Category Archives: Culture

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Play as a disruptive witness: How Bluey is a great show for parents (and for kids)

I watch lots of kids TV. Usually with the kids. There’s a new hit in our house — we measure the ‘hits’ based on whether one child will round up the other two when the theme song hits.

It’s called Bluey. Each episode offers 7 minutes of laugh out loud fun — and it’s Australian. It’s made here in Brisbane. It’s bouncy and light and ‘Aussie,’ but with no cultural cringe. The settings — like an episode in a local farmer’s market complete with German sausage stand and poffertjes store — are refreshingly relatable. The scripting, especially the jokes, is zesty and nails the pathos required to be ‘educational’ without veering into preaching or too ‘didactic’. In morning TV stakes, Bluey eats Peppa Pig for breakfast.

Here’s how the ABC describes Bluey, the titular character:

“Bluey is an inexhaustible six year-old Blue Heeler dog, who loves to play and turns everyday family life into extraordinary adventures, developing her imagination as well as her mental, physical and emotional resilience.”

Our kids aren’t short on imagination, or on the desire to turn every moment of play time into some sort of story or adventure — they’ve started playing out scenes from Bluey... but Bluey isn’t just a great show for kids; it’s a revolutionary show for parents. Perhaps especially dads.

Dads get a bad wrap on TV — whether its the “stupid white male” trope in advertising, or the animated versions of that trope where Homer Simpson is the archetype, and Daddy Pig from Peppa Pig isn’t far off, the bar is set pretty low for dads when it comes to interacting with their TV progeny. Daddy Pig is flawed, but relatable — and most definitely present in Peppa and George’s life in a loving, but bumbling manner, where he is often the butt of the joke… Bluey’s daddy, Bandit (usually called ‘Dad’ — and voiced by Custard frontman Dave McCormack), is a breath of fresh air. He’s the champion of his children’s play; when he’s the butt of jokes it is usually voluntary and self-deprecating  and for the sake of Bluey and Bingo (there’s one episode that veers into ‘dumb dad’ territory — when he takes the kids to the pool and leaves all the boring swimming stuff like hats and suncream behind), he’s fun (and the show is riotously funny); and he’s an exemplary dad in a television world that is crying out for a character like this. The way the relationship with ‘mum’ Chilli is portrayed is also sweet and refreshing.

While we’ve been discovering the joy of Bluey, we’ve been listening to an audiobook on drives with the kids, Alan Brough’s Charlie and the War Against the Grannies; it contains a little bit of social commentary on ‘digital orphans’ — those kids whose parents (like me) are often present in body, but not attention, with their kids. In a review of the story that touches on digital orphans and our failure to be attentive to our kids, Brough tells a story of what is too typical (and too descriptive of my own addiction to distraction).

“I was at the park with my daughter and there was a guy pushing his daughter on a swing while holding his phone up to his face, checking something… He wasn’t concentrating on the child at all, and at one point the swing whacked him in the side of the head and knocked him to the ground.”

There’s all sorts of research out there about screen time and kids — that I’ve wilfully ignored to date because screen time is so easy and parenting is hard (and also because I figure all the kids of this generation will be in the same boat, so at least some of the problems will just be new norms) — but this new study suggests a link both between screen time and anxiety and depression, and with that, a decline in imagination and all the things Bluey, ironically (as a TV show), aims to foster.

Even after only one hour of screen time daily, children and teens may begin to have less curiosity, lower self-control, less emotional stability and a greater inability to finish tasks

Bluey is an antidote to this malaise — a picture of parenting with verve, and imagination, and the reminder that kids are pretty awesome and often the best thing you can do with (and for) your kids is play with them. This reminder is particularly pertinent coming as, for me, Apple’s screen time tracker is telling me I spend almost a full day a week staring at my phone screen (and it doesn’t measure computer screen time or TV screen time).

It may just be that imitating the sort of play Bluey’s dad engages in with your kids is what fosters their imagination and resilience, not simply watching it, or outsourcing parenting to screens so you can have more distracting screen time of your own… or bombarding them with extra-curricular work (or STEM homework). This sort of play could be the sort of disruptive witness, or practice, that shapes our kids to engage and transform the future. Alan Noble’s book, Disruptive Witness (reviewed here), made the case that our world normalises distraction and disenchantment; this is the world our kids grow up in, and a world that we Christians need to be pushing back against because belief in God requires contemplation and enchantment (a belief in the supernatural, transcendence, and wonder). Noble talks about the sort of practices to cultivate that are disruptive in a distracted world.

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence… Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.” — Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

Play is a practice, a spiritual discipline, both for adults and kids because it carves out the space we need to resist the world, and to keep re-forming ourselves to see the world properly. It’s about presence, but it also creates the sort of space for delight and an avoidance of repressing wonder and awe and a belief in magic in order to grow up. Teaching our kids to be present with their good and loving parents is a step in the direction of learning to be present with our good and loving heavenly father. Despite being a cartoon about a family of dogs, Bluey gives some concrete and beautiful pictures of what this could be like.

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Is nothing sacred any more? How an ad about organ donation reveals more about us than we might think.

Here’s the modern dilemma; I reckon. In a world where science and medicine is our best bet for staving off that great enemy, death, and where life itself on this ‘mortal coil’ is all that we have and we have to construct meaning for ourselves by valuing life: What do you do with the story of Jesus?

It’s clear his is an exemplary life in many ways – he’s some sort of wise teacher or guru on sacrificial love, we just have to figure out how to strip the story of all that super natural guff, not to find the ‘Jesus of history’ that scholars have been looking for, but the Jesus of the ‘good life’ for the here and now.

When we pushed away the idea of spirits and the supernatural – the ‘sacred’ – first from the ‘every day’ to the ‘church’, and then out of the picture all together as we pushed church and religion to the margins of our life and culture, we’re left with a different playground to come up with what is moral, or good, and this sense that Jesus, who’s been part of shaping our western moral imagination, might still have some role to play. We just weren’t quite sure what the role was…

Until someone had to come up with an ad for organ donation.

Have you seen it? Here’s a clip from the Today Show featuring the ad itself, and some discussion from the film maker who made the documentary the ad promotes.

The premise for the ad is ‘do what Jesus would do’ – the filmmaker was ‘brought up in a Christian home’, and says:

“You have to look at the intent… to really look at what Jesus would do if he was alive in 2018… seeing religion is all about being selfless, this is the most selfless act anyone could do, if they were going to pass, you know, giving up their organs so that someone could have a chance of not dying and having a chance at life.”

The problem with our world isn’t that the story of Jesus is sacred and this ad profanes his life, it’s that nothing is sacred. It’s that, as the ad says “no one wants to talk about death” and we know, deep down, we actually need something like religion to allow us to stare into that void, or be confronted with that reality. We’re left satirising what we’ve lost while at the same time being haunted by that loss… We imagine a 21st century Jesus who, himself, has lost his spirituality, a Jesus who isn’t divine, who can do nothing real about death except extend the lives of others, here and now, by dying.

Our cultural narrative is so hollowed out that to make a serious point about sacrificial love – whether its giving organs, or giving blood, we have to reach back into the tool box to find a narrative that shaped this value, and then subtly re-introduce it through irony. It’s sad, and yet, even in that haunting there’s a hint of truth.

Jesus did what the ad “dying to live” says on the tin – donated his life to give life. A donation that if the spiritual, sacred, stuff the ad brushes off is real did more than save seven lives.

“Not all of us are going to the ah, eternal paradise, and your organs could save the lives of up to six… no… seven… people.”

This is one of those ads that garners attention by fostering outrage; but it’s not outrageous, it’s confronting and revealing. If we sit with it long enough to make sense of just how clever it is. When you lose a sense of the eternal, of life beyond death, and define love in those terms the story of Jesus is still the best the west has, but it’s so hollow.

The problem, of course, with the use of the story of Jesus to push for people to be selfless, if it’s not ‘true,’ is that there’s a more compelling narrative than sacrifice. Being ‘selfish’, or, as the Apostle Paul puts it, to ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ because tomorrow we die, the Jesus story is foolishness if it isn’t true (1 Corinthians 15). And Paul is right. The Jesus story doesn’t cut it as a secular narrative, if ‘the’ secular narrative about the meaning of life and the ‘sacred’ is true. What could be more foolish than giving up anything for anybody else? That we find the narrative of sacrifice appealling at all is precisely because of the way the sacred has worked its way into our collective moral imagination.

You also can’t really push the sacred stuff out of the Jesus story, you don’t have much left in the Gospels if you take the scissors to anything super-natural or miraculous. The Christian story says, to a world where we want nothing to be sacred, ‘everything is sacred’…

Jesus didn’t come just to give us a full and abundant life now (John 10) – the sort of good life re-gained when we’re reconnected to the giver of life (and I think we can be confident that life lived this way, is, on balance better and more meaningful). Jesus came to give us eternal life, to re-make us so that every moment is lived connected to that maker, so that everything is sacred, so that we can stare at death and talk meaningfully and courageously about it – about a ‘good death’ and what ‘life giving’ looks like… and we can live selflessly all the time not just when we tick a box on an organ donation form.

We can look at the cross and its culture-shaping power without feeling the need to resort to irony or deprecation, and instead have it shape the way we live, the way we give our lives… that’s what Paul says in the Bible, anyway.

This is what Jesus would do in 2018 – not to save seven lives from death, not to give people a new lease on life, but to purchase eternal life for all, because no matter how hard we push back against eternal, infinite, spiritual realities – they keep pushing themselves back into our pictures.

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

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Don’t forget the torches — light trumps darkness: learning about politics and life from some imaginative protestors

Gambling is a scourge on our society. It seems to me that it’s one of a handful of social issues — alongside alcohol, domestic violence, our treatment of our indigenous peoples, and refugees — that occupies a similar blind spot for us Aussies that is similar to guns in the U.S psyche.

We Aussies sometimes like to look down our noses at the stranglehold the N.R.A has on gun control law in America, so this week it’s been revealing to see just how deeply enmeshed the gambling industry is in Australian life as a big-money horse race took over a national icon (paid for by lotteries), the Sydney Opera House. The manager of this cultural precinct didn’t want it given over to this modern idol of our culture, and a radio host with pretty strong links to the racing industry slammed her, leading the charge in such a way that our political leaders fronted the media to justify (and support) an industry that destroys lives (but lines the public coffers, and the coffers of our political parties), first the Premier of New South Wales, then the Prime Minister. Here’s what Prime Minister Scott Morrison had to say:

“This is one of the biggest events of the year. Why not put it on the biggest billboard Sydney has? These events generate massive economic opportunities for the state, for the city.”

It’s the economy. Stupid.

A federal government study on the deleterious impact of race betting on Australians found:

Among other things, survey data tell us that in 2015, nearly one million Australians regularly gambled on horse and dog racing. Most race bettors were men, and aged between 30 and 64. Their typical monthly expenditure on race betting amounted to $1,300 each over the year. Some 400,000 experienced one or more gambling-related problems.

Now. Like many Aussies — including the 290,000 who signed a petition against this advertising campaign that the New South Wales government refused to accept, I’m pretty disillusioned about Australian politics.

I feel helpless and on the sidelines while watching things like this unfold. Political action seems pointless.

I think there are plenty of dark times ahead for those of us who want a democracy built on making space at the table for one another, and pursuing civility and the ability to live well together. I despair about our treatment of refugees, and the unborn. I despair about much Christian advocacy in its misrepresentation of those we disagree with (so, for example, while I think it’s bad legislation, I don’t think the spirit of the new abortion laws in Queensland is to allow women to terminate pregnancies for whatever reason they want up until birth, and I don’t think the pro-life case is helped by painting the ‘other’ side this way).

I’m struck by how much responsibility and hope we give to politicians to solve our social issues, a phenomenon James Davison Hunter observed in his book To Change The World, and how much then we run to ideological camps where we can sling rocks at those opposed. He says:

“If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicization is the turn toward law and politics — the instrumentality of the state — to find solutions to public problems.”

This is the way our public conversations are framed — when there’s a problem we want others to solve it; specifically, the state. And we do our part by making lots of outraged noise on social media, and signing petitions (and there’s a place for this, of course). But what if this limits our imagination when it comes to other solutions?

Hunter says:

“Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws, and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit… it is only logical then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily, through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them.”

Hunter also suggests this politicization frames our ‘common life’ so much that it gives birth to the sort of ideological posturing that has killed our ability to disagree well, or seek compromise. It also means there is no ‘public’ space or ‘commons’ that is not politicised (like the Opera House). He says:

“Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life, and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.”

Perhaps the only thing worse than the collapse of the public space into the political, is the giving over of public space — the commons — to the market, especially when that’s a political decision made for apparent political gain (it’s the economy stupid). Another book I’ve been particularly challenged by this year, Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: How To Flourish in an Age of Distraction, makes the point that the sort of paying attention is much harder when our public spaces are now places where we are bombarded with messages from private enterprise. He says clear public space — the ‘commons’ is necessary for ethical life together — for listening to one another long enough to escape ideological posturing, or the darkness of the world around us.

“The idea of a commons is suitable in discussing attention because, first, the penetration of our consciousness by interested parties proceeds very often by the appropriation of attention in public spaces, and second, because we rightly owe to one another a certain level of attentiveness and ethical care.”

Crawford uses the example of the airport to make his point — and its a tale of two lounges, the private airline lounges and the public lounges around the gates. In the public space companies have paid to bombard you with advertising material — billboards, TV screens, businesses, while in the private space you’re offered the luxury of distraction free comfort. The wealthy have the luxury of not needing the ‘commons’ to avoid the privatised messaging they don’t want — they pay for something not-so-common (and it’s perhaps, the same with the Opera House, I wonder what the outcry would be like if these adverts were projected on the curtains of the Opera before or after a performance). Here’s Crawford setting the scene:

Or do we? Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, what you hear is the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. There are no advertisements on the walls, and no TVs. This silence, more than any other feature of the space, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic airtight doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows itself, your neck muscles relax; after twenty minutes you no longer feel exhausted. The hassle lifts. Outside the lounge is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it. As the commons gets appropriated, one solution, for those who have the means, is to leave the commons for private clubs such as the business-class lounge. Consider that it is those in the business lounge who make the decisions that determine the character of the peon lounge, and we may start to see these things in a political light. To engage in playful, inventive thinking, and possibly create wealth for oneself during those idle hours spent at an airport, requires silence. But other people’s minds, over in the peon lounge (or at the bus stop) can be treated as a resource—a standing reserve of purchasing power to be steered according to innovative marketing ideas hatched by the “creatives” in the business lounge.”

Ouch.

Crawford also talks about the mechanics of addiction, and the way the gambling industry (especially pokie machine makers) exists as a parasite with the express goal of having customers ‘play to extinction’… distracting us to oblivion with bright lights and pretty colours (and some other pretty nefarious techniques).

This outsourcing of decision making to our law makers means the stakes are impossibly high. If we think reducing gambling, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, or pregnancy terminations, depends on our politicians we lack imagination, and we over-estimate the capacity of our leaders to escape their own political interests and deliver actual results. If we put all our eggs in that basket then to lose the political battle is to lose the war…

If we want to stand against darkness, the answer is bringing light. It’s to stop outsourcing problem-solving to government and to start acting as citizens, forming institutions and movements, to model a better way forward. This is perhaps particularly true for Christians given the way light and darkness work in our story.

And there’s no better picture of the power of light to trump darkness than the way protestors standing in the Opera House forecourt tonight disrupted the projection of the gambling ads onto the Opera House sails. With torches. With light. They didn’t quite have enough torch-power to overcome the industrial sized projectors throwing the ads up, but they tried, they were noticed, and if more of us imagined non-political solutions to social problems that involved harnessing people power we might see changes to how public life happens… it’s this evocative picture of light starting to overcome even the brightest darkness.

There’s much that we Christians could learn about how to participate in a public that seems increasingly dark. We might stop putting our effort into political solutions to the problems around us and start shining light in such a way that the darkness is obscured. We might trust that eventually, though it feels like we’re pushing up hill, enough light shone on something dark will buckle it and break it… no matter how deeply enmeshed a problem is… And maybe we’ll bring a renewed sense of imagination to the task of ‘politics’…

Instead of standing outside abortion clinics, protesting to change legislation as ‘political speech’ (or just getting in the face of the ‘other’) in what our legislators have created as exclusion zones, we might keep building communities that are inclusion zones for vulnerable parents-to-be. Instead of just looking for political solutions on domestic violence we could start refuges and services to make escaping that darkness more possible for women. Instead of playing the same partisan ideological game where we want to win the political fight at all costs, at all times, we might try to make room in public for the people we disagree with to be truly seen and heard. Instead of making political arguments seeking a win over the other, we might seek to win the other over to the light (you know, by making Christian politics about Jesus…).

Hunter and Crawford are describing some things that I’d love to see transform the way we approach politics in Australia. It would be amazing and transformative if we stopped peddling the narrative that politics will solve everything, or giving the keys to the ‘public’ to these leaders who then rely on private dollars to hold on to power. It’d be amazing if we all took up our torches to bring light into these unseen problems in our psyche — our cultural dependancy on gambling and alcohol, and the violence that seems so endemic behind closed doors (62 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence this year, seven women in the last six days… while zero people were killed by needles in strawberries).

The downside to all this optimism about people power, of course, is the images from history of angry mobs with torches hunting down those on the other side. Here’s where I reckon the optimism of plenty of political activism breaks down — the idea that we could, or would, do a better job than those in power if we took the power off them.

There are plenty of iconic torch-carrying-mob pictures we could consider from some of humanity’s darker moments, but perhaps none are more iconic than this one.

So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.

Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. — John 18:3-5

People power can be harnessed for some pretty dark stuff.

Jesus, the ‘light of the world’, approached in the night by a mob carrying torches trying to outshine his light… but even in this moment, the start of his darkest hours, Jesus is triumphing by refusing to play the political game the world expects. It’s like the words of Jesus that John recorded back near the start of his story were prescient.

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

This is the uniquely bright light we have to shine on the problems of this world — the light of the world, Jesus, has much to offer when it comes to addressing violence against women, alcohol addiction, gambling, and how we treat the unborn. Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, isn’t just an alternative to worldly powers, but offers a rationale for rejecting the ‘politicisation of everything’ and the idea that human governments should be responsible for solving all the world’s problems. He’s the king who doesn’t sell us out for his own interests so that the ‘commons’ is turned against us, but who gives himself as a ransom to bring us from ‘the kingdom of darkness into light’. He invites us into the kingdom, he invites us to turn on the torches, knowing that even in those moments where it doesn’t seem we’re cutting through the darkness, or over-powering the bright lights of our cultural idols, his light is not overcome. He gives us a type of political action that isn’t pointless — the call to point people to God’s kingdom in our participation in the public sphere.

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

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The Bachelor Apocalypse: What Nick Cummins’ so-called failure teaches us about true love

Like many Aussie blokes, I watched The Bachelor this season. Nick Cummins is a hero. A professional footballer (in the wrong code), who churns out colourful metaphors with every sentence, and seems to be a genuinely great guy. He turned down a Wallabies jersey (having already played for Australia a bunch of times) to move to Japan to make money to support his dad in his battle with prostate cancer, and his two younger siblings who have cystic fibrosis. There’s class, commitment, drive, and humour attached to the Cummins name, or rather, to his nickname: ‘the honey badger’… a name he apparently picked for himself.

“These documentaries would come on about this fearless little mongrel; just charging around, 40ks a day it’d do, 40ks… get around, eat everything, attack anything… You’ve all seen that one where it got bitten by that cobra or whatever, and after a while the venom gets too much, so she just keels over for a while, has a bit of a kip, and then she sparks back up, and keeps eating the bloody cobra. That’s how I want to live life.”

The Bachelor hasn’t exactly been known for class, commitment, or humour, and yet, somehow the producers lined Nick up, because a guy like this is bound to be a ratings hit. The Badgelor was born. And it was a ride. Right up until the wheels fell off…

I’m fascinated by this show like I’m fascinated by car accidents when I’m driving along the highway; there’s that ‘rubbernecking’ impulse that means you can’t look away, but you know what you’re looking at is a mangled mess. The concept of the Bachelor, for those who’ve managed to keep their eyes fixed on the road, is that one man enters a house with around 20 women. They’re all looking for love. Each episode features a group date, a single date (with one ‘lucky’ girl), and a rose ceremony, where the Bachelor decides who he wants to keep around by handing out a rose. The numbers get whittled down until the finale, where the Bachelor has to decide between the two women he’s kept around for the longest.

Last night the Honey Badger chose nobody.

And he’s being condemned on social media, and in the mainstream media stories that now just consist of sharing what people are saying, because, you know, Vox Populi, Vox Dei (two things: One. This could well be the only review of The Bachelor season finale that uses Latin? Two. That means ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God,’ in journalism a ‘vox pop’ is a bit of content produced just by asking people their opinion, suddenly, in journalism, all stories are ‘vox pops’ because we are, more than ever, the gods of the media. The media just exists now to reflect our image back to us like a magic mirror telling us how beautiful and wise we are).

Now, I know you’re not meant to take shows like The Bachelor too seriously; you’re not meant to shed revealing light on how ‘everyone knows’ the mechanics of this sort of show aren’t realistic and don’t produce real love (despite the consistent narrative that lots of successful couples started on this program)… it’s like a magician unpacking his best trick… we want the magic. We want to believe. It’s even worse to try to use a show like this to ‘shed light’ on the culture that produces it… but the Bachelor is revealingapocalyptic even, in that an ‘apocalypse’ actually just shows things the way they really are by using ‘fantasy’ (technically). The Bachelor is fantasy, and it is revealing about our modern story — and our modern gods — so it is apocalyptic.

The headline FoxSports is running on the finale is ‘Honey Badger roasted over Bachelor fail‘… calling it a ‘disappointing finish’. Nick then had to face Lisa Wilkinson in a ‘tell all’ interview that will air on Sunday (so we have to wait for days, in this outrage), and in the news.com.au story anticipating this interview we’re told that Nick, the man who sacrificed the fame of a Wallabies jersey for the fortunes of his family, has “a lot of work to do to salvage his reputation which is in tatters after last night’s shocking finale.” His reputation is being savaged online by fans taking to “social media to share their outrage at his decision with one viewer labelling the Honey Badger a “coward.”” These reactions reveal more about us than they do about Nick; about how much is at stake for us in the sort of ‘love story’ The Bachelor offers for us to escape into; at the same time that the story reflects and reinforces what we think about love with the trappings of ‘fantasy’…

Nick, an earnest sort of fella, seemed to go into this arrangement in good faith. Perhaps with too much faith in the process. And it did a number on him. A bloke isn’t meant to pursue love while simultaneously dating twenty women, or four, or three, or even two. In the last couple of episodes you could see, and hear, Nick starting to realise this — that the artificial environment had done a number on his head. That he was being asked to do the impossible. That the fantasy wasn’t going to deliver a fairy tale ‘happy ending’ but unless he changed the game and refused to play by its rules, was going to end in tragedy.

How is a bloke meant to decide ‘who he has feelings for’ when it’s clear he has feelings for all of them? In not choosing either girl at the end, Nick didn’t reveal so much about his character, but plenty about the character of the show — it’s a horrific circus, about those who watch it, and about what people think love is — including the contestants. To come to the end of a circus without being able to say ‘I love you’ to one of the two women willing to say ‘I love you’ to him isn’t a character fail on Nick’s part; it’s a failure for a culture that no longer knows what love is. Nick shared a bunch of ‘hot dates’ and ‘steamy kisses’ with plenty of these women. What was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he commit? Why couldn’t he say “I love you”?

Here’s why. As a culture, we’ve decoupled sex and intimacy from love, so that love now comes after sex, which is what it is… “Love is love,” after all, which is a meaningless platitude that has somehow become a definition for a ‘feeling’ we find hard to define, but we’re apparently able to recognise it when it is there, or not yet there… But we’ve also made ‘love’ more a noun than a verb — a feeling rather than a decision.

I’m marrying a couple this afternoon (as in conducting their wedding), and one of the beautiful things about their story is that they understand that love isn’t just a thing you feel and then say, it’s a thing you say and then do. This isn’t to say feelings aren’t important. They are. But that posture of love and commitment — being on a journey together when life gets hard, being on a journey through more than just orchestrated ‘perfect dates’ with cameras rolling — that’s what love looks like. I’m utterly unsurprised that Nick, who seems to have a pretty level head on his shoulders, was ‘confused’ and ‘cloudy’ and unable to commit in an environment that is totally artificial. Last night was a triumph because he was able to see through the fog clearly enough — to shed enough light — that he realised the whole thing was artificial. That he couldn’t succeed if success is determined by that ‘story’ he was taking part in. Can Nick’s apocalypse prompt an apocalypse for us? His moment of clarity and revelation? The very artificiality, the artifice, of the Bachelor — where relationships unfold in ‘perfect environments’ — starting with ‘the Mansion’ and ending in New Caledonia — sets the relationships up for failure. Relationships are forged through hard times — even the drama in the show is created artificially, the drama of group dates and women competing for the attention of one man. That’s not ‘through sickness and health’…

But it’s not just The Bachelor that is broken, it’s our cultural narrative (which produces it as a ‘fantasy’) — the idea of ‘the one’ who is out there who will complete me, such that all my life (and relationships) are experiments in pursuit of that ‘one’ — is broken. The problem with Nick’s narrative last night was that he wanted to find a woman he liked enough to say ‘I love you’ to; there’s a nobility there, to taking love seriously… but given his ‘connection’ to several of these women he could’ve simply picked any one of them to make that commitment to, and then to start that journey. That’s what love is.

We got the couple whose marriage I’m conducting today to read Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning Of Marriage. It’s a good book that unloads on some of the cultural narratives that The Bachelor imbibes and perpetuates. They quote Stanley Hauerwas to make the point that no two people are ever ‘truly compatible’ because the very nature of being on a journey of life together, ‘life partners’ as Nick called it, is that life changes us. Hauerwas says ‘we always marry the wrong person’ and that the challenge of marriage, of working through life is ‘learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.’ The Kellers say:

“Modern people make the painfulness of marriage even greater than it has to be, because they crush it under the weight of their almost cosmically impossible expectations.”

Where we used to look to God for satisfaction and a sense of where we sit in the universe, now we place that expectation squarely on the shoulders of ‘the one’… There was plenty of language about being ‘completed’ in the finale last night, because sex and love now occupy the place of God. And people can’t shoulder that weight. The Kellers say there’s a secret to not crushing each other with these modern expectations — a secret that frees us to commit, and to love, but also that teaches us what love is.

“This is the secret — that the gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another. That when God invented marriage, he already had the saving work of Jesus in mind.”

Their summary of the Gospel is:

“We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. This is the only kind of relationship that will really transform us.”

If we bring that understanding of ourself, and each other, to marriage — without the God stuff — it stops us pinning unrealistic hope for our relationship and the ‘one’, so that we’re always looking elsewhere, and the realistic picture of ourself, and the other, helps us to forgive and forbear. It helps us stick with each other on the journey. The God stuff matters because it gives us somewhere else – somewhere right — to pin those hopes and expectations.

At this wedding this afternoon I’m giving the ‘words of counsel’ from Ephesians 5, a passage that has unfortunately been abused in bad marriages over the years because it uses the word ‘submit’, and people miss that the posture of submission is mutual, and that submission (and love) means sacrificing strength for the other, and that for marriage to do something Paul, who wrote Ephesians, says is ‘mysterious’ — for it to teach us about God’s love for us, the call on the husband, to sacrifice, is even bigger than the call on the wife.

Paul says, at the start of chapter 5, to:

“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

This ‘way of love’ is the way of self-sacrifice, it’s a path you walk together having made a commitment to do that… that’s what love is. An action, not a feeling. That’s what The Bachelor gets wrong in elevating feelings, sex, and romance, components of that journey, to ‘love’ — but it’s not just them, it’s our whole modern narrative, and the Bachelor (and the twitter commentary around it) throws open the curtains to reveal just how small and hollow this picture of love is, and how hollow we are if we think ‘not finding love’ on a TV show is a shattering failure rather than the start of a journey towards something true.

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Could a theology of beauty fix how we talk about ‘attraction’ and help us tell a better story about God, the world, and ourselves

There was a massive controversy in the church in the United States recently around a conference called Revoice.

Revoice was a conference held for Same Sex Attracted Christians who hold to a traditional sexual ethic. The Same Sex Attracted Christian camp who hold to a traditional sexual ethic are occasionally called ‘Side B’ as opposed to ‘Side A’ — those who affirm that same sex attraction is natural and to be embraced with body and mind. Within the ‘Side B’ tent there’s an emerging discussion about how appropriate it is for a same sex attracted Christian with a traditional sexual ethic (a commitment to celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage) to use the label ‘gay’ for themselves; whether a ‘gay identity’ is compatible with the lordship of Jesus. My friend Tom has some thoughts on this question over at Transparent (part 1, part 2), and he’s much better equipped to comment on the lived reality of this tension than me.

The conversation has recently made it to our shores, in various networks, and while my inclination had been to not give the drama any oxygen because it is within the Christian bubble; both the way that conversation seems to be taking shape and the mainstream media coverage of Wesley Hill’s visit to Australia (he’s aligned with the Revoice conference, and one of the best voices on imaginative ways for Christians to maintain a traditional sexual ethic because of faithfulness to Jesus), here’s my contribution. It goes beyond questions about sexuality though, and into the realm of our relatively anaemic approach to aesthetics within the Reformed tradition, that I’ve written about previously.

The danger in these conversations, at least as they’ve played out in the blogosphere in the US, is that words are tricky to pin down and so people keep talking past each other. Identity is a pretty nebulous concept and a pretty recent one — the desire to have and perform an identity is a reasonably recent trend for us people; that comes with the collapsing sense that who we are is a ‘given’ from a transcendent order (God, or ‘the gods’), and something to be crafted by us as individuals. Identity the way we talk about it now — both as Christians and in the wider world — is a novelty, check out how both ‘identity’ and ‘sexuality’ are increasing in frequency in publication (using Google’s ngram data) and how recent that increase is. Certainly the Bible has lots to say about what it means to be human — but our current conception doesn’t immediately overlay on the Biblical account of our anthropology — and we need to be careful with that…

One of the reasons we need to be careful is that we might freight significance into terms that just isn’t there; and cause division in the body rather than working with one another to pursue greater clarity. We need to be careful not to assume that one’s sexual orientation is fundamental to a person’s identity (or personhood), but that it will shape their experience of reality (especially in a sexuality obsessed culture where identity construction is fundamental to being an ‘authentic’ self). We need to listen to those wanting to use a label like ‘gay’ to understand what they see encompassed in that label — if it’s just sexual attraction, or sexual desire, or a temptation, or lust, sexual expression, or some combination of those things, then we need to carefully parse what is and isn’t part of our inherent sinful nature. I’m going to assume, as someone operating in a particular Christian tradition, that all of us male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, cis- gendered or trans-gendered, are naturally sinful — that our hearts are, by nature, and from birth, turned from God and that this nature expresses itself in our sexuality, our gender identity, and even in our embodied experience of the world. One of the reasons to be careful is that I don’t have to walk around labelling myself as a ‘straight Christian’ — and it’s easy to, as a result, assume that all aspects of my identity at that point — from attraction to expression — are ‘licit’ or untainted by sin; and I know that not to be true, even in marriage. Parsing this stuff out carefully teaches us all something about the place sex has in our world; and about the problems with operating as though we are autonomous units engaged in the task of authentic identity construction (even if as Christians we want to ‘autonomously’ construct that identity centred on Jesus). As a general rule I want to push back on expressive individualism and the pursuit of an authentic ‘identity’ that we then perform, and cobble together through consumer choices and labels. That’ll probably increasingly be a theme in what I write… but in this particular instance I want to zero in on the part of this debate that argues that attraction, a same sex attraction, should be put to death, that to use it (or gay) as a description of one’s identity is to embrace and celebrate sin, and suggest an alternate approach where repentance is better (and rightly) understood as a same sex attracted person turning to Jesus as the source of their personhood and object of their love (and worship), such that this love re-orders their experience in the world and their attraction. I want to suggest that in my own ‘straight’ experience; and perhaps in the gay experience of others, attraction is an experience of beauty; and that there is a ‘right use’ of that beauty. I’m not suggesting anything that you won’t find better expressed by Hill and others; especially Augustine. I want to carefully listen to my same sex attracted friends, and brothers and sisters in Christ, when they say there’s more to the ‘gay’ label than temptation, lust, and sexual expression — and to ask if there might be something about the world God made that these brothers and sisters see that I do not, and that if ‘rightly used’, this might bless the church beyond just helping us support, care for, encourage and disciple our same sex attracted brothers and sisters… and I want to suggest that a better account of beauty might help us in this area; but might also help us be a witness to our neighbours.

From the first page of the Bible we get a picture of God as an artist — as creator — as one who delights in the beauty and goodness of the world he made. It’s a mantra repeated piece by piece as the beauty of his handiwork emerges to be met with him ‘seeing’ that what he made is ‘good’ and then the final declaration:

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” — Genesis 1:31

There’s a link here between goodness and seeing — there’s also a link between function and seeing (following John Walton’s work on the verb ‘bara’ — create or make — where he shows that to create something is to make it for a purpose). Goodness is ‘teleological’ — it is not just arbitrary. But God is pleased with what he sees; he rests in it. This includes the pinnacle of that creation week — humanity. Male and female. Made in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26).

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them. — Genesis 1:27

There is a beauty to the world, and to humanity, that reveals something of the nature and character of God as the creator of beauty. This seems a reasonably straightforward case to make from Genesis 1 (and one that Paul seems to make in Romans 1:20).

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. — Romans 1:20

Something of the divine nature is revealed — clearly seen and understood — from ‘what has been made’ — including, presumably, from its beauty.

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” — Genesis 3:6

It’s not the beauty of this fruit; or even appreciating the beauty of it (God had made it pleasing to the eye) that is at the heart of Eve’s sin here. She is attracted to the fruit because it is beautiful; it is what she desires about that fruit — a different purpose to the one that God created it with (a different ‘telos’) that is illicit. The fruit is beautiful and attractive. Desiring and eating the fruit is sin. Because it represented a desire contrary to God’s desires — and, indeed, a desire to be ‘like God’ in a manner different to the likeness we were created to enjoy. In this moment Eve is presented with a false picture of God by the serpent; and so she loves a created thing more than she loves the creator — and from that flows all sorts of sinful acts.

This might sound like a totally abstract thing, disconnected from sexuality, lust, and attraction; the idea that a piece of fruit might be the subject of erotic desire in any way analogous to sexuality… except that the writer of 2 Samuel makes a pretty explicit parallel (so too does the writer of Joshua when it comes to Achan’s sin with material things, and Judges when it comes to Samson’s desire for his first Philistine wife). It seems that theologians like James K.A Smith who want to suggest that there’s a link between worship and eros, so that idolatry is misdirected eros, or eros not first directed to God, aren’t far off the Biblical data. When David sees Bathsheba exactly the same patterns play out. I’ll bold the words that are the same as Genesis 3 in the Hebrew.

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba,the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. — 2 Samuel 11:2-4

The ‘saw’ is the same root, רָאָה (raah), the ‘beautiful’ is the same as ‘good’ in Genesis 3:6 טוֹב (tob — where the ‘b’ is a ‘v’ sound), and the ‘to get her’ is the same verb as ‘took’ — לָקַח (laqach). David’s fall mirrors Adam and Eve’s — except with the additional dynamic of the Genesis 3 curse, where instead of a man and woman bearing the image of God together in relationship, he uses his power and strength (and position as king) to ‘take’ her (which is why this isn’t ‘David’s adultery with Bathsheba’ but ‘David taking Bathsheba with soldiers according to his desires’). There is nothing David does right with his sexuality here (and very little he does right with his sexuality his whole life). But… It seems to me that those who are saying Christians shouldn’t use the label gay because ‘attraction’ is inherently sinful must look at this episode and say the problem was Bathsheba’s beauty, or at least that once David saw it he was immediately captivated by it — that seeing her bathing and noticing her beauty he had no other option but to sin; such is his heterosexual orientation. But is there another way of approaching this narrative?

It seems difficult to separate our apprehension of beauty from the lust to possess that beauty that seems innate — that seems to be what we inherit as part of the ‘human condition’ since the fall. And yet both Job and Paul seem to posit an alternative account of faithful engagement with God’s beautiful world. One that doesn’t leave us taking or grasping, but thanksgiving. Job famously (at least in terms of Christian accountability software) declared:

I made a covenant with my eyes
    not to look lustfully at a young woman.” — Proverbs 31:1

Presumably there’s a difference between looking at a beautiful young woman, and looking lustfully at a beautiful young woman that requires the exercise of the will as an act of faithfulness. Presumably David could’ve exercised that same faithfulness from the rooftop when he saw Bathsheba. Paul follows up his statement about the telos of creation (including beauty) with a diagnosis about the heart of sin. He sees the start of sin as a ‘wrong use’ of creation — or, basically, a deliberate rejection of the first two of the ten commandments.

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.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:21-25

He also says this leads to ‘shameful lusts’ — our lust, or desires to do things with created beauty on our terms, flows from an inability to truly see God in his glorious goodness and for created beauty to be part of that picture. There’s a ‘right seeing’ of those things we then lust after, or desire on our terms. Whether we’re heterosexual or homosexual. Or, as he puts it in his first letter to Timothy, talking about people who want to draw particular boundaries to prevent idolatry by forbidding the right use of things God has made:

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

The appropriate response to beauty is to avoid grasping-for-self — the Eve/David option, by thanksgiving-to-god.

I gave a talk recently on what this looks like with beer and sex. There’s some great stuff in Alan Noble’s book Disruptive Witness on this (review here), picking up on an article he wrote on lust and beauty that I’ve found exceptionally helpful personally and pastorally in terms of cultivating a different sort of ‘male gaze’. What does it look like to apply this framework to sexuality? And same sex attraction specifically.

If our sinful nature is a natural, fleshly, inherited, putting created things in God’s place — loving those things ‘inordinately’ — then that nature is, for all of us, worthy of God’s judgment. This includes heterosexual attraction if attraction is the same as lust, or exclusively sexual. Our sinful hearts — and the state of putting created things in the place of the creator means any actions, even apparently ‘licit’ actions, that flow out of that state of being, however ‘good’ they might be will be sin (all deeds that do not flow from faith are sin — Romans 14:23). This also means our fallen heterosexual attraction is not ‘good’, but will be tainted by our inordinate love of sex instead of God, or our pursuit of identity/meaning/significance in our sexuality (let’s call it ‘worship’ and let’s call that worship idolatrous). There isn’t a ‘straight’ morally upright sexual orientation, even if one’s behaviour lines up with God’s design (the theological label for this idea that our natures earn judgment, not just our actions — concupiscence — is a double edged sword that those of us who are ‘straight’ can’t just pick up and wield here).

Here’s the problem though with making ‘attraction’ or one’s orientation the equivalent with one’s sexual desires, not one’s predisposition to a certain sort of desire (in Paul’s terms, making it part of the sinful flesh rather than a distortion of the image of God in us)… I don’t have to repent of recognising that women who aren’t my wife are beautiful or attractive; I can thank God for that beauty and resist that ‘pull’ grabbing my heart and turning my mind towards lust. I have to repent when I objectify a beautiful woman who isn’t my wife and lust after her, and I have to guard my heart — by proactively loving God, and then my wife, in order to avoid my ‘sexuality’ being the centre of my identity — the driver of my personhood. When I say I’m attracted to women I don’t exclusively mean I lust after women, I mean that I’m drawn to appreciate the beauty of women in a way that I don’t appreciate the beauty of men. I can’t tell you what is a good cut for a male T-shirt, or reasonably predict which men on TV are considered ‘attractive’, but I can appreciate a nice dress or a beautiful woman; and I believe I can thank God for them in ways that reflect a certain sort of discipline instilled by the Spirit as it works to transform me.

When anyone, by the Spirit, is re-created as a worshipper of God, being transformed into the image of Christ, what seems to go on in terms of that worship is a re-ordering of our loves so that we love things in their right place. Paul comes back to the idea of worship, given to God, not created things in Romans 12 — instead of sacrificing everybody else for our desires we become, together, a ‘living sacrifice’ captured by the vision of God’s beautiful mercy to us. This absolutely involves a giving up of what we previously loved in God’s place for the sake of loving God — a re-ordering of our hearts so that creation serves its purpose again; revealing God’s divine nature and character.

Why is the ‘recognition’ of beauty or attraction between members of the same sex subject to a different standard? It’s because we’ve first committed to sexualising attraction. If we say ‘same sex attraction’ or to be ‘gay’ is always sexual; and so is impossible to split from lust (not just temptation) then adopting a gay identity would be to adopt and celebrate an aspect of our sinful, fallen, disordered selves. If this is the case then we need to check whether that’s a standard we apply to our own ‘attraction’ and how much our sexuality forms our identity if we’re going to play the identity game. But when a same sex attracted person says they are ‘gay’ and we jump to hearing it as describing, exclusively, a sexual preference and set of desires when they might first be describing an aesthetic orientation that produces those desires we’re not being consistent with how we view our own attraction, or actually listening to what is being said, at least this is the case in Wesley Hill’s own account of his attraction and experience, and what ‘gay’ means. Here’s what he told the Age:

Being gay colors everything about me, even though I am celibate . . . Being gay is, for me, as much a sensibility as anything else: a heightened sensitivity to and passion for same-sex beauty that helps determine the kind of conversations  I have, which people I’m drawn to spend time with, what novels and poems and films I enjoy, the particular visual art I appreciate, and also, I think, the kind of friendships I pursue and try to strengthen. I don’t imagine I would have invested half as much effort in loving my male friends, and making sacrifices of time, energy, and even money on their behalf, if I weren’t gay.  My sexuality, my basic erotic orientation to the world, is inescapably intertwined with how I go about finding and keeping friends. 

Here he’s using ‘erotic’ the way James K.A Smith does — not just sexual, but sensual — as the sort of love that guides our interactions with God and his world. Hill’s writing in the magazine Smith edits, Comment, is some of the best writing on how to imaginatively pursue faithfulness to God via a traditional sexual ethic going round, he’s worth following (check out this piece on ‘jigs for marriage and celibacy’ for starters).

I think a category of aesthetics and beauty is sorely lacking in our theology; which leaves us oddly platonic (separating mind and body), and in weird legalism when it comes to relationships between non-married men and women (where we hyper-sexualise them so that men and women can’t be friends or alone together — and there’s a vicious cycle thing going on here where the sexualised culture we live and breathe in predicts that those sorts of circumstances will be sexualised). This then makes life for same sex attracted people in our churches almost impossible, who can they be in a room with?

What if ‘attraction’ is, before anything else, a predisposition to appreciate a certain sort of beauty? What if when somebody says they are ‘same sex attracted’ that includes sexual desire and lust as a result of our fallen hearts, but redemption of that attraction does not look like ‘turning it off’ but directing it to its telos — knowing the divine nature and character of the creator? This must necessarily mean encountering beauty on God’s terms, not through our idolatrous hearts that seek to possess beauty for ourselves as an object for our pleasure — making ourselves little gods who take and destroy others.

What if the goal of a same sex attracted Christian is holiness — a wholehearted devotion to God, including an appropriate response to the beauty that fires their hearts?

What if our inability to separate attraction from lust is a cultural issue that is the result of our perverted human hearts and the idolatry of sex (the idea that sexuality is the core of our personhood)?

But what if that is a misfire when it comes to beauty (the sort of misfire that means, when, for example, a father puts his hand on the chest of the nervous teenage girl in front of him the internet melts down and the meltdown continues even when it turns out he’s comforting his daughter because we sexualise all touch in our depraved imaginations)?

What if it is not that they stop recognising the created beauty of members of the same sex but they stop desiring that beauty in ways that reveal they don’t first desire God/holiness?

What if we were able to discipline ourselves across the board so that our ‘attraction’ is first a disposition towards the ordinary recognition of beauty in God’s good creation; recognising that this is then perverted by idolatry and disorder in a culture that idolises sexuality and individuality such that we’ve first invented a concept called ‘identity’ and then made sexuality central to it?

What if this was beneficial to all of us when it comes to understanding relationships with other people who we find beautiful.

What if the desire for male friendship and the recognition of male beauty is something our particular culture has beaten out of most heterosexual men, and what if that’s part of the problem? That I can’t conceive of a man as beautiful does prevent me from lusting after men, but it also prevents me rightly appreciating God’s artistry in the men in my life. What if my same sex attracted friends are open to more of that created goodness than I am, and so tempted in ways that I am not?

I think if we managed to move the conversation, and our practices, in these directions we’d have much better things to say about God, about human identity, and about the proper place of sex and sexuality in our lives (and personhood). I think we’d be able to better adorn the Gospel in our communities in such a way that relationships between men and women, women and women, and men and men were enhanced. I think we’d be more convincing when we talked to the world about sex and marriage. We’d tell a better story. As it is, we’ve bought into the same truncated humanity as the world around us and we’re unable to conceive of beauty and attraction without admitting that we’ll fall for it, so that the only way to be properly sexual (and thus properly human) is to marry, or turn off our recognition of God’s beautiful creation — including people.

And here’s the real rub. Our Side B brothers and sisters are at risk of being alienated by both sides of an increasingly polarised world. They are the most likely to face the ire of a world that believes the path to flourishing humanity is to authentically embrace and express your sexual desires. They are the most likely to be the public face of conversations around ‘conversion therapy’ even if they aren’t articulating anything like conversion to heterosexuality. They are also the ones we’re most likely to crucify because their experiences of sexuality are marginal within Christian community and so ‘outside our norms’ even as they prophetically question whether our norms have become worldly. These brothers and sisters are the prophetic voices we should be turning to in a world that idolises sex and sexual authenticity, and in this conversation we’ve turned on them.

It’s interesting that everybody wants to cite Augustine in this conversation. He’s a very helpful conversation partner here — and a particularly integrated thinker when it comes to how our loves shape our actions. Here’s two concepts from Augustine that should be in the mix — rightly ordered loves, and the maxim that ‘wrong use does not negate right use’…

Underneath our sinful decision to worship creation rather than the creator there’s a good creation that points people to the divine nature and character of God — that’s the ‘right’ love of creation; loving the creator first. The right love of male or female beauty is to thank God for it; I suspect there’s much my same sex attracted brothers can teach me about the goodness of God’s creation if they’re seeking to faithfully do this.

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Luke Cage and the captivating power of anger — how an American show about black liberation might help shift our approach to race in Australia

“Everybody’s talking about Luke Cage like he’s Jesus. You’ve got magazines calling him the bullet proof black man with Barack’s easy smile, Martin’s charm, and Malcolm’s forthright swagger… Harlem’s worship of Luke Cage has reached golden calf proportions. Luke Cage is soul brother number one. But I want you to ask yourself one thing. Luke Cage. Who is he really? Does he serve the Lord, or does he serve himself? … Luke Cage is nothing but a man, and there’s a reason we don’t worship men because we’re weak, subject to temptation, ego, vainglorious, spiteful, oh yes, Lord knows, we are spiteful. Bulletproof skin doesn’t change nature.” — Rev Lucas, Luke Cage, Season 2, Episode 1.

Almost everybody in Luke Cage season 2 is angry. The whole season is an exploration of just how destructive the spiteful part of human nature is; and just how deeply rooted the cycle of anger and vengeance is in our psyche and how destructive it is when you can’t let go; when you can’t forgive. Anger doesn’t liberate; it captivates. There’s a sub-thread about just how hard it is to bring forgiveness and reconciliation into an angry environment too; but also just how redemptive breaking the cycle can be.

Luke Cage is an interesting exploration of a superhero informed by a ‘liberation theology’ styled-Jesus. The comparisons to Jesus in Luke Cage aren’t subtle like in many other stories set in the backdrop of the western world, they’re overt. This was true in season one, it’s contained in the origin story of Carl Lucas’ choice of ‘Luke Cage’ as a name — it’s a reference to the Gospel of Luke and the promise that Jesus came to liberate captives (Luke 4); the opening words of season two show there’s no signs of the messianic comparisons abating. We might be keen to distance ourselves from belief in the supernatural these days, but there’s no escaping the way the story of the Bible, and its prescient diagnosis of the human heart, has shaped our narratives. By the end of the season Luke Cage is Harlem’s Messiah — its ‘anointed king’ — the question is what sort of king he’ll be, and what part of its soul it’ll cost him.

“The preacher’s son. Even when you’re ugly, you are regal. Harlem’s gonna need a king. I’m glad it’s you.” — Mariah

The season picks up somewhere after the events of The Defenders, Luke is back pounding the streets of Harlem. Jessica Jones is off enjoying her season 2 hijinks (enjoying is a strong word). Danny Rand is patrolling other boroughs of New York as the Immortal Iron Fist (though he makes a fun cameo). Matt Murdock… well… the cut scene at the end of The Defenders has him in a monastery somewhere.

There’s a new battle for the streets of Harlem; a three-way fight (with a few extra parties like the police, and some rival gangsters thrown in the mix) all motivated by some form of anger, all allowing the shows writers to explore various forms of injustice — from Mariah Stokes who carries anger at past sexual abuse and a messed up family background which complicates her relationship with her daughter Tilda, to Bushmaster, who has returned from the Caribbean hell-bent on gaining revenge over the Stokes family because their wealth is built from the dispossession and murder of his ancestors, and Luke Cage who’s angry about his father, angry and angry about what Harlem’s criminal element costs his people.

The music in this season is sensational — Luke typically fights with ear buds in place breaking bones to the beat of various hip-hop tracks, Bushmaster’s attempts to conquer turf are accompanied by reggae, while Mariah’s plotting plays out against a sonic landscape of her club Harlem’s Paradise — typically blues. These two songs from Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram were spectacular.

But, music aside, the show is about anger and its power — anger as motivator — and how much it grips and distorts and destroys when our hearts, our nature, are impure… no matter how pure we think our hearts are, Rev. Cage is right, bulletproof skin doesn’t change a man’s nature. The problem for Luke is that he’s started to believe it’s his anger, not his strength and bulletproof skin, that is the source of his power. There’s a battle raging for his soul — and with it the soul of his kingdom, Harlem.

I’m a man, ok, full fledged. My anger is real. But if I can use that anger for intimidation and fear, to do work, then so be it. If I have to speak the language of those who would do others harm to make them stop, then so be it. — Luke Cage

The problem is that this ‘turn’, this ‘messianic vision’ can’t even bring those closest to him on board; and Luke has to decide if he’s in life for love and relationships, especially with Claire, or if he has bigger fish to fry…

“He’s going down a dark path, one that I’m not sure I can follow. He’s angry. He’s lost his purpose… he’s in a place where I can’t help him because I don’t know how…” — Claire, Season 2, Episode 3

The problem set up early in the series is whether or not this embracing of the darkness is going to leave Luke indistinguishable from those he seeks to save…

“Sometimes you have to step on a cockroach, I get it. But when you enjoy the stomping? What’s next? You become an exterminator?” — Claire

And while Luke is grappling with this identity crisis, the season’s anti-hero, Bushmaster is a picture of the fully-fledged embrace of darkness as he goes toe to toe with Mariah for control of the family — darkness against darkness, forcing Mariah, the carry-over villain from season one to raise the bar as she targets Bushmaster’s family; a family who had been urging him to turn his back on the vicious cycle of strength pitted against strength; violence against violence; an ‘eye for an eye’… at one point an abducted family member of Bushmaster’s, Anansi, stares down Mariah and articulates not just the war for Bushmaster’s heart, but for Luke’s.

“Anansi: I didn’t want him to destroy you the way the Stokes destroyed his family.
But now I see you with my own two eyes, and I understand the temptation.
Your darkness matching his.
You deserve all the brimstone he’s gonna bring upon you.
Mariah: Where is he?
Anansi: I don’t know. And I wouldn’t tell you even if I did. But I’ll tell you like I tell him. When one seek vengeance, he must dig two graves.
Mariah: That’s not enough holes for me.” — Episode 10

Luke’s soul is up for grabs in this series, and by the end, we’re not sure whether or not the darkness has taken over… is he Mariah’s heir a new angry oppressor, or a liberator? Is he a hero or a gangster?

“You really are Luke Corleone, aren’t you?” — D-Dub (President of Luke’s fan club)

There’s a great visual homage here, continuing the Godfather reference, where the newly enthroned Luke Cage is greeted at his desk by his new crew and Detective Misty Knight, who has placed such hope in him watches through a closing door.

Mariah (in a flashback, via her lawyer): You know the story of the Sirens? The beauty of their voices compelled men off course to crash against the rocks. This club will be his siren. He’ll be lulled by its song, lulled by so-called greatness.
Luke: She really said that?
Ben Donovan (the lawyer): “You can’t rule no kingdom from a barbershop,” is what she said to me.
Mariah: The preacher’s son will think he can use the roost to change things, to control it. But in the end it will change him.

There’s another great visual moment in the final episode where it appears Mariah’s prophecy might have bean realised; back in season 1, gangster Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes had a giant portrait of a crowned Biggie Smalls hanging on the wall in Harlem’s Paradise. Mariah replaced it, but Luke restored it to pride of place, mostly so these two shots could be framed to, perhaps, close the circle… 

The things we own end up owning us… could it be that Luke Cage is a ‘golden calf’ after all? Not a saviour of Harlem but an oppressor? Could it be that Luke’s dad was right when he said “there’s a reason we don’t worship men because we’re weak, subject to temptation, ego, vainglorious, spiteful, oh yes, Lord knows, we are spiteful. Bulletproof skin doesn’t change nature.”

The war for Luke’s soul, the war for the heart of the ‘saviour king’ of Harlem, is still on in earnest, and with it a war for Harlem’s future… all the visual clues suggest the battle is raging, and that Carl ‘Luke Cage’ Lucas might have lost himself. The closing words, a flashback to a conversation Luke had with his father as they were reconciled, offer, perhaps, a note of hope that his soul might not totally be lost; that Luke might yet face a pressure test and be prepared to walk away from seeing anger as his power.

Your strength is from God, Carl.
I have no doubt in my mind about that.
But with that kind of power comes its share of pain.
Science? Magic? God? That power flows from within. From inside.
What comes out when that pressure is heaviest? That’s the real magic.
That’s what defines being a man.
That’s what defines being a hero. — Rev. Lucas

Luke Cage’s preacher dad has the first and last words this season. In my review of season 1 of Luke Cage I suggested that Luke Cage’s approach to messianic heroism was shaped, perhaps, by the sort of Black Liberation Theology that uses Luke 4 the way he does; the sort founded by theologian James Cone. Here’s a quote from A Black Theology of Liberation.

“In the New Testament, the theme of liberation is reaffirmed by Jesus himself. The conflict with Satan and the powers of this world, the condemnation of the rich, the insistence that the kingdom of God is for the poor, and the locating of his ministry among the poor–these and other features of the career of Jesus show that his work was directed to the oppressed for the purpose of their liberation. To suggest that he was speaking of a “spiritual” liberation fails to take seriously Jesus’ thoroughly Hebrew view of human nature. Entering into the kingdom of God means that Jesus himself becomes the ultimate loyalty of humanity, for he is the kingdom. This view of existence in the world has far reaching implications for economic, political, and social institutions. They can no longer have ultimate claim on human life; human beings are liberated and thus free to rebel against all powers that threaten human life. That is what Jesus had in mind when he said:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19).”

The sort of rebellion against the powers he talks about here involves anger and, at times, according to Cone, permits violence. He writes some exceptionally provocative things about the status quo and racism, and there’s something about theology done from the black perspective that really does ‘re-embody’ Jesus and his teaching in a way that institutionalised, white, Christianity just doesn’t comprehend, let alone practice. He argues that if theology is neutral about oppression and oppressors, it is as bad as it being used to justify oppression, and this should be a challenge that the institutional church in the west, including in Australia, hears on issues of race…

The challenge Luke Cage leaves us grappling with a bit when it comes to issues of race and liberation, alongside Cone’s theology, is what place anger and violence have in solving the problem. Can you embrace the tools of the enemy without becoming the enemy? Is any human heart — even a heart moving from oppression, on behalf of the oppressed, ever avoid becoming an oppressor when handed power?

Cone recognised that anger alone would leave his movement ‘one armed’; that unfettered, it would lead to the sort of destruction Cage faces.

“Anger and humour are like the left and right arm. They complement each other. Anger empowers the poor to declare their uncompromising opposition to oppression, and humour prevents them from being consumed by their fury.” — James Cone

Luke needs to rediscover laughter; at least from Cone’s perspective. And there’s surely something in that, but perhaps the deeper problem Luke Cage presents via Luke’s apparent descent into the abyss is that violence begets violence, and angry oppressors rising up creates new oppressors; here is where someone like Martin Luther King Jr is a voice of resistance against a Christian theology of Luke Cage; an application of Luke 4, that includes violence. Less this become to reductionist, it’s worth pointing out that Cone does have a significant place for the cross in his theology; to take up one’s cross is to enter the ghetto alongside the oppressed, but the movement from that position is one of rising up in a sort of judgment against the oppressor (much like Luke Cage does in the series once his powers are secured and he re-enters Harlem). Here’s King on the problems of violence:

“My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolence resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigour and power as the violence resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.” — Martin Luther King Jr, Stride Toward Freedom

Luke Cage as a text, and Cone and King as theologians have lots to teach us particularly on the issue of race. I think Cone is right about the problems with theology from institutional Christianity that upholds, or doesn’t challenge, status quos, and some of the critique of non-violence and the ‘violence’ of institutions built on the back of historic violence in his words at this link are worth sitting with, but I think King is closer to the solution when it comes to how those marginalised by our institutions should respond in ‘rebellion’… there’s obvious dangers with someone educated in such institutions, and employed by one — as I am — who is also white — as I am — prescribing solutions for those kept on the outer (not by ‘policy’ — our institutions don’t preclude indigenous participation — but by culture and so by practice — they do take shapes and involve requirements and even just behaviours and norms that we’ve ‘baptised’ that serve as barriers).

There’s a real danger that theology that doesn’t listen to voices from the margins is not Christian, but ‘Babylonian’ — that we prop up worldly status quos not intentionally but because we are ignorant; because we are not hearing the voices and experiences of those who are oppressed not just by worldly forces but our failure to speak and act against them. My own experience of listening to indigenous Christian leaders here in Australia over the last few years has been to be confronted with my ignorance of the indigenous experience of life in Australia; it has been to confront how I’ve, in substantial ways, benefited from being white in a white system and how this benefit ultimately comes at the expense of those peoples dispossessed by European settlement. It has involved being confronted with truths about Australia that are often white-washed from school curriculums. Try, for starters, reading this utterly confronting account of massacres of indigenous peoples in South Australia and the Northern Territory — for bonus points, try doing this as I did, having driven through the areas it speaks of a few weeks before where you can’t help but observe the economic gap between indigenous Australians in these areas and the white community both there and on the coasts. Then check out this project mapping massacres around the country. This stuff is enough to make me angry — imagine if I’d been dispossessed and impoverished just how angry I (or you) should be… then chuck a bulletproof and powerful hero into the mix there and tell that hero how to live, or what to do… I read Richard Flanagan’s recent speech calling for the re-imagination of Australia, and an Australian story that acknowledges this history and moves to something better, and it mentions the story of Jandamarra, a resistance fighter in the Kimberly region who was hunted by the colonial police. A hero for a time in Australia’s history where to be black meant to be shot at — much as in Luke Cage‘s harlem, and in the United States in the age of #blacklivesmatter — Jandamarra was thought to be bulletproof (it was believed he could dissolve his body so that bullets would pass through where he stood). Flanagan said:

“When the colonial police were hunting down the great Bunuba resistance fighter Jandamarra, they came to believe that he was, as the Bunuba said, a magic man. Many white settlers came to believe Jandamarra could fly and even police reports described bullets passing through his body. The Bunuba believed that a magic man could only be killed by another magic man, and so police brought one down from the territory and it was he who killed Jandamarra.

But who really won?

To defeat the Bunuba the whites had to enter their Dreaming, and accept their beliefs as the truth of the Kimberley. And in this way the story of the frontier is a story of birth as well as of killing, of values and mentalities changing as much as it is also of segregation, oppression and violence. If we can as a nation learn and understand some of these things we can also appreciate the second story which is as transcendent as the first is tragic, and that is a different story of the past, a story of glory.

This is a challenge outside the church, for our approach to our shared life to be shaped by listening to those voices typically excluded from the mix; but it’s also a challenge for the church. And there’s never been a better time for us, as an institution in our culture, to take up this challenge. We’re experiencing our own marginalisation in the culture — finally realising what it looks like not to have a seat at the table. We can approach this new reality in two ways — we could fight, we could get angry, we could look for our own bulletproof heroes (who’ll probably write columns in the Spectator), or we can do some self-assessment from this new perspective and consider what voices in our culture have been excluded from the table in part by us and start listening to them to hear how they’ve approached being marginalised while being followers of Jesus, to figure out how to chart an heroic way forward for the church, and perhaps for our country. We could start participating in public life as Christians not for our own interest, or to maintain or protect our place in society, but for the interest of these other groups. We don’t need to be bulletproof to be heroic; we just need to have our character revealed under pressure — and to reveal the character of Jesus, as described by Martin Luther King — as we’re marginalised would be a fine start.

There’s no doubt a few people who, if they’ve bothered reading this far, will suggest this, what I’m suggesting, is a path to theological liberalism, to letting go of the Gospel — but that’s not it. It’s very easy to dismiss voices from the margins, from outside our ‘orthodox’ institutions as liberal as a way of not listening or reforming (just consider how the Catholic Church responded to the reformers). It’s very easy to assume that our own experience of the world is normal and that we are ‘colourblind’ and so able to see Jesus truly, detached from our own subjectivity. Acknowledging our possible bias and the problem with institutions that stagnate somewhere near the centre of the status quo isn’t a call to liberalism.

It’s a challenge to let go of those places where we’ve brought the powers of this world into our approach to following King Jesus such that we can’t always tell the difference between Jesus and Caesar.

It’s a suggestion that our faithful brothers and sisters who aren’t part of our institutions be it voices from Australia, or Christians from other countries and cultures who already occupy the margins, might have some prophetic critiques of our practices and beliefs… That this might be akin to listening to the voices of faithful same sex attracted brothers and sisters, those committed to a traditional sexual ethic, when they critique our institutional practices (idolatry) of family and marriage. That these marginal voices are precisely the ones we should turn to in a world that idolises sex, marriage, and family because they are not part of that ‘status quo…

It’s a challenge to keep reforming and to realise that reform comes from the edge of institutions (ala the other Martin Luther) not from the centres of power. The voices that might sometimes be dismissed for being too angry…

It’s a challenge to have those voices and those experiences help us re-imagine the story of Jesus, without our particular cultural blinkers, and so re-image Jesus in how we live.

This is why I continue to be blown away by my indigenous Christian friends who aren’t consumed by anger, but rather continue to offer hope and invitation centred on re-making and re-imagining an Australia that deals with this past, but also looks to a future, particularly a future shaped by the cross of Jesus. If we want to be part of that future, as a church, perhaps it’s time we start deliberately carving out space to hear these voices rather than allowing our educational and church practices to keep maintaining the status quo.

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

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

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

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

The report says:

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

The relevant section of the Criminal Code says:

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

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

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

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


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

Re: Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

Campus Pastor — Creek Road Presbyterian Church, South Bank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul: Great, thanks.

Beth: She didn’t want that.

Paul: Oh. Right. OK.

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

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

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

Paul: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

Paul: Hm.

Maggie: Have you got your sermon worked out?

Paul: To all seven who’ll be there.

Maggie: I’m hoping you’ll reconsider.

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

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

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

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

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

Paul: Oh, thanks very much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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True grit: A tale of two Aussie teams in Cape Town (and how we get the teams we deserve)

If you haven’t heard about the Aussie team’s capitulation in Cape Town over the weekend, then you might be hiding under a rock. Though they lost, they lost with grit and with character, and their coach was able to praise them for having a go… in previous years they’d have simply folded under the pressure and the opposition would’ve mounted a cricket score against them. They had no backbone. No go-forward. No character.

And character counts.

Character counts for everything.

In previous years the team’s reputation relied on a couple of superstars who it seemed believed they transcended the game — they thought, it seemed, that they could behave with impunity, that they could get away with anything on and off the field, so long as their performances occasionally justified the massive dollars thrown their way… but those superstars have been shunted in the name of ‘cultural change’ — an attempt to play the game ‘hard but fair,’ and a coach firmly committed to a famous Aussie ‘no dickhead policy’, and the nurturing and development of backbone, grit, and character. Because character counts.

By now it’s clear I’m not talking about that other Aussie team who capitulated in Cape Town.

There were two sporting contests pitting the best of Australia against the best of South Africa in Cape Town over the weekend. One involved a ‘national disgrace’ and displayed the cost of a winner-takes-all approach to sport, that in many ways is emblematic of an Australian ideology, the other displayed the counter-culture that perhaps should regain the ascendency in the Australian psyche.

While the Aussie Cricket team got down and dirty, using ‘grit’ to take the shine off both the ball and our reputation, the Queensland Reds, a rugby team who until this year were the epitome of flakiness won praise for going toe-to-toe with a vastly superior (and more experienced) Stormers, even though they lost 25-19.

The two teams, and their culture, are interesting pictures of what sport can be, and what it represents, and in some ways they’re a picture of a contest to define the Australian soul; our psyche… and it’s on us, the populace, to help define what we’re on about as a nation, and what sporting teams (and cultures) truly represent us.

We get the sporting superstars we deserve; because we get what we celebrate… and what we celebrate, in a cyclical way, comes back to shape who we are.

And this is a vicious cycle. It can literally, if we aren’t careful, be a cycle of vice.

For a long time the Queensland Reds were terrible representatives. Not only were they terrible on the field, they were led by enfant terribles Quade Cooper, and Karmichael Hunt. Cooper, whose early off field misdemeanours included charges for breaking and entering while on sleeping pills, and Hunt, a ‘three-code superstar’ whose on-field talent saw many prepared to turn a blind eye to his off field proclivity for party drugs and partying. But not this year. Not in this team culture. Not under this coach.

Enter Brad Thorn.

The new Reds coach, who has surprised many with both his approach to team culture — and these two superstars — and with how he has, in a short time, started stamping something of himself into this outfit. Now, disclosure, I’ve had the privilege of being part of a church with Brad, and having him stamp some of that character into me (not on the sports field, but there was a time when he took it on himself to train me and give me some vision for masculinity that came at a particularly formative time — which involved long runs, hard chats, and spewing up after gym sessions), but I have no particular insight outside knowing his character and reading his comments, into how he is approaching his job as coach. I’m totally unsurprised that it turns out the man can coach, and I’m not surprised by his response to his team’s gritty loss over the weekend (it was a performance unironically described as gritty in a match review that happened pretty much next door to the controversial cricket test at the same time).

Here’s what Brad said about the performance:

“I’ve seen games when 18-0 down easily blow out but these guys just kept on competing… They’ve had a round-the-world trip this week, a lot that wasn’t rosy out there and with all the challenges to get within that range of winning is a great effort.”

Can you imagine an Aussie cricket coach or captain describing a loss in those terms? Not in recent years. I can’t remember the last time an Aussie cricket team displayed non-literal grit.

What Brad champions is character over talent. It’s why Cooper and (probably) Hunt won’t feature prominently in his team, his his description of his hard-but-fair ethos:

“I’m big on caring about, the team caring about each other, caring about the cause they’re trying to achieve and they’re striving for and big on caring about who you’re representing, be it the family or the fans and stuff like that.”

And elsewhere:

“I take defence personally. It’s a reflection of character … what you want to do for the mate beside you… Physicality is something I’ve always enjoyed. It’s a contact sport we’re playing and that’s got to come with a competitive mind-set.”

Defence (and so character) was the reason Brad gave for Cooper dropping to club rugby. Because character is everything. It’s bigger than winning — but it’s pretty clear that for Brad winning flows from character (and he is, from first hand experience, remarkably competitive, even at chess, table tennis, and Golden Eye on the Nintendo 64). It’s no surprise to read story after story about how Brad leads by example — how he’s still putting up gym numbers that inspire his charges, and leading the weights session after a win to keep his team humble.

The Australian cricket team — needs a culture change — especially if they play an important role in modelling the Australian character back to Australians and so reinforcing it, modelling it, developing it… and character change is possible through leadership, modelling, and the will. They need someone like Brad to stamp themselves — their character — on this team.

But the jump to condemn the Aussie team, and to demand their heads — and Smith’s weird apology, which felt like an apology for being caught — reveal some things about a deep issue in the Aussie psyche. It’s not just the national team that needs a culture change — and maybe a sweep through with the broom, from the top of the administration through to the players on the field… or at least a thorough recalibration of our metrics and our culture. It’s all of us.

Character is everything. It’s not a bonus. And character is forged, it is stamped, it is hard won. This, from my favourite piece of summer reading:

The word “character” comes from a Greek word that means “stamp.” Character, in the original view, is something that is stamped upon you by experience, and your history of responding to various kinds of experience, not the welling up of an innate quality. Character is a kind of jig that is built up through habit, becoming a reliable pattern of responses to a variety of situations. There are limits, of course. Character is “tested,” and may fail. In some circumstances, a person’s behavior may be “out of character.” But still, there is something we call character. Habit seems to work from the outside in; from behavior to personality. — Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head

Character is stamped upon you by repeated actions — but it is also revealed in our actions.

The character flaws revealed in the ball tampering episode reflect poorly on Australia because they hold a mirror up to an Australian culture that makes winning more important than character. We allow all sorts of on field practices (and all sorts of people on field) because winning is so important to us; it’s our ‘virtue’ — we drop players for a dip in performance and replace them with people of questionable character, we let sledging slide, we adopt a win at all costs attitude when it comes to our metrics, and we are so slow to forgive poor performance from our ‘representative’ athletes while being quick to forgive character flaws.

This is what we get — it’s not just reflective of poor team culture within the sport (as fast bowler turned commentator Brett Geeves suggests, and Fairfax columnist Malcolm Knox argues), but poor national culture.

I’m struggling to muster the same sort of outrage, or desire for retribution against Steve Smith and his cohort that so much of the Australian public is presently voicing on Facebook (and talkback radio). Am I disappointed? Sure. Do I think they should be punished? Absolutely. But is this a large scale national disgrace that has brought shame on our collective, corporate, Aussie identity? Perhaps. But it’s not entirely on those 11 men in the middle (or 12, because Peter Handscomb was involved in the cover-up, or 13 if you include coach Darren Lehman who must surely have been aware, and who radioed Handscomb to involve him in the cover up…), there’s an ever expanding circle of culpability…

The actions of a team reveal the character forged in a team by its repeated practices, and those practices are shaped by what the team prizes, and what the team prizes is shaped by those they represent. Now, there’s certainly a sense that these players only represent themselves, but I’m not so sure. I think they prize what we prize, and maybe Smith’s apology for being caught is on the money.

It is bizarre to me how quickly we’ve jumped to judge, jury, and would-be executioner on social media — calling for the heads of those involved — without questioning our own culpability, and our own buy-in to the idea that results are more important than character; that winning is everything. How many of us, away from high definition cameras capturing our every move, are creating competitive advantages by cutting corners or breaking rules? How many of us look to examples or champions based on the results they produce not the lives they live and the character they display? How many of us put results above grit in our own metrics? How many of us celebrate a team because of its results rather than its ethos? How many of us want to split, for example, the moral lives of our politicians from the results they deliver for us (hint, see Joyce and Trump)?

Our cricket team, like our nation, prizes winning above virtue; performance above character… it has put the cart before the horse, and until we re-align our priorities as a nation, and they re-align their priorities as a team, we’ll get what we saw in Cape Town over the weekend. The solution wasn’t far away, you just had to look in the stadium next door at a bloke who takes his marching orders from someone who defined character and grit differently. Brad Thorn, the coach, who gets his game plan from Jesus, the king. Here’s an interview (with my old man) where Brad shares how his values come from somebody who redefines the win, who was big on character, and who models exemplary true grit by shouldering a cross and marching towards a victory built from character.

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Why, as a Christian, I’m more worried about STEM than Safe Schools

My kids go to a fantastic kindergarten. It’s play based, and it really means it. It has an incredible playground where kids interacting with each other, and with nature, prompt learning opportunities spontaneously and driven by curiousity. It has toys and costumes designed to encourage learning through role play. It fuels the imagination. It sees education as being about forming inquisitive, curious, lifelong learners but also fostering a sense of community and belonging. I love it. I’m convinced about its pedagogy — and convinced this approach to education should extend well and truly into adulthood.

My oldest daughter is enrolled at the public school in our area that we felt was the closest match to this kindy in terms of ethos (the one that cared least about NAPLAN as far as we could gauge from talking to teachers at school open days). It was ‘play based’ (in a different sense to kindy) in grade 1, but that pedagogical method is rapidly disappearing into the rear view mirror, and the parent groups we’re in online are now filled with people handwringing over the school’s (not great) NAPLAN results…

At the same time there’s a nationwide push for standardisation in our education system, a national curriculum in schools and the national ‘Early Years Learning Framework’ setting standards for kindergarten/pre-school, it aims to ensure “all children experience learning that is engaging and builds success for life.” Which sounds like a terrific aim. Education is really important, but how we approach education as a nation (and as parents) reveals lots about what we value, and from a Christian framework, what we value as a nation reveals what we worship.

Our education systems are formative, they operate with a vision of what a person is, how a person functions, and what good people do, and they use practices to get there. These streams come together (especially the practices) to form ‘pedagogies’ — the ‘methods and practices’ of teaching, pedagogies are oriented to outcomes and matched with ‘curriculums’ (what is taught). ‘Play based’ is a pedagogy, so is ‘ROTE learning’…  The push for education based on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is a ‘curriculum’ push. The combination of ‘pedagogy’ and ‘curriculum’ adopted and assessed in a national approach to education reveals how we see the ‘good life’ for our nation’s citizens, but it also profoundly shapes what we value, because, as Christian philosopher James K.A Smith puts it — we become what we love, and what we love is formed by practices and a vision of the good human life, and the combination of ‘practices oriented to a vision’ embedded in a story is the very essence of worship. I went to a lecture he gave on educational practices (within the context of Christian education) a couple of years ago where he said (these are my notes):

“Every pedagogy implicitly assumes an anthropology.

Every philosophy of education/strategy assumes implicitly/tacitly some model of what human beings are, and therefore what learners are.

The university has assumed an anthropology that is a lot newer than we might realize, that is contingent and challengable. Christian teaching and learning should work from a different model.

The water in which higher education swims is largely, now, a German production. The assumptions about what a university should be are post-enlightenment, 18th-19th German education, which became a model exported into the US, UK, and probably Australia. As an enlightenment institution the assumed model of the human person is the “thinking thing” model — the university model assumes humans are primarily brains on a stick. The task of education and the university is the depositing of beliefs into the intellectual recepticles of thinking things in order to equip them for a particular task. You get the prioritizing of the brain that is then wedded to a utilitarian/pragmatic view of what education is for. Universities become credentialing facilities for brains on a stick.”

It’s not just universities. This happens pretty early on — a utilitarian view of education — that we’re being trained for a vocation in our schools, to participate as economic units within a ‘machine’ is what is driving the push for STEM based education in the early years of primary school, right through to university. If education is ‘jobs focused’ not ‘human focused’ we lose, because we shrink our sense of what it means to be human to how a human contributes to and in an economy. This will have implications for decisions about who we value and what ‘humanity’ is (and about, for example, aged care, euthanasia, abortion), there’s a vicious cycle where education assumes an anthropology, and then it works to reinforce that anthropology.

The ‘culture war’ Christians seem to want to fight often tilts at the sexual revolution and how it has taken its place in our schools via Safe Schools, now, I have some reservations about Safe Schools (both in terms of its pedagogy and curriculum), but I am not worried that my kids are going to come home from school able to empathise with any of their peers who have different sexuality or gender stuff going on (I wrote an article about Safe Schools for Eternity News a while back. Read that). Education should form kids and adults who are able to live together with people who are different to them, and part of living together will is listening carefully and seeking understanding. In many ways Safe Schools offers a much better ‘pedagogical’ framework, a much more appropriate ‘practice’ and imagination driven way of forming kids, than the rest of the curriculum, and perhaps in a world that worships sex, that is what makes it more dangerous than other things on the table presently…

But I don’t think sex is the big alternative god of the west, it’s ‘a big god of the west’, certainly, but the sexual revolution still divides both conservatives and progressives, and Christians and the rest of the world. I think the most sinister ‘alternative god of the west’ doesn’t divide anybody. Conservatives and progressives and Christians and non-Christians are all on the same page… and it’s the god behind STEM. The real ‘god’ of the Babylon of the West.

It’s money. It’s Mammon. It’s the anthropology that measures a person by the contribution they make to digging stuff out of the ground, turning it into technology, and selling it to make our lives more comfortable. It’s the ‘jobs of the future’. It’s that which distracts our kids from thinking about the aspects of education previously known as ‘humanities’ and instead, has us thinking about how we don’t just make machines, but become little cogs in an economy built on the back of making machines. What is the difference in STEM’s anthropology between a human and the widgets the human creates that slot into a smaller piece of technology? Not much.

What’s new about this vision of people? That we are cogs in an economic machine designed to produce goods? Not much. It’s precisely how the Egyptians viewed the Hebrews before they were rescued from slavery and became a nation, and it’s what still leads people to enslave other people. You can only make somebody a slave if your view of humanity is on economic terms… our education system, with its emphasis on jobs, and particularly ‘machine like’ jobs isn’t hugely different, the pay and conditions are just better (mostly, at least here in the west).

STEM without humanities (and the arts) is part of the abiding myth of the western world, the catechism (the process of educating up worshippers) associated with this particular god. It’s part of what Brian Walsh called Christians to eject from in his book Subversive Christianity in 1994, when he wrote about the dominant story of the west, a story that hasn’t become less dominant just because we now fixate more on sex… it’s just we don’t see that this narrative captured the imaginations of Christians as well, to our detriment:

This story, this Western cultural myth, proclaims that progress is inevitable, if we only allow human reason freely and scientifically to investigate our world so that we can acquire the technological power to control that world in order to realise the ultimate human good, that is, an abundance of consumer goods and the leisure time in which to consume them.

This myth of progress is engraved in our high-school textbooks, proclaimed in corporate advertising, phallically erected in our downtown bank and corporation towers, propagated in our universities, assumed by our political parties, and portrayed in the situation comedies, dramas, and news broadcasts on the popular media. This myth idolatrously reduces human labour to the efficient exercise of power to produce maximum economic good.

Serving the three gods of scientism, technicism, and economism, our work lives (in both the shop and the office) are subjected to scientific analysis by industrial engineers and a whole army of consultants, to determine the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand using the best and quickest techniques to attain the highest possible economic good… More foundationally this is the worldview that captivates the imagination of our society…Looking at life with this worldview is as natural as breathing for us. Because, after all, it is in the air everywhere, and the church provides no gas mask.

Why is it that when Safe Schools drops into schools we Christians panic, we jump up and down about the corruption of our children? We reach for the proverbial ‘gas mask’ or pull the eject cord and home school, or withdraw into the Christian bubble… but when there’s a push for a STEM driven national curriculum we’re silent?

I was horrified recently when I heard a new set of early school readers Suzie The Scientist were being produced with a STEM focus so that even literacy could be taught with the goal of checking off the STEM box. ‘School Readers’ have a long history (documented here), and the first ones, instead of being produced to serve an economic agenda, featured:

  • classic stories from English literature
  • adventure stories
  • accounts from British, Australian and Queensland history
  • biographies of significant figures in history
  • traditional fairy tales
  • poems
  • health lessons
  • stories encouraging the development of good character.

Now. I don’t want to pretend to claim that these would’ve been perfect… education has long been a tool for social engineering and the culture wars, but the goals of these readers, included “instilling in pupils a lifelong love of literature” and “encourage virtues such as honesty, obedience, bravery and courage,” there were other educational aims in the mix, but the new

  • provide information about a range of subjects including nature study, early Australian history, significant figures in history
  • encourage children to read and enjoy traditional tales such as Jack and the beanstalk, Cinderella
  • inform children of heroic deeds in short biographical stories including one on Grace Darling

The ‘Suzie the Scientist‘ series, instead:

  • Each book aligns to learning outcome statements (i.e. Descriptors) from the Australian Curriculum: Science
  • Unlike other science-based home readers, equal emphasis is placed across all four sub-strands (Biological Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences and Physical Sciences) – 6 books for each sub-strand!
  • In addition, all three strands of the Australian Curriculum Science are also addressed – i.e. Science Understanding, Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills

They are include information to “empower parents to engage children in exploratory conversations about science… linked to classroom learning via the Australian Curriculum: Science” and are built around “consistent sentence structure and use of high frequency words appropriate to each reading level to help children develop fluency, comprehension and vocabulary” introducing “key scientific words introduced for discussion prior to reading and in context within the book to help children extend their reading vocabulary.”

Spot the difference.

Imagine the difference this produces in terms of people of character rather than people of knowledge.

This is why I was so greatly encouraged by the words of the New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes this week (quotes from the SMH).

“From government ministers to journalists – from industry CEO’s to senior public servants – people of influence are piling in to denounce the value of philosophy, the arts, and the social sciences – insisting that only by bowing before the altar of STEM will today’s students be adequately equipped to thrive in the 21st century.”

And then:

“Education is not simply about getting a job. Our educational institutions exist primarily to help educate the next generation to build a more just and more engaged society,” Mr Stokes said.

“They exist to provide students with higher-order skills that are flexible and adaptable to a changing world.”

He said the key to a robust 21st century education system was “not the overt preferencing of STEM” but the championing of a true multidisciplinary system.

“Ultimately, STEM seeks to dehumanise education – reducing it to an equation of inputs and outputs. Yet excellence has always been most evident when education is at its most personal.”

Yes and amen. It’s interesting that he uses religious terminology; the ‘altar of STEM’… because STEM is about worship. It’s about claiming the hearts and minds of our children in service of a particular god.

One of my parenting wins this year was watching the Falcon Heavy launch with Xavi. It’s inspired the building of countless Lego rockets. It’s not that I hate science, technology, engineering, or math — it’s that these disciplines and ways of discovering wondrous and true things about the world need to be paired with education, or formation, about what is good for humanity. Who is going to decide what technology it is good or virtuous to develop? Or how it should be deployed? Or what impact that technology might have on our brains and culture? Technology isn’t neutral, when it enters an ecosystem it reshapes it, and it reshapes us, our habitats shape our habits and our habits shape us, which means we need to be pretty thoughtful about what sort of technological changes we introduce. Which means good education in the technological age won’t just focus on the technique — the engineering — but on the telos, to what end we want to develop different types of technology, which ties into the broader question of to what end we humans live for.

Education should absolutely focus on these questions, on what a good citizen of our nation looks like, and what future we are educating towards… but STEM alone can’t save us, unless all that matters is that the Australia of the future is economically prosperous and good at digging stuff up to turn into other more expensive hardware, or at turning our time and effort into software that people want to use. The best STEM work comes from an ability to imagine, and from the curiousity that drives innovation, which requires a pedagogy that is driven by something other than the regurgitation of the status quo in order to answer standardised tests… it requires, as our kindy director says “being able to deal with problems where we don’t know the answer” so that kids start coming up with new solutions now, so that we normalise that experience, not just maintain some status quo.

Our education systems are organised towards a view of what people are, and what a good life looks like. They reinforce both through pedagogy and curriculum. At the moment our pedagogy is driven by the curriculum — by achieving certain outcomes, particularly knowledge in these fields.

What would happen if our education system was built on the anthropology that we become what we love, and with the goal of forming virtuous citizens who have the character and ingenuity capable not just of creating new technology but of assessing what it’s going to do to us?

It’s pretty clear from stories in the news recently about Facebook that there’s a questionable amount of moral philosophy behind the scenes there that has little concern about the impact of social media on neural pathways or mental health, and on what should be done with the data of its products (their view of the people who use the technology)… but I don’t want to single Facebook out, because similar things could be said about just about any (if not all) technological behemoths — the sort of companies crying out for STEM graduates. In Australia we’re increasingly enslaved by the gaming industry; what sort of qualifications are required to build and maintain pokie machines, online gambling, or sports odds?

What in our national curriculum is helping kids identify and avoid parasitic industries that destroy others rather than building them up (and so building our nation)?

What would education look like if we operated with a different anthropology, and so a different pedagogy (and curriculum)?

I have some guesses.

We’d see the STEM-driven curriculum as an ideological danger more compelling than Safe Schools (in part because we as parents are already exemplars of being more bought in to this dangerous system), not a neutral or good thing for our kids.

We’d see kids as more than ‘brains on a stick’ (or mini computers) who need to be aimed at particular careers so that they contribute to our economy, instead we’d aim their hearts towards virtue and the flourishing of themselves and others in more than just economic or material terms… and so we’d see our teachers as something more than programmers or information delivery systems.

We’d have a broader focus in terms of ‘standardisation’ — something more like the classical or liberal arts curriculums of old, but we’d encourage kids to play and explore and learn what they love and what they’re good at more intuitively. We’d have lots more problem based learning where we don’t have pre-conceived answers and where we reward innovation and imagination not just repetition.

We’d celebrate the schools (and kindys) and teachers who get this and we’d champion them and their ideas to grow their reach (and their enrolments). We’d advocate for a better way on P&Cs and other committees, and we’d write to MPs and education ministers (especially when good teaching gets threatened by standardisation or red tape).

We’d be careful about where we enrol our kids, not just to secure the best financial outcome for them job wise, but to be part of providing the best education for their peers.

We’d pay teachers better to be exemplary leaders who emphasise character and who see children both as future citizens and as individuals whose flourishing is best secured not by pumping them into some sausage machine, but by fostering their individual capacity to be curious, to imagine, and to use their gifts and abilities to serve others.

We’d work to free our schools, teachers, and children from slavery to a results driven national curriculum and see the human capital of our graduate-citizens as the product of an education, not test results (we’d have to substantially change our metrics).

We’d take responsibility for educating and forming our kids with the school as partners in that, rather than outsourcing this to schools, and so we’d take a stand against practices that are dumb (like homework).

We’d see that education, or formation, (like virtue) is about habit building and the shaping of loves through a ‘grand story’ not content delivery of disconnected facts.

We’d have teachers who both model and teach that work is a good and rewarding thing not simply because it helps us buy better technology (that we don’t need) but because it helps us build better communities and better homes. We wouldn’t have kids in math lessons asking ‘when will I ever use this’, but have them using math to solve problems or describe interesting reality (like rocket launches, though probably not rocket launchers (though that thing where youth groups used to make potato cannons would make for a good math or physics lesson)).

As Christians we’d be teaching that work is a form of worship, and that the economy isn’t neutral (or naively, that it’s a pure ‘good’), and we’d be valuing, supporting, encouraging, and becoming teachers like this.

We’d pursue real flourishing, which, as Smith put it in his lecture:

Human flourishing is found when we find our flourishing and end in the one who made us and is calling us. To be human is to become creatures whose hearts find rest in the one who has made us and is calling us; finding what you are made for.

The task of a Christian education is to help people find what they are made for.

At present, we wouldn’t necessarily be pulling our kids out of schools where the curriculum is at odds with our beliefs but putting ourselves (and our kids) in and articulating a need for change, and if we did pull our kids out into Christian education institutions it would be because they’re committed to an alternative vision of education for all, not just for enforcing some Christian bubble. What many of our church owned schools currently do, in adopting the national curriculum uncritically and pursuing exclusive excellence on its terms, or in being insular doctrinally-driven schools suspicious about the world won’t really serve anybody. In our homes and churches we’d be helping people not just aim their hearts towards virtue, but towards Jesus, and our own pedagogy wouldn’t be a head-on-stick driven exercise aimed at helping kids know about Jesus, but instead a practice driven, play based, problem solving approach to helping kids live like Jesus and love Jesus.

That’d be a revolution.

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Will the real Starman please stand up…

It’s hard not to be excited about SpaceX and the launch of Falcon Heavy.

Elon Musk seems like a pretty fascinating guy — he’s stepped into the space in the popular imagination previously occupied by Steve Jobs and, like Jobs, there’s a sort of ‘religious mythos’ developing around him. He’s a certain sort of messiah; note, for example, his stepping in to save South Australia with a massive renewable energy project.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the hype — God even drives a Tesla (at least at Hobart’s MONA).

Perhaps my favourite part of the Falcon Heavy experiment — environmental/spacejunk concerns notwithstanding — is the launch of Starman, a new cosmic driver exploring the infinite universe in his very own Tesla car. Starman — who spent the trip into orbit beaming back images from the vast cosmos to earth. He’ll tour the galaxy perhaps for the next few million years (unless an asteroid gets him first). What a testimony to Musk’s unique genius — what a legacy — his are the hands that flung Starman into space. You could watch live views from the car on YouTube — have the far flung reaches of the galaxy (once he hits orbit he’ll be 28 million miles from earth) beamed onto your personal device.

That’s, quite literally, awesome. I’ll be checking in with Starman from time to time.

It’s clear Musk is a fan of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy; there’s a nice onboard reference to the words on the screen of the Hitchhikers guide (Douglas Adams basically predicted the iPad) on the car’s dashboard navigation system. One of the reasons I love that five-book trilogy is that it gives you a picture of an infinitely large universe, and a sense of the scale of an infinite timeline, and then leaves you with absurdity as the only way to cope with this vastness and our relative insignificance. The universe is infinitely big, and we occupy a tiny speck of it. Time is infinitely long, and our existence is a flash in the pan… which means we’re all so small — so what better way to mark one’s smallness than to fling a spacecraft into space as an almost eternal testimony to your name — especially a space craft with an inherent absurdity to it. We can’t take things too seriously if this four score years and ten on this mortal coil is all we have — and, if you want to make the best of this absurdity then absolutely the most virtuous thing you can do while not taking yourself too seriously is expand our shared human horizons.

Musk, of course, doesn’t totally buy into the idea that the universe is infinitely big and time infinitely long — his metaphysics have been reasonably well documented, and to be honest, they’re an equally absurd platform from which to launch Starman — but perhaps go some way to explaining why he lives his life in the pursuit of technological advancement; he’s playing his bit in the great cosmic computer program of life. Musk buys into something like the theory put forward by the Matrix (just without the battery part). He believes the world as we know it is part of a computer program put together either by an advanced human race from the future or some other intergalactic species all together.

“So given that we’re clearly on a trajectory to have games that are indistinguishable from reality, and those games could be played on any set-top box or on a PC or whatever, and there would probably be billions of such computers or set-top boxes, it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.”

Just wrap your head around that idea for a minute. The probability that we are in the real universe, ‘base reality’, according to Musk is infintesimally small, we’re even less significant at that point than we would be if we just had to grapple with the reality of living for 100 years in a universe that is already billions of years old, while occupying a square metre of a rapidly expanding universe stretching out towards the infinite.

No wonder the guy is pouring his energy into sending an avatar into space for an eternal journey; his are the (virtual) hands that sent (virtual) man into space. If life is a computer game; he’s winning.

One of my favourite parts of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series is a scene with a device called the Total Perspective Vortex. You jump into a box and suddenly are confronted with your place in the universe — the grand scale of everything when compared to your nothingness — it shows you “the whole infinite Universe. The infinite suns, the infinite distances between them, and yourself an invisible dot on an invisible dot, infinitely small.”  I’ve written about this before back when philosopher Alain De Botton was suggesting the best thing to orient us for an ethical life would be to see images of space beamed back from space telescopes (to teach us how big reality is), and perhaps a temple to perspective should be built as a quasi-religious space for atheists… the thing about this Total Perspective Vortex is that it utterly destroys every human who enters it — the only way it leaves people (one person in particular) with any sense of self beyond the experience is if the machine gets rigged so that it makes you the centre of everything; the only way to survive is to essentially build a religious mythos around a person… or yourself, or to take the advice of the Hitchhiker’s Guide and ‘Don’t Panic’… It’s like Musk is oscillating between the two, he’s part ‘messiah’, building a new world with (genuinely incredible) technology and a bit of imagination, and part model ‘Don’t Panicker’… sending disco balls and electric cars into space.

But why bother? If you’re just a dot not just in the universe, but a few bytes in some future computer game, why play?

If that’s all there is to life, why should any of us get out of bed? Starman is capable of giving us a pretty great view of the cosmos. But is it a real view or just a virtual one? And if we are in ‘base reality’ — exactly how much can Starman show us that helps us live lives of significance? Should we even want that?

At times it’s hard for me to rationalise my religious beliefs and to see them as any more plausible than Musk’s computer simulation theory. Musk is a genius. A world-changing mind. And he believes that, is it really more plausible to believe that there are billions of realities in computer games (not to mention base reality) — infinite realities — than it is to believe in one reality and an infinite God?

I don’t think so. And I know which vision of the truth feels more compelling.

I certainly feel as though I’m real (and imagine it’d be hard to generate that in a machine reality)… but one thing Christianity gives you that Musk doesn’t is a place in the universe and a sense of significance. It says that the ‘Starman’ is the one who flung the stars into space; creating this infinite reality in a word who can ‘fold the universe up like a blanket’ — and then it says those same hands were blasted by rudimentary metal spikes, affixed to splintery timber on a crude execution device designed to humiliate, to render one totally insignificant, and that this happened because despite being small and fleeting, human lives matter to the one who created this universe; that the seemingly infinite space-time reality runs second to the infinite divine life, and that not only was that life laid down for us in the ‘Starman’, Jesus, but in his resurrection we are invited to become eternal, because of the deep, life-giving, love of the Father.

The Bible makes these grand claims about Jesus and his relationship to the universe.

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” — Hebrews 1:3

Radiance. Starlike. But also ‘sustaining all things’ — including the stars, by his word.

Musk’s Starman will be eternally sitting in space, in fact, there’s never been a time where the mannequin wasn’t ‘sitting’ — Hebrews tells us that the real Starman ‘sits in the heavens’ too…

“After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” — Hebrews 1:3

But that one day the real Starman will stand up. And then:

In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
 You will roll them up like a robe;
    like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same,
    and your years will never end.” — Hebrews 1:10-12

Those are some hands — the hands that were nailed to wood in humiliation will ‘roll up’ the heavens — the universe — like a robe; because the Lord — Jesus — as a person of the triune God — is infinite and unchanging, from the beginning of the universe, to its end and beyond.

That’s the sort of view of the world that creates something more than absurdity — and gives us the chance to have a part in a legacy that will last a long time beyond Musk’s Starman. Every person who turns to Jesus will outlive that electric spacejunk. The picture the writer of that book ‘Hebrews’ then paints is a picture of us not just being slightly significant to this Starman, but brothers and sisters, adopted into the family to share the inheritance. This gives us something better than absurdity and makes us something more significant than bits and bytes — and true or not (and I believe it is), it is certainly a more emotionally satisfying, less destructive, picture of life and our place in space-time. Here’s the vision Hebrews gives for our place in the galaxy:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honor
and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters — Hebrews 2:6-11

Don’t panic indeed.

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A letter to my MP about Australia Day

I’ve noticed, and been grieved by, how polarising the current conversation about Australia Day is on my social media. I spent Thursday night in a prayer service hosted by Christian leaders from the indigenous community, where Aunty Jean Phillips (who I meet with regularly during the year and hold in huge esteem), urged those in attendance to write to our local MPs… then I spent my public holiday yesterday enjoying a multicultural picnic with our church family (including our refugee and migrant brothers and sisters in Christ), enjoying a swim in the pool with another bunch of families, and playing backyard cricket on the fields at the end of our street with our neighbours (followed by beer and a barbeque). So I’m conflicted. I think that 24 hours represents something of the paradox of Aussie life and January 26.

I suspect a massive part of the polarising of the Australian community around all sorts of issues — including this one — is a failure to sacrificially and actively listen to other voices and to seek compromise. So, it’s in that spirit that I wrote this letter to my local MP, and copied in the local MP for the electorate our church meets in (also the Queensland Government’s minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, the Premier and the Opposition Leader).

Here’s my letter, in case it helps others formulate or express similar thoughts.

27 January, 2018

Dear Ms Corinne McMillan MP, Member for Mansfield,
The Hon Ms Anastasia Palaszckuk MP, Premier of Queensland,
The Hon Ms Deb Frecklington MP, Opposition Leader,
The Hon Ms Jackie Trad MP, Deputy Premier of Queensland, Treasurer and Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships

Re: Australia Day

On Thursday the 25th of January 2018, I attended a prayer service held by leaders from the aboriginal Christian community here in Queensland — Aunty Jean Phillips and Ms Brooke Prentis. The service was held in the West End Uniting Church (in Ms Trad’s electorate). I am an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland with a congregation also based in West End, though I live in Upper Mount Gravatt (Mansfield), so I write to Ms McMillan as a constituent.

As I listed the relevant recipients of this letter I paused for a moment to reflect on what wonderful progress it represents for our nation, in striving for equality, especially when it comes to equality of representation in our leadership that each relevant minister, member, and leader for this correspondence is a woman. This representation is both symbolic in its importance, but substantial in reality. I am thankful for you, and for the example of public service and commitment to changing the world that each of you model for my two daughters (and also for my son). The Bible urges us to pray for those in authority and to respect you, and I recognise the sacrifice and commitment to the good of our community that each of you have made in reaching these positions and am thankful for your wisdom and example. I was struck too that both leaders of this prayer service were indigenous women speaking out for another sort of symbolic and substantial change, in the name of equality, so craved by their community. Both Brooke and Aunty Jean are examples of courageous and spirited leadership and the pursuit of the improvement of our society for the good of all for my children, but for the community at large.

I write for two reasons.

Firstly, to urge the government of Queensland to continue listening to voices from the indigenous community — especially voices as reasonable and wise as these two women. I ask you to hear their lament about the conditions facing Aboriginal Australians and to recognise that the lament around Australia Day being held on the 26th of January is about a symbolic issue, but that symbols are powerful and important and have long shaped behaviours and communities. I write because I listened to Aunty Jean’s request that we take action by contacting our political leaders. I write to encourage you to meet with Aunty Jean and other leaders from the indigenous church to consider how the church might help play its part in working towards continued reconciliation and better outcomes for indigenous Australians.

Secondly, I write to express my thanks to the staff of parliament house for apparently doing just this — listening — to the elders who joined the protest on January 26 and participated in their own symbolic gesture. When I read the story about this act in The Australian, featuring quotes from the Leader of the Opposition I was struck by two things; the Opposition Leader’s obvious concern for deeper issues of justice facing our indigenous neighbours, but the irony of her taking a symbolic act (the flag lowering) seriously enough to comment, condemning the act… if symbols do not matter then surely the lowering of the flag should pass without comment?

As I listened to these two women from the indigenous community who I respect as leaders in the Christian community, I was struck by the way they understand the link between symbols and behaviour — between our nation’s desire to celebrate our shared identity or ‘national day’ on January 26, the apparent disregard for the feelings of our indigenous neighbours, and the ongoing issues facing those neighbours. I heard Aunty Jean break down in tears about health issues, especially diabetes, in the indigenous communities, and Brooke Prentis describe the social pressures that lead indigenous children to suicide. These are the litany of issues also highlighted by the Opposition leader in The Australian article: “life threatening but preventable diseases, substance abuse, domestic violence and unemployment – the real issues facing our indigenous communities,” but simply that ‘Australia Day’ is a symbolic issue does not make it less real; that would depend on exactly what it is that the continued celebration of a national day on January 26th symbolises for this part of our community who are deeply and profoundly aware of these issues. Perhaps our failure to listen on a symbolic issue reflects how seriously committed we are as a nation to these deeper issues? Perhaps if we are not willing to make small sacrifices symbolically it is fair to expect that our nation will not make the substantial sacrifices required on these large issues?

Christians profoundly believe in the power of symbols because symbols represent substance and help shape behaviour. Aunty Jean often repeats her conviction that the most important symbol for reconciliation in our country is not what happens with Australia Day, but is the cross of Jesus — arguably the most recognisable symbol in the world. The cross symbolises God’s acting in reconciliation and forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus to bring both justice and peace. It is a powerful symbol of sacrifice that has served and shaped the western world for many generations, it is obviously not the government’s responsibility to take up this symbol in order to pursue reconciliation, forgiveness and justice, that is the role of the church. This is simply evidence that symbols have long mattered and have powerfully shaped our nation (the church has obviously not been blameless in indigenous issues in Australian history). The symbolism associated with celebrating our national day on a day of grief and mourning for our indigenous neighbours is significant; a sign, so to speak for how we view that grief and its legitimacy. Changing the date, or how we mark it, would also be significant, not just symbolic.

I’m thankful for the gesture of lowering the flags at Parliament House because symbols matter when they create a sense of belonging and inclusion and a platform for genuine listening and relationships. I hope that whatever happens with the marking of January 26th as a significant moment in our nation’s history that we might find shared symbols that express a desire for genuine reconciliation, and a commitment to working together on those profoundly important substantial issues, and would be happy to be part of such processes whether in my electorate of Mansfield, or within the community of West End, where our church is located.

I trust that you, as elected representatives and leaders of Queensland will act with wisdom seeking good outcomes for the people you lead and represent, and thank you for your continued service.

Regards,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

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Why Christians should fight the war on Christmas (but not on the side you’d expect) and embrace Christmas cliches for all they’re worth

I went to the shops again this Christmas. If there is a war on Christmas, I reckon we Christians should sign up. And it there’s not. We should start one.

Like millions of other Aussies I found myself in the ‘temple’ of Westfield to participate in the pilgrimage of ‘annual Christmas shopping’ and the liturgies of handing over my plastic membership card and saying ‘paywave please’… to then be handed my relics and with a prayer-like wish or blessing, urged to have a ‘happy Christmas’… Walking through Westfield is character building; if nothing else.

My local Westfield,  ‘Garden City,’ was awash with Christmas cheer. Not just holiday season cheer, but good old ‘Christmas’ — I even heard Chris Tomlin’s new pepped up version of Joy To The World while I was browsing the bookshop.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her king
Let every heart prepare Him room

The windows of the shops; and the ‘halls’ were well and truly ‘decked’ out for Christmas; Christmas wreaths marked with stars hung overhead, lit up to guide shoppers to whatever Christmas treasures or baubles they hoped would help them celebrate a merry and meaningful Christmas.

Many of the windows carried overt references to Christmas — not ‘X-mas’ and there were only a few ‘season’s greetings’ or ‘happy holidays’ to be found. There was the title of Jesus; the king; the Christ; in gilded letters or lights. Glittering. On display. Celebrated; or at least patronising our celebrations of a holiday festival that still bears his name in our calendars. It seemed to me that the war on Christmas in Australia was won, before it was even started, even if Scott Morrison got a little bit fired up at the Greens for their provocative banner this week.

But as I walked through the halls, and the shops, of Garden City — passing statues and images of happiness and a more ideal version of me; pictures and banners in windows, salespeople explaining how their items would meet my desires, or satisfy my loved ones — I saw a city that is very religious. It’s just a different type of religion — and it became clearer than ever that Christmas, as practiced in Australia, is a particularly religious holiday; but one that has been (as so many religious holidays before) annexed from an older religion and appropriated for the new. I saw the title ‘Christ’ displayed prominently, but no sign that his story was at all connected to the comings and goings of these modern worshippers. Before James K.A Smith described a trip to the “mall” as a modern temple structured ‘religiously’ and filled with modern visions of the good life and liturgical practices (which I wrote about last Christmas), the Apostle Paul walked the streets of Athens, a particularly religious city; and noticed the overt displays of religiosity — the ritual habits and practices of the people of Athens and where they looked for the fulfilment of their desires — in short, what they loved or worshipped, and he said:

“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” — Acts 17:23

I saw plenty of inscriptions honouring the Christ; but no sense that people were particularly cognisant of the very thing they claim to be worshipping — and just how inconsistent the modern Aussie practice of Christmas is with the first one; and not just with the first one, but with the back story of the arrival of this Christ; the king.

Paul was reasonably gentle with the Athenians as he introduced this ‘unknown God’ to them; if they’d been Israelites — people familiar with God’s story, having inherited the legacy of his nation-building redemptive acts in history — he probably wouldn’t have been quite so patient. He said:

“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

These are some incredible claims about the bigness of God; that he is so utterly transcendent that our human-made temples can’t contain him; nor anything in the universe. God is the giver. It’s worth noticing that — he gives us life, breath, and everything else. Christmas is, if nothing else, meant to remind us of this fundamental truth about God’s nature… In a few verse Paul says that we actually live, breathe, and have our being in him. Paul starts by painting the picture of God as infinite and worthy of worship, but also as generous.

If Christmas is about an act of God; it is this God, the God revealed in Christ, who it reflects. The God who though he is infinite, Paul says created us and designed the world so that humanity “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” God is not just infinite and generous but wants to be found by us. Which ultimately leads him to draw near to us.

Our temples; our Westfields; our attempts to satisfy the sort of inbuilt longing that Paul suggests might actually come from God, our attempts will fail. In approaching the ‘Unknown God’ this way, Paul seems to suggest it’s this inbuilt ‘seeking’ that leads us to build altars to ‘unknown Gods,’  to temple-building, or to religious festivals — our attempts to satiate this inbuilt craving will fail if we turn to created things to satisfy it. It’s this inbuilt seeking that has us battling traffic, struggling to find a parking spot, then wading through crowds while listening to bad music every year hoping that this one will be the Christmas that lives up to the hype. Spending money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need, that will ultimately neither last nor satisfy.

And we fall for it. Every year.

Think of the stuff you’ve picked up for Christmas into your temple forays this year — or from the ‘virtual temple’ of online shopping — how much of your Christmas shopping could be described in the terms Paul uses to describe how we fill this existential hole… “We should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.” (Acts 19:29). Pandora charms anybody?

What Paul is talking about as he speaks to the Athenians is idolatry. He sees us as worshippers; that our hearts are inevitably drawn towards something or some thing, if not first drawn to the God who created us (and these things). He sees the answer to idolatry coming in that first Christmas… but it comes with a warning that we should be paying heed to each time we see the declaration that Jesus is the king — the Christ — in a shop window while we’re pursuing these baubles; these trinkets; these idols.

“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. ” — Acts 19:30-31

The story of Christmas is the story of God’s judging king coming into the world; not just a story about giving and generosity but about a particular gift from God. Jesus.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her king

This song has been around so long that these have become such cliched ideas, but these words should be a little ominous. This king has come to bring peace, and joy, and as a sign of God’s life-giving nature; he has come to make God known and answer this longing of our hearts. Yes. But also to judge.

These are ominous words about the omnipotent and omnipresent God making himself known, in human flesh, bridging the gap to us — ominous because they are not without cost; because this leaves us ‘without excuse’… We can’t plaster the name of Jesus around our shopping-temples and pretend not to have heard God’s story of sending a king into the world; a king who would make him known as ‘Immanuel’ or ‘God With Us’… And they should give us followers of the king a bit of pause when it comes to how we celebrate Christmas, but also, perhaps particularly, when it comes to picking a side in the war on Christmas. We Christians are a bit like Israel — we know God’s story of salvation and redemption, first for Israel and then for us in Christ. If Paul was going to speak to us Christians about the way we approach Christmas and Westfield, what would he say? Idolatry is one thing for people for whom God is unknown, it’s a totally different kettle of fish for those who are the people of the king. Idolatry is the subject of the first three of the ten commandments for God’s people in the Old Testament. The first two are obvious — they’re about worship (not putting other things, or gods, in God’s place), and not making created things into representations of God to worship those instead of God… but the third one isn’t just about saying ‘Jesus’ when you hit your thumb with your hammer or ‘Oh My God’ when you’re on reality TV (or Gogglebox)…

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” — Exodus 20:7

What could possibly be a greater misuse of the name of Jesus than to attach it to an idolatrous festival of greed, consumption and indulgence?

What could be more offensive to the nature of God’s generous saving act than to use it to boost the bottom line of big corporations at the expense of the minority world whose shoulders we trample down on? What could be a greater misuse of the name of Jesus than to use it to sell soaps and housing wares? The same Jesus who was born in squalor and shame in a stinking animal feed trough rejected by his father’s own home town who couldn’t even make a guest room available for his pregnant mother? Perhaps only politicising the name of Jesus to support worldly ‘empire building’ rather than owning the full implications of Jesus being Lord and king. You don’t have to look far abroad (cough Trump cough) to see political leaders politicising the name of Jesus to their own worldly ends… our most pernicious modern idols are that deadly cohort of sex, greed, and power… and the ‘war on Christmas’ inevitably involves people grasping for two of these three…

There’s an ‘unknown God’ element for many of the Aussies wishing one another a merry Christmas today; and an opportunity for us to say ‘hey, this holy-day we’re celebrating and that name you’re saying, let me proclaim what that’s all about to you’ — and we can do that gently and in a way that answers the deep longings of our hearts that we reach for in all sorts of rituals and cliches each Christmas. There’s a very fine line between cliche and comforting, habit forming, ritual or liturgy. A cliche was a printing tool used to quickly replicate common words or phrases in the printhouse so that characters could be stamped onto paper quickly — ritual or habit is what stamps a certain sort of character onto us. The word character actually comes from the Greek word for stamp… for cliche even. It doesn’t take much to give proper character forming meaning to the rituals we Aussies repeat each Christmas — the acts of generosity and hospitality — of gift giving; but disconnected from the original story they quickly become deforming rather than transforming — it takes connecting these rituals to the little baby in a manger (who’d grow to be a man on a cross) who the Bible says is the exact stamp/character of God’s nature — that’s the Greek behind Hebrews 1’s claim that in Jesus, at Christmas, God bridges the gap from infinite to finite to make himself known:

“in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” — Hebrews 1:2-3

This is the Jesus of Christmas. The Christ. It’s one thing to use the opportunities afforded by idol worship to make Jesus, the Christ, known to people in a way that answers what they crave; that connect them to the infinite, life-giving God — the source of our existence and being… it’s another thing entirely for Christians to try to fight a war on Christmas to keep the name of Jesus attached to an idolatrous festival that, without Jesus, is utterly deforming people; taking them from being people made in God’s image and re-shaping them through rituals of greed and consumption to represent utterly different God’s. Using the name of Jesus to pursue ‘gold’ or ‘silver’ or ‘stone’ or things made by human hands in temples to the modern day gods of greed and self-fulfilment is an abominable misunderstanding of the original Christmas — the incarnation — the drawing near in vulnerable human flesh — of the the one who made the universe.

It is reprehensible for Christians to fight for ‘Christmas’ to be put on the lips of more Australians this year without the character of Jesus answering their desires and reworking their hearts. If there’s a war on Christmas, then I’m siding with the Greens and drawing a line through the word Christ.

I don’t want the name of Jesus attached to silver baubles and golden trinkets to pay the temple taxes and make the rich richer. Just after Paul visits Athens he heads to Ephesus where the proclamation of Jesus as he really is upends the economy — it starts to cost the silversmiths who mould idol statues — characters even — and they revolt. That’d be embracing the true meaning of Christmas — upending the status quo, trotting in to your local Westfield with wheelbarrows full of cow manure, and inviting our equivalent of poor shepherds — our society’s nomadic outcasts — to Christmas lunch.

But in the meantime… Merry Christmas. In all its fullness. I hope you have a great day celebrating life, gift-giving, and sharing time, in the flesh, with those you love. There is nothing more Christmassy than this… I hope, even, that you found some delightful expressions of creativity and beauty to give and receive as gifts.

What’s fascinating about Joy To The World is that it sees these created things — nature — combining with the heavens to celebrate the birth of Jesus; these created things are meant to point us to Jesus, and the father who sent him into the world, not away from them. Their song is a song of joy; and they repeat it as our song bounces around, echoing through our lives and shaping our loves.

And Heaven and nature sing
And Heaven, and Heaven and nature sing
Joy to the world, the Saviour reigns
That all their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy

There’s so much about goodness and creativity and generosity and love and the spirit of this new (appropriated) secular festival we can and should affirm; the virtues at the heart of an Aussie Christmas are still things that repeat the sounding joy of that first Christmas even if only as an echo… just let these be a cliche in the right way…

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Excuse my French: A response to Stephen McAlpine’s Plan B planning

The ever provocative Stephen McAlpine has a new post up urging Christians to head to the bunkers (hyperbole, just) in response to the postal survey and Royal commission findings. I like Stephen, I think he has useful insights and a cracking turn of phrase… and, along with Mikey Lynch we’ve talked about doing a bit of a ‘blog in the flesh’ type jaunt around the Benedict Option (the theme of his latest post); in the absence of an ‘in the flesh’ thrashing out of what the Benedict Option might look like for an Australian context and outside the context of the big-O Orthodox tradition Dreher writes from, here’s a written response… (the second response I’ve written to a thing of Stephen’s this week — you’ll have to stay tuned for an article in Zadok magazine that Arthur Davis from meetjesusatuni.com and I co-wrote about millennials and church).

The post, titled ‘Church: Plan for a plan B future’ is a call to jump on board the Dreher train; when it comes to Rod Dreher’s specific framework, his ‘option,’ I’ve already voiced my opinion and won’t rehash it here, except to say that I feel like both Dreher and Stephen underemphasise the external focus of Christian life and thus Christian community; you’ve got to train the way you play as a Christian; withdrawing for ‘training’ and formation will be being formed in precisely the wrong posture and with the wrong telos in view; if we’re to be images of Jesus, being transformed by the Spirit until he returns, we’re to be God’s visible representatives in the world — ambassadors for Jesus, not just embassies for Jesus where people might find themselves; and this ambassadorial role should thrust us into some uncomfortable places where we may well be crucified; but this crucifixion is formative and not a reason to withdraw, in fact, it’s a witness to the truth of the Gospel.

Stephen’s piece suggests there are two possible ways to reject Dreher’s (or his own) position. You’re either a liberal or an ostrich, who both misses the power of the cultural diagnosis, or is scared off by the ‘withdraw’ idea. There’s a third option which overlaps with this second one — those who simply don’t understand the complexity of Dreher’s very clear proposition, and so reject it.

“The naysayers have fallen in to two camps.  Those who like the change they see in the culture, affirm it, and think that the church needs to get with the times.  For them there is no need for strategic withdrawal, merely strategic cultural assimilation.  After all what’s not to like about an ageing, shrinking, faithless demographic in your denomination?”

“Others, more likely in the evangelical camp, hear the word “withdrawal” and think “retreat”, “surrender”, “give up”.  They fail to hear the words “strategic” or “return”, so loud are their heart palpitations.  I’ve been to a conference in which the speaker mentioned that naughty “w” word, and was afterwards surrounded by slightly narky people of the “no surrender” type.  May I humbly suggest if that is you, you’d don’t get it?”

Here’s my third way summary to save you getting to the end. I reject Dreher’s Option and McAlpine’s “Plan B” because I think we’re called to be cross-shaped disruptors of the worldly status quo, and not to do that from a position away from the public square or ‘withdrawal’ (as Dreher means it). We’re to take our lead from Paul’s infiltration of Caesar’s household, not from the monastic community of the Essenes or the Benedictine Order.

When Dreher talks ‘strategic’ and ‘return’, I wonder if Stephen shares his timeframe? It’s definitely not in the short term, if his analogy to Benedictine communities and the dark ages is the ballpark we’re playing in we’re not talking about a few years, or decades, but lifetimes; an epoch.

The whole Benedictine analogy is a little tediously anachronistic — these were pre-internet times where it was much harder to form rapid, community driven, responses to political pressure and change, and a much less easily global/transient time where it was much easier to talk about society as mono-cultural, and most of the ‘from above’ political or cultural movements were reasonably difficult to resist. I’m not suggesting global connectivity is a panacea to the pressures of the world, just that a strategy from the dark ages might not be the most imaginative solution (especially when it involves actively disconnecting from these technologies — non ironically suggested by a blogger who has gained global attention for his ideas and sales for his books from these platforms he sees as dangerously ‘deforming’).

I’ve read the Benedict Option. Twice… and plenty of Dreher’s blog posts both before its release and about the response to the book. I think the Benedict Option is a Rorschach test; it has it both ways on the language and descriptions so much that it just gets read according to how alarmist one might be; if you fully drink Dreher’s kool-aid, you’ll find, in it, an urging to monastic living and ark building, but more moderate readers will find plenty of strategies for thicker Christian community; what you won’t find is a manual for hopeful Christian engagement anywhere that looks like a ‘corridor of power’ — be it the legal fraternity, politics (perhaps apart from the particularly local variety), or workplaces where the business is actively engaged in the ‘market’ such that shareholders and stakeholders will want the business to bend the knee to Caesar, be it the Caesar of the political, economic, or sexual empires. Dreher would have us head to rural communities and bunker down in a mostly ‘closed’ but rich communal life, where we start small businesses, work with out hands, and structure a deep and local church (with Christian schools and businesses) that can whether the storms the world throws our way.

In his take we’re defeated already — we’re headed for a dark ages, and Christianity, in particular, is going to be expunged from influence and from the public square.

It’s hard for me to totally buy this narrative, when:

a) it was mostly produced before the ‘evangelical’ movement in America elected Trump and jumped into bed with the empire (thus destroying the credibility of the church and the doomsday scenario that says it has no power),
b) in Australia there’s a robust egalitarianism and distrust of all institutions that has been around since ‘institutional Christianity’ was responsible for whipping convicts and seeking to displace and dispossess the indigenous community (until Christians decided our indigenous neighbours were human, and so set apart ‘converting’ them by making them act like white people and institutionalising them in a literal sense).
c) our political institutions still have Christian trappings like the Lord’s Prayer, and a significant number of our politicians are Christians who speak in favour of religious freedoms even as they vote for same sex marriage as a democratic duty.
d) the church is perceived as a powerful institution wielding disproportionate influence on the shape of Australian society (particularly from the top down)
e) research (from McCrindle) suggests most Aussies don’t hate the church or Jesus at all; they do, however, seem to have problems with our stance on homosexuality and with church abuse; homosexuality is the top ‘issue’ that functions as a belief blocker for non-Christians, while church abuse is the top ‘behaviour’ that blocks belief.

It only seems to be Christians who believe that the pursuit of different rights and programs for LGBTIQ+ Aussies has to come at the direct expense of Christians. Now, this might be true, but I simply don’t believe the binary options for rejecting the Benedict Option as a strategy, nor do I buy that Dreher’s diagnosis adequately describes either the scene in Trumpland or in Australia. I’ve certainly not experienced ‘hate’ or being ‘pushed out’ of the public square by anybody but Christians — one prominent Aussie apologist said I should be de-platformed by the Gospel Coalition and called out as a liberal because of the stance I suggested people take on the postal survey…

I don’t buy this ‘there’s only one way… and it’s down’ narrative… I prefer the diagnosis in Wilkinson and Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse, that modern (global) society never just moves in one direction but is in constant tension; I also don’t believe that the church has nailed our public Christianity strategy (or theology) (a drum I’ve been banging for years). Stephen had a dig at me for not having an appropriate political theology in a back and forth on Facebook this week, but I’m simply not sure that assertion creates truth simply by being spoken…

In his own take on the Australian scenario, particularly following the legislation of same sex marriage and the release of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional abuse, Stephen says:

“For let’s face it, the wider culture does not look at the two events separately, no matter how much we say “Yes, but.”  We kinda need to stop saying “Yes, but” at some stage. We’re not being heard and we’re not likely to be.  The wider culture has signalled that it has made the precipitous move to celebrate sexuality in a manner that the church does not, and will, if pressed, simply state that the church has not been practising sexuality in the way that the church has publicly celebrated.

Don’t say “Yes but.”

For whether or not this is true of all churches, indeed of the majority, is not the point.  In this post-Christian culture as far as the world is concerned, we’re all in this together.  Our echo chamber conversations are a waste of time.  The media conversation sets the tone for the barbecue conversations, so you’d better get used to it.”

I’m unconvinced that the media is as hostile to Christianity as McAlpine suggests; for every Q&A lion’s den, there’s an Andrew Bolt. I am convinced the Aussie media field is massively fragmented and that people are increasingly committed to getting their news and analysis from echo chambers that reinforce existing beliefs and hasten the polarisation and tribalism of the Australian community — which is exactly the danger of the Benedict Option. It supports a tribal, self-interested, form of Christianity that offers a hopelessness in the face of the world’s problems rather than a practice of loving engagement in issues that provides our proclamation of the logos of the Gospel with an ethos to match.

If an inability to have truly civic dialogue and the politicisation of every thing public are two pressing cultural issues in our fragile democracy, then why would Christians withdraw our voice from the public square — particularly given the way this plays out in barbecue conversations? Why would we not seek to create, curate, or patronise (in the sense of supporting) public squares that are less polarising and more open to civic conversation (rather than firing off opinion pieces to The Spectator). Why would we cede defeat and so stop trying? I don’t speak in total ignorance here, plenty of my professional life was spent engaging with the journalists who are now in large media institutions in capital cities, and the most ‘hostile’ or outspoken atheist of the bunch is the one who occasionally engages in civil conversation about politics on my Facebook wall…  An anecdote like this is not data, but the same ABC that employs Tony Jones to run Q&A, also employed Scott Stephens to run a religion and ethics portal, and to host a radio show discussing faith in Australia.

Here’s Stephen’s take (which does give us a time frame — a generation — but also a scenario that drives his ‘Plan B’ strategy):

“So I am all for religious freedoms and freedom of conscience in the public square.  I am committed to pushing for governments to continue funding faith schools that are not required to sign off on anti-discrimination legislations in terms of employment.  I am committed to doing so until it proves impossible.  Which it will indeed prove. So we’d better have a Plan B.  If we don’t we’re plain stupid and playing stupid.

For me, Plan B is Plan Benedict.  And the reason is simple:  I believe that the current hard secular context will push and push and push, and then find that the pendulum swings back against it somewhat.  True there may be irretrievable losses for the church in terms of state favour, but if the goal is a strong church that can demonstrate in word and deed that it runs counter to the culture, and that it is, in my term, “repellently attractive”, then that is a win as far as I am concerned.

Of course you will only see that as a win if you’re prepared to put in the hard work for a generation.”

It’s not all doom and gloom. These are actually fighting words fuelled by a vision of the secular landscape in France (which is different, again, to the secular landscape in the US, and makes me wonder why the secular landscape in Australia has to be the same as those, or even an amalgam).

“The point of the Benedict Option is not that we hide away as the culture gets worse and worse, but that we prepare ourselves for the new landscape that we will have to negotiate; a landscape that will be harsher and that will require a deeper commitment to a seemingly less plausible, more marginalised counter culture – the church of God.

It’s about toughening up, creating alternative institutions for our children to learn and grow in.  Think Star Wars and Jedi Knight training, as opposed to hill-billy fundamentalists.  B/O-ers are planning on coming back, if Jesus doesn’t first.

And will the cultural aggression die down to a point where we can find a non-contested place in the public square again?”

If you’re not in a monotheistic culture where the public square is a temple to a particular god, the public square is always contested; it will always be contested until the return of Jesus. This contest is not reason to withdraw but to remain as faithful witnesses; withdrawing to ‘prepare for a new landscape’ is not the model of the faithful church in Revelation who stays in the public square to be killed and ridiculed (and ultimately vindicated).

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

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

Now. Everybody has their own theological hot take on Revelation, but because I believe it had to speak to its first readers in an apocalyptic ‘revelatory’ voice about the situation they were facing that it has to describe their reality first, and so it describes reality living in a world where powerful human institutions are often ‘beastly’ minions of Satan who cause damage and oppression, especially to those who disrupt their ‘rule’ by challenging the worldly status quo; those disruptive voices (historically) either succeed, or are crucified — a different sort of success… often success leads to the people who win it taking on the mantle of worldly power; and so, Christendom was not all roses though it is, as Stephen acknowledges, the bedrock of western society. Which makes me wonder why he is so pessimistic about our ability to wield change in this moment when the church has been an agent of transformation in the past, and he hopes, following Benedict, that we might be again in the future.

The way we bring transformation — the way the early church did — is through cruciform difference — through faithful witness to the point of suffering, in the public square. That is how God works. It is ever so. Not by removing ourselves from the square, but by staying, and seeking its good, hopeful that God might also work through that…

And so. The French. Stephen shares some thoughts from a French friend about the way the Aussie scene mirrors the French; and his fears that we’re heading into Plan B territory without a plan; unprepared.

“To put it crassly, French secularism – or laïcité as they call it –  has won.  It doesn’t have to be shouty because the contest is seemingly over.  In other words, our Plan B is French Christianity’s small “p” plan.  There simply were, are and will be no other options in the near future.”

In France, Stephen says, there is no place for religion in the public square:

“Now that sounds terrible.  I want a religious discussion in the public square.  But, as Daniel observed about Australia, the idea of open-minded discussion is well in the past. We’re kidding ourselves if we think the public square in Australia is open-minded, fair and tolerant.  And our opponents would simply say, that’s exactly how we felt and now we’re getting our own back.  And we can protest that all we like, but it’s what is playing out.  If you’ve got no Plan B, you’re in trouble.”

I reckon Stephen is every bit as educated in the ways of the media as I am; but I think we’re being sold a pup here if we’re to believe that the public square is the institutional media of yesteryear; that the ‘public square’ is the media of the elite, or some sort of homogenous forum. I think this monolithic take on the public square is outdated (and perhaps if it were truly the case then then Benedict Option would be a good one; and we could go create (local) media-institutions-as-echo-chambers for our own people, or Christian pirate radio… or just tune in to commercial Christian radio I guess…  This is an attitude I’ve found prevalent in ‘establishment’ types (after a recent post I was challenged to prove my claim I’d read ‘piece after piece’ about Christianity being under attack, and this claim was dismissed because there was nothing ‘mainstream’ from ‘credible’ platforms). Old media thinking is going to get us an old media strategy — and not even our politicians are playing that game come election time anymore…

The public square isn’t just your editorial page in the Oz, or in the Herald, or Q&A (to start with, the readerships and audiences for those platforms are plummeting), and nor is it these places informing public opinion. The public square is your Facebook newsfeed and the online presence you stake a claim for via publication and curation of content. The public square is contested not because there is one dominant voice, but because there are now a chorus of voices bombarding us, but this also means we have the opportunity to curate our own public space, and invite people in to the discussion by how we operate it. It may be that I’ve picked option one in ‘rejecting the Benedict Option’ in Stephen’s opinion, but I’ve not found the ‘public square’ I play in in the social media world to be as he has described it. The challenge for us as we curate and create content for this public square is to understand the mediums and platforms (how algorithms work) so as to play them creatively; and to engage in a way that is both interesting and compelling (and yes, different to the world). Life in the ‘new world’ will, as Stephen suggests, require creativity and thick community, but not a sense of hopelessness about what that sort of community can achieve beyond its boundaries, or about the tangible difference such a community might represent to those who sense in it the ‘aroma of life’.

While Stephen’s piece is about as optimistic as he gets, here’s his conclusion, with a bit of French flourish.

“Perhaps it’s time for us in the church in places such as the US, Australia and to a lesser extent, the UK, to look to places like France as our example.  Because that’s the future that is coming.  2018 might be the year to look to hard secular Europe and do some reconnaissance (another nice French word!)”

I want to suggest a different French word starting with R; and (first) one starting with E. The problem I had with the Benedict Option’s pessimism about our ability to be economic influencers is it lacked imagination; it pushed a return to non-market driven professions, particularly local artisanal businesses — work with our hands — and there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s indeed, something beautiful and formative about that sort of work… but I wonder if there’s more ‘imaginative’ rejections of the status quo — of ‘market Babylon’ in being entrepreneurs (a French word, contra President Bush), particularly social entrepreneurs who reject the status quo of participating in the market and seek the good of communities and neighbours by explicitly rejecting an idolatrous tug every bit as powerful as the world’s take on sex.

When David Foster Wallace (DFW) talked about ‘default settings’ and our worship of sex, money, and power in his famous This Is Water, he was describing the way the world pulls us away from who God made us to be (though without God being in the picture). The ‘beastly’ world of the book of Revelation… the ‘real world’ we live in…

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and 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 all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it”

DFW was describing the sort of worldly forces that Dreher (and McAlpine) see taking the world to a new dark ages… being entrepreneurs who imagine ways to reject this status quo may provide us a path away from the dark ages, or a dark age strategy before we even get there, especially if the world we live in is in a constant stage of ‘democratised’ flux, where everybody truly is their own king.of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms. Being entrepreneurial in a deliberate rejection of the ‘merry hum’ of this deadly world is, perhaps, a more optimistic form of withdrawal that doesn’t involve quitting the economic scene, but seeking to disrupt it by being present and playing by different rules.

Perhaps I’m naive; but the team at Thankyou would be a pretty compelling anecdote in favour of this being a live option (perhaps especially for those dreaded, flighty, millennials who all want to be CEO of their own company at the beginning of our careers).

But the other word I want to push back with is renaissance; I’m not sure why we’re getting our marching orders from the cultural move that was a protective measure against the dark ages rather than from the rapid movement out of the dark ages. I’m also not sure why when we look back to church history we look at what saw the ‘Christian’ empire effectively collapse, rather than the church’s strategy that saw it gain a foothold (I call it the ‘Diognetus Option’)… If we’re going to talk about being a creative minority let’s not, in the same breath, talk about not participating in the creative arts (or, following Dreher, avoiding the formative power of the television). Let’s harness that power and seek to create art that is excellent and present in the now fragmented media landscape. You don’t need a distribution deal from a big Hollywood power broker to influence ‘culture’ any more…

I was struck today as I read a piece by Alan Noble on the Gospel Coalition, The Disruptive Witness of Art, that it offers a sort of hopeful antithesis to the Benedict Option, of the type I hope his forthcoming Disruptive Witness will continue, a push towards cultural renaissance without cultural abandonment or cultural capitulation. A via media via the media.

Bearing witness to the Christian faith in the 21st century requires a disruptive witness,  one that unsettles our neighbor’s assumptions about life within the immanent frame. One powerful way to accomplish this is through interpreting and creating cultural works that speak not only to our minds but also our bodies, emotions, and memories. Taylor has given us valuable tools to better understand our neighbors and the kinds of anxieties that haunt both them and ourselves. To cultivate the deep knowledge to apply Taylor’s ideas, we will need significant investment in the Christian liberal and creative arts.

The sort of art he’s talking about isn’t the art produced in a parallel community for the formation of that community; but in and through engagement with the world and the ‘creative commons’ — or the public square that includes more than just politics and political discussions. That seems to me a more exciting option or plan for the church to pursue. One that requires imagination and listening (to the world); one that means training the way we play, not heading off to some training field but racking up game time experience; because that’s what counts.