you’ve not been silenced.

PETER HITCHENS: You said this is very personal. This is very personal. I’ll reply to it. I am a very rich and fortunate person. I can – and I’m coming towards the end of my life anyway. I can personally escape many of the consequences of this but most people can’t. They can’t afford to and leave aside some of the things you’ve mentioned but a society in which the use of illegal drugs is widespread and unrestrained is one in which everybody is affected by the consequences, whatever they themselves do. It’s like that ridiculous bumper sticker “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one,” to which my reply has always been: “Don’t like murder? Don’t commit one”. The fact is if a society permits – if a society permits things to happen which damage the lives of many people, who, as I’ve said earlier as a result of the selfish unwillingness of those who do those things to recognise that they have consequences, it affects everybody.”

Peter Hitchens also channeled Russell Brand, or more the anti-Brand, with his thinking on the modern political scene.

“TONY JONES: Peter, you did do whatever you could to hasten the demise of the Cameron Government. In fact you…

PETER HITCHENS: Yeah, not very effective with that.

TONY JONES: Well, in fact, you actually advised people, or your readers, to vote for UKIP, which is a populist party – a populist party primarily anti-immigration in its basis?

PETER HITCHENS: Well, I advised them to do that because I kept saying that they shouldn’t vote at all but they all seemed to think that voting was some tremendous important process, which actually it isn’t. If you go to a shop and you’re offered a load of goods which you don’t want to buy, you don’t buy any of them. So why, in an election, do you vote for people you don’t like?”

Interestingly, Hitchens and Brand had this clash last year.

And then this one as a follow up…

But back to Q&A.

Rosin and Savage kind of became one person by the end of the show, or some sort of comedy double act where you couldn’t tell who was playing the straight man. Greer was, at times, incoherently nostalgic, once the show hit its halfway mark she stopped answering questions and started wafting into stories from the good old days. As I said above, Hitch 2.0 wasn’t particularly loving to the other panelists, and for me, that damaged the credibility of what he had to say. It’s an ethos thing. You can’t just carry ethos with the words you say. But boy did he nail the finish.

Where Tony Jones invited the panel to share what they think is the most dangerous idea going around… Here’s the video of the answers, the transcript is below.

I’ll present the answers out of order – so that Hitch gets the last word, which he was so keen on all night. These were a little character revealing.

DAN SAVAGE: Population control. There’s too many goddamn people on the planet. And I don’t know if that’s a – you know, I’m pro-choice. I believe that women should have the right to control their bodies. Sometimes in my darker moments I am anti-choice. I think abortion should be mandatory for about 30 years. That’s a dangerous idea. She wanted a dangerous idea. So throw a chair at me.

 

GERMAINE GREER: Well, I’m always in the same place. The most dangerous idea, the one that terrifies us the most, is freedom – to actually be free – is, to most human beings, disorientating, terrifying but it’s the essential bottom line. If you want to be a moral individual you must be free to make choices and that includes making mistakes.

 

HANNA ROSIN: I’m tempted to say something about the Jesus Christ but being the Jewish one on the panel I’ll let that one go. Given our conversation today, I think I’m going to go with we should watch our children less. We live in a culture which follows our children around, is obsessed with safety, decides everything for our children, doesn’t let them have any freedom. Doesn’t let them wander. Doesn’t let them go anywhere or do anything by themselves and we should, in fact, do less with our children, not more.

 

PETER HITCHENS: The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.

DAN SAVAGE: I’d have to agree with that.

TONY JONES: Just quickly, because I think you can’t really leave it there, why dangerous?

PETER HITCHENS: I can’t really leave it there? Because it alters the whole of human behaviour and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject It, it alters us all was well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.

What an ending. There wasn’t a whole lot to love about Q&A last night. But I loved that.

There’s a bit of a conversation happening in the Australian Evangelical Blogosphere (so about the smallest pool in the world) about inner city church planting. They’ve got me mulling over next year and life at Creek Road South Bank – a new church, in Brisbane’s inner city, that I’ll be serving as the Campus Pastor (note, I think just about any name/title for a ministry position can sound a bit ego driven, the emphasis here hopefully will remain on the “serving” not on the “Campus Pastor”).

Here are some of the posts I’ve read…

The answer to the question “do we need more inner city church plants?” is clearly a yes.

It’s the answer to any question about “do we need more churches?” Churches are like broadcast towers that send the message of the Gospel around Australia – we need something like the National Broadband Plan to ensure good Gospel coverage around Australia. We also need more workers to work in these churches, and we definitely need more Christians. Australia isn’t meaningfully becoming less Christian, Australia has never been particularly “Christian” – church attendance was high when we started because people were forced to go to church. Australian laws might have assumed or reflected a Judeo-Christian moral framework – but that was the default, it didn’t mean they were written by people whose hearts were owned by Jesus, even if some of our early colonists were passionate Christians, others weren’t. We need more churches in Australia because Australia is full of lost people. And so are our inner city areas.

Which is why, for want of a better understanding of the nuance of what the church I’m part of is doing (hopefully this post will clear this up a little) – next year I’ll be an “inner city church planter.”

I’m finishing college soon. I’m thinking about what life in ministry, post-college, is going to look like for me, and what I thought it would look like before college. So just indulge me a little with this poorly structured stream of consciousness response to the posts above. It’s more about me than most posts you’ll read here, but indulge me a little.

Why I do what I didn’t want to do…

I feel like this whole South Bank thing is forcing me to think through a whole heap of competing thoughts and passions of mine in a way that hopefully ends up being consistent and a healthy compromise on my youthful idealistic zeal.

Before college I was pretty outspoken and cynical about church planting (or church planters) – and what I meant was inner-city church planting. I was cynical about the guys who wanted to plant churches without working with an established church, in a hip, non-denominational way (or even in the denomination but not of the denomination) – they’re the guys who were a little bit too sure of themselves, a little bit too sure of their central place in God’s plan. Or so I thought (and still think). I was especially cynical about people who wanted to plant megachurches.

This quote I shared from a guy assessing church planters a few years ago still resonates with me… It’s still a problem.

It’s amazing how many young pastors feel that they are distinctly called to reach the upwardly-mobile, young, culture-shaping professionals and artists. Can we just be honest? Young, upper-middle-class urban professionals have become the new “Saddleback Sam”.

Seriously, this is literally the only group I see proposals for. I have yet to assess a church planter who wants to move to a declining, smaller city and reach out to blue collar factory workers, mechanics, or construction crews. Not one with an evangelistic strategy to go after the 50-something administrative assistant who’s been working at the same low-paying insurance firm for three decades now.

One of the problems Josh Dinale identified with the current crop of church planters is:

“1) pastors wanting to be the next Mark Driscoll

the more I connect with young pastors (yeah I know I am still generally young, having said that, I have been in Christian minsitry for 10 years, I have been around the block a few times) I am seeing guys who look like Driscoll, speak like Driscoll, act like him, teach like him. I am sorry to tell you, but you are NOT him. you  are fearfully and wonderfully made, God has a plan for you, and you alone. I am pretty sure it is not to be like Driscoll but to be the best pastor God has created you to be. Be content with where you are, minister out of your gifts not someone elses.”

Mike Bird also identifies a similar trend.

“I’ve come across many young men who seem to think they have some kind of destiny to become the next Mark Driscoll or the next Tim Keller. They have a church planting strategy from the movie Field of Dreams. Remember the motto of that movie: If you build it, they will come. But the reality is a bit more complex as church planters are not just battling against a secular culture, but competing with existing churches in their area and even competing with existing church plants. In addition, many church planters are abandoning their denominations to plant these new independent churches, leading to a kind of righteous remnant mentality, cultivating a very low ecclesiology without historic bonds to the past, and looking down disparagingly on pastoral leaders who decide to keep working within their existing denominations.”

The whole “thinking you’re the new Driscoll” thing is nothing new (see this post from 2009 – five years ago) – Driscoll has an incredible ability to create fanboys out of the disenfranchised. But I haven’t spoken to many Driscoll fanboys lately, most people in that sort of camp seem to be man-crushing pretty hard on Matt Chandler. And most people of the generation slightly above me seem to be keen to shave their heads, read CS Lewis, and be Tim Keller.

Part of my reluctance to embrace the inner city thing is that there’s a perception that to do this sort of ministry you have to be some sort of bleeding edge hipster. And while I score pretty well on the “Are you a Christian Hipster?” tests because I like specialty coffee and craft beer (and I have a decorative typewriter, and a beard), I don’t want to be that guy.

As soon as ministry becomes about the minister it starts being dead.

This is also my problem with Josh’s thoughtful corrective – I may have been fearfully and wonderfully made – but more importantly I’m being amazingly remade into the image of Jesus – and it’s him people should be thinking about when they go to church. Not me. Or any pastor. If we talk about something a pastor brings to the table, or the locale, and it’s something other than Jesus, we’re talking about the wrong thing. I’m not naive, I think there are good pragmatic reasons that I’m not a bad fit in the inner city, but as soon as I start thinking about myself being a good fit, or being in any way necessary, or the inner city needing me to come in and save it – the narrative is wrong.

I don’t want to be an inner city church planter.

I don’t want to target the yuppies with a trendy and edgy ministry.

I do want to play my part in God’s program of reaching people, including the yuppies, including people in the inner city, and the regions, and the small towns. Sacrificially, doing ministry that resonates with people of whatever culture is around me – a bit like Jesus did when he entered Jewish culture as a Jewish man who spoke the language of the people around him, and told stories they could understand… using imagery they were familiar with… everywhere he could.

I might be a pseudo-hipster, but I have good reasons not to want to be an inner city church planter. I love regional Australia. I grew up in country town New South Wales (after a few years in Sydney), I worked in regional Queensland after uni. And regional Australia punches above its weight on the evangelical scene. In my experience. I think, and still think, that the human resources we suck into cities would, in the providence of God, also produce great results in regional areas. Regional areas and regional people need the Gospel.

Plus. I don’t buy into the tendency to spiritualise “the City”. Cities are significant because there’s a high concentration of people there, but the whole “heaven is a city, therefore city” thing just strikes me as ridiculous. This is a quote from a Christianity Today article about Tim Keller’s philosophy/theology of City ministry from a few years back…

““Surely God’s command to exiled Israelites applied to Christians in New York: “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you” (Jer. 29:7). Long before that, God had designated cities as places of refuge when Israel entered the Promised Land. They remain so today, Keller noted—which explains why poor people, immigrants, and vulnerable minorities such as homosexuals cluster in cities. They attract people who are open to change. Paul did most of his missionary work in cities, and early Christianity flourished within them. Revelation portrays the final descent of the kingdom of God to earth as a city, although a garden city, with fruit trees and a life-giving river at its center. Keller suggests that, had Adam and Eve lived sinlessly and obeyed God’s directions, they would have made Eden into just such a city.”

I get the appeal of the vision of transforming a culture from the city out (ala Tim Keller), but having spent time in a parochial regional centre that wanted no bar of most of what came from a city, simply because it came from the city, I’m not sure how effective this nationwide campaign of transformation is going to be beyond the urban elite, and those who wish they were urban elite in regional cities – who never really gel with the culture of their town or regional city.

I do, however, think that cities are incredibly useful for producing dominant cultural narratives, that do filter out into the regions via the consumption of media and advertising. But if you’ve ever watched the ads on regional television, you’ll know that even the impact of these zeitgeisty narratives is limited, and watered down by being presented along with not so slick regionally produced media.

And I do think the Gospel is the best story there is going round, and it should be told more, and it should become part of conversations where different narratives compete – ala Peter Hitchens presence on Q&A last night. We need to get better at telling the Gospel story in the places where stories are told or presented professionally. And being crucified for it.

I like what Keller’s attempts to transform culture from the city, but I’m pessimistic about the impact of his method beyond the city. Though less pessimistic than Carl Trueman. I’m less Presbyterian than him too.

“And, to put it bluntly, Keller is the transformationists’ best shot today.   It does not matter how often we tell each other that our celebrity transformationists are making headway, such claims are only so much delusional hype.  A Broadway play and a couple of nice paintings do not help the man who cannot rent space to worship on the Lord’s Day.  Indeed, I wonder if any of these transformationists have ever asked themselves whether what we are seeing are not in fact transforming inroads into the culture but the modern equivalents of bread and circuses designed to gull the gullible — meaningless trivia, conceded by the wider culture, that make no real difference; where and when the stakes are higher and actually worth playing for, no quarter is, or will be, given.

Surely it is time to become realistic.  It is time to drop the cultural elitism that poses as significant Christian transformation of culture but only really panders to nothing more than middle class tastes and hobbies.  It is time to look again at the New Testament’s teaching on the church as a sojourning people where here we have no lasting home.”

I think the example we get from the New Testament church, especially from Paul, is that it’s incredibly unlikely that we’re going to change a city by producing cultural artefacts – the Roman Empire was eventually transformed by the sheer weight of Christian converts, but I think we produce Christian converts by borrowing or subverting cultural artefacts to tell the story of the Gospel. The early church grabbed hold of a bunch of terminology associated with the announcing and promoting of a new king, they used terminology and titles for Jesus that were identical to the terminology and titles used of Roman emperors, but they promoted a king who was crucified, which was a cultural anathema, and was never going to result in immediate wholesale change.

Paul’s Areopagus speech, probably the best strategic attempt at cultural change we see in the New Testament, ends in what many would suggest is a failure to transform… most people laugh at him, and only some are transformed… and yet his speech, which presents the Gospel in a culturally informed way, is recorded in one of the longest lasting transformative texts in the world.

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

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

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Paul goes to the heart of the city, the best place to tell the story of the Gospel, and he tells it in a culturally engaged way. But it doesn’t instantly transform the whole city (Jonah might be a better story about a city being transformed).

Which is why I’m excited that Creek Road South Bank is telling this story, hopefully excellently, at the Queensland Theatre Company’s Billie Brown Theatre, every Sunday. And it’s why I’m excited that our band is aiming for musical excellence, and Creek Road Media is aiming to produce culturally engaging video that tells this story in excellent ways. And I hope this does result in transforming the lives of enough individuals so that the fabric of our city starts to change. Person by person.

I also get that inner city ministry is incredibly hard. Because of the Inner City Pressure (cf this Flight of the Conchords song).

It’s hard because people who live in places that tell incredible narratives that provide apparent satisfaction to deep desires are often pretty convinced that they already live in heaven, while simultaneously feeling profoundly dissatisfied because they are surrounded by lots more people who both are broken, and reveal one’s own brokenness through interpersonal interactions.

But ministry is hard everywhere. Because it involves gathering a bunch of people who naturally think about what’s best for their sinful selves – even while God is uniting them behind the cause of the gospel by his Spirit. Let’s not fall into the trap of hyper-spiritualising inner city ministry.

Inner city ministry – and by extension, inner city church planting, is important because there are people in the inner city.

And, in a city like Brisbane, it’s strategic because there is public transport to the inner city from just about every corner of the city – and evangelical churches in Brisbane are not well represented in the statistical breakdown of religious belief in our city. So if people from parts of the city where there’s no evangelical presence can get to a place where there is, because they’ve been invited there by people who work in the City, then that’s a good thing. The notion of place or a patch for churches is just culturally out of touch. We don’t live, work, and play in the same suburb. Our relationships are likely to stretch not just across suburbs, but across cities, states, and countries. Building a strategy for church planting based on geographic saturation is a bit old school. People travel. We’re better of putting churches in strategic hubs – in Brisbane this might mean places where there are major shopping centres, that people are already in the habit of travelling to…

 

Image: Relationship networks visualised using Facebook friendships and flight routes, Credit: Robot Monkey

South Bank is also exciting for me because we’ve got a burgeoning ministry to refugees in Brisbane, and many of them live around where this church plant is happening. We’re reaching the world from Brisbane. I’m not sure Iranians on bridging visas are going to be all that enthused about a pastor with a fixie, and a well manicured ironic moustache.

… to do what I do want to do (or rather, what God wants us to do)

Paradoxically, part of the reason I’m excited about being an “inner city church planter” is that I didn’t ever want to be an “inner city church planter.” The bigger reason I’m excited is that I’m not going out on my own as some gung-ho, got all the answers, inner-urban hipster type who is cutting all ties with pre-existing structures. I’m part of a team, that is part of a church, that is part of a denomination, that also has a bigger agenda in terms of church planting. That’s a great way for ministry to not be about me.

While it looks like I’m an “inner city church planter” because each Sunday I’ll be at a new church in Brisbane’s inner city, that’s not what really excites me about next year. As exciting as it is. I went to college as a Presbyterian because being a Presbyterian is a great boat to fish from in Queensland to do Gospel ministry, because I’m theologically pretty Presbyterian, and because I like the attachment to a narrative that has history, that unfolds and is deliberately linked to things that have happened in the past, rather than being deliberately disconnected. I think it’s a little disingenuous to attempt to start a church with a clean slate. With no ties. With no baggage.

I’m excited about being part of the Creek Road team for a few reasons. Mostly because I’m excited about what I think is a reinvention of “team ministry.” I’m excited about team ministry at least in part because I’m an extrovert, but I’m theologically excited about team ministry in terms of what it looks like for a church to function well as the body of Christ, where each bit of the body uses different gifts in complementary and sacrificial ways, that benefit a variety of congregations who are either part of Creek Road, or part of our network. The approach we’re taking at Creek Road has the potential to be incredibly scalable – with some of the benefits of franchising a business in terms of quality control, pooling of resources, and some sort of “brand identity” (which, lets face it, is part of the appeal of denominations), but also the flexibility to do things differently in different places based on who is there – both in the pulpit, and in the congregation.

I think if people in ministry are just thinking about their immediate patch they’re thinking too small. If we’re only thinking about the city, but not the regions, if we’re only thinking about reaching Australia, but not reaching the world, then we’re omnifocused to our detriment, and the detriment of the church’s mission. It’s possible to focus on more than one thing at once. Despite what certain personality types will tell you. Jesus was pretty happy to leave this mission global (making disciples from every nation), while providing a starting place that was geographically bound (first in Judea, then Samaria, then the ends of the earth). We not think global, and act local and global, simultaneously?

Physical presence is a big part of ministry, but the God we serve is transcendent and omnipresent. And prayer works. And prayer is ministry. And communication isn’t geographically contained anymore. Physical distance has collapsed into bits and bytes that can be fired through the skies. Why are we so keen to limit our footprint to our suburb? Using the incarnation of Jesus as a paradigm for local ministry is terrific and necessary, but we’ve also got to learn from the Apostles who used mediums that could be copied and spread, and fly through communication networks (like the Roman roads), whose relationships and span of care stretched across geographic boundaries.

I don’t think of myself as an inner city church planter because I want to serve the church and its mission wherever I can, not just in South Bank.

I don’t think of myself as an inner city church planter because I’m part of a team that is intentionally trying to create resources that will serve churches anywhere.

I don’t think of myself as an inner city church planter because, as part of the team at Creek Road, I’m contributing, with the rest of the team, to what happens every week in three different locations.

Mike Bird’s suggestion, in the face of this whole inner city church planting trend thing is:

“So I’m wondering, without disparaging church planting efforts, if we need to focus more on church rejuvenation over church planting in areas already well served with churches.”

I think this question presents a classic false dichotomy (on the back of a false premise – that there are areas well served with churches). And I don’t buy it. Why not do both? Why not focus equally on both?

Denominations are in a position to do that – so are bigger churches within denominations. Just about every objection to “inner city church planting” raised in those posts linked above is addressed by a model that sees big churches using their resources to serve and help smaller churches, be it starting them from scratch, or in partnership. And this is why I’m excited about the Creek Road model (you can read a bit of an explanation of this model here), and why I’ve signed up.

Big churches have an incredible opportunity to provide resources for small churches – in their own city, or beyond, that help in the rejuvenating process, they have the opportunity to start new churches that share the economies of scale and resources of the mothership. Whether or not regional churches take up the opportunity is entirely up to them, and there’s a gap between city culture and regional culture that needs to be carefully bridged. But Australia is full of people who don’t know Jesus. I’d really like more people to know Jesus. That’s why Robyn and I quit our jobs and left Townsville to go to theological college. It’s why I’m a candidate for ordination with the Presbyterian Church. It’s why despite myself I’ll be hanging out in a new church in Brisbane’s CBD next year with Creek Road.

We need more churches in the inner city because we need more churches everywhere. Brisbane will have a population of 3 million people in 2020. That’s heaps of people who need to know Jesus. That scales up the wider you cast the net – Queensland’s population is growing, Australia’s population is growing, the global population is growing. We need more churches. We need better resourced churches.

Have you seen Russell Brand articulate what his socialist egalitarian revolution will not be like?

It’s compelling and uncomfortable television. Brand is a smart guy. Interviewing him would terrify me. He has form in this area. Making interviewers uncomfortable is part of his schtick.

This video is spreading like wildfire – because he’s captured the essence of a particular zeitgeist, and articulated an ideal, without getting bogged down by details.

Imagine if he spelled out, moment by moment, detail by detail, how this revolution was going to happen. It’d kill the communication moment. It would kill the story. It would stop this viral video in its tracks.

Idealism gets bogged down in details. But there’s still a place for idealism – without it, the status quo – unhelpful or otherwise – will simply be maintained.

And there’s something in that. Brand is a storyteller. A humourist. A satirist. A raconteur. A provocateur. A preacher. It isn’t his job to work out the details simply because he’s identified a problem. That would be ridiculous. As smart and articulate as he is – he’d be a horrible dictator.

I’m not signing up to Brand’s revolution – though it is potentially more palatable to me than the status quo where our politicians are selected for us by special interests and party machines that churn out apparatchiks with sausage like regularity, in a process you don’t really want to see. Replacing matter with anti-matter isn’t particularly compelling to me.

But.

There’s something to his method that is worth learning from – as Christians.

Because as Christians – unless you’re committed to installing Christian governments in the here and now – our job in the political process is to speak as idealists.

Idealists who care for the weak and the vulnerable.

Idealists who want to see change made to protect the voiceless and the marginalised.

But ultimately idealists who are hanging out for something better.

Our citizenship in the new creation – with our creator – where king Jesus reigns with his father. King Jesus who started his reign – who was enthroned – on a cross. A cross where he gave up his life in an act of sacrificial love. We live in the world of the cross – while we wait for this future.

We’re storytellers too. We’re telling a story of self-denial. We’re talking about a revolution. We’re sharing a message that is foolish and unpalatable to the political mainstream. And it’s the nature of this foolishness – the counter cultural nature of our message that shapes our approach, and our expectation in this sphere.

People speaking as Christians, as participants in God’s people, the church, aren’t legislators (unless you’ve been elected as a legislator, in which case you probably should think about legislation and practical stuff).

It’s not our job to make things work. To turn the cogs of government.

It’s our job to influence the thinking of the people who are governed so that the government they elect makes things work for people. It’s our job to get people thinking about virtues, about values – and our virtues and values are shaped by Jesus, and found in the person and life of Jesus.

This means that for Christians our job isn’t to address nut and bolt concerns when it comes to implementing the stuff we’re calling for. That would make the politicians’ job easier, and there’s some merit in that if we want a box ticked here and now.

We do need to be prepared to equip people who are living as followers of Jesus to live the life we’re calling others to live – but that’s different. The Occupy Movement that Brand cites in the video had to work out some house rules so that they could all live together in various public spaces. But when it comes to us doing our job as ambassadors for Jesus in spheres – the areas that in the past were called the estates of the realm – it’s not our job to offer hard and fast solutions beyond Jesus. When it comes to being story tellers – being people who are trying to shape values – being people who are calling for a revolution – it’s not our job to sweat the details. They’ll be sorted out when there’s a will for the changes.

Here’s a concrete example. I’ve written a fair bit here, and on Facebook, about Australia’s refugee situation. More people are trying to get here than we are currently prepared to handle. Some people are trying to get here via a dangerous, non-authorised, boat journey. Our government has shut the door in their faces, and insists on dehumanising these folk by calling them “Illegal maritime arrivals” – turning the victims into criminals (victims of both whatever forced these people out of their home countries, and of people smugglers who charge them too much for a dangerous journey). In my writings on these matters I have toyed with offering better solutions. But these solutions are inadequate. I am not a policy maker. It would be silly for me to continue pretending that I am. I can, however, call people to remember the human faces behind this tragedy – the tragedy that so many people need to seek asylum. The tragedy that we are unprepared, as a nation, to open our doors and welcome as many people as possible – occasionally for explicitly selfish reasons, sometimes simply because we haven’t thought through our selfishness. I can tell this story, over and over again, using whatever means possible – in the hope that pressure will mount on policy makers.

But this isn’t my story. How we treat those seeking asylum – the weak and vulnerable – isn’t my story. It is only part of my story. That it is part of my story means that it isn’t opportunistic or manipulative to use asylum seekers to tell a bigger story. And this should function as something like an editorial policy for Christians engaging in politics – if the issue doesn’t relate to the Gospel story, then it’s an issue for someone else. It’s possibly also a way to figure out what issues are our priorities.

Asylum seekers are not my story. They are part of it. As I am a character in God’s story, my story is about the value these people have to God. We can see they have value to God because they bear his image – distorted as it is, by sin and death – and we can see the value he places on them because we see he would send his son into the world to live their stories, to potentially change the end of their stories. God writes himself into their story. He sent Jesus as a vulnerable person, who became stateless and statusless before a powerful empire (first rejected by his own people), to die. For them. For us. So that when we seek asylum with God there is a home for us. The story of asylum seekers is part of the story of humanity – and speaking into this story, idealistically, is part of speaking of the idealistic story. The greatest story. My story. God’s story.

Brand is on to something. If we want to achieve politically driven change in a broken system, if we’ve seen a problem that we can’t figure out how to fix, it isn’t our job to provide all the solutions. It is our job to point out the brokenness. To tell the story. There is a place for idealism. Idealism is a necessary point on the road towards change.

When it comes to issues like refugees – I think there’s a place for us, as Christians, to participate in political discussions as idealists. Agitating for change, articulating different priorities and concerns, without solutions. Both because the change we advocate is loving – and because it provides an opportunity for us to communicate about a greater ideal. A greater story. A greater problem.

If we want to achieve spiritually driven change in a broken world we’ve first got to help others see the problem. But we’re not the solution to the problem. God is. It’s never our job to solve the problem. It’s God’s. Our job, as it always is, is to be agitators. Story tellers. Provocateurs. Preachers.

Sometimes pragmatism is held up as the desirable alternative to idealism. As though they’re in binary opposition. But here’s the thing – when it comes to imitating Jesus, pragmatism and idealism get mixed up in the crucible of the cross. The cross makes the impractical practical. Imitating Jesus makes the idealistic the pragmatic. This is also where we differ from Brand – because, in a sense the mode of our storytelling, and the content of our story, is so compelling that it becomes part of the solution.

We’re called to imitate Jesus. Jesus, who renounced status and made himself nothing… Jesus, who proclaimed a better kingdom, Jesus, who was humiliated and crucified and humiliated some more by the ruling authorities. Cross shaped idealism from people whose hearts and minds are captivated and transformed by Jesus and the priorities of the gospel that points people to Jesus is the best form of pragmatism. It’s the only thing that’s going to achieve eternal results. It’s the only thing that really works. It’s the only thing that really changes anything.

That’s revolutionary. A world full of people renouncing their own status and wealth, taking up their crosses and following Jesus is how to achieve real revolution. It’s also how to achieve the kind of revolution Brand gets so passionate about in the video.