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Warning // Long post. Even by my standards. I’d suggest skimming it and reading the bits under the titles that you think are interesting

It turns out #lovewins.

If you’re one of my friends, or someone I don’t know, who’s celebrating the changes to the laws in America, and anticipating those changes where you are — I want you to know two things right off the bat, before you set out on reading this post:

  1. God loves you. He shows that love for you in that Jesus dies for you (and for me) even though we didn’t ask him to, or want him to.
  2. I think all people everywhere are equally broken and we all experience a world that is equally broken through equal brokenness, whether this is in our sexuality, gender or anything we build our identity on. I hope this stops me sounding judgmental because it certainly removes any platform I might stand on to judge you (or others) from.
  3. I am hoping that this reflects God’s love for you (and thus, my love for you), and that it isn’t a judgmental, handwringing exercise that makes you feel misunderstood or hated. If you feel either of those things, get in touch. Let me know where I’ve gone wrong. Let’s have a coffee or a beer. I like both.

This post is something like a post-mortem examining where I think Christians got it wrong when we spoke about gay marriage (not all Christians got all these things wrong). It’s a reflection, at times, on what we could have said, should have said, or didn’t say as much as it reflects what I’ve experienced Christians saying, or said myself. Some of it, especially the transgender/intersex stuff towards the end, is new thinking for me. Some isn’t. I’d love to hear other ideas about where things went wrong.

But ultimately, whatever the outcome in the courts and parliaments of this world, I’m not all that worried. Because the hash tag gets it right.

#lovewins.

That’s the good news for Christians who’ve woken up to a sea of rainbows at every turn in the last few days. An iconic and colourful reminder of the victory over the (largely) Christian case for not changing the definition of marriage in the (formerly) Christian west.

The US Supreme Court handed down its judgment this weekend, and I maintain (despite this causing some angst amongst Christian friends previously), that Australia is certain to follow. This isn’t entirely a meek capitulation, I think the fight was lost a long time ago.

Anyway I keep reminding myself #lovewins.

There’s been a lot of handwringing from Christians on the Internet in the fallout to this momentous decision, but I just want to remind my handwringing brothers and sisters, that if you take the Bible seriously, which people against gay marriage typically claim to, then this is how the story of the world ends. #lovewins. It’s already written.

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

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children — Revelation 21:2-7

#lovewins because it won at the Cross. Life now would be a whole lot easier if we came to grips with that when coming to grapple with politics and life in general. Incidentally there’s some bad news after those verses for the people in this world who don’t think God is all that important. But I’m writing this primarily for those who claim to believe in the God of the Bible and follow his son.

Stop worrying.

#lovewins.

1. We didn’t treat people the way we’d like to be treated

You might feel like the world is against you. The world might well become against you. You might deserve this. I think we’re in for a big dose of our own medicine here, and that’s what terrifies me. Because we Christians deserve what’s coming. Do you know why people think Christians are anti-gay? Do you know why until very recently in most of these countries that are changing the definition of marriage it was illegal to be gay? These questions are more complicated than the simplistic finger pointing at the church might allow, sure, there are countries that aren’t “Christian” where people are anti-gay, and where homosexuality is still illegal, but in these western countries, the church is caught up in the answer to most of the questions that lead to members of the gay community, and their friends and supporters, having a pretty big axe to grind with Christians.

It wasn’t uncommon for churches in Australia to delight in the way the King James Version rendered statements about homosexual behaviour, and apply it to the people who engaged in such behaviour. Words like abomination. Scratch below most of the arguments mounted against gay marriage and there’s an undercurrent of judgmentalism and disgust that is reserved for the particular sin of homosexuality in a way the Bible never reserves judgmentalism or disgust for one particular sin. All sin disgusts God. Including our judgmentalism.

There’s a world of difference —a vast, chasmic, world of difference — between these three ethical golden rules. The world, in my experience, typically lives by the first. Which is why we’re in trouble. Jesus famously proclaimed the second one at the Sermon on the Mount, and, in reality, displayed the third.

Treat others the way they treat you. 

Treat others the way you would have them treat you. 

Treat others the way Jesus treated you. 

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. — 1 John 3:16

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. — 1 John 4:16-17

This is where I think we’ve failed, especially in the time where we’ve felt like the big kid at primary school, able to push people around to get the best spots in the playground. Only. We’re not in primary school anymore. We’ve graduated. And we’re the impish kids in the first year of high school, hoping nobody hits us up for our lunch money or gives us a wedgie behind the classroom, or something more sinister.

What would acting out the golden rule, or the example of Jesus have looked like in the marriage equality debate?

I think it would start by imagining a time where Christians were a persecuted minority in our country, where people who didn’t believe the same things we believe about the world were doing all they could to stop us practicing the thing that is at the core of our identity. Perhaps because they believe it to be harmful to us and to others. Especially children. So harmful they wanted to prevent it on behalf of the children, but also for our own benefit. That we might be happy.

Sound familiar.

You know. Perhaps we should have said: “we can totally understand where you’re coming from wanting an intimate, committed relationship, lifelong, relationship with a person you love. That seems like a completely natural thing to want. Personally, we think marriage is something God made to show us something about him, and his love for us as we experience it in the eternal loving relationship we have with God through Jesus, so we want our marriages to reflect the world as he made it, and his promises about the world, but when it comes to your own relationships, call them whatever you choose. We respect your freedom to think that through, we’d simply ask that you offer us the same freedoms.”

Perhaps, when pushed, we might have mentioned that marriage is something that celebrates the coming together of people of two different genders — male and female — and that this coming together is the natural way that children are born, and a marriage offers a stable basis for a family unit. But we’ve pushed this to the front of our reasoning far too often (and I’ll get to this below. I promise).

You know. There’s a bit of Bible oft neglected in this vein.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. — 1 Corinthians 5:9-13

I think if we imagined ourselves in this sort of situation we might have hoped that people would be tolerant of our beliefs and acknowledge that somehow at the heart of personhood is the ability to define how we see ourselves and how the world sees us. Somewhere at the heart of personhood is being able to decide the core of one’s identity. What it is we pursue as our heart’s desire. What it is, if you follow David Foster Wallace’s definition, that we worship. The Bible, I think, is pretty clear that this is what personhood involves — we either deliberately seek to carry the image of the living God, or we replace God with other gods or desires. This seems to be the choice that God sets before people from the very beginning of the Bible’s story. And yet we, in our wisdom, want to try to force people to pick God when they want to reject God. At that point, when the Church pushes to legislate against something, no matter how loving we think we’re being to people or their children, we’re robbing people of something fundamental to their personhood.

Is that how we would like to be treated?

Is it how Jesus treats people? At the Cross Jesus shows that #lovewins, but one of the ways he does that is by allowing people to be people. To pick whether or not we want to pursue life lived as God designed it, or life lived as we designed it. Even in the operations of God’s control over every event in history, even in his involvement in the decision of every person who puts their faith in Jesus, this fundamental part of our personhood is protected.

Do you think we’ve offered the gay community, and their supporters, this sort of respect? I don’t think so. I think it’s true that some people have tried to offer ‘equal rights’ in everything except the label people apply to their relationship, but labels matter. And words are flexible. And while we might follow the God who gives all words their true meaning —who spoke the world into being by true words, who speaks through words in order to be understood, and who entered the world as the “word made flesh” in Jesus— we don’t have the monopoly on words and their meanings. Especially not amongst people who have chosen to build their life around things other than this God.

We might think this is a silly choice. We might believe it’s a dangerous choice. We might even want to recommend and alternative choice, especially as we acknowledge that by rights we should be included in the number of people declared not good enough for God. But somewhere caught up in seeing a person, and treating a person, and loving a person, the way God loves people, is giving people responsibility and freedom to make a choice about their identity and personhood, mindful of the consequences — whether those consequences come here and now, or whether they’re the eternal consequences, spoken of in that same bit of Revelation, where #lovewins.

“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” — Revelation 21:8

By rights, I should be in that number. Many of those words describe my thoughts, and some describe my actions.

That’s why it’s great that #lovewins.

The only reason I’m not in that number is that Jesus is none of those things. This realisation, that when we take up the challenge to treat people the way Jesus treated us, we’re taking up a new sort of identity, a new understanding of what it means to be a person, is meant to shape the way we approach the world. It’s meant to help us see the gap between our picture of reality and morality, and the way others approach morality.

This isn’t an exercise in being all high and mighty and claiming that God is on our side in a moral debate. The most we can claim is that we believe he is. It’s meant to be an exercise in humility.

There. Death. But for the grace of God. Jesus. Go I.

Too often our contributions in this debate have not been humble. We’ve simply spoken as though we’re the prophetic voice of God to our world and people are idiots if they don’t listen. We’ve given them no reason to listen because our words about love have not been backed up with actions of love.

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

You say you love gay people?

Show them. Not in an abstract way — though even that would be a start if you were doing something about the sorts of horrific rates of suicide and depression amongst young people who identify as homosexual.

Love in a concrete way. Treat them the way Jesus treated you. Stepping in. Taking a bullet for you. Taking your burden upon himself. Being a safe place. Speaking up against those voices that offer condemnation rather than love. While faithfully pointing to the truth about God and judgment. But then offering a path to mercy and forgiveness. To wholeness. To a new identity. A better, more satisfying, place to find your identity than any part of our broken human experience — be it the things we love doing, the people we love, our job, our sexuality, our gender — all these things are broken by those behaviours that lead to judgment. Jesus isn’t. His love isn’t.

Admit you’re broken. Admit your sexuality is broken. Admit you’re both a sinner and judgmental. Admit our hypocrisy. Stop treating gay people and their friends and family like the enemy in some political fight to bring down the world.

#lovewins.

This isn’t how we lost the fight. I’m still getting to that. This is more in the “what to do now” space, inasmuch as it’s in the “what Jesus told people to do and what the Bible tells us to do” space.

2. We lost when we entered the fight expecting to win, rather than seeking to love

Here’s what Jesus told us to do when things don’t go God’s way in a couple of choice bits in the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s the sort of people Jesus called us to be as we follow him. His where we’ve got this fight oh so wrong, simply by fighting, instead of by treating minority groups in our community the way I suspect we’re going to clamour for them to treat us in coming years (and why should they? There have been axes being sharpened on this one for a while now).

Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” — Matthew 5:5-10

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. — Matthew 5:38-45

We’ve been, I think, too strident, combative, and bombastic in our defence of marriage, and we’ve made most of our noise about marriage (a created thing) rather than about God and his kingdom.

I can’t tell if our expectation was to win this fight. That’s certainly the language that has been used in this debate by people I’ve spoken to. I can’t see what creates the expectation that we should either win, or fight, when it comes to this sort of thing outside the boundaries of our own lives and identities, and the life and identity of the church. Our job isn’t to fight and win, it’s to follow Jesus who won by losing. Our job is to faithfully be different — to love — even in the face of those who want to fight us. This is how #lovewins

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. — Matthew 5:11-16

 

3. We lost when we decided to fight for marriage, rather than speaking about marriage as an analogy for the Gospel

This has already dragged on for a while, and I’ve got a few more. God made people male and female to reflect his nature. God isn’t gendered. But marriage, in the bringing together of two persons in one flesh is a great picture of the Trinity, and the eternal loving relationship at the heart of the universe. Just as loving Trinitarian relationship gave birth to life in Genesis 1, marriage was the means, in the Genesis story, by which Adam and Eve carried on the creating of life. Marriage is about that. But because of the Gospel, marriage is about more than that.

Personhood is also about more than marriage. A person is able to be a fruitful reflection of God’s image without marriage (see Jesus, humanity of, and Paul, bachelor status in any fictional dictionary). In Genesis two people become one flesh. Two halves don’t come together as one complete thing.

Marriage (and sex) is not the ultimate human relationship (or transaction). It’s not a basis for human identity (though it changes your identity). And it can’t possibly be a fundamental human right because it takes two. Two willing parties. You’re not less human if you are unwilling to be married or cannot find someone you are willing to marry.

So many of our arguments for marriage sound like we’re worshipping marriage either as an idol, a god of our own making, or in such terms that somehow we’ve elevated this good thing God made as a thing to reveal his nature and character into this thing that completes us.

In Romans 1, Paul says the world is meant to play this role:

“since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” — Romans 1:20

And the problem with our human nature, when we’re confronted with the amazingly good thing God has made that has hallmarks of divinity stamped all over it, is that we’re so stupid we keep confusing the signature of the divine for the divine. So we get all excited about these created things and worship them instead.

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” — Romans 1:25

Whoops.

See. I think those supporting gay marriage, and the rhetoric supporting the case for gay marriage does exactly this with marriage. The case for gay marriage seizes on the goodness of marriage (and marriage is good) but applies it to relationships where the God of the Bible has already been tossed out the window. Paul would say this sort of thing is a prime example of what he’s talking about.

But lest we get all finger pointy — the “Christian” case for marriage does exactly the same thing whenever it fails to see marriage as something that reveals God’s eternal power and divine nature.

You know. When we make it all about kids. And society. And wholesome family values. And Biblical morals. And history. And… Anything but God.

And the thing that makes God’s eternal power and divine nature clearest. Love. The love that wins. The love displayed at the Cross. Marriage, ultimately, is a picture of that love — in our marriages, but human marriages also give us a picture of the relationship where we can find meaningful identity and satisfaction (see Revelation 21, above).

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. — Ephesians 5:31-32 (the whole chapter builds to this point)

4. We lost when we made marriage about children, rather than about the sex that produces them

A lot of the logic supporting this point is contained above. While according to the Biblical picture of things before and after the Fall, children, ideally, are made in marriage, marriage isn’t just made for the making of children. It’s made for intimate, one flesh, love between people whose bits fit together, and the product of this fitting together is, occasionally, children. I suspect if you tried to count the number of times sexual intercourse occurs between men and women, and put it up against the number of pregnancies in this world, you’d get the sense that there’s a lot more sex in a marriage than there is the production of children. Some of this activity might be specifically attempting to produce a child, but most of it, I would think, is for the purpose of maintaining and growing a loving, intimate, relationship.

Children happen as the result of sex. But we don’t require fertility tests before marriage (and that would be truly, truly, awful if we did). Often our arguments against gay marriage failed on this basis.

The mystery and beauty of marriage is that two somehow become one. Male and female.

While sex is a part of gay relationships, and will be a part of gay marriage, the Biblical picture of marriage revolves around two different kinds of human coming together as one.

“The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.”

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” — Genesis 2:23-24

Whatever you make of how to read Genesis, it’s clear this is part of the story that Christians build their picture of marriage from, and while it talks about fathers and mothers, there’s no mention of making babies here, but there is a sense of the bringing together something that God made to be brought together.

It’s worth noting, I think, that sex is a thing created by God, and how we use it either reveals his character or ours. It reveals something about his divine nature, or about our corrupted nature. Its one of those things where how we use it (or don’t use it) shows if we’re following God’s design or our own. This is pretty powerful. But it also means that we often misplace hope for satisfaction in sex, our sexuality, and even marriage, that these things simply can’t deliver on.

People are free to take or leave this story, and this basis for understanding marriage — and increasingly people in our world are choosing to leave it — but when we made it sound like Christians think marriage is important because “children” we shot ourselves in the foot.

Marriage is certainly a great context for having kids, and kids who know their parents are committed to one another through life’s ups and downs certainly have a solid basis for flourishing. But this sort of relationship isn’t a guarantee that a kid will flourish, nor is anything other than marriage a guarantee that a kid will get a lesser deal in life. Focusing on the nuclear, biological family, as though most people experience or desire that, because this is a “human right,” or even as though this picture was particularly Biblical, always struck me as a bit self-defeating too. It felt like we were hitting struggling single parents (and even not struggling single parents) with wild swings designed to knock out the gay marriage argument. What made it even dumber, I think, is that laws surrounding adoption and surrogacy for gay couples are dealt with completely apart from marriage anyway.

This whole line of reasoning confused what marriage is in its essential form, and what marriage is capable of producing and becoming when the debate, in terms of legislation, was simply about what marriage is. I think the fight was lost because those against the change shifted the goalposts rather than adopting a robust defence of the two words that will actually be changed in the definition (at least in the Australian case).

5. We lost when we lost the fight on gender, and didn’t think hard enough about how to include the T or I parts of LGBTQI in the conversation

We live in an age that celebrates mind over matter when it comes to identity. What you think you are and feel you are, therefore you are.

Here’s Miley Cyrus:

“I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl…I don’t relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy, and I think that’s what I had to understand: Being a girl isn’t what I hate, it’s the box that I get put into.”

It seems everything is fluid. Especially for people who are privileged enough to be able to choose to be fluid, rather than for people who are locked in to a marginalised or complicated facet of the human experience.

It’s not just sexuality that gets confused when humanity turns on God, and that turn is felt in the ‘frustration’ of God’s creation. It’s gender too. And our biological sex. While part of my point here is that maleness and femaleness are, in marriage, different and distinct. That’s not true for all people — and just as the church is grappling with how to care for same sex attracted people who want to be faithful to the God of the Bible, we need to grapple with what it looks like for transgender and intersex people to follow Jesus and carry the image of God.

Before this gets too far down a rabbit hole where this needs to be acknowledged — I’m a guy (gender) in a guy’s body (sex) and I know that there’s an incredible amount of biological complexity out there that means this sort of alignment isn’t always the case. I think we need to be careful not to exclude transgender or intersex people from our definitions of humanity, or from our consideration, in clumsy conversations about marriage. This whole issue is worthy of its own post, and I’m not entirely sure of where to go with that sort of line of thinking yet. I want to be careful, because I think there’s a sense where both sex and gender can occur along a spectrum of maleness-femaleness, and it’s important to distinguish between transgender issues and intersex issues. I’m not going to say much, if anything, about the implications of a T or an I identity for marriage, but I suspect it is tied up with helping find some sort of clarity in terms of gender and sex (and sexuality) identity for those dealing with this complexity and working carefully from there.

What does fascinate me, is the kind of democratisation of the transgender experience through people who simply choose to defy categorisation, or people who want to argue that gender is meaningless both in terms of gender identity, and sexual practice. This basically confines the ‘bits’ associated with one’s sex — the matter — into a very small part of our identity. An unchosen bit of baggage. Mind has triumphed over matter at this point, and I suspect a fuller and richer account of our humanity and a more fulfilling and healthy approach to identity sees mind and matter brought together in harmony, or acknowledged tension rather than simply denial.

This concept of personal, individual, mind-driven, fluidity has pretty massive ramifications for our concepts of personhood, and I think, like any time where we put ourselves in the driver’s seat, rather than God, there are bound to be interesting consequences.

The link between gender and sex is increasingly being torn apart, and the proposed changes to the Marriage Act in Australia simply codify this shift that happened a while back without much fuss, and, I suspect, for well-intended reasons. Other people have been much better at caring for transgender and intersex people in our community than evangelical Christians (I’m sure there are liberal Christians who have put more thought into this than we have). I’m unaware of much, if any, evangelical Christian thinking that seeks to understand, love, and serve the T or I part of the LGBTQI community, I haven’t proactively looked (though I will), but I have been part of many conversations about gay marriage where these issues have not been spoken about. I’ve seen conversations on Facebook where transgender people have been dismissed as abnormal or insignificant, and I can’t imagine that this has won us friends or favour when it comes to hearing us speak about Biblical concepts of gender and how they relate to a broken and fractured world (and our own experience of gender). Which in turn means we can’t really speak to uphold the traditional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman when we aren’t engaging with the complexity of the human experience beyond such neat categories or within these neat categories.

On the link between mind and matter and identity, there’s actually some notion of fluidity and identity driven by the mind and our hearts (thoughts/passions/feelings) that Christians, can affirm. Our minds and hearts are where the action is at in terms of defining our identity as people. They’re where the Bible suggests that battleground is in terms of us either choosing to follow Jesus as children of God, or take up with idols. We are shaped by our hearts and our minds in a way that we aren’t shaped by our bodies (which simply act out this stuff).

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” — Matthew 15:16-20

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:2

There are a couple of things I think need to be incorporated in to this part of the discussion — the idea that God is not a male who is adequately reflected by male humans, but that maleness and femaleness operate together and separately to bear the image of God, and the sense that gender increasingly becomes meaningless as we are transformed into the image of Christ, united with Christ, as the bride of Christ. This is the ultimate form of identity for the Christian (this changes the way we approach maleness and femaleness in our human relationships, but it doesn’t do away with those concepts altogether in these relationships in this world).

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” — Galatians 3:26-28

6. We lost when we made the argument about the next argument (the slippery slope), rather than lovingly understanding what the people in front of us desired and were asking for

I hate this version of the argument against gay marriage more than any other. Gay marriage will not open the door to people marrying their dogs. The arguments used for gay marriage might be used by polyamorists, but the people asking for gay marriage aren’t asking for polyamory and we’re failing to love them, understand them, and listen to them, if we treat their arguments as though someone else is asking for something else.

7. We lost when we didn’t fight harder for love to mean something other than sexual intimacy or total acceptance (not compassionate tolerance)

The tragedy of the #lovewins idea is that what we’re ending up with isn’t a really robust and beautifully messy picture of love. We’re ending up with fairytale love that can’t really handle any opposition.

What do people mean when they write #lovewins? What are people actually celebrating when they rainbowfy their Facebook profiles?

I haven’t read much beyond the highlights of the judgments handed down in the US, but it seems that they pay lip service to the idea of tolerance for those who disagree and then immediately label such positions as hateful or anti-love.

The Greek language has multiple words for love describing multiple kinds of love. We have one word and it’s context that determines the meaning.

Who wants to stand in the way of love?

Not me. Not anyone I know.

But who says what love is?

What I think people are saying when they say #lovewins is that one particular view of love has triumphed over all the others. And by triumphed over I think we’ll increasingly understand this to mean “totally wiped out of the public sphere” any alternative pictures of love, especially those from the pre-enlightened past.

Most of the stuff we watch and listen to about love basically says love is sexual intimacy with one person, or the thing you offer to your family. There’s erotic love and there’s filial love. There’s a fair bit of erotic love going on in the marriage debate, though it’s more about sexual commitment than simply temporary intimacy. Erotic love is the love that we write songs about and feature in movies. It’s boy meets girl love replaced with person meets person love. But this cheapens and limits our view of love such that we can’t believe in a platonic, non-sexual, relationship if there’s any physical affection displayed. So, for example, I once hugged one of my sisters and someone who didn’t know she was my sister, and knew I was married, thought there was something going on. Isn’t love richer if it means something more than sex, and something more than simply family ties or a commitment secured by contractual agreement?

Love, apparently, also means never telling someone you disagree with their choices. This is the new kind of filial love. Loyalty is built in networks where people offer this sort of love to each other, and this sort of love doesn’t cope well with disagreement or dissent. Even disagreement offered with loving intent. Tolerance now means believing everything is legitimate, rather than believing that people should be free to make choices that are wrong and be loved anyway. Our interactions with each other are cheapened by this vision of love. Isn’t love richer if it doesn’t seek to deny or iron out differences, but transcends those differences?

If the Revelation picture of the future from the start of this post and the end of the Bible, where #lovewins is true, then how do Christians love those around us? I think it’s about respectfully allowing people to make a choice (rather than trying to insist they make a particular choice), but it must also mean making some case for the Christian view of the world, and the Christian view of love, even if that case is unpopular, and is perceived as hateful.

This is where the medicine we’ve got coming to us is really going to hurt. I don’t think we’ve loved others very well. I think they’re about to treat us the way we treated them. I think as we become the minority our perceived pursuit of victory at all costs, rather than respect, is going to come back to bite us. Hard. And this will be an opportunity for us to show how love wins. This will be an opportunity for us not to fight more battles, but to follow the one who fought the battle for us, and who models what love looks like for us… this is how we might make God known in things he created, and is now recreating by the Spirit.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. — 1 John 4:7-14

 

This is still, I think, one of the better things David Foster Wallace said or wrote, from the much lauded speech This Is Water

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

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I’m working on trying to write something about how we’ve collapsed what it means to be human into whatever we make it mean for us in our own mind. Maybe one day this thing will see the light of day. Maybe it won’t. But this is powerful stuff.

 

My Facebook newsfeed is awash with discussions about Halal food. Today it’s Halal Easter Eggs (from Cadbury). Last week it was people speculating about links between Halal food and funding for people trying to introduce Sharia Law to Australia, or funding for terrorism.

I think all food is certified by the true and living God, provided it is “received with thanksgiving,”

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”— 1 Timothy 4:3-5

And, the ultimate key to “certified,” God-approved, food,” is Jesus, who calls himself the “bread of life.”

“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval… “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” — John 6

Halal Easter eggs are a great opportunity to love your Muslim neighbours and share the message of Easter with them. But getting to that conclusion, and dealing with some of the objections Christians have to Halal food, might take some doing…

Halal is an Islamic term that means “permitted” it is the opposite of Haram, which means not permitted. I’m not going to claim to be an expert on Halal, I’m not a Muslim. It would be odd for me to do so. But, from what I gather, for a food to be permissible for a Muslim (Halal) it simply needs to not be haram — there are certain foods, especially meat, where there are guidelines that must be met to ensure certain boxes are ticked. Outside of this, it seems most foods (those not forbidden) are fair game.

Here’s what the Australian Food and Grocery Council says about Halal certification.

Many Australian food manufacturers seek Halal certification of their facilities and processes, in order to label their products as Halal and ensure they are able to be enjoyed by Muslim consumers. In the same way that food labeled as vegan or gluten-free is suitable for consumption by a broad range of consumers, Halal certified foods are commonly enjoyed by non-Muslims.

For a product to be Halal, it must be as a whole, and in part:

  • free from any substance taken or extracted from a Haram animal or ingredient (e.g. pigs, dogs, carnivorous animals, animals not slaughtered in compliance with Islamic rites);
  • made, processed, manufactured and/or stored by using utensils, equipment and/or machinery that has been cleaned according to Islamic law (e.g. not cleaned with alcohol); and
  • free from contact with, or being close to, a Haram substance during preparation, manufacture, processing and storage (e.g. blood, alcohol, poisonous and intoxicating plants and insects such as worms and cockroaches).

Many foods and drinks, particularly those that do not contain meat or alcohol, are inherently compliant with Halal criteria. Official certification, which may be granted by accredited religious authorities in Australia, any claim of certification is however required before products are able to be labelled as such.

Halal certification is a gateway into a massive industry, a Monash University study estimates the Halal industry’s global value at $3 trillion, and growing, with the Halal food market a relatively small $700 billion per year segment of this industry. This primer on Halal certification from The Conversation suggests it’s $1.75 trillion. It makes sense (and cents) for Australian food producers to try to sell their products to a large portion of the international population.

I get the impression that Halal certification is simultaneously a semi-unnecessary marketing tool, and part of an increasingly global marketplace — it seems to me that the Islamic world survived pretty well for a long time without labels on food. But setting up businesses to make it clear that particular food stuffs are free of contaminants is a clever business model for serving the Islamic world.

Business sense aside, there seems to be some “Christian” concern out there about halal food on the shelves of grocery stores in Australia, and in the pantries of non-Muslim households.

These concerns seem to operate on a few levels. At least so far as the social media campaigns and anti-halal campaigners are concerned (I won’t link to these campaigns because I don’t think they need the oxygen).

  1. The costs imposed to “Aussie” businesses and passed on to non-Islamic consumers.
  2. The supposed links to terrorism and Sharia Law.
  3. That Halal food is “food sacrificed to idols” so Christians shouldn’t eat it.

It’s the third point that I think is most interesting, but I’ll deal with the first two first.

It seems to me that Aussie businesses who pursue halal certification are doing so in order to increase their profits, to expand their markets, I’d hope that this means the benefits outweigh the costs and that rather than passing on costs to the non-Halal audience, the costs of Halal certification are covered by being able to sell their goods to people who would not otherwise buy them. I’m yet to see anyone offering anything like proof, and a few spurious economic arguments that seem to ignore the massive commercial benefits for entering this industry, for the idea that these increased costs will impact consumers.

Halal certification is carried out by a range of organisations, some, it seems, are businesses that have set themselves up to supply services according to this new market, presumably, these businesses are operated by Muslims, who, as a result of their faith, give a portion of their income as zakat (much like a Christian might give to their church), others, like Muslims Australia are a specifically religious institution that invest income generated through their certification into Muslim institutions (mosques, schools, etc).

Consumers in Australia (and everywhere, really) are free to make decisions about what they consume, just as businesses are free to make decisions about how best to open up their products to new markets, deciding who to sell, or not sell, to.

Should Christians oppose Halal?

If Halal products are, directly or indirectly, supporting Muslim institutions, and the expansion of Islam, should we, as Christians, not buy Halal? How should we decide what products to buy, beyond this debate? How do we shop in a way that is consistent with our faith?

Part of making this decision will include being educated about what cause the money that goes to a certain company might support, but where do we draw the line? Why are Christians not campaigning about companies giving money to workers who use it to buy cigarettes, or pornography, or who choose to gamble it? Or companies that profit from these industries? Are they not equally harmful to the end user in terms of the soul? And, more harmful, in terms of the body?

Consumer ethics are a pretty massive minefield, and it’s hard to know where to start drawing a line, saying “boycott X, because X is bad,” it’s hard to know whether or not metaphorical fruit that comes from a metaphorical tree we buy from is poisonous because of its roots. It’s harder still to find fruit that isn’t tainted in some way in a poisonous world full of people who do things that are opposed to God, and for their own benefit (not the benefit of others), by nature (though when it comes to frozen berries that carry hepatitis these concerns about poisonous fruit might be justified and non-metaphorical).

It’s good to shop ethically. It’s good to be informed. It’s good to support people who are doing good. It’s also good, I suspect, to support people because you want to love them well and see them be able to put food on the table for their families. But where is the line when it comes to companies supporting religious ideologies? Do we eat Certified Kosher meat? It hasn’t been prayed over during the sacrifice, but presumably the Kosher certification bodies are funding Judaism? What about businesses run by Christians whose teaching you disagree with? I don’t particularly like some stuff Hillsong says, but that’s not what stops me buying Gloria Jeans coffee (the lack of quality does). I think the Seventh Day Adventists teach a pretty messed up version of Christianity, with a harmful approach to the Old Testament, but this doesn’t stop me buying Sanitarium products. I don’t ask every owner of every business how they’re going to spend their profits. If an Islamic business wants to fund their version of Islam, by allowing a non-Islamic business to sell food to people who trust their certification process, then this seems to be the product of a free market. The non-Islamic business is free to make educated decisions about who certifies their food, for whom, and there are plenty of options out there.

We have great freedom, as consumers, to choose what to buy, and what to eat. More freedom than, historically, anybody has ever enjoyed.

I’m not really interested, in this post, in convincing you not to exercise this freedom. Quite the contrary. But I do think it’s important that we’re consistent in how we exercise this freedom, and that we’re not doing it out of fear, or worse, hatred. It’s downright bad for the Gospel when Christians take part in campaigns against companies and people who exercise this freedom when we are operating out of fear or hatred of the other – rather than love.

I think it’s great when Christians campaign against certain sorts of consumption out of love for people (eg when we stand up against gambling, or pay day loans, or pornography, or prostitution, in a way that loves those whose lives these insidious industries destroy). I think false religions — as a form of idolatry — are destructive, but I don’t think the right response to destructive false religions is hate, or fear, but love.

The loving answer to false religions, is Jesus, not wiping out the food supplies as though these religions are a city under siege.

It seems to me that one way to love our Muslim neighbours is to allow them to eat food in good conscience, just as we might feel loved if we are allowed to eat food in good conscience. If halal certification allows that, then I can’t see how, generally, this is a problem.

As Christians we shouldn’t be on about poisoning the proverbial waterhole — limiting a Muslim’s access to food they can eat— but we should be on about holding out the bread and water of life. Jesus.

There is no way that we can equate campaigning against halal food with God’s work. It is not what we’re called to do… God has his own seal of approval, his own certification method, his own version of certified food — it’s from Jesus, and it is Jesus. Here’s a thing Jesus says, just after he’s fed the 5,000 in John’s Gospel.

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” — John 6

Bacon is part of the good news of the Gospel (Why Christians don’t follow the Old Testament food laws)

As Christians, our great desire for people is that they enjoy their freedom, we should, I believe, be promoters of freedom. Promoting the freedom to enjoy the goodness of God, that comes through the good news of the Gospel, news where your standing before God doesn’t depend on keeping a bunch of rules and regulations about what you eat, but on God’s good gift to people in Jesus.

The Old Testament contains a bunch of regulations, like the Halal/Haram food laws in Islam, that guided God’s people before Jesus.

Christians don’t have to worry about food laws. And that’s good news. Christians can speak about finding freedom in following God and truly mean it. Hopefully in a way that shows that certification plans for perfectly tasty food are a bit of a rort.

Ultimately, Jesus being the bread of life, the one who gives life, the one who defines “clean” and “unclean” is going to transform the way the people of God approach earthly food. The Old Testament was full of food laws that marked Israel as different from the nations around them, like this, from Leviticus 11:

And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.

“‘Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean. And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat; you must regard their carcasses as unclean. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you. —Leviticus 11

No bacon. No lobster. No prawns. No prawns wrapped in bacon.

But Jesus is a game changer. Here’s a few important bits of Bible.

Jesus says it’s not what you eat that defines you as a person in God’s eyes. You aren’t what you eat, you are the product of your heart.

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” 

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)” — Mark 7

What separates God’s people from here on in is not that they avoid mixed fabrics and bacon, it’s that they follow Jesus, are shaped by the Holy Spirit, and love people, one another, and people who don’t yet follow Jesus.

Here’s what a heart like that will look like. Here’s John, who had that stuff about Jesus being the bread of life before, talking about what it looks like to follow Jesus…

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  — John 13

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” — John 15

And here’s some stuff from Matthew

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” — Matthew 5

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

Both John and Matthew are recording words of Jesus from before his death, before his resurrection, before his people are given the Holy Spirit, and all of these statements anticipate the way Jesus loves people at the cross. Just in case we think John is talking about something else, later, in one of his letters, he writes:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. — 1 John 4

Why all this love stuff? What does love have to do with Halal food? What does love have to do with bacon? Hopefully that’ll become clearer, but it’s worth seeing that love, shaped by the way Jesus loved us when we were his enemies, is the foundation for any Christian response to any ethical issue. We do this so that people will know we are his disciples, that we are his children.

This also explains (apart from the fact that most of us aren’t Jewish) why we don’t follow the food laws. The Christian approach to food unites, rather than divides. Sharing food with someone is way of loving them.

There were some pretty major fights about food in the early church. Food was a big deal in both Jewish and Roman culture. It limited who Jewish people could associate with — the food laws in the Old Testament made it difficult to get out and about in Roman culture. Food was an identity marker then, as it is now (Halal food is an identity marker for Muslims, just as freedom to eat anything is an identity marker for Christians). Josephus, the Jewish historian, brags that Jewish food practices are consistently observed throughout the world:

“For there is not any city of the Grecians, nor any of the barbarians, nor any nation whatsoever, whither our custom of resting on the seventh day hath not come, and by which our fasts, and lighting up lamps, and many of our prohibitions as to our food, are not observed. — Josephus, Against Apion

Philostratus, a Roman writer, says this approach to food alienated the Jews from the Roman world.

“For the Jews have long been in revolt not only against the Romans, but against humanity; and a race that has made its own a life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasures of the table nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Susa or Bactra or the more distant Indies.” — Philostratus, Life of Apollonius

This sort of distance is likely to get in the way of the spread of the Gospel to the non-Jewish world. Which explains what happens to Peter as God tells him to go and see Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, in the book of Acts.

“About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him,“Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.” — Acts 10

 

Now, I’m pretty sure the food stuff isn’t just a symbol of the bigger point of Gentiles being included in God’s people through Christ, it’s also part of the means by which this will happen. When the church has to start grappling with how Jews and Gentiles co-exist in the body of Christ a few chapters later, they do away with almost all of the Old Testament food laws, with the exception of some that are linked to the practice of idolatry (and feasts in idol temples).

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

There’s a good case to be made that this is sort of shorthand for saying “Gentiles need to steer clear of idol-worship,” and that these are the steps that are required for Jewish Christians who are still keeping Torah (perhaps, like Paul when he visits Jerusalem, in order to preach the Gospel to Jews) to share what’s called ‘table fellowship’ with Gentile converts.

The apostle Paul applies the framework from Acts 15 in apparently different ways in different contexts – in Rome, and in Corinth. I wrote an essay on this in college which you can read online, the conclusion, in sum, is that in both situations Paul wants his readers to promote the Gospel in the way they eat, to eat with love for the other, whether that be eating in a way that is loving to people whose consciences don’t allow them to eat certain things, or eating in a way that allows you to share in the lives of non-believers.

“…if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” – Romans 14

“And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 8

Here’s Paul’s advice specifically about food sacrificed to idols, which, in Corinth, was just about every bit of meat sold in the marketplace (it comes just after Paul tells Christians not to join in idol worship and idol feasts in temples, possibly specifically referring to emperor worship in the Imperial Cult temple in Corinth.

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” — 1 Corinthians 10-11

There’s an interesting tension here, publicly participating in idol worship, in a way that suggests that false gods are real is a problem, but going to a non-Christian’s house, and eating with them, is great, unless they try to make dinner in their house something akin to an idol worship session, and it appears this is only an issue for Paul because it harms Christians who are bothered by it.

The other thing that I’ve always found interesting about these passages is that Paul talks about issues of conscience as being divides between the weak and the strong, but he, one of the leaders of the church, who is writing Scripture, takes a position on these issues that must surely have the affect of persuading some of the weak to alter their position.

Paul warns about people who will try to limit people’s freedom to enjoy the goodness of God. He may well be talking about bacon (although, it’s probably he’s talking about anyone who comes along saying that certain foods are off limits).

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”— 1 Timothy 4:3-5

Is Halal meat “food sacrificed to idols” – and what are the implications for Christians?

I think this collection of Bible passages has some interesting implications for Christians as we participate in discussions about Halal food. There’s a whole heap of Halal food that just falls into the “permissible” category for Muslims that doesn’t have anything especially religious done to it. It’s just certified because it’s not banned (and in some cases because it doesn’t contain banned ingredients, where it might). I can’t fathom why Christians are opposed to Halal yoghurt, or chocolate (I can fathom why Islamophobes are, because fighting against Halal certification in any form is striking a blow for that ideology). Halal meat, on the other hand, is meat slaughtered following a process called Dhabīḥah. There are some interesting bits of the Qur’an governing this process, one bit says:

“Forbidden for you are carrion, and blood, and flesh of swine, and that which has been slaughtered while proclaiming the name of any other than God, and one killed by strangling, and one killed with blunt weapons, and one which died by falling, and that which was gored by the horns of some animal, and one eaten by a wild beast, except those whom you slaughter; and that which is slaughtered at the altar and that which is distributed by the throwing of arrows [for an omen]; this is an act of sin.”— al-Māʼidah 5:3

I’m not an expert on interpreting the Qur’an, but the clause “while proclaiming the name of any other than God” has some interesting implications, it has been held to mean that a specific prayer must be uttered as the animal is slaughtered, or, failing that, the slaughter is to be conducted by a “person of the book”— which includes Christians and Jews — so that there is no possibility the animal has been sacrificed to an (Islamic) idol.

Interestingly, except for the prayer to Allah, this process is pretty much what the Old Testament, and Acts 15, calls for to keep Jewish food laws enough to enable table fellowship between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. To be clear, I think the freedom the Gospel brings includes the freedom to eat a medium rare steak, but I wouldn’t do this with a Jewish Christian (or a vegetarian Christian), if exercising my freedom in this way caused them to stumble. Even if I would write something like this to outline why I think it’s ok (good even) to eat a medium rare steak as an act of appreciating something delicious that God made. 

If the above approach which outlines a consistent treatment of idol food in the New Testament is right, then there are some interesting implications in the Halal debate. Just to sum up in case it wasn’t clear above I’ve suggested that non-Jewish converts were urged to avoid meat linked to idolatry for the sake of fellowship with Jewish Christians (Acts 15), Paul then upholds this instruction in cases where a Christian brother or sister might be lured into idolatry, or disunity, and have their faith destroyed (1 Corinthians 8, 10-11, Romans 14-15), while essentially agreeing with those who take a position that emphasises Christian freedom — provided the food is received with thanksgiving, and eaten for the glory of God (which, could be, in a sense, said to be something of a spiritual trump card that wipes out the prior idolatry, perhaps), and both in Acts 10 and 1 Corinthians 10 the eating of previously ‘unclean’ food, and, food sacrificed to idols is part of the spread of the Gospel to non-Jews (provided it doesn’t lead them to get confused about the validity of idols).

The guiding principle is conscience —exercising Christian freedom should never come at the expense of your own conscience or the conscience of others. This seems to be behind Paul’s specific instruction, regarding idol meat in the market place (which was probably all the meat except the Kosher stuff), or, perhaps, Halal meat in the shopping centres.This meat sold in the Corinthian market place was typically meat from the many sacrifices in the many idol temples of Corinth. Presumably the market vendors bought this meat from these temples, presumably the proceeds were funding these temples, and yet Paul says to “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” 

Paul expects Christians to eat this meat with non-Christians. I’m not sure that there were idolators in Corinth who were so pedantic about the source of their meat that they would only eat meat sacrificed to their idol, so it’s interesting to ponder whether or not Paul would have served idol meat to such a person in order to dine with them, and whether that means we should serve Halal meat to Muslims in order to dine with them. But I suspect he would have. He was keen to behave like a Jew to win the Jews, and like a Greek to win the Greeks (1 Corinthians 9), and would obey Jewish laws (presumably including food laws) in order to reach Jews (even though there’s some confusion in Jerusalem, from the crowd in the Temple, as to whether this is the case in Acts 21), and, I think (and this is speculative), given the importance of conscience in his framework, he would want Muslims he was sharing the Gospel with both to see the freedom from food laws that is caught up with the message of Jesus, and for them to act according to their conscience until such time that they wanted this freedom for themselves.

It’s probable that Paul wouldn’t have rocked up in the local mosque to join into the slaughter of an animal in any way that affirmed the truth of Islam, but beyond that, he’d have been keen to win Muslims to Jesus, and to enjoy the delicious meat God made in all its deliciousness as an act of thanksgiving to God for his goodness.

Are Halal Easter Eggs “food sacrificed to idols” and what are the implications

But what about Halal Easter Eggs? If the meat question is a grey area, Halal certification where no sacrificial prayer is offered to Allah, but the certification is purely an indication that nothing Haram is involved is much more black and white.

Halal Easter Eggs are an incredible opportunity to include Muslims in your celebration of Easter. Presumably, as a conscientious Christian consumer you’re not buying into the commercialism, or idolatry, of chocolate at Easter, but you’re enjoying the opportunity to talk about Easter as a celebration of new life, and eggs as a symbol of that celebration, you know, the new life found in Jesus, through his death and resurrection. If that’s the case, and there’s no sense that you might be mistaken for a follower of the idolatrous God of crass commercialism, then I’d recommend buying up big on Halal Easter Eggs and sharing them with the neighbours in your street — Muslim or otherwise — inviting them to enjoy the good news of Jesus, bacon, and chocolate. But mainly Jesus.

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Incredible // Three minute music video, shot in 5 seconds

 

“This is a real video performance, a slow motion video, a sequence map with a traveling in front of 80 extras placed on 80 meters along a little road, lost in an industrial area. Filmed at 1000 frames/second with a Phantom flex 4k from a car driven at 50km/h, the shooting took 5 seconds for a 3’30 video: a living and dreamlike mural.”

Here’s the incredibly short making of video…

This term at Creek Road we’re looking at the life of Jesus as recorded in Mark’s Gospel. Mark brings the story of Jesus to life through the eyes of different people who meet him on his journey to the Cross. The people in the stories are a way in to seeing and hearing Jesus.

The word Gospel is a media term — Roman emperors used Gospels to proclaim their own greatness or to establish new titles so that the citizens of Rome could honour/worship them appropriately. The people who wrote about Jesus and called their writing Gospels didn’t do so in a vacuum — it was a very deliberate subversion of the Roman Empire (whose emperors called themselves the “Son of God”), leading up to the very deliberate subversion of the meaning of crucifixion and the symbol of the Cross.

So how should we recapture this approach to media in our day and age? That’s one of the things that thanks to our clever Media Team at Creek Road, we’re aiming to do in this series, called Jesus: Watch, Listen, Follow — and we’d love the online part of what’s going on to be something fun for people all over Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, and the world. We’ve brought a bunch of the characters from Mark to life, on Twitter and Instagram and there’s a central website watchlistenfollow.org which introduces the characters and collates the posts. They’re posting as though the events of the Gospel are happening and they’re reacting, they’re interacting with people who tweet or comment on these posts, and then they’re appearing on Sundays as part of our kids talks at church.

Anyway. This is a big preamble to tell you that you totally have to, at least, follow the Roman Centurion (@r0mancent — Twitter, Instagram), especially if you need some motivation to soldier on, exercise, or read Roman philosophy.

Here are some samples.

Obviously some tweets are going to be closer to the Gospel narrative than others (which are character building). But if you’re keen to take part why not follow along, watch the story unfold, interact with the characters and share the good bits with your friends. That’s kind of how Gospels work.

If you love articulate British comedians and God, like I do, then this has been a pretty bizarre week for you. I’ve enjoyed the challenges posed to my understanding of God by Stephen Fry, and by the equally challenging account of the divine from Russell Brand.

Fry believes nothing is true about God. Brand believes everything we can possibly imagine about God is true because we can’t possibly know him because of our finite limitations in an infinite universe. While Brand’s approach to the God question is much closer to my own, I can’t help but think that I’d rather preach to people who think like Fry. His objections are actually easier to engage with than Brand’s wholesale lack of objections.

Both of them have such a profoundly anaemic picture of Christianity, and thus, I think, of God, because both of them entirely miss the point of Jesus.

In Jesus we see God’s response to the brokenness, evil, and suffering in this world – the promise of a better world through the absolute victory over evil and death. But in Jesus we also see the gap between our finite limitations and God’s infinite nature bridged, so that truths about life, the universe, and everything, become knowable because the God who spoke life, the universe, and everything, by his word sends his word into the world, as a man. That’s how John, the disciple, describes the arrival of Jesus on the scene. Jesus steps out of infinity, and into concrete, measurable, reality.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” — John 1:1-5

He comes to make God knowable – contrary to Brand’s understanding of God as expressed below…

 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… or the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. — John 1:14, 17-18

I’m sharing these verses now because the right place to go when people ask questions about God — his character, his existence, or his nature, in order to understand nature, is always Jesus. At least in the first instance. That’s what John is claiming here. And Jesus, acting in this capacity, is largely missing from both Fry and Brand’s treatment of the God question.

There’s a fair bit of Bible in this post— because despite Fry’s very eloquent, tight, takedown of God, despite the appearance that this is a modern insight that makes belief in God completely untenable — these questions are complicated, but they’re answered incredibly thoroughly in the Bible, they aren’t questions that should be particularly confronting to Christians. Like every good Sunday School question, the answer is Jesus. If you’re reading because you think Fry has fired a shot that has fatally wounded God, or the Christian faith, can I encourage you to slog through it, and at least by the end you’ll understand why I haven’t, as a result of Fry’s video, quit my job and packed in my faith.

Jesus makes God knowable. He makes God approachable. He comes to bring light to darkness, order to chaos, comfort to the afflicted — he came to put an end to the exact problems Fry identifies with the world. The question of why a good God would allow such problems to occur is one that I’ve tried to answer in several thousand words elsewhere. But it’s a separate question.

Stephen Fry appeared on a show called “The Meaning of Life” and was asked what he, an atheist, would say to God if he were to be confronted by him after death.

Here’s his answer.

Here are some of the highlights…

“How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

“Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?”

“Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind,” he says. “They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.”

“It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

Wow. If you’re going to grapple with the Christian God — that is, God as Christians understand God to be — then you’ve got to take this God on the terms Christians take him. Fry totally fails to do this. He seems prepared to cherry pick bits of the Bible and Christian understandings of God that suit his picture of God, but he’s pretty dismissive of the bits that don’t make him a capricious monster.

The rudimentary Christian response to Fry — based on the same Bible he cherry picks from to build this picture of the God he doesn’t believe in — is that God did not make a world full of injustice and pain, he made a good world (Genesis 1), that humanity then stuffed up, when we tried to replace him and be our own gods, as a result this world was ‘cursed’ (Genesis 3)… but God sets about restoring the world through the rest of the Bible. Fry would have us be automatically obedient to God — prevented from such rebellion, but this creates the sort of “totally selfish” God he abhors. In terms of the question of other potential responses God could have taken to our rebellion, Brand is right to recognise the very finite, selfish, perspective we bring to these sorts of questions.

The slightly more complicated response would be that God made a world with flesh eating insects in it and gave humans the job of faithfully spreading the perfect and peaceful Garden of Eden over the face of the earth “subduing” the chaos, as we reflected his creation out of darkness (Genesis 1), that’s caught up in bearing his image, ruling his world as his representatives and being fruitful and multiplying… The dark, watery, formless world God works with after Genesis 1:2 is an ancient picture of a chaotic void that required subduing.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. — Genesis 1:2

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

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:26-28

If there wasn’t darkness to overcome, or something to fix, how then would we express this relationship? How would we be anything other than divine playthings— or servants— the kind you find in most other ancient religions.

We were given a job to do, as part of improving the world from good to perfect, and we failed to do that when we metaphorically flipped him the bird. Jesus completes this job. He defeats evil. That’s the storyline of the Bible in three sentences.

The properly human thing to do — if we’re going to be obedient image bearers, is to work to stop flesh eating insects burrowing into the eyes of children, and in plenty of cases through history, it’s Christians leading the charge against exactly this sort of brokenness in the world, because a Christian worldview equips us to think and engage well with such brokenness. Whatever motivation might Fry have to eradicate this bug as a result of his rejection of God? It will come from his humanism, not his atheism. Fry identifies a problem with the Christian God, but provides no more satisfying account of the mixed and broken nature of the world we live in than Christianity (I’m biased, but I’d say his views of the world are less coherent). This is actually a much better picture of what God hopes for from humanity than Fry’s conception of the faithful Christian life, where “we have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?!” In this view of our created role, representing the creator in his good creation, we show our thankfulness to God and glorify him when we are creative, exercising our God-given imagination in line with this God-given purpose.

Let’s leave aside this dilemma for a moment, and turn, instead, to Russell Brand, and his response to Stephen Fry. This clip features a few more bits of the Stephen Fry interview, but also Brand’s own take on God. Brand says a lot of cool stuff that I agree with — but his answer, too, is completely devoid of Jesus.

There’s a bit in that video where Fry and Brand both talk about Jesus. They both talk about him as though he can be discussed apart from the nature of God — a treatment of Jesus foreign to any orthodox Christian since the very earliest days of the church (and arguably from the very earliest descriptions of Jesus in the Bible, and from the teaching of Jesus himself)

Fry says, of Jesus:

“I think he was a very good soul. An inspiration as a teacher. I do think a lot of the things he says are actually nonsense when you examine them. They seem very beautiful. But it’s a bit like the Dalai Llama. They’re actually twee, and completely impractical, and in that sense an insult to the human spirit. Like, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” – at first you think that is wonderful, “yes, what hypocrites” how can you possibly have a justice system? Nobody would ever go to prison?”

So he’s hardly likely to find any answers to his big questions about God and suffering if he a priori rules out Jesus as a source of the answers to that question.

Brand has a go showing that Jesus’ teachings aren’t so ‘twee’ by applying this principal to the justice system… it’s an interesting exercise, and it certainly shows an awareness of the human heart…

“I would say that when you are condemning murderers or pedophiles is to acknowledge that within us all is the capacity for evil. As the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs not between nations, religions, continents or creeds, but through every human heart, so when you are judging the pedophile, when you are judging the worst kind of criminal, to acknowledge that the thing in them that has manifest as negativity is also within us, and our first duty is to negotiate with the negativity within ourselves, and if we can successfully negotiate with that then we can create a better society.”

The problem with this picture — so far as the Bible’s description of Jesus is concerned — is that it seems to me one of the necessary implications of the ‘he who is without sin’ passage is that it is Jesus, the one who is without sin, the one with the undivided heart, who, rightfully can throw stones (or judge) sinners, and who rightfully, can judge not just the worst kind of criminal but every one of us who has our heart split between good and evil. He’s also the one who creates the better society…

But I digress. Not so far, because what is clear here is that neither Brand nor Fry are operating, or engaging, with an understanding of Jesus that looks remotely like the understanding that Christians have of Jesus when it comes to questions of evil, suffering (Fry’s big thing), infinity, or our ability to know God in our limited human way (Brand’s big thing).

Brand’s God is what in theological terms is called transcendent —wholly other, unable to be properly described or contained using human words or senses. But he is not what, similarly, in theological terms, is called immanent — present and observable in this world (beyond some nebulous spiritual connection between all things that exist or are conscious).

His picture of God as the infinite, indescribable, ground of being and existence meshes up with the Christian God — except that the Christian God reveals things about himself through revelation, this is how Christians understand God, especially in the light of the life of Jesus — who claimed to be one with the father. And thus is the lynchpin between God’s immanence and his transcendence. Because Jesus lived, breathed, spoke, and died — and in living affirmed God’s previous revelation concerning himself in the Old Testament — we know that the God we believe in is not just the transcendent creator and sustainer of life and ‘being’ in this universe, but that he is also knowable, and describable (so long as we acknowledge out limits and recognise Jesus as they way in to such descriptions). In Jesus, God entered the finite world in a way that was accessible to our finite senses. In Jesus, God becomes accessible.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” — John 14:6-11

An interesting implication of Jesus’ description here, where his life perfectly represents the Father, is that this is what people were created to do. This is Jesus living out the good human life. The next thing he says is an invitation back to this type of function — which I think is a fair way removed from the picture of the ‘Christian’ life Fry paints.

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” — John 14:12

In John 17, just before he’s arrested, he sums up his work in an interesting way in the light of the sort of work we were created for…

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” — John 17:3-4

A bit later Jesus describes what this sort of life looks like — it’s not rocket science to figure out how this might help us think about a human role in the face of suffering… it also puts paid, I think, to the idea that we need to be on our knees because God is some sort of self-seeking maniac.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. ” — John 15:9-15

Here are some highlights from Brand. These aren’t things I completely agree with — but they’re things that people who want to dismiss God holus-bolus, like Fry, have to grapple with, or at least, I think, they need to provide an alternatively coherent account of the world if they want to subject the idea of God to ridicule.

Brand acknowledges the limitations of our humanity — something Fry, as an atheist-humanist is not so keen to do, because it doesn’t really mesh with his narrative that all you need for human flourishing is humanity, and human endeavour.

“Now Joseph Campbell, the cultural mythologist, said all religions are true in that the metaphor is true. So what Campbell is saying is that religion is an attempt to explain the unknowable in the same way that science is an attempt to explain the unknowable. Science can explain the mechanics of the universe, it can explain the mechanics of anatomy and biology, but can it ever explain the why? The answer is no. It can never explain the why. What we all want to know is is there a reason for us being here,and what is the nature of the universe, what is the nature of our consciousness.”

Brand trots out the argument from an incredibly fine tuned universe as support for his believe in God. Which is interesting. He is also trying to grapple with the question of infinity — either the infinite nature of God, or of the universe against the very finite nature of our existence.

“I suppose what Christianity, and Islam, and Judaism, and Hinduism, and Jaianism, and Buddhism are trying to do is make sense of our position, our perspective as awake, conscious, sentient beings within the infinite.”

He gets plenty wacky in his exploration of consciousness — but again, for those of us who accept that God is the ground of being for every life in this universe, there’s something quite close to what Christians might affirm here.

“For me, as a person who believes in God, my understanding is this, that my consciousness emanates from a perspective and it passes through endless filters, the filters of the senses, the subjective filters of the senses and of my own biography. This is good. This is bad. This is wrong. I want this. I don’t want this. But behind all of that there’s an awakeness. An awareness that sees it all. And it’s in you too. And it’s in Stephen Fry. And it’s in the man who interviewed him. It’s in all of us. An awakeness. An interconnectivity. None of us can ever know if there is a God. But we do know there is an us. None of us can ever know if there’s wrong or right. But we do know there is an us.”

Our finitude does, Brand suggests, come with certain limitations when it comes to making absolute moral judgments. Especially judgments of an infinite being. It’s a weird category jump to assess God in human terms, and that Fry wants to hold God up to human standards, or against some sort of definition of morality apart from God, suggests that he hasn’t quite grasped the nature of the God Christians believe in. God is not subject to universal moral principles deduced from our human experience — he is wholly other, he authored the universe, it exists within him, he is not a part of the universe from within.

“Now, we can argue that when a lion eats the gazelle it can’t be very nice for the gazelle, but what we can argue is that in infinite space, that doesn’t matter. That in the tiny fragment of reality that we experience through our material senses – our eyes that only see a limited range of light, our ears that only hear a limited range of vibration. The things that we experience here, we can’t make any absolute conclusions from them. No one knows if there is a God, or if there isn’t a God. No one knows which interpretation is closest.”

Unlike Fry who simply holds up the question of suffering as though it’s a complete rebuttal to the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving, God, Brand sees that humans are partly culpable for whatever suffering happens in this world, and also partly the God-ordained solution (this is especially true if what’s suggested about Genesis, above, is correct). For Brand, suffering, too, is a reminder of our limitations, and a motivator for good. He’s able to see something like a divine purpose in the suffering, with this idea that it pushes us towards the divine. Even if, for him, the ‘divine’ is the consciousness that holds us all together.

“Yes there is suffering. What can we do about suffering? We can help one another. We can love one another. And if you can do that through atheism – then do it through atheism. But a lot of people need to know that this is temporary, that we are the temporary manifestation of something greater. Something complete and whole. Something timeless and spaceless and absolute. And every dogma in the world has been trying to tackle and understand that. Art has been trying to represent it, science has been trying to explain it and no one can. We’re up against the parameters, and I believe without embracing something spiritual, something whole, something beyond human thought we have no chance of saving ourselves, and saving the planet, we are all connected to consciousness, we are all connected to one another, and to me that sounds a bit like God.”

If God is purely a transcendent being who doesn’t really interact with the world, and who leaves us waving our arms around blindly in the throes of our suffering, hoping that we’ll somehow accidentally bump into him, or each other, for the better — which is sort of Brand’s version of God — then I think Fry is actually closer to the money. This sort of God is a bit of a monster, human existence becomes something like a reality TV show that God watches, or controls, from the sidelines. God becomes this sort of Big Brother, muttering the occasional instruction, keeping the housemates in the dark about the reality of the universe.

But God doesn’t do this. He doesn’t stand apart from our pain. He enters it. First by becoming human – Jesus, God the Son, enters the world as a baby, a lowly baby, a part of a despised and persecuted people group, in an imperial backwater. Then by being executed. Painfully. Horribly. Unjustly. The injustice is magnified when you consider just who it is that is being executed and what he has given up in order to become human, let alone to suffer and die. John puts it like this:

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.”—John 19:16-18

Jesus is nailed to two planks of wood. On a hill. In public display — for the purpose of seeing him utterly humiliated. The lowest of the low. Killed in the most painful way imaginable. For the sake of those who kill him, and those who given the chance, and given his claim to be ruler of our lives, would also want to kill him.

John describes the life of Jesus, and rejection of Jesus, in his opening:

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”— John 1:9-11 

This is not a God who is distant and unknowable, who leaves us flailing around blindly in our pain. Who uses pain as some sort of subliminal way of getting our attention (though it might point us to the truth that something is very wrong with the world). Nor is it a maniacal self-serving God who demands we approach him on our knees and sends flesh-eating worms with no solutions. This is a God who is so committed to doing something about the pain and suffering in the world — pain and suffering that, if God is the God of the Bible, is a result of us rejecting him, that he came into the world to be rejected all over again, to take on pain and suffering, out of love.

What’s interesting, too, is that the kind of connection-via-consciousness that Brand so desperately wants as a link to the divine is something Jesus says is the result of his life, and death, for those who reconnect to the transcendent God, the source of life, through him.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one —  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” John 17:20-24

I like the version of God revealed in Jesus much better than Fry’s version of God, and more, even, than Brand’s version of God. I think Jesus gives us not just hope in suffering, or hope beyond suffering, but also a pattern for responding to the suffering of others that is much more satisfying the Fry’s directionless indignation (because, let’s face it, he’s angry at a God he doesn’t believe in who looks nothing like the God who reveals himself in Jesus), and much more focused than Brand’s unknowable God-beyond-our-senses.

If only I had a British accent.

macltoons

Image Credit: @macltoons (tweet)

Am I Charlie?

I’ve pondered this question a bit since the first tweets and placards started carrying the phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ — ‘ I am Charlie’— following the shootings in Paris.

Am I Charlie?

I certainly feel a natural inclination to identify myself with the press, I’ve never quite shaken off the sense that I’m a journalist, even as I plied my journalistic skills in the name of public relations, even as I’ve poured pixels onto white space as a blogger, even now as I form sentences to be delivered as sermons not news stories, part of me desperately wants to be Charlie. I want to strike blows for a free press, for free speech, for the power of the pen in the face of the sword (or in the face of AK47s and fear).

Am I Charlie?

Do I actually want to be Charlie? Is Charlie Hebdo and what it stood for, and published, actually journalism? Or are they simply agent provocateurs operating under the guise of the press, seeking to test the limits of free speech? Even that appeals to my inner contrarian just a little bit.

Am I Charlie?

What about as a follower of Jesus — how much can I be Charlie? How much do I want to align my quest with theirs? How much can I align my life with theres? Certainly there is much of their humanity that I share, but what about their ideology, or their practice? What overlap is there between the tenets of the Christian faith, expressed in the person of Jesus, and the tenets of a satirical newspaper perhaps best expressed in the mockery of those who don’t conform to a left-wing political ideology.

I am Charlie inasmuch as I am human, but I am more than Charlie.

When it comes to my humanity, and how I understand it. I am not Charlie, I am Jesus. This offers a better comfort, a better solution, and a better course of action, in times of tragedy. It helps me respond not just to the situation in Paris, but also the situation in Nigeria, and not just to the situation in Martin Place, Sydney, but the situation in Pakistan.

It teaches me the value of human life, and how to respond to my enemies, and my neighbours.

It teaches me not to respond first by reaching for pen, or sword, but by clinging to the Cross.

Je suis Jesus. I am Jesus.

At least, so far as the Bible accounts for my humanity when I follow Jesus, I am Jesus, because I am united with him through his death and resurrection, by the Holy Spirit.

Here’s what Paul says to the Galatian church in the letter we now know as Galatians…

 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Paul’s words in his letter to the Colossian church are handy to hang on to when we’re trying to figure out what this means in the aftermath of tragedy — or, indeed, any where and any time in this tragically broken world.

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

Je suis Jesus.

This has to be our perspective, as Christians, when horrible stuff happens in this world. It doesn’t let us stand back and not be involved, it moves us to respond to the brokenness and pain around us knowing that Jesus took on the brokenness and pain of others — including our own — to love us, to redeem us, to fix us — even as we were his enemies.

Over and over again the Bible calls us to imitate Christ because the underlying spiritual reality is that we have been united with him, by the Holy Spirit, and we’re being made over into his image and likeness. Our humanity is redefined, and rediscovered.

I’m not just united with him — I’m called to live as a part of his body in the world, the church. To be Jesus to this world, in the midst of turmoil, tragedy, and grief. To point people to God’s solution to the world’s brokenness, not my own.

Here’s what Paul writes to Corinth…

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.”

… to Colossae…

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

And to Ephesus…

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

A body is not disembodied. It is not just ideals and ideologies. My body gives life to my thoughts, and dreams. It turns them into action. It makes them real. And in a sense, that’s what we’re called to do when we say “je suis Jesus,” we respond to tragedy in a way that embodies not simply who we are, but who he is.

Being conformed into the image of Jesus in a way that brings certain responsibilities in public discourse, and in public life. Images are powerful. Images motivate people to all sorts of behaviour. Images stir the emotions. The shootings in Paris teach us that, if nothing else. Images can stir crazed gun men to take up arms in the face of provocation and offence, images can draw our attention to the horror humans are able to inflict on one another, and images can unite people in the wake of a tragedy by pointing to some more redeeming features of our shared humanity.

The pen, the sword, and the Cross

The pen, it seems, is the weapon of choice for the left — not just Charlie Hebdo — but as we digest the events in Paris, and even further afield in Boko Haram, it’s common to see solutions based on free speech, education, hashtags, and other tokenism. Fundamentally it’s the idea that we can talk ourselves out of this hole, out of this despair, that somehow if we just get the words right, we can stop the bloodshed. We can respond to offensive words with more words. And words, of course, should never hurt us.

The sword, then, is the weapon of choice for the right. I’ve read commentators conducting post-mortems on recent tragedies, or suggesting solutions to the underlying issues whose opinions range from giving everybody guns (relying on the threat of mutually assured destruction), or sending in guys with bigger guns to stamp out these issues and bring order.

Je suis Jesus. I am not called to solidarity — or conformity — with those who would wield the pen as a weapon to secure their ideology (like Charlie Hebdo), though I am called to love the cartoonist, the journalist, and, I believe, to value and preserve free-speech (or to be prepared to speak freely, and face the consequences, when speech isn’t free). My identity is not caught up with my ability to speak, to write, to draw, or to have others do this in a way that expresses who I am. Nor, am I called, to solidarity — or conformity — with those who want to take up arms to defend their ideology (like the terrorists, or the anti-Islamists), even if the ideology closely matches my own, even if taking up arms is the response the government chooses this is only my responsibility if I am a politician, or soldier, and there are other ethical issues that kick in there.

There’s no doubt that the Biblical solution, at least temporarily, to the chaos in this world involves a wisely discerned mix of left and right. Certainly the New Testament describes the Government as a sword, wielded by God (and this wielding, as God’s interactions with human history via governments always have been, happens through human agency). And certainly there’s an expectation from the very nature of the Bible, and the nature of humanity, that we are made to communicate with each other, to relate, and to approach problems with words, and reason, not simply with fists. This is one of the things that clearly marks us out from the rest of God’s creation right from the opening chapters of the Bible. We, like God, speak. And things happen.

But I am not in government. I vote for a government. I pray for our government, and other governments. But I am not a wielder of the sword.

It’s simplistic to say Jesus wasn’t interested in words simply because he didn’t write much down himself. He was the word made flesh. It’s simplistic to say Jesus wasn’t interested in the process of government, and saw no place for armed responses to events simply because rather than taking the throne he died at the hands of the government, and rather than carrying a sword he carried his Cross. The reality is much more complicated than either of these caricatures allow.

What is clear though, is that when it comes to transforming the broken world, and when it comes to the transformation being conformed into the image of Jesus involves, there’s a certain flavour to what Jesus did that goes beyond employing pen or sword to triumph over our enemies.

The use of the sword or the pen as a means to fix this broken world will only be temporary so long as their use is detached from God’s own solution to the mess. Jesus. Specifically the Cross. If we want real and permanent solutions that transform humanity for the better, then the Cross must organise our approach to chaos, and our wielding of pen or sword.

Je suis Jesus. The mark I make on the broken world should not be in my name, or the name of my ideology, or my platform. If I am Jesus, if I am being conformed to his image, if I am to represent and identify with him, the mark I make should look much more like the mark he made. Not with the pen, not with the sword, but with the Cross.

Je suis Jesus. How do I respond?

How did Jesus live? What did he call me to do? What does ‘setting my mind on things above’ even look like?

The calls to imitate Jesus based on the theological truth that we are united with him, and being conformed into his likeness, always look like expressions of what Jesus did at the Cross. What he calls us to do— to love God, love our neighbours, and love our enemies.

Look what Paul says in his letter to the church in Philippi. Imagine a world where this is the solution people adopt in times of conflict and you can see how the cross is the solution to every imaginable human to human conflict.

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

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

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

Or there’s these words from his second letter to the church in Corinth. Paul talks about what it means to face up to human enemies, with competing ideologies, while preaching the Gospel and taking part in what he later calls “God’s ministry of reconciliation”…

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

And finally, to complete the circuit, what Paul says life looks like when we “set our minds on things above”…

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator

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

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do,whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

The message of Christ — the message of the Cross — is what motivates the sort of virtues Paul lists here, these are the virtues of the Cross. The virtues Jesus displays as he dies for his enemies, as he calls out “father forgive them” not just in the face of the insults of the crowd, but the massive ignomious insult of the Cross, where he, in very nature God, is murdered by the ones he came to save. People. Me. You. People who had set ourselves up as God’s enemies, and showed that enmity by nailing him to a plank of wood in a manner of death reserved for slaves and traitors.

That’s a whole lot of Paul’s letters covered — and a whole lot of Paul saying essentially the same thing. If we are Jesus, if we share in his death and resurrection, and the transformation that brings, we’re called to respond to the brokenness in this world like Jesus did. Stepping into it, experiencing the pain and suffering of this world, in order to bring love, forgiveness, and reconciliation, to others, especially our enemies, not simply because this is a good way to live (it is), but because it points to what God did for us, his enemies, in Jesus Christ, and at the Cross — which is where real transformation can be found.

This approach — being the body of Christ in the midst of a broken world and in the wash-up of a tragedy also helps us answer the big philosophical question that is almost always asked in the aftermath of a disaster — where is your God in this chaos? The answer is that he is right in the thick of it, working through his people. Until that answer is true we’re leaving our world in an existential quagmire.

Until all of us who want to say “Je suis Jesus” start stepping up and carrying our metaphorical crosses (starting at home, there’s plenty of tragedy in our nation, in our streets, in and our homes, as well as the global stuff), until those of us who own the name of Jesus are loving like this, being the body of Christ in our world, we’re relying on pen and sword to answer these questions, or provide solutions to problems these tools are ill-equipped to solve.

Wielding the pen just produces more hateful and hurtful words (alongside beautiful expressions of our shared humanity).

Wielding the sword might save some lives, but it always comes at the expense of others. Those we’re called to love.

Wielding the Cross, living like Jesus, should only come at our expense, mirroring the way that a restored relationship with God, for us, came at God’s expense, not ours.

The pen is mightier than the sword, but the cross dwarfs them both. The cross is how God makes his mark on the world. How he signed his name on the world, his name, which brings reconciliation and salvation to those who take it up.

The Cross guides our use of pen and word, and the government’s ideal use of the sword. The cross is the weapon God uses to transform the world, life by life.

Stuff & Things: 5 December

Stuff //

Guernica // What Will Happen to All That Beauty

I mentioned I’d been reading deconversion stories this week. I’m not sure if this is actually a deconversion story, but it’s powerful stuff.

““We have become and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things…” 1 Corinthians 4:13.

These are Paul’s words, from his letter to the church at Corinth. He crisscrossed the known world to establish and support the newly formed, and continually persecuted, communities of Christ. Despite his eminence—and I realize this is unfair—Paul has always struck me as humorless, as an incredible curmudgeon. It is surely the case that a great deal of my vexation with him has to do with a kind of nostalgia for the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament, though more consistently benevolent and loving, more evolved, one might say, makes me long for His predecessor. I miss the messy, wrathful God of the Israelites, roaring out of dust clouds or burning on mountaintops. Vagaries, the mysteries of death and suffering, and of wonder, are on the surface of that God. He was at once the Israelites’ avatar and the source of everything they were and could be. In the New Testament, His contradictions are obscured, or at least softened, by the sacrifice of the extraordinary figure of His son. Nonetheless, in both testaments, the Jews and early Christians are the protagonists of a grand narrative of the underdog, an epic poem of the oppressed. The God of the Bible, for all the ways He has been twisted into monstrosity by the various agendas of our human history, has always been the God of the trash, of the forgotten and forsaken. Certainly, He was the God of American blacks and of their struggle for liberation.”

Also in Deconversion stories // How I Lost The Religion of My Childhood // Frank Schaeffer: The Atheist Who Believes In God // Why I Miss Being A Born Again Christian

 

Kingdomview // John Frame’s 30 Tips for Theology Students

Someone asked me for my tips on getting the most out of Bible College the other day. If I’d already seen this list, I would have just sent them a link.

CBN // CS Lewis Final Interview

When I was digging about for links between David Foster Wallace and CS Lewis I unearthed this gem.

Wirt: Would you say that the aim of Christian writing, including your own writing, is to bring about an encounter of the reader with Jesus Christ?

Lewis: “That is not my language, yet it is the purpose I have in view. For example, I have just finished a book on prayer, an imaginary correspondence with someone who raises questions about difficulties in prayer.”

Wirt: How can we foster the encounter of people with Jesus Christ?

Lewis: “You can’t lay down any pattern for God. There are many different ways of bringing people into his Kingdom, even some ways that I specially dislike! I have therefore learned to be cautious in my judgment.

“But we can block it in many ways. As Christians we are tempted to make unnecessary concessions to those outside the faith. We give in too much. Now, I don’t mean that we should run the risk of making a nuisance of ourselves by witnessing at improper times, but there comes a time when we must show that we disagree. We must show our Christian colors, if we are to be true to Jesus Christ. We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.

“There is a character in one of my children’s stories named Aslan, who says, ‘I never tell anyone any story except his own.’ I cannot speak for the way God deals with others; I only know how he deals with me personally. Of course, we are to pray for spiritual awakening, and in various ways we can do something toward it. But we must remember that neither Paul nor Apollos gives the increase. As Charles Williams once said, ‘The altar must often be built in one place so that the fire may come down in another place.”

McSweeney’s // I Am An Artisnal Attorney

I could have posted 10 different McSweeney’s articles, such was the backlog in my Feedly… but these will suffice.

“Not long ago, while attending a small-batch honey wine tasting at a meadery with friends, I realized that we bought only organic produce at the local farmers market, ate only free range meat prepared by our traditional neighborhood butcher, and filled our apartments with only free trade, hand crafted furniture. We—and many others like us—insist on authenticity in everything in our lives. We don’t want to eat. We want the fullness that only comes from a meal created by the human experience. We don’t want to drink. We want the buzz that is produced by the draught of a person’s skill. It occurred to me that people who demand realness in their food and homes should also demand it in their legal representation. That was when I became an artisanal attorney.”

Other McSweeney’s // Snopes investigates the Anderson Family Holiday Letter — does what it says on the tin // Speaking for All Christians Exactly Like Me — A Christian novelist reflects on culture // Home On The Range — A long time gun lover is confronted with gun mania, and isn’t sure he likes what he sees.

 

Things //

io9 // Most Amazing Science Images of 2014

My Book, The Movie // Authors try their hands at selecting the cast for hypothetical movie versions of their books.

McSweeney’s // Liberal Arts Thesis Sub-Title Generator (list)

Vimeo // Hipster Designer Aaron Draplin makes a logo

More Aaron Draplin on a Metafilter round up.

Vimeo // We Were Not Made for this World

A Robot walks on a sandy, desolate, planet.

YouTube // Terminator Genisys Trailer: Paradox Edition

Photo Invasion // A guy draws cartoon characters on stranger’s Instagram photos

Some are rude.

The science of deconversion

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. 

// Acts 17:26-27

I’ve read a few stories from ex-Christians this week. Prompted, in part, by the story of Ryan Bell, a former Seventh Day Adventist pastor who, when he left the ministry, decided to try to live for a year without God.

As an experiment.

Unsurprisingly, the experiment of not seeking God, or wilfully ignoring God, resulted in God not being found.

One of the common things I’ve experienced as I’ve read these stories — apart from the sadness that comes from reading someone’s account of what essentially amounts to ending one’s own life, spiritually — is the sense that when people deliberately choose to stop seeking God, they shouldn’t be surprised when they no longer find him.

Here’s NPR’s version of Ryan Bell’s story: A pastor goes for a year without God, and gives up on God altogether.

After a year without God, Bell decided he didn’t need God to explain his experience of the world, any longer, and he pulled out a line that has come up in a few of these articles that I’ve read—  the idea that science and God are in conflict.

There are plenty of good reasons not to believe in the God of the Bible. This is not one of them.

If you choose to approach belief in God as a hypothesis to test, and you start with the assumption that God isn’t there, rather than being open to the possibility that he is, then no matter what evidence you’re confronted with — the classic stuff like the magnificent beauty and complexity of the world, the profound and intricate quality of the Gospel story, beginning with the creation of the world, the amazing changes wrought in the lives of people who take up this story and live as part of it (which have a fascinating interplay with what we’re learning about the plasticity of the brain — such that these changes are demonstrable and real) — no matter what evidence there is, it is all able to be explained without God, if one assumes God is not there. It’s all so very natural. But this is because, I think, what is natural is natural because it is made by God.

This makes the whole attempt to prove, or disprove, God from the natural a little bit moot. Understanding nature doesn’t do away with a supernatural agent who established nature.

I haven’t read many accounts of deconversion that grapple with this concept. Or with the sense that plenty of unnatural stuff has been introduced into this world (and accounted for in the Christian story) — in the form of evil, sin, and death.

If you have this sort of framework (as presented by the Bible) — where God doesn’t act outside of nature, but rather defines it, and, where nature, as we experience and observe it, has been damaged by sin —then it’s hard for me to see how you can use nature, or science, as an argument for or against God.

If you are deliberately not looking for God, you should possibly expect to not find him (unless you’re a bit like Jonah, or you’re prepared to acknowledge that a certain longing for something that we try to satisfy with all sorts of things God has made is possibly a result of us being hard-wired to worship— in which case I’d read David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, and some CS Lewis).

Here are Bell’s words from the NPR story…

“I think one of the things I’ve learned is that people very much value certainty and knowing and are uncomfortable saying that they don’t know. I find that scientists, by occupational tradition, I suppose, are more comfortable saying they don’t know. That’s kind of the impetus to keep searching. Atheists, I think, are comfortable with saying they don’t know. I find Christians are very uncomfortable saying they don’t know. I think on all sides of this question, certainty is a little overrated.”

I am very comfortable saying “I don’t know” about just about anything. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try to know stuff, or that I don’t operate as though the things I think I know are true.

This idea is expanded a little more on Ryan Bell’s own website, where he explains his decision…

“While science has yet to answer every question about our existence and our place in the universe, it has gone a remarkable way toward that end. I expect there will always be mysteries waiting to be investigated, but the scientific method has served us well. Coming as I have from a Christian tradition that flatly refuses to acknowledge the discoveries of science, my faith has limited my understanding of the world and my pursuit of truth. I cannot live in this way any longer. I feel much more confident leaving questions of our physical world and the cosmos to science. I understand that some Christians can reconcile their faith with the scientific account of our origins, but I see no reason for this approach at this time.”

Repeat after me. Science and God are not in conflict.

SCIENCE AND GOD ARE NOT IN CONFLICT.

Some scientists are in conflict with God, some Christians are in conflict with scientists, some Christians are in conflict with God, and some Christians are in conflict with science. But it’s a category error to suggest that understanding the way the world works, in any way, does any damage to God.

Some Christians and some atheists seem to want science and God to be in conflict in order to fit in with different, pre-conceived, narratives about life, the universe, and everything.

I find, often, with deconversion stories like this, the people involved are giving up on a God of their own construction (or the construction of their own strand of religious belief). When I read stories like Bell’s I encounter pictures of a God absolutely not worth persevering with, and a God completely unlike the God who both drew near and revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ, through his life, death and resurrection. The God who revealed himself in the very human, but utterly divine, story of redemption unfurled in the pages of the Bible. The God who created all things, wondrously, and gives all things meaning, and being, and life, within (rather than external from) himself. The God at the heart of deconversion stories like this is smaller, more detached, less relevant, and more capricious than the God I believe in on the basis of these actions.

I also don’t get— picking up on another thread from Bell’s quotes, ignored from here on— how any Christians can operate without doubt, or while thinking doubt is a problem. The weird outcry after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welsby, admitted he doubts sometimes, blew my mind. The idea that healthy, growing, living, faith can exist without doubt is completely beyond my experience, and my observations of others.

What Bell, and others, are responding to, I think, is a strange dogmatism within the church that wants science to operate as natural revelation on our own personal terms, without paying heed to the different persuasive agendas at the heart of natural revelation and Biblical revelation.

If the Bible is to guide our approach to science and the natural world— then we need to consider what it says nature reveals, and what it claims it (the Bible) reveals.

What science reveals

I love the notion of the universe being God’s second book of Revelation, from Augustine, and others. When we understand the amazing complexity and beauty of the world we are meant to be confronted with the character of God, and I think what God reveals about himself in the Bible, and ultimately in Jesus, should be in harmony with the picture of God we get when we look at a cell through a microscope, or the Goldilocks Principle, but I don’t think we can ram scientific findings through pre-conceived modern interpretations of ancient texts in a bid to synthesis the two as though they speak to us in exactly the same language. These ancient texts that were written before the Scientific Method was invented. The biggest claim the Bible makes about the function of creation-as-revelation is that it should cause us to seek after a creator, and it should reveal the folly of turning created things into objects of worship. That’s Paul’s argument in Romans…

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

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

// Romans 1:18-22

If creation-as-revelation has an in built persuasive (or revelatory) agenda it is this — it suggests a creator and shows something of his nature — so we can infer, from our observations of creation that there appears to be natural order and laws that we can tap into in order to operate in the world (stuff like gravity), that there appears to be natural beauty that we are hardwired to appreciate with our senses, and that material things, and even animals, are beautiful and good, but obviously limited, and within our capacity to control, so not worthy of being turned into our gods. The more we know about the material things of this world and how they work the less reason there is for superstition attached to objects — which is why science is a good reason not to believe in rain gods, or worship statues that we have carved, but not a great reason to reject a creator God who gives being to every thing in the universe. I’ll suggest below that perhaps the more significant revelatory function for the world is as the stage in which God operates in his interactions with humanity.

Paul says this knowledge of God from creation is enough for us to earn judgment if we reject God and worship created stuff, but it’s clear from his argument in the rest of Romans that this picture of God is not enough. That we need God to be specifically revealed, in the person of Jesus, to get out of this mess.

Science is great. Science helps us get a sense of scale. It helps us understand the very small space we occupy in a very large  and complex universe.

Here’s how Calvin explained the relationship between what science reveals, and what the Bible reveals, in his Commentary on Genesis.

“I have said, that Moses does not here subtly descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.”

The natural limits of science

Science is the description, and attempt to describe, material realities. It’s fantastic at dealing with the material, natural, world, and completely unequipped to deal with the supernatural.

Science can’t test God, and certainly not the God described by the Bible. Or the creator God conceived by the predominant monotheistic religions.

 

If God exists — certainly the God of the Bible — then science won’t find God, to prove or disprove him. The material realities measured and observed by science occur within the natural universe, which occurs within this God’s power.

Describing how things happen does not do away with God, nor is God an explanation for where we can’t describe how things work (except that ‘God did it’ is a suitable description of every material thing). There are no gaps for God to be the God of – because God is God of everything. There are gaps in our understanding of the way God did things and the way things work. There probably always will be. God is limitless, his universe is, in comparison to tiny us, in our tiny corner of the galaxy, essentially boundless.

Creation — the universe in its entirity — doesn’t encompass God. God encompasses the universe.

In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”

Job 12:10

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.

Acts 17:24-25

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

Hebrews 1:3

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

Colossians 1:15-16

This is the God of the Bible’s relationship to the world.

When we’re observing life, and matter, and mechanics — doing science — coming to terms with how the world operates, we are observing the workings of this God. The only way science has any bearing on the question of God is when it comes to things God has revealed about his character, or his world, being irreconcilable with scientific discoveries. And science itself is always on the lookout for a better, more elegant and accurate, explanation of how things work. The great strength of science is that it doesn’t get set in its ways. So to rule out God on the basis of a current scientific consensus about something is a pretty dangerous business, especially if God is all the things the Bible claims he is.

Science will describe things that were either made by God, or not made by God (if he doesn’t exist). Science gets things right, it gets things wrong. It changes over time as our understanding of things grows.

If science and the Bible are asking two very different sets of questions — and answering these questions — how can we possibly set them up in opposition to each other?

What the Bible Reveals

The scientific method is asking very different questions of the world, and providing different insights into the nature of God than the Bible (though these insights will be consistent, and I personally tend to read insights about God from the Bible into how I understand the world as revealed by science). The Bible is all, from cover to cover, about the redemption of God’s universe through the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus Christ. This story also reveals the character of God— his eternal power, and divine nature.

This is what Jesus claims about the Old Testament, in Luke 24, where he’s teaching a couple of people about himself after his resurrection…

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

Then, later, in the same chapter… when he appears to his disciples, we get a sense of what this explanation included.

“He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them,“This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”

This is what Jesus thinks the Bible is all about. So that’s good enough for me… I’m not sure we can use science to test any of that story— beyond the scientifically vigourous exploration Thomas is reported as conducting on the resurrected Jesus (again, before the invention of the Scientific Method).

I’m not sure how science poses any sort of threat to this story. It might cause us to question some of the mechanics of the story, and when that happens we’re left with questions about the relationship between God’s two books, and which takes priority when interpreting the other (so this is where I think debates about Evolution sit), but those questions aren’t really questions that have any bearing on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Which are historical questions. And not the reasons given for deconversion by Ryan Bell, or others I’ve read this week.

The Bible exists to tell this story, and to persuade us that Jesus is God’s promised king.

The natural— created— universe is the setting for this drama. The natural world is the stage upon which God writes his story, and even enters the story, at its climactic moment.

 

Both the world and the Bible have God’s DNA pulsing through them because he is the author of both books. There is a consistency created by this shared DNA. We look at both the world, and the story, and see evidence of design, of beauty, of stirring complexity. If we take what the Bible says about God’s plans, from the very beginning, involving the crucifixion of Jesus as true — if it was God’s plan when he made the world — then it’s almost impossible for us to get our heads around how many threads were being woven together in order to present the rich tapestry of the crucifixion, where Jesus enters the story and is crucified. It’s hard to fathom just how many human lives were being orchestrated to tell this story over so many thousands of years such that, for example, being hung on a tree was understood as a marker of being cursed for the Jewish audience, and crucifixion (being nailed to a tree) was a punishment for people who claimed to be kings within the Roman empire.

Like a good movie director makes sure the setting of the story helps the characters enact the story, God established the world in a way that helps the story of Jesus stand out in vivid colours. But if we assessed the story – and the question of God’s existence – purely on natural questions we’re missing the big picture. We’d be like movie watchers who ignored the story and focused on the set design, not just the design, but the materials used. They’re interesting questions, especially for actors in the production who want to know if different parts of the set will bear their weight or be suitable for their own purposes — but they’re not the main question. They’re great questions for us to ask, and asking them will give us a greater appreciation of the director when we get a sense of the quality of construction and materials selected — and they’ll be profoundly useful for us as we live, but they’re not going to point us to Jesus. Which the Bible does. Profoundly.

The Bible is great, like science it helps us see our place in the very large universe, and our place in the heart of God, we are so tiny, our life spans are so small in the scheme of eternity, and yet, God entered this planet, this relatively tiny planet, as a human, in the backwaters of an Imperial outpost, he became lower than the lowest human, in the manner of his death, and he died, out of love for humanity, putting those who follow him at the heart of the universe.

That’s what is at stake in deconversion based on science — an existential question — are you a fleeting speck in the scheme of eternity, or did the God who made the universe in its entirety give up his life for you? I know which story I prefer. I know which story meshes better with a view of the world that radiates majestic beauty, and intricate, integrated, complicated order.

I see no reason not to approach the world through this framework at this time.

I think I’ve mentioned my DFW fanboyism once or twice before… I love the way he writes, and the way he thinks about writing, and the way he talks about thinking about writing. So. This book — Quack This Way —  a transcript of an hour long chat between David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner, the author of the dictionary of usage that he reviewed, quite famously, is fantastic. In it DFW shares a bunch of his thinking about writing, distilled here for your edification.

I love this description of his own view of his deficiencies as a writer. I think, because I can relate to it…

“My main deficit, at least in terms of nonfiction prose, is I have difficulty of being as clear as I want to be. I have various tricks for working around that and making it kind of charming to watch somebody trying to be clear, but the fact of the matter is, I can’t be clear and compressed in the way that, say, parts of the preface of your dictionary that I liked very much are clear and compressed.”

And I have a strange phobia that there’s a crucial point and I haven’t transmitted it satisfactorily, so I have to say it again a different way and then later on again a different way. And I think I lean . . . There’s a Poe thing, right? “One out of one hundred things is discussed at great length because it really is obscure. Ninety-nine out of one hundred things are obscure because they’re discussed at more length than they need to be.”

I also really enjoyed reading this account of his famous essay Tense Present — the aforementioned review of Garner’s dictionary. It was commissioned by The New Republic, but DFW was so excited by his review that it blew out the assigned word limit and deadline. I can totally relate to that. Then. Harper’s magazine ran half of what DFW wrote, finally, DFW published the whole, unabridged, 62-page behemoth in his Consider the Lobster (a great collection of essays). Here’s his reflections on this little series of events. Those of you who know how I feel about word limits will know why I love DFW and his writing (and why this post is so long).

BAG: “Were you happier with the full-length version that appeared in Consider the Lobster than you were with the one that appeared as “Tense Present” in Harper’s?

DFW:  Well, sure. Harper’s cuts real well. This is part of the problem with what I do: I end up giving them five times as much as they can use sometimes. With the Harper’s piece, it was maybe twice as much. Which means I need magazines that cut real well, or editors who cut real well. Harper’s, they cut it okay, but they cut out most of the things that for them were dry or academic, which was actually the meat. They left in, like, pants analogies that were funny and zingy, but the actual essay is meant to advance a certain kind of argument through both fairly meticulous—not scholarly because it’s more pop than that—and fairly sedulous argumentation, and zingy, pop, informal things, and they cut out a lot of the sedulous stuff. The Harper’s article is probably more fun to read. The version that’s in the book, I think, is a heck of a lot better, pace the terrible capitalization and ital versus [rolling eyes] tone-quote question.”

Anyway. Here are some selected gems about writing from Quack This Way.

1. Writing is about communicating to somebody who can’t read your mind… with a goal to making reading as close to effortless as possible

“In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader—even though it’s mediated by a kind of text—there’s an electricity about it.”

 

“In my experience with students—talented students of writing—the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this.”

Part of this involves punctuating to control how fast or slow a reader digests what you’ve written. Not just for meaning (though they’re related).

Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.   One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating.

The goal is a frictionless experience for the reader…

One of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favourable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader. That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it—the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?

Because writing is about a relationship —  a communion — a communication — between writer and reader. Except when it’s used for something more sinister.

Well, you get down to certain axioms about what the language is and what it ought to be used for. And you and I, I think, are essentially gooey-hearted humanists, and we want it to vivify and facilitate . . . we want it to help inter-human relationships of various sorts. But language is also a tool of persuasion. Propaganda, right? We have a president who apparently doesn’t need to use the language well because as he’s speaking, behind us are little banners—talk about Orwellian—“Fighting the War on Terrorism.” Right? Have you seen this? These press conferences? No longer do we need a president who’s an example of an articulate, thoughtful person because we’ve got behind him this sort of almost hypnotic set of messages that someone has discovered that, with some base, those actually work better at creating a favorable impression than having a well-spoken, apparently thoughtful president.

2. …and your reader doesn’t care what you have to say. So, write to communicate, not to simply express yourself

“In the real writing world, one of the axioms is that the reader doesn’t care about you. You know, the fact that this is you means absolutely nothing to them. The fact is, what can they get from this document that is going to require time, and perhaps money, for them to read? It’s a very different paradigm to come at writing from.

This means if you want to do the relationship stuff you have to be the one who cares about the other person, giving them a reason to read or listen —  DFW suggests this is the difference between ‘communicative’ and ‘expressive’ writing…

“… there’s a real difference between writing where you’re communicating to somebody, the same way I’m trying to communicate with you, versus writing that’s almost a well-structured diary entry where the point is [singing] “This is me, this is me!” and it’s going out into the world.

What I talk about is that one of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. Right? “I am the center of my own world, my thoughts and feelings are more immediate, therefore . . . ” I mean we all know the drill, right? When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer—when they start wanting to get better—they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”

Thinking this way about writing — and trying to improve as a writer — could also make you a better person all round…

“It’s true, I think, that a lot of the muscles you use, skills you use, in trying to get better as a writer, are skills and muscles that pay off in ways that don’t immediately seem to have to do with writing simply because language and interpersonal communication is to a large extent . . . it’s our world, right?”

This also changes the way you open a piece of writing (and structure it from there through to the end).

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other—and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument—and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

3. Read lots, but read with an eye on the mechanics, or anatomy, not just the style of what you like.

DFW trots out a bit of advice that I’ve seen elsewhere —  don’t just read stuff you like, sit down and write it out. It’s a bit like dissecting a specimen in a laboratory.

“Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.”

 

It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh, that was pretty good . . . ,” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them. And so that was just a random exercise that I could think of. I didn’t know other people . . . I know James Jones had a writing teacher who made them retype great books, but I think the book was right there and they were just retyping. They were supposed to learn through their hands, or something kind of flaky.

Hunter Thompson did it with The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, Cicero did it for speeches and poetry he admired, Nicholson Baker, one of my other favourite essayists/authors does it… apparently Robert Louis Stevenson also suggested it.

Here’s Cicero.

“For my part, in the daily exercises of youth, I used chiefly to set myself that task which I knew Gaius Carbo, my old enemy, was wont to practise : this was to set myself some poetry, the most impressive to be found, or to read as much of some speech as I could keep in my memory, and then to declaim upon the actual subject-matter of my reading, choosing as far as possible different words. But later I noticed this defect in my method, that those words which best befitted each subject, and were the most elegant and in fact the best, had been already seized upon by Ennius, if it was on his poetry that I was practising, or by Gracchus,” if I chanced to have set myself a speech of his. Thus I saw that to employ the same expressions profited me nothing, while to employ others was a positive hindrance, in that I was forming the habit of using the less appropriate. Afterwards I resolved, — and this practice I followed when somewhat older, — to translate freely Greek speeches of the most eminent orators. The result of reading these was that, in rendering into Latin what I had read in Greek, I not only found myself using the best words — and yet quite familiar ones — but also coining by analogy certain words such as would be new to our people, provided only they were appropriate.” —  Cicero

Both Desiderius Erasmus, in the 16th century, and more recently, Nicholson Baker, suggest when you find stuff you like you should copy them down into a book of memorable writing, a Commonplace book, which you can read more about in Tom Standage’s Writing On The Wall. I like the idea that this blog functions as something like a commonplace book, as well as a filing cabinet. And I’m thinking about typing quotes out rather than just copying and pasting. But I think there’s also, potentially a link between writing stuff out by hand, rather than typing, and getting a better sense of the way the words flow together. I’ll chuck some more stuff about Erasmus, and from Nicholson Baker, in the comments.

4. There are infinite possibilities to create something with words. You can always get better. So practice. 

“The fact of the matter is that good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”

“Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader—the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing—maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that “Writing that appears effortless takes the most work” has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.

it becomes very tempting to go, “Oh, what’s good? Okay, look at that guy over there: that’s good.” Just be aware that that guy is looking at other people and going, “No, no, that’s good.” And like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.

So probably the smart thing to say is, if you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—not all of whom are modern . . . I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this—becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.

So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”

5. Write slow so you think carefully

I don’t do this (or the next tip), I don’t draft much at all. I write too much and then I chip away until I’ve got something approaching something that I’m happy with. I hit publish, and I move on.

But getting an insight into how great writers write is always interesting.

BAG: So you don’t put much stock in that, the mechanical typing of it, as opposed to really mentally trying to recreate something?

DFW:  Here though, I mean I’m 43, and we get into the weird age thing because for my students, many of whom compose on a typewriter, that might actually be a useful exercise. The writing writing that I do is longhand.

BAG:   You write everything in longhand?

DFW:  Well, the first two or three drafts are always longhand, yeah. Only because I went through this school where they made me write a lot and it was right before computers became ubiquitous. And I just find that it makes me . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention. Like, is the clause that I just . . . does this make sense, what I just said? Which is very difficult, at least for me, to keep in mind when I’m actually writing the thing, unless something slows me down.

Apparently CS Lewis also wrote using pen and ink, not a type writer. Here’s a quote from Alister McGrath’s biography, and another from the preface to a published collection of his letters.

“Lewis actively chose not to type. This mechanical mode of writing, he believed, interfered with the creative process in that the incessant clacking of the typewriter keys dulled the writer’s appreciation of the rhythms and cadences of the English language.”

 

“Lewis learned to write with a nib pen, dipped into an inkwell every four or five words. When he was an undergraduate at Oxford he began using fountain pens, but he gave them up after several years and resumed writing with a nib pen, a practice he carried on for the rest of his life.

When Lewis dictated letters to me, he always had me read them aloud afterwards. He told me that in writing letters, as well as books, he always “whispered the words aloud.” Pausing to dip the pen in an inkwell provided exactly the rhythm needed.”

Both of these quotes feature in this post by Tony Reinke.

I think DFW and CS Lewis occupy similar positions in the literary stratosphere, both are particularly, in my mind, attuned to thinking about the human condition, Lewis as a Christian, and DFW as someone faced with the crushing and overwhelming nature of life without God. His stuff on humanity is always particularly rich. Which is part of why I love his writing. DFW listed The Screwtape Letters as his favourite book in this list. Here’s a stunningly poignant obituary from DFW’s friend Jonathan Franzen that discusses, in a way, the relationship between Screwtape and DFW’s suicide. And I think shows a little of how despite similarities, Lewis and Wallace took such divergent paths in life (this little piece that looked at what happened to Lewis’s self-reflection upon his conversion to Christianity —  it faded as he found his identity elsewhere —  in contrast to Wallace’s self-insight that may or may not have contributed to his death is pretty interesting reading alongside the Franzen piece). But I digress. Into some pretty dark territory. Lewis — via his discovery of value through the love of God poured out at the cross —  offers a better way out of darkness than Wallace found (at least, according to Franzen).

6. Figure out how your writing process gives your writing structure (and how it varies based on what you are writing).

BAG:   When you’re writing nonfiction, how do you go about research and then organizing your thoughts when you’re writing a long essay?

DFW:  I find it very difficult. The truth is that most of the nonfiction pieces I do are at least partly experiential. They involve going to a place, talking to people, taking notes. My fondest wish is that no one would have the kind of process I have with it. I end up taking a hundred times more notes than I need.   My first draft usually approximates somebody in the midst of an epileptic seizure. It’s usually about the second or the third draft where I begin having any idea of actually what this thing is about. So my own way of doing it, it’s not very economical in terms of time. It is just doing it over and over and over again and throwing stuff away and, you know, whining and crying to friends and stuff and then going back and trying it over again. I think there are very few professional writers—and certainly very few people who are doing things like having to supply good briefs or opinions in the law—who would want to or could afford to go through a process like that.   My process appears to be getting precipitate out of an enormous amount of solution. I wish it weren’t. I heartily advise people not to develop a process like that. I can get away with it because I don’t do many nonfiction pieces. I couldn’t make a living doing them because just one takes me six months

Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it.   If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know—and people are always interested and want to know what you do—most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.

I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.

Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential. The closest I’ve come to actual argumentative pieces are book reviews, and I mean straight-out, you-got-300-words book reviews. And at a certain draft, at a certain point in those drafts, I always make an outline. But that’s because I’ve got 300 words, which for me is very tight. How am I going to make it tight?

7. Don’t confuse complexity with intelligence. Pick good words that give clarity and humanity to your writing.

“…a lot of people with PhDs are stupid, and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be. I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency, and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning.”

He spends a bit of time exploring why so many people who are qualified as ‘writers’ — writing in all sorts of professional capacities — are so bad at writing (even if they’re very good at reading). It’s touched on a little in the quote above, and expanded below.

Now, this is presuming that you’ve got a reader who is bright, literate, well-educated, and paying attention. Given the amount of verbosity—particularly in bureaucratic, institutional, legal, and scientific writing, including the stuff that gets published—indicates to me that there are certain audiences that aren’t especially bothered by this. Why that is I don’t know except that a lot of them tend to be audiences composed of professionals who went through a long apprenticeship that meant reading huge amounts of this kind of stuff, and they sort of got brainwashed or maybe inured to it in some way. From the point of view, like you, of somebody who just loves the language and thinks it’s hard enough to be clear anyway, in the default case the fewest words, each of which is the smallest and plainest possible, is usually the best policy.

I love some of the stuff he says about jargon – political, advertising, and legalese style communication where new, non-plain, dialects are used. Based on agendas other than communication-for-human-relationships.

One answer is the fact that people, unless they’re paying attention, tend to confuse fanciness with intelligence or authority. For me, I’ve noodled about this a fair amount because a lot of this sort of language afflicts me. My guess is this: officialese, as spoken by officials, is meant to empty the communication of a certain level of humanity. On purpose.

My guess is one of the reasons why we as a people tolerate, or even expect, this officialese is that we associate it with a different form of communication than interpersonal—Dave and Bryan talking together. That the people who are speaking are in many senses speaking not as human beings but as the larynx and tongue of a larger set of people, responsibilities, laws, regulations, whatever. And that is probably why, even though it’s dreadfully ugly to the ear and why if you think hard about it, “Keep your personal belongings in visual contact at all times” is actually likely to be understood by a smaller percentage of people than, “Please keep an eye on your stuff at all times.” Nevertheless, there are imperatives behind using the language that way. And some of it is to be antihuman.

And, lastly, I love that he points out that clarity, achieved largely via plain language, also comes through elegance and craftsmanship, where the interest of the reader is paramount.

BAG:   Let me ask you this. If plain language is a good thing, why is it also a good thing to have an ample vocabulary?

DFW:  Well, for a couple of reasons.   One, plain language doesn’t mean all little, monosyllabic words. The general rule of thumb is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation. Sometimes the situation you’re describing is specific and technical, and a small word won’t do.   Probably the other big thing is that there’s this thing called “elegant variation.” You have to be able . . . In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.

 

 

 

 

Stuff & Things: 27 December

Here are some things I enjoyed online this week.

// STUFF //

Grantland // The Raid 

A piece analysing True Detective and modern TV through the lens of one exceptionally well-crafted one-take scene.

It’s as if True Detective happens in a diorama. Walking out of a coroner’s office, Cohle tells Hart, “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town. And the memory’s fading.”

Staring at this diorama like a blinking god, watching these men at a crossroads, watching their cars coursing across gray highways is Fukunaga’s camera. With the wonderful cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, Top of the Lake), he captures the two protagonists as they are pulled toward their inevitable reckoning.

In the early episodes, this perspective has a unique power. It’s like Cohle and Hart are the only two people on earth. True Detective’s pacing mirrors Cohle’s drug use. In the first three episodes, it’s moody and ponderous, as Cohle pounds cough syrup and swallows ’ludes. But as Cohle hooks back into the “Crash” persona and meets up with his old Iron Crusaders cohort, switching to speed and coke, Fukunaga tightens the vise — the cutting gets quicker, the scenes play faster, and the camera movement goes from languid to frenetic.

Grantland // The Birdcage

An examination of the movies that are being made, and just how little originality is out there. I love this description of a scene from the movie Birdman.

“Now, in a hospital bathroom, he finds himself face to face — or really, beak to beak — with not only his own remade reflection but Birdman himself, who has, in full costume, made himself comfortable on the commode in a way that reawakens questions about certain superhero practicalities that have crossed the mind of every kid who ever read a comic book. So there they are, the two of them, taking each other in: silent, irritated, perplexed. Whatever kind of contest between Riggan and Birdman we’ve just been watching, it seems to have ended in a futile tie.

What does this moment mean? In the movie’s artistic scheme, it means Riggan can’t ever truly free himself of the needy, frail ego that his sturdy, gruff alter ego represents. But if you work in or follow the movie business, what we have here is a grim joke with a grimmer punch line: There is no escape anymore. We will never get away from Birdman, even as he threatens to poop all over everything. If movies have, for a century, been the repository of our dreams, and every generation gets the dreams it deserves, then ours is Rodin’s The Thinker reimagined as a superhero poised on the edge of the crapper, and the rest of us poised on the edge of … well, it may be a little extreme to invoke the abyss. But we’re on the edge of something, and thesomething is big and dark and annihilating. So call it what you will, but come up with a name fast, because we’re all about to get sucked in.”

 

Overthinking It // Icons and Empathy: on the weird difficulty of player identification in videogames

I’ve spent a bit of time wondering about how, given the emerging sense that video games are an art form, we’ll start to see some interesting stuff that goes beyond the ‘games make young men violent’ trope exploring the idea that how we approach games, and in game decisions, might reveal something about our own character, and also teach us about the world around us. This is an interesting exploration about how games where you play as someone not like you, or very like you, might do different stuff for you. I’ve also read some cool stuff like the dad who watched as his four year old played GTA, just as an emergency services worker (alternatively, there’s this violent cussing grandma playing it very differently – language warning), how another guy played Skyrim committed to non-violence (there’s a whole movement of non-violent gamers, more), a guy who played Far Cry 2 as though he only had one life (then wrote a 391 page book about the experience), and a piece about a war photographer who found playing a war game hit too close to home for him when he conducting an in-game photo shoot. What’s interesting to me is the way the approach we take to games completely transforms our experience of those games – such that when people talk about how a game necessarily produces X result for all people who play it, those people are talking about games from a much more linear time, and not really understanding the medium.

But while the solitary experience of reading a book is mitigated by the ability to share it with other people (since everyone more or less experiences the same events in a book in the same order and context), the solitary experience of gaming increasingly loses the sense of being a shared experience the more choice is presented to the player; when you can choose not only whether you traverse none, some, or all of the optional side-quests, when you can choose whether or not to romance one or more of the other characters, when a vital character might die halfway through for me but live to the end for you, when even the name, race, gender, appearance, sexuality, specializations and abilities are certain to be different for every player who takes on this protean persona, a game risks exchanging an increased sense of empathy for a draining-out of the sense of community that comes from having the very same aesthetic and narrative experience as countless other experiencers out there in the world.

I’m not sure that’s a game design problem, exactly…but it’s a design decision that’s important to consider and to keep in mind, whether you’re making a game or just playing one: what does this game force me to be? About what or who does this game compel me to care? Just how far can you abstract empathy? If Hawke can be whoever you want, who actually is Hawke?

The Guardian // The Guardian view on religious intolerance: the burden of the cross

An interesting story about the persecution of Christians around the globe, but especially in the Middle East, with a pretty anthropocentric conclusion.

“Just as important is a resolute stand for the principle of religious freedom everywhere. Religious belief is fundamental to many human identities. Freedom of faith must be defended, irrespective of whether the attacks come from totalitarian atheist regimes or theocracies. For the faithful, what they believe about God is inseparable from what they understand about human beings. But God’s rights must never be allowed to trample on human rights.”

The Australian // Is Science showing there really is a God? (the Google search results will let you get to this otherwise paywalled article)

I hover between thinking the argument from fine-tuning is compelling evidence for God, and finding Douglas Adam’s sentient puddle quote a useful antidote to overreaching with the explanatory power of this kind of thing.

“This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

I find most of the tit-for-tat arguments around the existence of God based on natural evidence neither here nor there. The bits that show how incredibly complex the natural order of things, which I believe are naturally ordered by God, fascinate me, and reveal something to me about the nature of the God I believe in, but I feel like, if I try to unpack why I believe in God, I can see things from the other side of the fence.

I feel like science, the data it produces and our understandings of the mechanics of life in this world, will only ever support the view of the person interpreting the data. I might be wrong. But I think it’s only when we’re able to say that finding out about the universe God made doesn’t actually do anything but describe the world God has made that we can properly talk about science and God. We’re not going to find God’s signature in the mathematical improbability of our existence if we’re not looking for God, and a better place to look for God’s signature is in the way he marks the world with word and image. Jesus. His word made flesh, the man made in the image of the invisible God. And people being transformed by God into bearers of this image.

I think, when I read articles like this, and when I think about why I believe what I do, that I don’t necessarily believe in God because I’m alive, as a product of my very existence, I believe in God because I am convinced Jesus lived, died, and was raised.

// THINGS //

This Hipster Business Name generator is pretty awesome.

Screen Shot 2014-12-27 at 3.05.07 pm

I don’t know why I find this sort of video as funny as I do.

Jesus: Watch, Listen, Follow

At church in term 1 next year we’re experiencing the Gospel of Mark as though social media was around when Jesus was alive. Through the eyes of the characters who feature as eyewitnesses in Mark. It’s potentially going to be a lot of fun. Join in from afar. Or near.

 


Image credit: Outreach Media

Whatever happens in the wash-up of the tragic events of the last 24 hours in Sydney, you can be sure that we’ll see the best of humanity displayed alongside its very worst. We’ll see expressions of love and solidarity for those who are the victims in this event, and for those at the margins of Australian society — the foreigners and sojourners in our mix, those who own religious beliefs outside the majority — and we’ll see expressions of hatred for that latter group.

The majority religious belief in Australia is nominal Christianity with a dash of moralism and a substantial serving of the idea that religion shouldn’t actually motivate anybody to act in any way. Let me distance true Christianity from that belief, just as the Islamic clerics in the media today are working to dispel the belief that this gunman’s actions were consistent with true Islam. It’s hard to distance anybody from any religion if religions are a choose your own adventure matter with no clearly understood consensus on exactly what such a religion involves. I can’t speak as an expert on Islam, but I’m certain that true Christianity involves truly following the Christ, Jesus. That’s where we get the name, it’s where we get our ethics, our system of belief, our key to interpreting our Scriptures.

Events like this are an opportunity for Australia to learn about the true nature of religion —not, in the sense, of learning facts about the substance of different religious beliefs, though this will no doubt happen as media outlets seek to fill air time and column inches — but to learn that at its core, religious belief compels religious people towards particular sorts of action.

There is an emerging picture of this gunman that suggests that his religious beliefs were a convenient addition to an already criminally deranged approach to life, there is very little sense that he speaks for the Islamic community, or even many other Australian Muslims. His actions have been roundly condemned by Islamic leaders. Calling oneself a cleric does not make one a cleric any more than rocking up outside random houses with for sale signs, without the permission of the owner, makes one a real estate agent.

No. Religion does motivate people. It’s not a private thing. It motivates one’s public actions. Whether you believe that you have no fate beyond the grave, your fate beyond the grave depends on the good and upright life you live now in obedience to your God, or your fate beyond the grave is determined by the death and resurrection of Jesus; the perfect king who came to pay the price for our inability to live that good and upright life, who now calls his followers to live as part of his kingdom by sacrificially loving others — these beliefs shape your actions.

Never more than now.

Never more than in a crisis and its wash up.

Never more than in the midst of the human experience of grief and turmoil.

With #prayforphil and now #prayforsydney I wonder if there has been more prayer, or at least more public calls for prayer, in the last month in Australia than in any other month in Australian history. People turn back to some sense of religiosity in these moments. It’s up to those people who are motivated by faith to show the fruit of that faith now.

Islamic clerics will spend the next few days distancing themselves from the actions of this deranged man. Rightly. Christian leaders will potentially spend the next few days distancing our religion from theirs. Wrongly. Let me be clear. I don’t believe Islam is a ‘religion of truth’ — I believe Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. But I certainly don’t believe this gunman acted as a representative of Islam as it is practiced and understood by other Muslims in our community. Now is not the time to create distance, now is the time to demonstrate love for the marginal and the marginalised. Now is the time to live out words like this…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” —Jesus

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

So. Christian. Nominal or not. Now is your opportunity to put the words of Jesus into practice. To love those around you — whether you think they’re neighbours or enemies. People of other faiths should have no fear when confronted with a Christianity like this. A Christianity shaped by the Christ. Who showed that loving your enemies means laying down your life for them.

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends,since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God;but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” — John

Pray for the families grieving the loss of their loved ones.

Pray for the police and politicians who dealt with this situation and must now deal with whatever fallout these events bring.

Pray for our nation, that we would, at this time, be defined by the religion we claim to own when we’re filling out our census form.

This, prayer, is part of the outworking of religious belief. But I don’t know of any place in the Bible where we’re called to pray, but not called to match our prayers with acting accordingly.

Like the rest of Australia – and perhaps like anybody who follows sports around the world — I’ve been struggling to put words to why the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes has hit me for six. And then some.

Death is part of life as we know it. Everyone dies. This fundamental truth faces all of us — I will die, you will die, the people we love will die.

Why then does death feel the way it does? Unnatural. Broken. Empty.

Why do we feel the way we do about death? Sad. Powerless. Afraid.

And if we’re all just a finite number of heart beats away from death — why has this death in particular rocked us to the degree it has?

I suspect part of the answer is in the tragic elements of the story, the countless what ifs, and the absence of someone or something to blame. We’ve been conditioned by whodunnits and our ability to diagnose and dissect every event to want something or someone to point the finger at when things go wrong. We want a clear link between cause and effect. We just don’t have that here. People are searching anywhere and everywhere (apparently it’s Mitchell Johnson’s fault and it’s Michael Clarke’s fault and it’s all of our faults – and that’s just one article). We’re sure that we can’t blame Sean Abbott, the bowler.

Rightly sure — and perhaps the most touching thing in the washup of this awful mess has been the way people have rallied behind Abbott. His was a routine delivery. The Cricinfo ball by ball coverage of Hughes’ last innings shows just how routine the short ball was — and how untroubled Hughes had been up until ball number 161.

Abbott to Phil Hughes

No run, another short one, ducks, he’s in no hurry

Abbott to Phil Hughes

No run, low bouncer, still ducks

The thing that strikes me in tragic accidents like this is how many opportunities there were in the moments leading up to the event for things to go differently.

For the accident not just to be avoided — like the millions of other bouncers that have sailed past batsmen all over the world, and throughout the history of the game – but for it to not have the possibility of happening at all.

I’ve found myself trying to play the what if game, unravelling the various causes from this fatal effect. Not apportioning blame where none exists, but reliving those past moments that plot out some sort of alternative future?

And there are so many in the game of cricket. So many potential causes — causes that are almost always clearly linked to their effects. Our understanding of cricket has been totally atomised, in part, as a result of the technology we use as part of our lens for viewing the game, partly because every aspect of the game of cricket is understood scientifically, or geometrically. Cricket is not a game of inches, but millimetres.

So — as I have when confronted with any tragic accident like this — I’ve spent the last few days falling down desperate rabbit-holes of what-ifs, as though that will help unlock some hidden meaning in this event that will make it all make sense.

What if Hughes had chosen to play this ball the same way he’d played every other short ball in the innings? What if someone had paused to tie a shoe lace, and even that small interval prompted a different series of choices for the actors in this tragedy? What if the bowler had changed his mind and bowled a fuller delivery?

What if a heckler in the crowd had — or hadn’t — distracted a player at any point in proceedings, delaying play for just a moment, sharpening or distracting the concentration of the players to impact their actions by just one degree?

What if there’d been a misfield and they’d stolen a quick single at the end of the over before, so that Tom Cooper, Hughes’ batting partner, had been on strike?

“No run, blocks to off to end the over. SA 2/134 (Hughes 61, Cooper 5)”

What if, on the previous delivery, the batsmen had run a single, rather than taking two? What if the fielder had scurried to the ball quicker?

Two runs, on leg and swung away fine

What if. What if. What if.

It doesn’t help. The asking. It is not cathartic. The questions splinter out into other questions. Questions that can’t possibly be answered. Questions that make for interesting, but unhelpful, speculation. Questions that involve trying to rewrite events of the past to change the future.

But this approach is no more, or less, rational than the other ways of processing this sort of tragedy.

I think one of the more shocking things about the last few days is not so much how improbable everything seems, but how unfair it is — a young man, in his prime, about to regain his place in the Australian team after yo-yoing in and out of the team. A prodigy about to deliver on his potential. Struck down.

It’s not just unfair, it’s a reminder of how beyond the control of everyone involved this cause-effect nexus actually is. We are powerless. One of Australia’s best batsmen was felled by the sort of ball he had faced thousands of times. A handful of Australia’s most qualified surgeons were powerless to change the outcome for Hughes. Millions of Australians joined in prayer hoping to have some input into securing a different outcome.

That’s what we want when it comes to causality, isn’t it? The ability to nudge or cajole the objects we’re presented in our circumstances, tweaking whatever causal knobs we can, to secure our desired future. It’s no good playing the ‘what if’ game, because it deals only with knobs unturned, paths untaken, the past. It feeds this belief that we are in control.

And this, I think, is part of why this sort of death hits us so hard.

We are not in control.

I think that maybe we think we’re ok with death. People seem to be able to process death, to grieve, to move on. Not our own. Of course. But others. Maybe we can be philosophical about death. Maybe we can cope with its existence as a universal reality. Maybe we can see it as part of life. So long as it seems to be something we can face up to, or control, or fight against. Hughes was robbed of all of this. And this is a reminder that we might well be robbed of all this too.

And, personally, that’s where I think I’m struggling, and where others I speak to seem to be heading, even if we can’t all quite put our finger on what’s going on here, or precisely account for why this one death, out of so many other deaths that happened on November 27, has captured the global imagination.

How on earth are we meant to understand and respond to the fragility of human life? To the idea that at any given moment, death is millimetres away, and worse, that these millimetres may not be in our control, but in the hands of another? A driver not paying attention on the road next to us. A builder or engineer being negligent at some point in some process, at some point in the past.

I think. If I’m honest.  The real struggle for me when I play the what if game, and when I play it in circumstances where I’ve prayed, and where there have been outpourings from thousands upon thousands of others who all indicate they’re also praying, is wondering where God’s hand is in all of this?

Here is Australian cricketing legend Adam Gilchrist on Twitter:

Dear Lord, if ever the need for footprints in the sand, it’s now #PhilHughes #courage #strength

— Adam Gilchrist (@gilly381) November 25, 2014

Why didn’t God intervene to sever cause from effect?

Why?

Not just for Phil Hughes, why not for others?

Why death? Why chaos? Why pain?

If I’m really honest, events like this just throw the spotlight back on these existential questions that face all humans. All of us who are bound by cause and effect.

And for those of us, Christians, who believe in the sovereignty of God over cause and effect, this is a startling reminder that death, whatever manner it uses to find us is an inevitable outcome for people. And that life in all its forms — as we experience it, and as God promises it — comes from God. God is ultimately in control. Of cause and effect. Of life. Of death. Every being has their being only as a result of God…

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”— Revelation 4:11

This is the answer to Adam Gilchrist’s question — it’s the same answer the Footprint poem he cites gives – sort of. God is in every life, giving life. He carries every person every step of the way, from birth, to death.

Life is a precious gift. But it is, apart from the life Jesus offers through his resurrection, a temporary gift.

God gives. God takes away. We experience this taking away — the hand of God — death — through cause and effect.

We might wish for him to break cause away from effect in certain circumstances and times in our lives, but suspending the natural order, if the natural order has its being in God, as Revelation 4 suggests, then we’re calling on God to break himself at that point.

A big ask.

God did break in to the monotony of cause and effect. In Jesus. Where he broke in to the world, and was broken. Crucified. The death he planned before he made the world. This death that was the product of an amazingly intricate chain of causes and effects, such that words written in the Old Testament Book of Psalms played their way out in vivid colour a thousand years later at the crucifixion. This death broke death. If Jesus was raised from the dead. And I believe he was. Everything we understand about cause and effect changes at that point. Until this point the effect of crucifixion was death, the effect of life was death, the effect of death was finality. The resurrection breaks that. God didn’t just leave random footprints on some sand to tell us that he was with us — he entered the picture, walked the earth, left his fingerprints everywhere, had nails driven through his hands, spilled his blood, and died, to show us he was with us. And to invite us to walk with him. To life.

If we’re looking for footprints in events like the tragic circumstances of this week, without first seeing the indelible footprint God left on the earth at the Cross of Jesus, we’re going to struggle to see God in these, or any, events.

This quote from one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, grapples with the fleeting nature of human life — the reality of our mortality— suggesting Jesus death, chosen before the creation of the world, breaks the cause and effect connection between life and death. Because Jesus beats death our lives don’t necessarily end in death.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.  He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.  For,

“All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
     but the word of the Lord endures forever.” — 1 Peter 1:18-21, 23-25

This is what I turn to when I’m asking questions about death. Questions about where God is in the events at the end of every human life. Questions about why God doesn’t just do something. He’s there. He has.

I don’t want this to be preachy. I don’t want it to be cheapening the harrowing events of this week. I’m not really seeking to persuade anyone of anything. I’m thinking out loud. Life, more than ever, seems so fragile. So fleeting. Like vapour. And this is where I’ve found comfort. This is how I’ve dug my way out of the rabbit warren of ‘what if’ questions in my head. This is what I’ve clung to in the face of the reminder that I’m not in control of my life, or the lives of those I love, but God is, and he is good.

Death is unnatural. Death sucks. Death is the ultimate reminder that we aren’t God. That we are creatures. That we are dependant on another for our existence. Death is the ultimate reminder that we were made for life, and that we can be recreated, by the living creator.

 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. — Revelation 21:6

For C (and other women of Brisbane)

Tonight, just before church, I met a woman named C. Her name is not really mine to share – but I’ve tried to set up a targeted Facebook campaign in the hope that she’ll see this.

C wanted to know if our church is progressive or conservative.

I tried to tell her that we were both – I’m not a big fan of sticking to either label. As a church we aim to stick to what the Bible says, and who it says Jesus is, which means we’re conservative – but we also think Jesus is for everybody, and that rather than giving people a rule book about how to live, we want them to meet Jesus, hear the good news about the radical sacrificial love displayed at the cross, and live in response. Which I hope means we’re progressive – and frees us to be genuinely progressive, and radical, on all sorts of social issues, as we choose approaches that open up the opportunity for people to be truly transformed for the better.

C was particularly interested in our position on men and women in leadership, and on homosexuality (especially gay marriage), I’m not sure how interested she was in hearing the rationale for these positions – she decided that our church wasn’t for her when she heard that the Presbyterian Church of Queensland limits eldership and preaching to men.

C had been part of churches in the past – even working for a mega church in Sydney – but left because she has not found a church suitable to her progressive needs. If this sounds like any woman you know – please send her this link. The church needs women like C who are passionate about people and equality, and progress.

The Gospel – the good news of Jesus’ sacrificial love for all people – including his enemies – expressed through his death on the cross in our place, and his resurrection to bring us new life – lives changed and defined by this love is the key to any true progress in our society. It’s the key to fixing the sort of gender issues that plague the church and society at large, where men cling on to power and authority – weaponising leadership, rather than leading like Jesus (the good shepherd who lays down his life for his flock). When we put our trust in Jesus, we’re all called to take up our cross and follow him – this cross-shaped life transcends gender, and it changes how we think of, and use, all aspects of our identity and person to love and serve others.

I told C she was more than welcome to join us even if she disagreed with us on these (or every) issues, and invited her to check us out. But she left.

This made me sad.

I’m still sad.

It breaks my heart that C did not feel welcome to join us tonight. That she came to another church that ultimately disappointed her. It breaks my heart that she didn’t stick around to listen to us, to meet the remarkable women in our church community, and the men.

It breaks my heart that this ‘conservative’ stance on women might get in the way of people meeting Jesus because it stops them even coming through the doors to see how such a stance plays out on the ground, in real lives. Our church – and every church I have been a part of – is home to strong women, thinking women, gifted women, who wrestle with what the Bible says, who Jesus is, and how that should play out in their lives. I’d love C, and others, to meet these women, hear their thinking, and see how even grappling with this question can help us understand more of who God is.

It breaks my heart to think that C, and others like her, think that by being part of the system I am part of I am robbing my wife and daughter of the opportunity to fully be the people God made them to be (a paraphrase of her words about what this sort of church does for women generally, not the woman and girl in my family specifically). C was strong, kind, and polite. She didn’t make this observation to offend me – or belittle the women in our church (or my family). She was motivated by her passion for others. She’s just the sort of woman the church needs.

It breaks my heart that it might be true (and that I think it often is). It breaks my heart that she might be right that ‘conservative’ churches might stop women meeting their full potential. It worries me that our churches – my church – might be places that value being conservative over constantly progressing, always reforming, always growing to become something closer to the church the Bible calls us to be, a church full of people shaped into the image of Jesus.

This progress and reform doesn’t mean throwing tradition under the bus. It doesn’t mean reinterpreting passages that we don’t like because they speak of particular customs in particular times. There are certain things we must conserve – certain things we are called to hand on from generation to generation so that the good news about Jesus continues to be told.

The Gospel calls us to be counter-cultural. To live lives different to the people around us. To be remarkable. And this call – this cross-shaped call – needs to transform the way we approach gender. And leadership. Sometimes this will mean we’re more conservative than the society we live in, other times it will mean being more progressive than the society we live in. The dichotomy is ultimately unhelpful.

Let me be clear – when it comes to gender stuff I think part of being counter-cultural is structuring our churches in a way that communicates something about the God who made us, telling the story of humanity as the Bible tells it. Which is why I think both Jesus and Paul, when speaking of gender and marriage, speak of Genesis as providing the structure for our relationships as Christians. Structuring our relationships according to the story we’re trying to live out – the story of the Bible – is part of telling that story.

Our gatherings, and the way we structure them, communicate something about our beliefs. And, like it or not, the Bible’s story of redemption of people – both male and female – equally – begins with God creating male and female. Both in the image of God, both valuable to God with equal dignity, but in the story Adam is created first, then Eve. This doesn’t make Adam more human than Eve but the Genesis account is comfortable suggesting Adam and Eve are completely equal, and completely able to bear God’s image, while performing different functions.

Again. This is easier for me to say as a man, especially as a man who ‘leads’… but the day I don’t see my ‘leadership’ as being called to lay down my life for others is the day I should be booted out of my job.

Our gatherings should communicate that every human has equal dignity and value in God’s eyes. Regardless of the role they’re playing in the gathering. I think Jesus is serious when he talks about the first being last. I think he models a counter-cultural approach to value and importance when he launches his kingdom by dying on a cross.

What our gatherings don’t currently communicate is that we hold women in such high esteem (and all people) that we would lay down our lives for them in a heartbeat.

Our gatherings don’t really communicate that any Christian submission echoes the submission of the Son to the Father in the Trinity, the Son who says ‘not my will but yours’ and goes to the Cross.

This submission is voluntary – an act of the will of the Son (perfectly united with the will of the Father).

This submission does not make the Son less than the Father. It can not. That would break the Trinity.

It is, therefore, possible to voluntarily submit (and be honoured and celebrated for this submitting), without being lesser in nature.

It is possible in the Trinity, so it is possible in our churches.

I know all this is easy for me to say – as a man, in a position of privilege, from a position of leadership.

But hear me out.
I want the church to do better in this space.
I want the church I lead to do better in this space.
I want this to come at cost to myself.
I want us to be always progressing. Always reforming.
I want a church full of men who love women so well that ‘Christian’ is synonymous with feminist.
I want a church where ‘leadership’ is synonymous with ‘sacrificial love.’
I want, if possible, a church where ‘conservative’ is synonymous with ‘progressive’ – because what we’re really holding on to is the Gospel, and what we’re really living out is the love of God as displayed in Jesus Christ.

That’s a lot of wants. Interestingly, one thing I would like to suggest to C, and others who are disgruntled with the church, and disenfranchised as a result, is that church is ultimately not about us. We’re never going to find the perfect church for us, especially if we’re assuming we’ve got a perfect grasp on truth.

What’s important is what God wants. What’s important is that our churches are made up of people – men, women, and children – being transformed by the Holy Spirit, always progressing to be more like Jesus.

There is no space for inequality in the church (but, again, lest you object that a complementarian approach is inequal, there is a space for those who want to voluntarily be part of a community that wants to voluntarily structure itself in a way that communicates something about the Triune God, the world God made, and the way God redeems the world at the Cross, to voluntarily submit to others, for the sake of others).

Here’s a couple more wants.

I want to be part of a church that celebrates women and their gifts, and gives space for these gifts to flourish, and to be used for the flourishing of others.
I want a church where women feel safe to speak, where they know they’ll be listened to, and know their contributions will be heard and valued.

I want to lead a church like that.

I don’t think leadership comes from a title (or with a title). The title I have is not something that marks me out as different to the people at church, or better than them. There has been no upwards shift in my value. I’m deeply and profoundly committed to the priesthood of all believers – men and women. Christian leadership comes through sacrifice. Voluntary sacrifice. For the sake of others.

We’re all called to do that – every person in our church who wants to follow Jesus is called to lead this way. Regardless of your title, your position, your gender.

Again, I know it’s easy for me to say this, I have a title, I have a position, I am a man.

I know the approach to gender known as ‘complementarianism’ comes at a cost to women.
I know it has been used as a weapon by men in positions of authority.
I know that we (men, or complementarians) have, at times, tried to take this approach to gender beyond the boundaries of church communities so that men believe they are superior to women and should hold on to all positions of power.

I don’t think there’s any good reason for a woman not to be Prime Minister, or hold any position outside the church. How we structure stuff in the church is different because of what we’re trying to do as the church – point people to Jesus, and his sacrifice.

Submission is costly. It always comes at the expense of the one doing the submitting. There’s no escaping the truth that women in the church are being asked to pay this cost. But for this cost to have value it has to be voluntarily paid – as a result of people wanting to imitate Jesus.

Imitating Jesus is the key to real progress – and the key to real, eternal, flourishing (it’s also the key to short term pain and cost).

My wife is incredibly gifted. I have no doubt she could do most of the things I can do, and many things that I can’t, if she were in my position. The fact that she isn’t, and doesn’t seek to be (because she wants to uphold the Bible’s teaching on gender) is a testimony to the Gospel. It teaches me about Jesus. She leads me towards progress in this way. Her approach to life, and her sacrificial use (and non-use) of her gifts, shows me that she wants to imitate Christ.

It teaches me daily.

Every day I am grateful to God that I get to be married to such a gifted woman who is eager to use her gifts, but also eager to forgo using her gifts, for the sake of others.

I pray that both my children – my daughter and my son – will grow up in Jesus, to reach their full potential, to use their gifts to serve others, to submit to others and to lead others.

I want them both to be like their mum. I want them both to be like Jesus. I don’t think my daughter is any less able to do this than my son. I know that in many ways it’s going to be harder for my daughter to live in this world than it is for my son. I want him to grow up wanting that to change.

We’re not going to be truly progressive as a church without conserving the good news of Jesus and building our churches around his story – and being prepared to hang on to that when the world around us wants to move us away from it. We’re not going to progress as a church – to allow the women in our churches to truly thrive – without hearing from women like C who are strong, passionate and prepared to speak. Without them being passionate about Jesus, and passionate about the Church. Which is why it really is a tragedy that C, and others like her, are not joining churches like mine. Which is why I’m still sad. Hours later.