What does an advancing Australia look like? On anthems, home, and welcomes

Australians all let us rejoice, For we are young and free…

Image Credit: Flogged from a site I won’t link to that is selling this hideous ideology-as-T-shirt-slogan.

It seems some Christians who love Australia are joining in the chorus of angry voices shouting variants of the “if you don’t love it, leave it” slogan at some Muslim school children who left a room while their classmates sang the national anthem in a Victorian school.

I don’t get it. I mean, I get that the national anthem is the closest thing we’ve got to a sacred song in terms of our nationalistic religion, and so walking out is an act of impiety, at best, and sacrilege, at worst. And so I expect certain sections of the community to be up in arms when believers from another religion don’t follow these cultic practices, or appear to be insulting them. But I’m confused, a little, on two fronts. The first is what sort of freedom we’re rejoicing in as we sing the national anthem if it doesn’t include the freedom not to sing, the second is how to navigate the murky pool of Christianity and patriotism, or nationalism, without forgetting that we too, are exiles, and that we too, are called to not bow the knee to nationalistic cults if such knee-bowing represents a betrayal of our religious convictions.

… we are young and free

Are we? What sort of freedom are we believing in, as Australians — and as Christians in Australia — when we echo the ‘love it or leave it’ slogan? Is there any greater curtailing of freedom than to force people to participate in something that clashes with their fundamental view of the world, or of citizenship? Do we really want to be throwing citizenship in a pluralistic, liberal, democracy — one that believes in ‘freedom’ — up against religious belief and practice? Isn’t that a privilege that we as Christians can only rely on if we deliberately forget our history — the story of the emergence of the Church, indeed, the story of the incarnation of Jesus — against hostile worldly empires? That’s the story of the Old Testament, and the story of the New, it’s the story of the Early Church, and the story of the Reformation.

It seems to me that Christians calling on faithful Muslims to leave because they can’t align their religious beliefs with Australianism, in order to be consistent, would historically have called Daniel to leave Babylon, the Israelite exiles to no longer ‘seek the welfare’ of the pagan cities they were carried off to, and would have called early Christians to pack up their bags and flee the Roman empire. It seems they’d be forced to ask, in essence, Jesus to bow the knee to Caesar.

It seems, not to be too dramatic, that if we adopt the ‘love it or leave it’ slogan to throw it at our ‘ideological enemies’ — those whose religious faith is at odds with our own — we’re in danger of becoming a bit like the Pharisees at Jesus’ trial. There’s a risk that we might become so keen to end the ‘freedoms’ of a competing religion, Islam, that we’ll sign up with any common enemy of Islam at the cost of our own soul.

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”…

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:12, 14-16

Christians have always had a funny relationship with the secular state. With worldly notions of nationhood. We want to live in such a way, as foreigners within our ‘home’ country, that people see where home really is, and to what kingdom we truly belong as citizens.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God;once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. — 1 Peter 2:9-12

Just after this little passage, Peter describes what it looks like for Christians to live as exiles in a hostile world — a world, or empire, that crucified the king of God’s kingdom. He outlines a path towards radical change and transformation. He describes why Christians might feel a sense of pride, or belonging, as we sing a nation’s anthem (without feeling like we’ve necessarily sold our soul in order to join a civil cult).

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

Honouring the emperor — participating in the empire — never extended to worshipping the emperor or participating in a litmus test based on nationalistic religion. A Christian in Rome was free to not pray to the emperor — a Roman rite of passage — while still feeling like they could live in Rome and contribute to public life, ‘doing good’ and while still honouring the emperor.

In a Christian framework, you don’t have to bow the knee, or offer a sort of lip service, to the nationalistic cult. You have to participate in public life for the good of the people around you, out of love for neighbour and enemy. A letter, called the Letter to Diognetus, from some time in the second century, describes the Christian approach to life in the world, life, as it were, as exiles.

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

The Christian message, if reduced to a shirt slogan, is not just the anti-thesis of love it or leave it, it’s not just that we look around us at our earthly home and say “if you do love it, stay”, but we look towards our eternal home and say “we love our home, come”… and the way we live now — our hopes, our practices, our participation in the public life of our place — reflects this slogan.

It might seem specious to equate the worship of a Roman emperor with the singing of a national anthem, but if the sentiment behind “if you don’t love it, leave it” or the sense that a person is, or isn’t, truly Australian based on their desire to sing the anthem or salute the flag truly represents an understanding of what it means to really be a ‘citizen’ here, then it’s not far off. In the early years of the church, when the Roman Empire was looking to weed out this disruptive sect that was threatening civic life as those in power knew it — such was the transformative power of the Christian ethos — the test applied to Christians, a citizenship test for people who considered themselves exiles in the empire, was to see if the Christian would bow the knee to Caesar, to deny Jesus. The Governor, Pliny, describes his application of this test — and motivation — to the Emperor, Trajan:

An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

In response, Trajan says:

“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it —that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.”

Is this the tradition we want Australia to stand in, is this what we want freedom to look like?

Are we asking these Muslims to deny their faith in order to participate as citizens in our nation? What are Christians doing standing behind those demands — if not a sort of obvious fear and desire for self-preservation built on some sort of belief in Australia’s ‘Christian heritage’?

We, Christians, have always celebrated our ability to live as exiles — and our commitment to not bowing the knee to Caesar, selling out Jesus for the sake of belonging in our worldly kingdom. We’ve lost that in the era of Christendom, and as we’ve simply assumed a corollary between the civil cult and Christian belief. For as long as Anzac Day services are held in Christian churches, with prayers led by Christian ministers, we’ll believe there’s a close link between the two, and so, the Muslim will be the outsider. But days are coming when the laws of our land will place similar constraints on Christian belief, and we might face very similar tests to these Muslim students about where our allegiance really lies. In these future days we’ll be looking to the sentiment expressed by the anthem — a desire for a nation built on freedom — and we might remember days like these where we weren’t so quick to extend that freedom to others.

It seems odd that we don’t want to extend this freedom — to be defined by a religious citizenship — to citizens of other religious kingdoms. Sure, the values of those kingdoms might be at odds with their host nations, and such kingdoms might indeed seek to change the nature of their home culture, or transform it according to their religious vision of the good and flourishing society, but aren’t we all actually compelled to do that? Isn’t this what pluralism, and freedom, looks like? Isn’t this what we sing about when we talk about Australia being a land we want to share with those who’ve come across the seas? Isn’t there an irony here in terms of what European settlement did to the Australian culture it was met with on arrival?

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.

Isn’t courageous combining, placed alongside the ‘freedom’ of the first verse, an aspiration to live well together. To share the table of our ‘boundless plains’ with others, even if they don’t agree with us? Isn’t the unity we’re called to express in the act of singing this anthem a unity that transcends whether or not we choose to sing the anthem, and is located more in a common desire to live together for the sake of the nation of Australia ‘advancing’ towards some advancing view of the good life? And what sort of good life are we talking about if it involves the excluding of certain freedoms.

Obviously this unity requires a certain desire to ‘combine’ with courage, rather than to not combine — but assimilation isn’t really courageous combination. It’s cowardly. It involves a fear of the different, rather than a celebration. From what I can tell of the motivations of those young Muslims who did not sing the anthem with their classmates, it was not a repudiation of a desire to see Australia advance in this way, but a desire to simultaneously be committed to their religious convictions, to live, as it were, as citizens of two worlds — the world created by their religious beliefs, and the world created by a common love for Australia. Like any story that becomes part of the outrage cycle, we’ve now got extremists posturing for both camps.  The Herald Sun reports that the initial rationale behind the withdrawal was specifically linked to a religious practice.

Principal Cheryl Irving said during the month of Muharram Shi’a Muslims do not take part in joyous events, such as listening to music or singing, as it was a period of mourning.

“Muharram is a Shi’a cultural observation marking the death of Imam Hussein,” Ms Irving said. “This year it falls between Tuesday October 13 and Thursday November 12.

“Prior to last week’s Years 2-6 assembly, in respect of this religious observance, students were given the opportunity to leave the hall before music was played.

“The students then rejoined the assembly at the conclusion of the music.”

These students bravely took a stand on the basis of their convictions about the world — if these were Christians the Christian commentariat would be lauding their bravery and describing their actions as martyrdom. These students then, despite this obvious difference, returned to the gathering — an act of courageous combination with a view to participating in life with their peers, as Australians. This is, I would’ve thought, the sort of Australia we join to sing into being. Songs have the capacity to powerfully shape actions and ethics — that is one of the many reasons that Christians sing together, and it’s why nations and sporting teams create songs which foster harmony within the group. Singing the anthem is, in a sense, a speech-act, a declaration of an ideal. Perhaps this is why we mostly skip the second verse. Perhaps this is to recognise that modern Australia is not advancing the way we hoped. Perhaps it’s to put our guilty consciences at ease about the way settlers treated first Australians, or maybe it’s about our wavering commitment to sharing with those who come across the seas, and a sense that our boundless plains, or generosity might not be so boundless after all. Perhaps the second verse makes us uncomfortable because it calls us to live beyond our comfort zones.

Maybe we need to return to this ideal — whether we sing it together, or live out this courageous commitment to combining with those we disagree with for the common good. This is the Australia the anthem envisages, and so, creates as an ideal. A nation built on the courageous combination of people and worldviews, and commitment to generous sharing of our natural resources, with ‘those who’ve come across the seas.’ That, more than anything, is a gift given to us by the continued undeserved generosity of the first people to share Australia with sea-faring settlers. I’m blown away, with great regularity, by the willingness of Indigenous Australians to conduct ‘Welcome To Country’ ceremonies at different events, and with the generous manner that Indigenous elders participate in discussions about asylum seekers.

In joyful strains then let us sing, Advance Australia Fair.

Songs really are powerful. Songs really do give us a sense of home — perhaps this Muslim tradition has actually recognised something powerful that Christians have forgotten, at least if we don’t think the singing of the anthem is a big deal. I have no doubt that Christians can sing the anthem with gusto — particularly with a vision for how we might act out these words in a manner consistent with our faith, and with our calling to live as exiles who do good for the benefit of those around us, and so they might know the truth of our belief. It’s interesting that in that correspondence between Pliny and Trajan, the governor mentions that his investigations have established that Christian practice involves singing what, in the face of the belief that the Emperor was divine, a truly subversive song:

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

Our singing loses its subversive power if we either deny the significance of the singing of the national anthem, and thus call on religious people to sing it without question, or if we assume it is a song that can truly represent our view of good citizenship apart from our true citizenship in the Gospel. Our songs, our Christian anthems, contain the subversive truth that should shape even our singing of the national anthem as it shapes our view of home, and of where we belong. Perhaps the best we have, at this, is the one that the Apostle Paul quotes in Philippians. Perhaps this should be our anthem, and perhaps it should shape our approach to other kingdoms — be it the kingdom of Australia, or the various kingdoms envisaged by our Muslim neighbours who put their trust in interpretations of the visions of the ‘good life’ as described by Mohammed. Our vision of the good life is captured in the example of the one who truly lived ‘a good life’ — who was crucified for refusing to compromise the nature of his kingdom in the face of the Empire he lived and walked in, and who, through his crucifixion, was crowned as the real king of the universe. The one who invites us home.

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

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
— Philippians 2:6-11

It’s only when we forget this song, and the vision of the world it brings, that we start to believe others refusing to sing Advance Australia Fair are worth condemning. This song compels us to invite people to an eternal home, rather than calling them to leave our temporary one. It also invites us Christians to ‘courageously combine’ with each other, for the good of those around us, to, in the words which precede this song in Philippians “have the same mindset of Christ” as we live to see the nation we live in truly advance as it transforms. The result of owning this song as an anthem is never to ask people to leave — but to extend hospitality, and ask people to stay.

A letter to our Immigration Minister re: #Abyan

The debates around asylum seekers and the complex nature of the global refugee crisis often involve more heat than light. This is me trying to throw a little bit of light into the mix. The story of the suffering Somali Refugee Abyan has gone through at our hands has led me to shed tears, and led me to cry out for something different. Something that breaks this cycle.

Love, love is a verb.
Love is a doing word.
Feathers on my breath.
Gentle impulsion
Shakes me, makes me lighter. — Teardrop, Massive Attack

The story of Abyan, the pregnant Somali woman (allegedly) raped on Nauru, has been belting my brain about this week, and my heart. It’s such a compounding of personal, national and international tragedy that it has driven me as close to despair as the story of Aylan Kurdi. Abyan’s situation is the result of many evils, and she has been tossed around on an ocean of horror — literally even — from Somalia, to a journey involving leaky boats and people smugglers, to Nauru, and into the hands of this evil man.

I despair at the lack of options on the table for Abyan at every step on this journey. I despair at the lack of choice. I despair that her dignity has been taken from her — a little more — at every turn. And that I, as an Australian, have been complicit in some of this, and that we in our prosperity, have the potential to offer dignity and freedom much earlier in the piece, and the responsibility to offer it now. As costly as this will be for us in dollar terms. The problem is that we keep trying to outsource this cost to our government, to be paid for by our taxes, sure, but we want to wash our hands of the decision making, and keep them clean when it comes to dealing with the mess. Our government — our politicians — then become the people we send in to clean up our horrid mess, and we crucify them because their hands get dirty. That doesn’t seem fair either.

I was blown away by many things at the recent Faith and Public Office Conference (12 of them here), one was the metaphor of ‘dirty hands’ — the cost that comes with being someone who bears responsibility in public office, who has to navigate complex moral issues on our behalf, and bear the cost of often attempting to choose the lesser of two evils in order to do good. Politics can be a messy game. It’s easy to throw stones from the sidelines so that we never dirty our own hands. It’s easy to get outraged, to grandstand, to say “not in my name” — but to never put your name on the line, like our politicians have, and to never offer to get your hands dirty.

The catch in this situation — in Abyan’s story — is, I can’t see a good or convenient way out of this mess, like many can. I absolutely recognise that other people think differently on this — and are free to. But, I’m not sure the ‘clean’ answer was not simply for our government to allow her pregnancy to be terminated. Some may argue that this is the ‘least messy’ option, or even a good option, but as a Christian who believes life within the womb is human life, I don’t think ‘termination’ is a ever a ‘good’ option (it may be a least bad option — like in situations where there’s a genuine choice between the life of a mother, and her child). If I’m being consistent, it always involves the ‘termination’ — the death — of a human life. At 14 weeks, this life within Abyan, is moving, it has a beating heart. It has just learned to “grasp, squint, frown, and grimace. It may even be able to suck its thumb.” I know this because when you want to keep a baby, you treat it as a life from the moment you know it is there, there are websites and books where you read about this stuff, and you chart the milestones (especially on the first, after that, it’s all a bit passé until they take that first breath and you know you’ve run the pregnancy gauntlet).

Despite the obvious (and consistently drawn) link to unborn children in the film clip to Massive Attack’s Teardrop (featured above), I think the song is about the cost of life in this messy world (here’s a little account of the life of Elizabeth Fraser, who wrote the lyrics, including what she says the song’s metaphor means for her). I think it, both lyrically and in the video, explores the cost of life lived with death — or mess — or our broken humanity — as an ever-present consequence. The fragility of life. It’s better, perhaps, not to be born into this world, except that birth is the path to life, and life itself is inherently good. Even though it hurts. I think it offers stumbling love — love as a verb — as the solution for us as we navigate this together.

Teardrop on the fire.
Feathers on my breath.

You’re stumbling into all…
You’re stumbling into all… — Teardrop, Massive Attack (I took a while to settle on the ‘official’ lyrics of this song, because nowhere on the internet seems to agree, but José Gonzalez’s cover is relatively clear)

What does love look like here? For Abyan? In this mess? Love, I think, looks like being prepared to stand beside Abyan, to bear some of the cost, to lay down something of ourselves for her sake.

I should be filled with the same grief at the picture of an ultrasound of a refugee baby ‘terminated’ — aborted — as a result of our solution to this complex global issue as I am by the picture of a child who fled evil but didn’t make it into the care of a nation like us. I don’t think Abyan should be forced to carry the cost of this evil — any of it — perpetrated on her for the rest of her life either (I expand on this a bit in the letter below, so before you send me hate mail, read that, and then send me hate mail). In isolation, there’s no ‘good’ outcome here — but people aren’t meant to live in isolation, we’re meant to carry the cost of evil together. To dirty our own hands for the sake of pulling someone out of the mud of these horrors (in part, lest these horrors also pull us into the mud).

Ultimately what happens to this life — this baby — will be, and should be, Abyan’s choice. But at the moment, at least if we’re talking about this pregnancy as involving a life, she has no good options. We all make life and death choices about those we have a responsibility for, every day, I’m about to feed my own kids a healthy breakfast — and the choice not to serve them an unhealthy breakfast will shape their lives. But this isn’t a decision she should make alone, and it’s not a decision she should make confronted with only terrible options. That sort of decision compounds the horror of this horrible set of circumstances. I like the idea, throughout the Bible but best articulated in Deuteronomy, that our decision making is generational. That we shape the people who come after us as we make decisions that end up being decisions made on their behalf — and what marks out people who follow the living God of the Bible, is that we choose life at every turn, even if it costs us — a pattern we ultimately see in Jesus, but one that’s there in the opening books of the Bible, this was the choice facing God’s people in the Old Testament:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants” — Deuteronomy 30:19

This choice is harder than it sounds. The Old Testament is the story of people failing over and over again to choose life. Making messy decisions that compound messy decisions. Generationally. We need to choose life over and over again — at our cost — to break this messy cycle in our lives. This, again, is modelled at the Cross, where Jesus chooses his own death, in order to bring life to others. He gets his hands dirty, and pays the cost. So we might live, and so that we might take up our cross and offer to lay down our lives, or get our hands dirty, for the sake of others.

I was challenged by all this — the brokenness of this situation, the ‘dirty hands’ metaphor, and the example of Jesus as a way out, the call to ‘choose life.’ So I wrote to the Hon Peter Dutton MP, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and offered to get my hands dirty. Well, in a generational sense, I offered my family’s hands.

Robyn and I have offered to adopt the unborn baby, and find some way to also care for Abyan. The ‘why’ is a bit buried in the letter. So here it is:

“I’m moved to offer this generosity because I believe that this offer has first been made to me. That as a Christian the model of “getting one’s hands dirty” to solve a product not of one’s making is found in Jesus, whose hands became a bloodied mess as he solved the problems of our making at the Cross. This offer is me taking up my cross.”

I should have said “we” here, because Robyn, without hesitation, said yes to this crazy idea. And I love that. Adoption like this may not be what Abyan wants, it probably isn’t, but I guess my desire for her is simply that she have choices beyond the choices she faces today. I want for her, and for the many like her, that they have not just the same decision making capacity, dignity, and freedom they’d have without the suffering they’ve experienced and fled from, but that this would be increased because they have the offer of stumbling love from their global neighbours to add to the mix. So our offer, really, is an offer to love Abyan according to whatever terms she, and our government, might allow.

The tragedy is that there are many Abyans. The global refugee crisis creates stories like this every day. We’ve heard Abyan’s story because it has been brought to our attention, but our responsibility extends to Abyan, and beyond. Are you prepared to dirty your own hands? Maybe it’s time you told someone, someone who has had their skin in the game — via politics — for some time. Maybe it’s time we stopped haranguing — however gently — and started offering our empathy, and our assistance.

And so:


Dear Peter,

I’ve been praying for you, and your office this week (and for many weeks, but especially this week). I lead a church community in South Bank, Brisbane, and some of our number are refugees in the community on bridging visas. I’ve heard their stories and I know just how complicated the refugee issue is globally, and locally. I know its a situation where there are no ‘good’ or easy solutions. That millions of people have been displaced, are hurting, and are needing care. I want to make the following offers, and I explain why below.

1. I would like to find a home for Abyan’s child, it seems that a decision has been made that this child will be born. I would like to spare Abyan from as much cost involved in this decision as possible. And I would like to pay it. I’m sure there would be people in our church community who would be willing to adopt Abyan’s child, because I spoke to my wife this morning and we would be happy to adopt this child. There may be others more fitting. But somebody needs to make this offer.

2. I know this one would involve invoking your Ministerial prerogative, but I would like to offer our community’s care to Abyan, so that if she wishes, throughout her life, she might have a relationship with this child. But I would find housing and an appropriate amount of counselling and care for her within our community, or the wider Christian community in Brisbane.

My prayer for you, offered every time a story like this hits the paper, is that you would continue to act with wisdom and increasingly act with compassion. I think we can always have more compassion, and the refugee crisis is getting worse, so our compassion must keep increasing. I believe the outpouring of offers of support from within the Australian community in response to the Syrian crisis is a turning point and an example of what this might look like. People in the community stand ready, willing, and able to open our homes to those in crisis. We’re prepared to open ours for as long as it takes.

I’m moved to offer this generosity because I believe that this offer has first been made to me. That as a Christian the model of “getting one’s hands dirty” to solve a product not of one’s making is found in Jesus, whose hands became a bloodied mess as he solved the problems of our making at the Cross. This offer is me taking up my cross.

I know this situation is complex. It’s a mess — and not of our making. It’s horrific and I thank you for bearing the cost of that horror, seeing and knowing things that most of us would wish to remain ignorant of. Making decisions on the basis of data that we don’t have.

I know also, that in our prosperity, Australia has a role to play in providing that care and this role is often outsourced to the government. We want to wash our hands while yours get dirty, and at our worst, we want to point at your dirty hands as evidence of a lack of compassion, when we could instead be extending them to help.

I read the story of Abyan and her rape on Nauru with horror. Horror because there is no way that I, as an Australian, put her in this situation, as much as the people smugglers and her decision to get on a boat with them, and the horrors in Somalia are also responsible. This is a horrific situation and it is a confluence of global and local horrors. It grieves me, and moves me to compassion, as I trust it does for you too. But I know there are no easy solutions.

This situation grieves me in a slightly fuller sense, too, because like many in our community I believe there is a human life quickening in the midst of all this horror. A human life who is not guilty of the crimes committed in Somalia, by people smugglers, or by the rapist on Nauru. A life that will join an ocean of casualties from this refugee crisis without the freedom to choose between a UN camp or a rusty boat. As a Christian who believes in the inherent dignity of life — both Abyan’s and this child’s — I should feel the same when I see a picture of an ultrasound as I did when I saw that traumatic photo of Aylan Kurdi. I recognise this child’s life is in the hands of his mother, where it should be, we all have responsibility for the lives of those around us, and we all make life and death decisions, of sorts, in myriad ways, every day.

I’m not seeing many choices on the table for Abyan though — she does not have the freedom we might expect in Australia to make these life and death decisions. There aren’t that many ‘good’ options on the table here, because good options cost someone something, and good options are hard to find in situations that just seem to leave everyone with dirty hands. But I believe in these situations you’ve got to offer your hands for the sake of others. Especially if you ever want to credibly speak out against people making decisions who have offered their lives in service to our country and its interests. So, this is why I have made this offer, and why I continue to pray for you and yours. For wisdom and compassion.

I know that conventional lobbying would involve me starting a petition or something at this point. I’m not interested in playing that game. I’m interested in offering costly solutions to complex problems. I will share this letter with my network, online, in the hope that others will be moved to offer the same response to situations like this, but I want to assure you this is not an act of grandstanding, this is jumping the fence and asking to play on the field.

If you have any other ideas for ways our church community could help bear the cost of this global crisis, I would love to hear them. You, your family, and your department are in my prayers. Thank you for serving us as a member and minister of our government.


Nathan Campbell

Why I now side with Paul, not Eutychus

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted. — Acts 20:7-12

St. Eutychus: Where being boring kills.

When I changed the name of this site from nathanintownsville to st-eutychus, I did it because I thought the story of Eutychus falling out the window in Acts — to his death — was hilarious. Eutychus will eternally be known as the guy bored to death by Paul’s preaching. Paul. Potentially the most effective teacher ever to have lived. In my reading of the story, for the sake of the title, he fell into the trap of preaching too long. A trap, as a PR hack who wrote pithy 500 word press releases for a living, that I genuinely believed was deadly.

So what’s happened. Somehow in recent times the tagline of this site should almost be read as an indicative — this is the place where you might come to be drowned in words, lulled to sleep, and might fall from a window to your death. Where being boring kills. Yes.

This is deliberate. I’m raging agains the TL:DR; machine. If you want short, punchy, simplistic and inane reactive viral fodder, then, well, pith off.

I’m raging against this machine because I think Eutychus was wrong. I think being bored kills. I think Eutychus should have worked harder to pay attention to Paul, and to the world — he should have known the dangers of sitting on a window sill, in a dimly lit room, listening to someone speak for hours.

We’ve lost the ability to pay attention, and the only way we’ll gain it is to start paying attention. Copious attention. To the world, to the Gospel, to the people around us. TL:DR; (too long didn’t read) is at least as much an indictment of our collective failure to pay attention as it is on poor content that is too long and convoluted.

Sure, a thing might not be worth your attention — that’s on you to figure out, and your attention is yours to give. I’m writing as an attempt to pay attention to things myself. To notice. To seek understanding. To avoid knee-jerk outrage in response to whatever is going on in the world, and to try to understand the world as people see it, and the world as I believe people should see it. Attention is what is required to live well, and love well. It’s what prevents outrage, and what causes someone to bother with fact checking before sharing something designed to create outrage. Any pithy thing I ever do write — anything under 2,000 words, the posts I typically see shared the most — is always, always, the product of thinking I’ve extensively outlined, out loud, here already, at much greater length.

At the end of the day, I write about things that interest me, that I hope, over time, might prove of interest or value to others. You don’t need to pay attention to me or what I write. That’s fine — I don’t check stats, this stopped being about my ego or my ‘brand’ a long time ago. But I do feel like I need to keep explaining the shift of gears in this corner of the interwebs.

You don’t need to read everything I write — not even my wife or mother do that (I think dad might, hi dad) — but if I could leave you with one plea. One desperate, heartfelt, plea:

Please pay attention.

To the world.

To others.

Give it generously.

Lavish it in droves.

Use your brain, and your eyes, but think about what you’re filling them with. Ask yourself why we fill a 24-hour news cycle with 10 second grabs from spokespeople forced to reduce complex issues into a memorable zinger. Ask what that’s doing to our media, our politics, and our ability to be civil. Ask yourself why we’ve got a 24 hour news cycle that we then pad out with input from multiple devices, feeding us those same 10 second lines from those same glib speakers. Read Nicholas Carr’s famous piece Is Google Making Us Stupid. In his book, The Shallows, Carr says:

“Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

The internet has the capacity to stop us concentrating, and contemplating — other words for paying attention.

And then he says, according to neuroscientists and because our brains are ‘plastic’ — they change as we use them…

“We become, neurologically, what we think”

The Psalmist behind Psalm 115 says:

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see…

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

We become what we behold. And what we behold isn’t just the messages we pay attention to, but the mediums that deliver them too.

Paul, in Romans, says:

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

Things in this world shape us. Things external to us. You might believe you’re in control of this shaping, but the only way to be in control is to pay attention — Christian or not — testing and approving of how you live and the decisions you make is what keeps you in the driver’s seat for your brain, and what keeps us able to live well in this world.

Ask yourself if you really believe that we become what we behold — then ponder why media theorists, theologians, and neuroscientists all agree that the information we consume, and the way we consume it, has the power to shape the way we think and physically re-shape our brains and communication.

Maybe a ten second sound bite or a seven hundred word opinion piece isn’t enough to do justice on any real issues in this world. And maybe consuming these things and thinking they do our thinking for us is starting to cost us our ability to see the world well, and thus live in it well. Maybe you’ve got to read ten seven hundred word opinion pieces, or one seven thousand word opinion piece to really know what’s going on, and to react appropriately.

That’s what I think. That’s why I’ve switched camps from Eutychus to Paul. Paul was also a nice guy. He didn’t punish Eutychus for not paying attention, he saw what happened and picked him up.

And then he talked some more. From midnight to dawn. That’s a lot of words. Because sometimes its words that give life.

St. Eutychus: Where being bored kills.



Re-Enchanting the World — Episode 3: We can be heroes (and we need heroes we can be)

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” — G.K Chesterton

Image credit: Marvel.com

“Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to…When works of art shine, they illuminate and glamourise a way of life, and all other things shine in their light.” — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

Ok. So here’s my theory — one I’ve found some support in elsewhere — if you want a form of popular art that performs this function in the modern west, where we have figures who are clearly heroes — superheroes — battling figures that are clearly villains, and ‘glamourising a way of life’ — by embodying virtues of the current age, then it’s our humble comic book superhero stories that do this. They do it because these are the popular stories of our age — but they also do it because they self-consciously present us heroes of our age. This means if we want to change, or re-enchant, our current view of the world, these stories might be a vehicle to do that. The problem is that these stories are products of a modern view of the world — just as ancient stories were a product of an ancient view of the world, so we may need a healthy dose of ‘enchantment’ thrown into the mix if these stories are going to raise our eyes to a greater significance of reality. To pull us towards the ‘transcendent’ or the idea that the world has a meaning beyond physical, material, reality.

In a piece of fairly bizarre timing, Christ And Pop Culture (one of my favourite websites) launched a new column this week called Panel Discussion, an exploration of the world of the comic book. The first cab off the rank was a piece titled Comic Books as Modern Mythology. This piece operates on the premise that: “The comics of today are American versions of Greek mythology complete with origin, philosophy, psychology, and religion.”

This is a view supported in a couple of more scholarly works on Superheroes and their function in our culture. For example, this essay ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ that compares our modern heroes to ancient heroes like Beowulf.

“The vague origins and the sudden departures of such heroes also serve to enhance their legends. These legends in time take on almost religious status, becoming myths that provide the communities not only with models for conduct but with the kind of heightened shared experiences which inspire and unify their members.”  — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

…And this book Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths by David Reynolds, who looks to Socrates and Plato and their understanding of the function of myth in conveying truth about the world, and fostering virtuous character, to suggest we should read these modern stories asking similar questions that we (and others, historically) ask of their ancient equivalents — epic myths:

The cultural function of mythic heroes such as those from Greek, Roman, and Norse cultures has attracted significant scholarly attention. Yet, what is the relevance of those ancient heroes today, and what are we to make of their hitherto academically neglected modern equivalents, popular superhero figures, such as Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman? A culture’s prominent narratives become that culture’s myths, reinforcing cultural values and disseminating norms of social behaviour… — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths

Reynolds charts three ages of comic book mythology — the gold, silver, and bronze ages. He draws the boundaries of these ages in slightly different places to some sort of comic convention — suggesting ‘golden’ age heroes appeared in stories from the modernist world, up to and including WW2. The heroes in this age served the establishment. Silver age heroes emerged after the war, with the creation of Spider-Man. They have more human flaws, this period spans the gap from modernism to post modernity and its stories introduce a greater sense of world-building and story integration. Bronze age heroes are all dark, gritty, post-modern and somewhat nihilistically hopeless — a product of our cynical age. The ‘epic’ function of superheroes developed over these epochs.

The shining ‘heroes’ of the ‘golden age’

Heroes, as the central characters in our modern works of art — especially stories — show us how to live. They become combatants in the mission to help us see the world rightly — they’re products either of an enchanted world embedded with meaning, or a mechanical world where heroes are made, mostly accidentally, not born with a divine purpose. Most of our modern comic book heroes are products of a mechanical, or immanent, world. They’re (largely) spawned by the immanent world going very right, or very wrong — science, and science gone bad, accounts for the super-powers of plenty of our heroes.

When they are their most ‘epic’, or enchanted, heroes don’t just show us that dragons (or villains) can be defeated, but at their best present us with a path to immortality. That’s been a theme of the epic tale since Gilgamesh — see also the Arthurian knights in their perpetual quest for the Holy Grail.

It’s interesting to consider what a quest for immortality — or an epic quest — looks like in an immanent world, where the infinite is collapsed into the finite. What does salvation look like in this sort of frame? The secret to immortality is likely to be either a product of scientific innovation, or immortality will be dismissed as a pipe-dream, and replaced with the quest for some more rational form of immortality — like a name that lasts.

Often, in epic stories where the hero is clearly mortal — like, say, Beowulf  — immortality is captured when a hero’s name lives on, on account of their glorious deeds. Immortality in an immanent world is about making a name for yourself. A name that lasts. That’s the best a modern myth can imagine, or aim for.

Heroes model virtues. But not just any old virtues — virtues set against the backcloth of the current view of the world, or, they may embody a virtuous ideal, linked to an ideal vision that they are working towards — within the story, and as the story (as a tool of a story teller). Heroes, through these stories, articulate a picture of human flourishing. We readers are invited to share this vision, but we’re invited more to see the character as embodying a certain type of heroism, a type of heroism that we are free to imitate in our own world. Heroes are model imaginators — they help us see the world as enchanted because they model what it looks like to have an imaginative vision for the transformation of the world, and show us a bit of what it might cost to change — to re-create — the world as we know it to the world as we imagine it could be.

Heroes that only solve very ‘domestic’ issues are a little too small. Epic heroes — heroes that may pull us somewhere other than where we are — need a sense of being larger than life. They need to shine. They need to stand for something bigger than themselves.

“All of these heroes are larger than life; some are merely larger than others. But what the hero is and does in terms of objective reality are less important than what he represents to our inner reality. The local man who saves a child from drowning is of less enduring interest to us than our fictive or historical heroes: the former wants symbolism, and unless local mythopoeia provides him with it, we tend to displace him in our consciousness with the more value-charged heroes we seem to need.” — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

And, as Chesterton says, the heroes of these stories teach us to kill dragons, or vanquish evil — they fight evils that are larger than life too. Everything is exaggerated. C.S Lewis agreed with him, he says heroes, especially enchanted ‘radiant ones,’ provide us with a more comforting picture of the defeat of evil than even thinking about real, immanent, heroes, like the police.

“Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened… For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think St George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.” — C.S Lewis, Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say What’s Best to be Said

Despite the new ages of comics-as-epics that make the characters more human, flawed, and twisted by their agenda — the golden age hero, or how they were used — might teach us something about a hero can be presented to people in this epic sense.

‘Golden age’ heroes as propaganda

There’s a fine line between characters being orchestrated to deliberately depict a cultural view of virtue and the stories these characters appear in functioning as propaganda. This is a fine line that has, at least according to David Reynolds, historically been obliterated in America, in the form of comic book stories, especially in the so-called Golden Age, and especially in the archetypal heroes from the DC world, Superman and Batman.  Their origin stories, heroic powers, and their respective ‘missions’ position them to be perfect carriers of an ideological agenda.

Superman is the last survivor of the planet Krypton, sent to earth as an infant. As a Kryptonian on Earth, Superman is gifted with an array of superpowers ranging from superstrength to x-ray vision. Raised by the “everyman” Kent family on a farm in Smallville, Superman was raised to embody the ideal American norms of honesty and justice. As a superhero, Superman is dedicated to “truth, justice, and the American way.” Batman, on the other hand, witnessed the murder of his millionaire parents as a young child, and swore an oath dedicating his life to fight crime. He is at the peak of human physical and intellectual performance. While fighting crime, Batman utilizes a vast array of gadgetry, such as his batbelt, batarangs, and the batmobile. He represents the epitome of human physical fitness and intellectual conditioning and, by extension, he symbolizes how people may unlock their true potential through will and determination. — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

This propaganda function came of age when America itself was under external threat — during World War 2. It’s interesting to see how the propaganda functions now when the greatest threat is perceived as a threat from within — radicalisation — Marvel has this Civil War storyline that seems fascinating, and may, I understand, even be part of the storyline of the forthcoming Captain America movie. Because Marvel’s characters are participants in the ‘real’ world, they were able to directly participate in the war effort (incidentally, my introduction to Phantom comics was a reprint of the Phantom’s foray into World War 2). Superman and Batman, functioning as the heroic citizen of the ‘every city’ stayed home and played a more symbolic role, embodying a responsible, patriotic, ideal that encouraged civilians to support the war effort via the American way of life.

Superman noticeably shifts his ideology such that his adventures begin linking patriotism to legitimate business, while he consistently thwarts illicit business… The original Superman of 1938, hero of the underprivileged working class, has given way to the new Superman of the war effort, supporting complacent consumerism and upholding the values of the capitalist, industrial empire… most popular comic book characters, like Superman and Batman, also served to remind soldiers of home and “reinforce the purpose of the war in their minds… Since the most popular superheroes of the war effort adopted strong, responsible consumerist values, their following mythoi have built steadily upon those values and that style of crime fighting. However, although the modern superhero finds its cultural roots in consumerism, some recent storytellers have begun to challenge the superhero’s traditional role of blindly supporting hegemonic values…

… the narratives were directly affected by the political and social climate of the time. Not only were they affected by the social context, but they were employed as a means to affect the culture as well, as a medium to spread war-time propaganda. — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

Comic stories as vehicles for complex ethical questions

In order for comic books to keep reflecting the values of a culture, and to keep providing ‘shining’ examples, comic heroes had to shift from embodying idyllic certainty to embodying questions. The door for this change was opened, at least a little, with the creation of Spider-Man, a flawed hero who wanted to use his new-found powers for gain, only for that to cost him the life of his uncle, which propelled him (along with that line from his uncle: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’) into a life of web-slinging heroism. But this trajectory didn’t stop with more relatable, more human, more broken, heroes. It continued into what Reynolds calls the ‘bronze age’ — which he suggests begins with the creation of The Dark Knight version of Batman, and Watchmen. 

“Many sophisticated elements of comics today that we now take as givens – the way they raise questions of justice and vengeance, their exploration of the ethics of vigilantism, and their depiction of ambivalent and even hostile reactions towards superheroes from the general public as well as from government – are largely traceable to these works. These two titles deconstructed the superhero genre so thoroughly that for several years any superhero comic that continued in the traditional vein of storytelling seemed like nothing more than a bad parody of the superhero genre… Miller and Moore deconstructed the established tropes of the superhero genre, challenging readers to confront the issues surrounding justice and vigilantism.” — David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

This move ends up producing a depressing — rather than radiant — hero. One who’s not much good for doing anything but keeping us squarely in our immanent frame. Watchmen creator Allen Moore agrees:

“Obviously, we’ve to some degree doomed the mainstream comics medium to a parade of violent, depressing postmodern superheroes, a lot of whom, in addition to those other faults, are incredibly pretentious. I stand accused.”— Allen Moore, cited in Geoff Klock, ‘The Revisionary Superhero Narrative,’  The Superhero Reader

This, in a sense, is a reflection of our modern culture and its cynical inability to find anything virtuous, or anybody heroic. For a hero to re-enchant the world they now have to pull us out of this culture, by giving us something we believe in. But something that is still real and relatable, that grapples honestly with the questions and challenges of life in the real world.

Comic stories as myths that explore models of the (fallen) world

There’s a guy, Joseph Campbell, who is generally held to be pretty cluey when it comes to thinking the shape of myths, and especially the mythic journey of the ‘hero.’ Here’s a TED talk featuring his view of mythology — in which he sees every hero (and every ‘god’) being described as going on a journey that involves a three stage process of: separation, initiation, and return.

It’s pretty fascinating, even if its given birth to a bunch of dumb ideas about Jesus being exactly the same as any other god. This same story — this journey — takes place throughout the ages, the same pattern, but against a different backdrop, the stories happen against the model of the world that produces it.

“Myth has to deal with the cosmology of today… a mythological image that has to be explained to the brain is not working… then, you’re out of sync.” — Joseph Campbell, cited in David Reynolds, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths 

It’s interesting to consider the stories that are produced by the ‘cosmology of today’ — a cosmology that is not enchanted, that is immanent, in many ways they’re the stories we see in The Dark Knight and Watchmen. Myths reflecting the real world means the bar is lower for us, as readers, to enter the story, and helps us see our world with fresh eyes. Reflecting the real world means reflecting the world in its brokenness. And it does. The world presented in these stories is a broken world. Broken, in part, by villains. The heroes want to help perfect the world, according to their utopian vision, while the villains want to stop them, either to keep the world the way it is or to see it fall apart even more, or indeed to continue the affects of the Fall. Vreekill is a villain from a 1940s Batman/Superman crossover story who invents a machine that makes steel fall apart. He embodies this sort of villain-as-truly-fallen trope.

“Vreekill’s bald head and functional costume signify him clearly as a ‘mad scientist’. There is no exploration of the psychology that leads Vreekill to use his discovery for the pursuit of crime:

“With my machine I can become the most powerful man in the world! I can hold it as a club over those who deal in steel constructions.”

This is clearly not a sociological view of the roots of crime. The mythology underlying the text is that of the Old Testament, and, most specifically, the Temptation and Fall. Vreekill is a prototype for many ‘Fallen’ characters which Batman and other superheroes have encountered through the years — the Joker, Two-Face, Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Ozymandias. All are corrupted by power, and power in the particular form of knowledge. ‘Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil’ promises the serpent in Genesis 3… If history is to be understood as a progress towards Utopia, a significant tension can be adduced between superheroes (assisting this process) and villains (thwarting the Utopia builders, or ‘those who deal in steel constructions’).” — Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology


So heroes have this job of representing the ideals of our modern world — especially ‘unfallen’ ideals, and pulling us back towards the paradise lost at the Fall — part of that paradise, I suggest, is a rekindling of our capacity to see the world as enchanted, as an artwork itself that points us to the great artificer. The God who spoke this world into being and continues to sustain it, the God whose divine nature and character are on display in this world, if only we were able to see them.

Marvel v DC — The man of iron v the man of steel

When it comes to modern comic book stories — and comic book heroes — that achieve this for me — it’s the Marvel characters that most connect me to modern ideals. I’d rather learn how to live from Iron Man, or other Avengers, than from Superman and the Justice League. As a disclaimer: I don’t read the comic books, but I watch the movies and TV shows, so it may be that my reflections are easily dismissed by real comic fans.
I don’t know how much my preference for Marvel is determined by the question of the space the stories take place in — that Superman is in the fictional ‘every city’ of Metropolis — I suspect that’s only a marginal factor (see Episode 1). I think its more to do with the ideal on display in each world.
When some of my friends were discussing my last question — what difference the city setting makes — my friend Craig Hamilton made the observations that:
“The DC universe is about the ideal whereas Marvel is about struggling to live up to an ideal. DC heroes are almost pure archetypes while Marvel are heroes with feet of clay.”
There are DC characters who break this type — Arrow, and The Flash are less archetypal than Superman, and, indeed, Craig points out that DC has deliberately become more Marvelesque (Marvellous?) over time.
“It wasn’t until the mid-1980s with Crisis on Infinite Earths that DC, in my opinion, tried to become more Marvel-esque. In the post-Crisis DCU they shipped in John Byrne and Frank Millar to redefine Superman and Batman. You can’t get more Marvel-esque creators than those two.”

The ‘man’ in the mask (Marvel) v the ‘masked man’ (DC)

In a piece in the Christian Research Journal titled ‘The Gospel According to Marvel’ a guy named Jason McAteer made a similar observation.

“The biggest difference between Marvel and DC is that Marvel heroes are ordinary people disguised as superheroes. Whereas DCs Superman is really an alien (Kal-El) disguised as an average guy (Clark Kent), Marvel’s Spider-Man is just an ordinary teenager named Peter Parker dressed up in red Spandex. Even DC’s Batman is using the persona of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne to distract from his true identity as a vigilante hero. Bruce Wayne’s drinking and womanizing is all an act. Contrast Marvel’s Iron Man whose true identity is Tony Stark, a millionaire playboy who really is as obnoxious as Bruce Wayne pretends to be. Marvel heroes are complex characters with all the imperfections of real-life human beings. They’re not all that “heroic” in comparison to a Golden Age DC character such as Superman, who came to embody a kind of idealized moral perfection. The original DC heroes are mostly aliens (such as Superman and Wonder Woman) or self-made men (such as Batman). Marvel’s heroes, on the other hand, are flawed ordinary people who gain unusual powers. They have extraordinary abilities thrust upon them whether they like it or not, usually through accidental exposure to “radiation” of some sort or another. Furthermore, Marvel heroes always have other real-life problems to deal with in addition to fighting crime.”

I think this is true — and its part of the reason I prefer Marvel’s heroes to DC’s. One of the implications of this ‘type’ of heroism on display in the DC world is that DC’s heroes can be so idealised that we’re unable to relate to them, and as a result, unable to imitate them. They hold up such a strong ideal that we can only dream about doing what they do. These dreams might still enchant us, and cause us to see goodness and virtue differently, but goodness and virtue always appear just that little bit beyond us. Because the real Superman is not Clark Kent, but the heroic guy in the cape — the masked man — we’re not invited into the story via the relatable human brokenness of the hero, we’re invited to enjoy the story as pure idealistic myth.

Superman is always ‘other’ — always fully super (except around kryptonite) — and only ever disguised as human (somehow this doesn’t annoy me as much when it comes to Thor). There’s nothing particularly imitable about Clark Kent, who, when trouble strikes, disappears in order for Superman to appear and save the day. You know that underneath the nerdy Clark Kent disguise there’s a godlike figure waiting to emerge to save the day. Iron Man is always Tony Stark in the suit. And when he puts the mask on he’s the same guy, just wearing a suit that lets him make a difference. The humanity is the driver of the story and the source of narrative tension, his humanity is not a disguise, a mask he wears to hide his real identity

Identity is an interesting motif in superhero stories — in the Marvel world, especially the world of the Avengers, the heroes don’t have a ‘secret identity’ — they are who they are. Even in a Marvel story where the hero keeps who they are a secret — like in Spider-Man — the hero’s identity is the human, Peter Parker puts on a mask and becomes Spider-Man, Spiderman doesn’t take off the mask to become Peter Parker. You could compare Stark’s Iron Man and Bruce Wayne’s Batman at this point — both use their significant means to transform the world according to their imaginative vision of a better place. Stark is a complicated mess of arrogant over-confidence and a real desire to do good, the stories he features in function as stories of his sanctification — he moves through that journey towards humility, even if he always remains true to himself. His personal demons are things he works out as a human, and they’re exaggerated when he puts his super-suit on. Batman is Bruce Wayne’s actual identity. The Bat is the manifestation of his damaged psychology. We wrestle with his demons when he puts the mask on and becomes himself. Batman is Batman, and like Superman, Bruce Wayne is an alter-ego. A projection. A persona he adopts — even though Batman is thoroughly shaped by the young Bruce’s experiences — these experiences fundamentally change who Bruce Wayne is. Wayne’s foppish ‘adult’ persona is an act, a disguise. We know the real, heroic, Bruce Wayne is revealed when Bruce puts on the mask, not when he takes it off. This is following an ancient pattern of behaviour of mythic heroes who only become ‘heroic’ by revealing their true selves in and through violent chaos.

“Heroes cannot, however, remain lambs: crises call for lions… crises usually require violent solutions. Violence indeed seems to be the reality of their worlds, and it is in violent situations that heroes are defined. Superman is somehow more “real” than the mousey “Clark Kent,” Batman more “real” than the do-gooder “Bruce Wayne.” Indeed, in this “civilian” alter ego, each of these heroes is suspected of being, like the youthful Beowulf, “slack, a young man unbold.” — Roger B. Rollin, ‘The Epic Hero and Pop Culture,’ The Superhero Reader

Ultimately I find Marvel’s heroes more compelling, and more useful for looking to for models of workable heroism and/or virtue. It’s interesting that my gut-feel preference is also for their city setting, and their exploration of the consequences of ‘heroic’ action in the real world, rather than for DC’s fictional ‘every cities.’  

Marvel v Marvel: Iron Man v Daredevil

Marvel’s world has two types of hero — much as DC’s world does in Batman and Superhero. Heroes shaped by a modern sensibility. Heroes best typified, at least for my purposes of comparison, by Iron Man and Daredevil. They’re both typical modern heroes in that they’re essentially loners, thrust into a network of relationships at least, in part, because of their desire to make a difference to the world. To re-imagine it as something different.

“A new kind of popular hero had emerged: the self-reliant individualist who stands aloof from many of the humdrum concerns of society, yet is able to operate according to his code of honour, to take on the world on his own terms, and win. For Americans, the historical path from Munich to Pearl Harbor coincides with the emergence of Superman and Captain America — solitary but socialized heroes, who engage in battle from time to time as proxies of US foreign policy. A darker side of the Lone Wolf hero is embodied by the Batman, a hero whose motivations and emotions are turned inward against the evils within society, and even the social and psychological roots of crime itself. The tension between these two veins in the superhero tradition remains to the present day.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader

Daredevil adopts the cowl of the Batman like ‘Lone Wolf’ hero, while Iron Man operates in a similar vein to Superman, without his humanity ever being compromised. In fact, its his full humanity that makes him compelling — even as his imagination causes huge destruction on the global landscape.
When it comes to the modern cinematic heroes that I find most compelling as myths that help me see the world differently, I like Daredevil. I like the idea that Daredevil — at least the Netflix iteration — operates in a world where people are truly enchanted (ala Thor), or super-human products of science gone wrong (ala Spider-Man, The Hulk, Captain America), or are humans with a big imagination for how transformation might take place — but whose ambitions sometimes end up causing more destruction than hope — ala Iron Man — but while this is true of the world Daredevil operates in, he is grounded (as is his world).
I like Iron Man because he’s a flawed guy trying to do the best with what he’s got. He’s both incredibly human, and incredibly super-heroic. Daredevil has smaller ambitions, and lives in a world dealing with the mess these guys created, but also sees the world differently to the people around him. He isn’t endowed with superpowers, but more intra-powers. His senses are sharpened by the loss of his sight. It’s fun to imagine Daredevil as a guy who is imitating Iron Man, simply without the means to do quite so much damage, and without the same grand ‘global’ vision.
“I see a suit of armour around the world”. — Tony Stark (Iron Man), The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Stark has a big vision, and the incredible resources to make it a reality. He bankrolls the Avengers for this purpose (in Age of Ultron — when S.H.I.E.L.D isn’t around). His vision for the world is, as it turns out, quite destructive. And its only when he listens to those around him — in humility — that the destruction is mitigated. But this destruction comes at a cost, on a local level. And that’s where Daredevil steps in. He’s in the same world, and he’s left to clean up Stark’s mess.

“[Daredevil] carries no water for the larger franchise to which it’s connected. There’s a reference in series creator Drew Goddard’s pilot script to “death and destruction raining from the sky” above New York City and its effect on property values in Hell’s Kitchen; later, if you don’t blink, you’ll spot a “BATTLE OF NEW YORK” front page hanging in the office of crime reporter Ben Urich (a wonderfully careworn Vondie Curtis-Hall). But that’s it. No one gets a job offer from Samuel L. Jackson or stumbles upon a Cosmic Cube; at no point does Tony Stark drop by for shawarma. We’re meant to understand that this is the same New York where men with unimaginable power kick other men through buildings on the regular, but we’re also allowed, and in some sense encouraged, to forget that as soon as it’s established.” — Alex Pappademas, ‘Giving the Devil His Do-Rag Why Netflix’s Daredevil is The Least Marvel-y Marvel Property Yet,‘ Grantland

Matt Murdock’s Daredevil is the sort of hero endemic to Hell’s Kitchen, and to the sort of world shaped by Stark’s grand vision meeting his humanity. When Stark goes to battle for his vision, the collateral damage is immense. Stark acts global, while Daredevil acts local. Even Wilson Fisk (Kingpin) the villain in the Daredevil story mocks him for his transformative vision being too small. Daredevil plays the heroic game on a local level, not a global one.
Fisk: You first. That’s what I thought. You and I have a lot in common.
Daredevil: We’re nothing alike.
Fisk: That’s what you’ll tell yourself.
Daredevil: You’re feeding off this city like a cancer.
Fisk: I want to save this city, like you… only on a scale that matters.

The world of Netflix’s Daredevil is a product of Stark’s vision, but the localisation of its story is part of the way it paints a compelling and heroic vision for those who encounter it as ‘art’ in the functional sense. Daredevil is the model of a localised hero. A real flesh-and-blood hero for our times, and your place.

Despite the difference in scale, both Daredevil/Murdock and Iron Man/Stark are flawed heroes, bringing their humanity to the table as they work towards their transformative ‘heroic’ vision — the better world they imagine. In All Things Shining, Dreyfus and Kelly describe a sort of approach to heroic life that’s a bit like Tony Stark’s — or at least like Iron Man’s at a particular stage of the story arc in every Iron Man/Avengers story — and like Matt Murdock’s — as he alienates his friends through the pursuit of his vision of a better Hell’s Kitchen — this serves to make these guys a bit more relatable as characters, and makes their heroic triumph a triumph over the limitations of their human nature, as well as over whatever is going on in the world.
“The man of self-confidence is often a compelling figure. Driven and focused, he is committed to bringing the world into line with his vision of how it should be. He may genuinely believe that his vision for the world is a good one,  that the world will be a better place if he can shape it to his will, and sometimes he is capable of making changes for the better. But there is a danger to this attitude as well. Too often it turns out that the blustery self-confidence of such a person hides its own darker origins: it is really just arrogance combined with ambition, or worse yet, a kind of self-delusion. As a result, when his plans fail, as they are bound to do at least some of the time, the self-confident man is often unable to recognise the failure. Stubbornly and inflexibly committed to his vision of how things ought to be, he has no ability to respond to the world as it actually is. The self confident man believes that confidence is its own virtue.” — Dreyfus &  Kelly, All Things Shining
I can totally relate to this. Daredevil/Matt Murdock can relate to this too, on a smaller scale. Coming out of this over-confidence and into an approach to service that involves humility and teamwork is part of the journey of most Marvel heroes. It’s the journey we’re invited to take as we use the lens of these stories to examine our selves, and to truly see a path to decision making in our own life. These stories always play up the heroes as paradoxically fully human and fully super.
Christ and Pop Culture published a great piece exploring Daredevil’s model of heroism — of martyrdom even. There’s some great stuff in this piece about the complex relationship between heroism, violence, suffering in traditional superhero stories, and an exploration of how Daredevil breaks this pattern — including the relational disconnect that comes when the hero understands themselves as ‘suffering for’ the city, not suffering with it, that seems to go hand in hand with a lack of concern for the damage the fight for a city does to a city (seriously, read the piece). Daredevil/Matt Murdock even breaks the pattern of ‘self-confidence’ — or has it broken — through his relationships with others. Unlike Stark, it’s a bunch of ‘normal’ others who choose to be heroic, rather than superheroes, that move Daredevil away from arrogance, and towards a new and different sort of virtue.

“Matt Murdock is a part of Hell’s Kitchen, and though he’s often tempted to be a lone vigilante, he learns again and again that the true way to preserve his community is to recognize and enter into communal brokenness, not to try to save it from without. In Daredevil, the significance of relationships trumps the rightness of violence done in their name… Matt Murdock’s story, with those of his friends, positively reinforces the idea that heroes should suffer with their communities rather than standing apart and suffering for them…

Wilson Fisk’s character also reinforces this idea—only his does so negatively. Fisk is always portrayed as apart from Hell’s Kitchen, the community both he and Matt Murdock say they want to save. Fisk lives high above them in luxury; when he bombs the Russian-controlled parts of town, he and his girlfriend watch them burn from the wide windows of a high-rise restaurant…I think one reason the standard “suffers-for” hero is so attractive is that a lot of people are intrigued and allured by the idea that they might stand apart, adored and admired. They may suffer, but there will always be someone there to gaze adoringly and express gratitude. But that’s not the only, or the best, kind of heroism. And as Christians, while we might sometimes suffer for each other, we are also called to suffer with each other—to enter into community with others, to carry their sorrows and help them in their work and through their struggles.” — Julie Ooms, Daredevil, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Good Samaritan, Christ and Pop Culture

Daredevil’s local, incarnate, form of heroism is overtly influenced by a religious — even a Christian — vision of heroism. The Good Samaritan functions as a metaphor throughout the series, developing this vision of a heroism built on incarnation and sacrifice.
“Claire: You know, the only thing I remember from Sunday school is the martyrs… the saints, the saviours… they all end up the same way. Bloody and alone.
Matt: I never said I was any of those.
Claire: You didn’t have to.” — Claire and Matt Murdock, Netflix’s Daredevil
The pay off for this metaphor comes when Fisk, himself, makes it clear that he is not the good samaritan, he and Matt are not as similar as he claimed (see above), it turns out that the from-the-community-hero, Daredevil, is good Samaritan. The neighbour to those who are suffering.
“I’m not a religious man but I’ve read bits and pieces over the years. Curiosity more than faith. But this one story There was a man. He was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was set upon by men of ill intent. They stripped the traveler of his clothes, they beat him, and they left him bleeding in the dirt. And a priest happened by saw the traveler. But he moved to the other side of the road and continued on. And then a Levite, a religious functionary, he came to the place, saw the dying traveler. But he too moved to the other side of the road, passed him by. But then came a man from Samaria, a Samaritan, a good man. He saw the traveler bleeding in the road and he stopped to aid him without thinking of the circumstance or the difficulty it might bring him. The Samaritan tended to the traveler’s wounds, applying oil and wine. And he carried him to an inn, gave him all the money he had for the owner to take care of the traveler, as the Samaritan, he continued on his journey. He did this simply because the traveler was his neighbor. He loved his city and all the people in it. [sighs deeply] I always thought that I was the Samaritan in that story. It’s funny, isn’t it? How even the best of men can be deceived by their true nature. What the hell does that mean? It means that I’m not the Samaritan. That I’m not the priest, or the Levite. That I am the ill intent who set upon the traveler on a road that he should not have been on.” — Wilson Fisk, Daredevil
Despite its religious allusions, Daredevil is a hero for an immanent age — a hero borne out of a community, and its concerns, in response to an external, but still immanent, threat. Fisk is not a demi-god, like Loki in The Avengers. He is a villain — a devious, wealthy, businessman — with an alternative vision for Matt’s city. He has no interest in pursuing immortality, his interest is in shaping his city, according to a virtuous vision, by loving his neighbour. He’s the perfect hero for a gritty, earthy, real, disenchanted age. Embodying the best bits of the post-modern milieu of The Dark Knight and Watchmen, but offering the hope that a visionary hero (albeit a blind hero) might be able to effect positive change on the city they belong to, rather than spiralling into a bleak and vicious cycle. The note of hope comes via the offer of a solution proffered in the form of this virtuous, incarnate, connected, hero — whose heroism is on display both under the mask, and apart from it. Murdock’s fight against Fisk, his fight for his city, is simultaneously carried out by the masked hero and his unmasked alter-ego. Matt Murdock and Daredevil are one and the same. Matt Murdock, the lawyer who has a vision for something greater for Hell’s Kitchen, and Matt Murdock, the vigilante, who steps in to fight the battles the law is unable to reach. In both fights he suffers with the people around him, and that’s the way he attempts to mitigate some parts of the ‘fallenness’ of his immanent world. But though he avoids the aforementioned traps of the ‘Golden Age’ figures like Batman and Superman, and, more narrowly, the depressingly hopeless traps for vigilantes grappled with in the Miller-esque ‘Bronze Age,’ Daredevil is still a flawed ‘epic’ hero — he doesn’t offer a path to enchantment, or to immortality. We still need transcendent heroes.

Superman, Iron Man, Daredevil and the God-Man: Our quest for an imitable, but transcendent, hero

I think it’s interesting to explore the idea that stories about our mythic heroes either tend to emphasise the human nature of the hero or their super-human nature.
There’s been plenty of stuff written comparing Superman to Jesus — and the similarities are evident —but I’ve always had are a couple of problems with the metaphor because Superman is never actually human, and so he’s never someone who can truly be imitated. Superman, in his ‘human incarnation’ is an imitation human.
Classical, creedal, Christianity has always been exceptionally keen to emphasise that in his incarnation; Jesus is fully human, and fully divine. He’s not a superhero play-acting at being human, or a human play-acting at being super. He is not masked — a human playing at being God, or God playing at being a man. He is, in a sense, God unmasked. God made fully known. There is no transcendent God apart from the God made known and on display in Jesus. There is no disconnect between his human nature and his divinity. His identity is not confused, a bizarre mish-mash of humanity and hero where we’re left asking if the real Jesus is human or divine. He is fully both. He makes no secret about his identity. Both his humanity and his divinity are heroic — in fact, its as these parts of his being work in concert, in harmony, that we see a path to true heroism.
In fact, through these aspects of his being — his humanity and divinity — working together we are invited to move beyond our immanent existence and participate in his transcendent nature. Unlike Superman, who always remains fully other, Jesus invites us to share in his divinity, and in the Christian story this participation comes as God’s Spirit dwells in us.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” — John 17:20-23
Jesus also makes the ‘transcendent’ immanent. He becomes flesh and blood. Truly human. And his humanity is enough to mediate the triune God’s transcendent nature to us.
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” — John 14:9-10
And rather than heroically wielding power to perpetrate violence to solve the violence of the world, hiding behind a mask to avoid truly facing this violent reality, or to somehow buffer himself from his violent nature — as some sort of divine avatar — Jesus submits himself to violence in order to defeat it.
Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name — Philippians 2:6-9
A hero who adopts this ‘transcendent’ view of heroism, and the world, doesn’t live for the immortality of their own name, but secures immortality — a share in Christ’s heroic victory — by living for his name. And rather than epic, radiant, larger than life battles against super-villains, real heroism looks like humble service in accordance with the divine pattern for life, as agents of the divine will. This is what makes us shine, and what gives the world a new, enchanted, lustre. We’ll be ‘bigger’ than others because we are noticeably less ‘warped and crooked’…

“… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” — Philippians 2:13-16

It’s this story — this hero — who invites us to see the world through fresh eyes, who enchants it again, and also provides us with a new model of virtue to imitate in an ‘immanent’ sense — physically, in this world. Marvel’s heroes, in their very human ‘immanence’ — especially in Daredevil’s gritty local, incarnate, immanence — give us something to imitate — but in most cases they don’t give us something ‘other’ — a sort of saviour who can truly save us from ourselves. A saviour who can pull us from our humanity by offering us a humanity that is not flawed, and a real path to immortality — a path our immanent heroes can only dream about treading in fictional worlds that don’t age or change. Jesus does what these heroes fail to do, and provides us with a new way to see and imagine the world. The real world is changed by its heroes, heroes who capture and articulate a vision for world creation and the creation of meaning for us as we look at our world through their eyes. In a future episode I’ll unpack the idea of Jesus being a God coming into the machine (a deus in machina) — an unlikely happy ending — and the implications this has for our view of heroism.
The disenchanted world we live in needs heroes — both from above, and below — if its any hope of being lifted from despair, of the effects of the Fall, especially death, being dealt with, and if we’re to have ‘radiant ones’ people who shine like the stars, to imitate. The beauty of Daredevil’s incarnate heroism is that it provides us with a place to start. We start by doing something, anything, just that little bit heroic.
“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.” ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Re-Enchanting the World: Episode 2 — The mission to re-image-ine the world

“He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — CS Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

Image Credit: Marvel.com

Before I explore a little more on the nature of the heroes of our modern myths — especially the characters from Marvel and DC’s universes, and the question of how, or what, sort of ‘worlds’ we might find in art, stories, and our imaginations, in order to re-enchant the one we live in, I thought I’d lay out a little more of what I’m thinking behind this series of posts, and describe the dilemma a little more concretely.

Is imagination dead — or did we make that up?

In the last post I quoted C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image — in which he explores the movement from a medieval view of the world that was entirely ‘enchanted’ and mystical outside of the realm of fiction. He speaks, in this passage, of the way even the commonplace, the natural, was a means by which people imagined something beyond themselves, and of the damage done to our means of seeing when we only really see things for what they are, and for our own sake.

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

In this sort of world, art and story help make these symbols sing. Stories operated as a bridge between the earthly reality and heaven. They help draw out this sense of meaning and enchantment.

The death of this way of seeing the world — and stories — in both the world, and the church, presents an interesting challenge for Christians. In Colossians 3, Paul tells the church to:

“Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. “

Paul wants us to see the unseeable with our hearts and minds. He wants us to imagine.

How do we do this without a bridge? How do we do this in a world that tells us both that this is nonsense, that ‘things above’ are nonsense, and so seeing anything but the world as it is, is a waste of time — thus devaluing both stories, and a sort of meaning through enchantment. How do we re-build this bridge and make this sort of setting of heart and mind possible for ourselves, and invite others to join us? That’s the challenge at the heart of this little series, even if it might at times seem to mostly be about superheroes.

This sort of approach to finding meaning in the world wasn’t a medieval invention, this was how most people everywhere saw the world right up until the enlightenment and the dawn of the scientific age (a transition C.S Lewis, and others, pinpoint as involving a movement from seeing the world as a creation to seeing the world as ‘nature’. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly are a couple of secular philosophers who make similar observations about the ‘disenchanted’ world to C.S Lewis (and James K.A. Smith and Charles Taylor), while suggesting to think secular thinking necessarily ‘disenchants’ is to buy into a hollow form of secularism.Dreyfus and Kelly think there’s much to learn and admire from ancient thinkers that keeps us from nihilism, or an empty and hollow experience of the world. They wrote a book called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, in which they chart this movement towards disenchantment.

“The Greeks of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age. How did the West descend from Homer’s enchanted world, filled as it was with wonder and gratitude, to the disenchanted world we now inhabit? To pose the question this way is to mock the traditional story of the West. At least since Hegel, in the early nineteenth century, the narrative of Western history has been one of progress. We have learned to think of the Enlightenment, or some more recent period, as the pinnacle of this steady advance. The self-sufficiency of freedom, the lucidity of reason, and the security of a world completely explained and controlled: all these indicate history’s advance…” — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

In All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfuss and Sean Kelly describe the way that stories like the Odyssey and The Oresteia functioned in Ancient Greece to shape the way people saw and participated in the world such that stories function to help define art as: any workmanship created to focus our attention on meaning or enchantment in the world.

The Oresteia manifested and focused for all Athenians what they were up to as Athenians. Heidigger calls anything that performs this focusing function a work of art. The Greek Temple is his primary example of artwork working.
Like the temple, the Odyssey was a work of art for the Homeric Greeks. It was the sacred work, in other words, that manifested and focused the practices paradigmatic for the Homeric world. The Odyssey disclosed the existential space in which shining heroes like Odysseus and Achilles and shining examples of the erotic like Helen, as well as bad guys like the suitors, made sense as possible ways of life. When sung about, these figures gave direction and meaning to the lives of the ordinary Greeks in Homer’s world… The paradigmatic works of art for an age let certain ways of life shine forth. But in doing so they cover up what is worthy in other—radically different—ways of life. Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to. Works of art in this sense do not represent something else—the way a photograph of one’s children represents them… they gather practices together to focus and manifest a way of life. When works of art shine, they illuminate and glamorize a way of life, and all other things shine in their light. A work of art embodies the truth of its world. — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

The death of ‘enchantment’ could easily have become — and perhaps in some senses has become — the death of the imagination. If everything that happens is reduced to the ‘natural’ — to chains of cause and effect — we lose a sense of mystery or ‘enchantment’ when amazing things happen because we approach these amazing things trying to figure out what lever has been pulled to produce that particular result. When we have an explanation we potentially simultaneously lose a sense of enchantment, wonder, gratitude, and potentially imagination — All Things Shining doesn’t argue that this is necessary, just that it is possible and logical, and does happen.

There are alternative expressions of the imagination if imagination is what we use to construct meaning in our world, and look for the means by which we might create, or re-create, things that transform our world for the better. But our modern dilemma is we don’t see the world the way people in the past saw it, we’ve moved from seeing it as a cosmos, or creation, pointing to something greater than itself, to being a universe guided by ‘nature.’James K.A. Smith describes this challenge:

“The emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option — the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary — a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. So it wasn’t enough for us to stop believing in the gods; we also had to be able to imagine significance within an immanent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendence.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

He expands on this dilemma a bit later…

“In contrast to this, the modern imaginary finds us in a “universe” that has its own kind of order, but it is an immanent order of natural laws rather than any sort of hierarchy of being… the shift from cosmos to universe — from “creation” to “nature” — makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent “meaning” that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

And again…

“It’s not enough to ask how we got permission to stop believing in God; we need to also inquire about what emerged to replace such belief. Because it’s not that our secular age is an age of disbelief; it’s an age of believing otherwise. We can’t tolerate living in a world without meaning. So if the transcendence that previously gave significance to the world is lost, we need a new account of meaning — a new “imaginary” that enables us to imagine a meaningful life within this now self-sufficient universe of gas and fire. That “replacement” imaginary is what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism”…

“…we all do “spontaneously imagine” ourselves in a cosmic context, and it’s that which Taylor is after: “I’m interested,” he says, in “how our sense of things, our cosmic imaginary, in other words, our whole background understanding and feel of the world has been transformed… Taylor encapsulates this imaginary-shift as the move from a “cosmos” to a “universe” — the move of spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an ordered, layered, hierarchical, shepherded place to spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an infinite, cavernous, anonymous space… One can understand the trajectory that leads from this cosmic imaginary to materialism; if the immanent is going to be self-sufficient, as it were, then the material has to be all there is.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

The search for meaning beyond the transcendent or ‘super-natural’ will still involve imagination— All Things Shining is a perfect example of such a quest for meaning (so too, Douglas Adams and the answers he gives for this quest in the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), but this move — as those examples demonstrate —  has an impact on the stories we tell ourselves, the way we imagine ourselves, and, as a result it changes the images we present as ourselves.

The arts and the aesthetic become a way of working out “the feeling that there is something inadequate in our way of life, that we live by an order which represses what is really important… The result is an immanent space to try to satisfy a lost longing for transcendence; in short, this creates a “place to go for modern unbelief” without having to settle for the utterly flattened world of mechanism or utilitarianism — but also without having to return to religion proper. And so we get the new sacred spaces of modernity: the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage. — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

Imagination still operates, even if it operates with a different sense of wonder. We all become mini-Archimedes, our imagination is limited by the cause-effect nexus. Real change to the world as we experience it is simply a matter of finding the way to bring about that change in a material sense — a natural sense. We start seeing the world as a machine — subject to natural, physical, laws, and ourselves as machinists, inventors, or mechanics. The world can be moved and tweaked, and re-cast. So long as we find the right way to shift the gears. We are in control.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” — Archimedes

And yet, in the face of the ‘infinite, cavernous, anonymous space’ we are very small. Very, very, small. And so too are the changes we can hope to make on the world. So too, becomes our sense of what we know and understand about the way the world works. Because we are oh so very finite. A fleeting breath in the scheme of eternal space and time. Even though we’re so minute, we still — by nature — are beings that crave meaning, a sense of a bigger picture, and we’re people who want to interpret information using some sort of system. This realisation that we are finite, and the belief that the material world is all there is, does not necessarily kill our ability to experience wonder at the vastness, beauty, and complexity of the world — but these are things that must be incorporated, via imagination, into a “way of constructing meaning.” A belief that there is ‘no meaning’ is actually an imaginative construction, not in the sense that it is made up, but in the sense that it is the thing we tell ourselves about meaning in this world. But how do we choose this system? How is this imagination shaped? It is shaped, in part, by the way we see the world — but it also shapes the way we see the world. Could it be that it actually comes down to the question of what way of seeing the world is the ‘shiniest’…

Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart suggests all of us intuitively construct and ‘imagine’ meaning on the basis of a system we think is the most beautiful (according to whatever aesthetic we adopt – be that a sort of Occham’s Razoresque elegant simplicity, the beauty of the explanatory power of the scientific method, or a more mysterious or ‘enchanted’ approach to the world that includes a transcendent creator standing behind, or guaranteeing, existence). Or, as he says it:

“If one adopts the position of a certain account of how being, knowledge, and language are related, that is one’s position – ultimately because one finds the particular depiction of the world it affords especially compelling, even inevitable, for reasons that are finally aesthetic.” — David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

Our imagination is a way of assessing truth claims about the world through a sort of aesthetic lens. Enchanted world or not, there is some part of our thought process by which we assess, participate in, and finally, shape the world.

Dreyfus & Kelly, Smith, Taylor, and Hart would all seem to agree on this point: we underplay the role that imagination plays when it comes to living in, and understanding, the world to our detriment. Imagination is, in some way, what anchors us, but also what propels us. If we want to restore something mysterious and ‘other’ about the world we need to see it with a renewed imagination — this will require, I think, four things from us:

  1. A re-image-ination of ourselves,
  2. this, in turn, will require that we learn from art depicting a new sort of hero who is both grounded in reality, and who seeks to transform it,
  3. the ability to create and appreciate other-worldy stories which help us see our own world (and forests) in a re-enchanted way, and,
  4. if we really do see the world as a ‘machine’ a deus in machina (God entering the ‘machine’, as opposed to the deus ex machina — God from the machine) which completely changes the nature of the field we’re playing on. An unexpected entry in the story which ultimately saves us from ourselves, and pulls us into a new way of seeing and imagining.

I’ll suggest in the next few posts that the comic book universes of Marvel and DC both provide something akin to each of these (though in a deus ex machina way, not a deus in machina way), so too do the worlds of Tolkien and Lewis’ faery stories. They certainly provide a model that provides for what I think is an interesting conversation partner in this meandering effort. Even if I’m only writing to myself by now…

An invitation to image-ination

Imagination is on display right from the first moments of the Christian story.

When God says “Let there be light” this is an act of imagination that produces an act of creativity. The world itself is an expression of God’s imagination, and, rightly understood plays a role as one of Heidigger’s ‘works of art’, remember, that quote from All Things Shining: “Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to.” There’s a really compelling theory from Biblical Scholar John Walton that encourages us to read Genesis 1-2 as God setting up his cosmic temple, an ‘artwork’ that points us to him, and gives us a place in which to truly know God, and through that, to truly know ourselves, and truly fulfil our function as his divine image bearers.

The world of the Bible is a world ‘shot through’ with meaning. An enchanted world in which, when we rightly understand the world, we encounter the transcendent and experience it as natural. A natural world that in its natural state — before we trash it and ourselves — was meant to point us to the character and nature of God.

“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

Here’s a thing. In Ephesians, Paul uses these same Greek words ποίημα and κτίζω to talk about humanity. Our job, as God’s creations — his artwork — his images in his cosmic temple — is to focus people on the life we were created to live, and the imagination we were created to see and transform the world with.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. — Ephesians 2:10


What seeing the world this way requires is imagination. But imagination isn’t just the thing that leads us to see the world as ‘enchanted,’ or to create enchanted worlds in our stories and art — imagination is required to see the world we live in as it is, and as it could be, and to work towards transforming it. Imagination is the thing that underpins creativity  — in a sense its also the thing underpinning God’s creativity in creating the world when he speaks, a thing that he has pictured is created, and he can declare it good and fit for a purpose according to his imagined design. In creation, God is able to turn his imagination into actuality.


Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” — Genesis 1:26

Part of this likeness is expressed in creating via imagination just as God did in creating the world. In Genesis 2, Adam demonstrates his God-given imagination by co-creating with God, he invents names for the animals God made in Genesis 1, ruling over them and bearing God’s image through an act of imagination.

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.” — Genesis 2:19-20

As Genesis plays out, into a line of genealogies, one of the thing the narrator notes is that people make art — or use their imaginations — as they spread throughout the world.

His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes.  Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.” — Genesis 4:21-22

The problem is we stuffed up this job. Our imaginations failed us. Instead of imaginatively acting as representatives of the living God, we imagined dead things were god. We imagined God did not exist. We stuffed the world. We stuffed our heads. We lost our ability to imagine properly.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. — Romans 1:21-23

This exchange had a cost. For us and for the world. Part of the cost is our inability to imagine — or to see the world clearly — to see it as shot through with meaning. To have any sense of the transcendent. We’re left with little old immanent us, in our little, contracted, immanent world, living little immanent lives when we were made for the infinite, we were made to make beauty, and life, and carry the image of the one who made us into his world, not trash it and trash the world.

A re-invitation to image-ination

The implications of this failure to imagine — or to image-ine — have an impact on the planet. And, subsequently, on our ability to know God’s nature from creation, because creation no longer reveals who he is. It reveals how we’ve damaged it.

The Gospel — where we meet Jesus — is an invitation back to seeing the world with imaginative eyes, and seeing our role in the world and the way we might be part of its transformation so that it does what it was made to do through our co-creating. Through our imagination. Especially through our imaginative and deliberate carrying of God’s image.

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God… For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  — Romans 8:19-21, 29

God’s children — his image bearing imaginators — arrive on the scene again through Christ. The one who truly acts in an imaginative way to spread God’s presence through the world, by living out a more beautiful story, and inviting us to be a part of it. Over the next few posts in this series I’ll continue unpacking the idea that our story is better and more enchanted than worldly alternatives — our story of the transcendent becoming immanent — is more compelling than any other. And part of re-enchanting the world is really believing this to be true.

If the world has become machine-like for some, any ‘gods from the machine’ (deus ex machina) that provide happy endings in our stories come from below, not from above. They’re products of an immanent world. Our God comes into the machine and re-enchants it. It’s no longer good enough to experience the natural as black and white. It is re-cast in vivid colour. It is a pointer to the sort of God who acts to shape a good world, gives it to us, sees us trash it, and then acts to re-shape and re-claim and re-imagine and re-enchant it by sacrificing himself. Stepping into the story and laying down his life. Just when it looks like those in favour of the ‘immanent frame’ have won out — as a person of the Triune-God-in-the-flesh is nailed to a very physical cross — the transcendent triumphs.

The Christian story is a story of people being rescued from themselves, and from the consequences of our actions by God coming into the machine — a Deus In Machina (but we’ll get to that in a subsequent episode).

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. — Colossians 1:14-20

This is Paul’s version of this story. An invitation to imagine again. To see the world as enchanted and held together by God again. To see it — and ourselves — as shining art, not created by our flawed hands, but by God’s perfect hands marred by nails and blood, that lights the way for people to live better, fuller, more wondrous lives, and to be invited to start re-imagining and re-creating again. Our calling, in the light of this story, is to imitate its hero (and we’ll get to this next episode). But in short, Paul’s words towards before this passage, and then at the end of Colossians are a pretty good place to start when it comes to figuring out what an ‘enchanting’ life looks like.

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. — Colossians 1:9-12

… you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised,barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. — Colossians 3:9-14

Our job is to offer a better story. To tell this better story. To help people see the world anew, and aright (and we’ll get to this, too, in a subsequent episode. Nothing like a cliffhanger).

Our job is to re-cast the world such that our story is more satisfying and compelling than alternatives. To re-enchant the machine, by using the complex beauty of the machine and its intended use to point to the inventor. We do this by living the story, and believing it to be beautiful and enchanting.

Taylor suggests that those who convert to unbelief “because of science” are less convinced by data and more moved by the form of the story that science tells and the self-image that comes with it (rationality = maturity). Moreover, the faith that they left was often worth leaving. If Taylor is right, it seems to suggest that the Christian response to such converts to unbelief is not to have an argument about the data or “evidences” but rather to offer an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith. — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

Though he’s talking more about how Christians should frame their attempts to persuade others of the truth of Christianiy — which necessarily involves a movement from a dis-enchanted world, to an enchanted one, Hart essentially thinks that the thing required to break people out of the immanent frame is not more, or mere, rationality. It’s a more beautiful truth. Whatever is most beautiful — the best story — that makes sense of the most data, that is what people should believe.

“What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of “rational” arguments that (suppressing certain of their premises) force assent from others by leaving them, like the interlocutors of Socrates, at a loss for words; rather, it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity – and the rhetorical richness of its idiom. Making its appeal first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may “command” assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty… Christian thought has no stake in the “pure” rationality to which dialectic seems to appeal – the Christian ratio, its Logos, is a crucified Jew – and cannot choose but be “rhetorical” in form; but it must then be possible to conceive of a rhetoric that is peace, and a truth that is beauty.” — David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

This, I think, is what this description of what it looks like for our self to be renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator — to re-imagine, and re-image, the world by telling a beautiful and enchanting story that helps people see with the world with both their eyes and hearts.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do,whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:15-17

Confessions of a politically religiously motivated radical who wants to see the world as we know it come to its end

I am a religious radical. I confess that my religious beliefs are my primary motivation for how I live in this world, and I believe my actions to be consistent with bringing about the end of the world as we know it. But. Don’t panic.


In How (Not) to be Secular, Christian Philosopher James K.A Smith unpacks fellow philosopher Charles Taylor’s theory that the modern, secular, world has collapsed everything supernatural into a sort of ‘rational’ natural basket.

“It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter…So the modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority, “giving its own autonomous order to its life”” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) to be Secular

Or, as Douglas Adams put it in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. 

“My universe is my eyes and my ears. Anything else is hearsay.”
― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

To me, Douglas Adams is a bit like the Lewis/Tolkien of this sort of disenchanted world, perhaps even a bit like the wise teacher in the Bible’s Ecclesiastes. Adams built a fictional cosmos in The Hitchhikers Guide that allows him to fantastically weave his way through the big questions, and implications, of a disenchanted world, giving that helpful piece of advice — “DON’T PANIC” — for anyone who comes to the conclusion that life has no meaning, or that its meaning is 42 (an incorrect answer to “what is 6 times 9”). His point, at one point discussed in a little dialogue between Zaphod and Arthur, is that a world devoid of meaning from beyond itself is a world where a belief in, or search for, a sort of ‘transcendent’ meaning — or any meaning at all — is meaningless, and inaccessible.

“But nothing! Think about it. The Meaning of Life! We get our fingers on that we can hold every shrink in the Galaxy up to ransom, and that’s worth a bundle. I owe mine a mint.”

Arthur took a deep breath without much enthusiasm.

“Alright,” he said, “but where do we start? How should I know? They say the Ultimate Answer or whatever is Forty-two, how am I supposed to know what the question is? It could be anything. I mean, what’s six times seven?”

Zaphod looked at him hard for a moment. Then his eyes blazed with excitement.

“Forty-two!” he cried.

Arthur wiped his palm across his forehead.

“Yes,” he said patiently, “I know that.”

Zaphod’s faces fell.

“I’m just saying that the question could be anything at all,” said Arthur, “and I don’t see how I am meant to know.” — Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

One of the implications of this shift is in how we think of the way people are motivated to make choices or decisions. Where, in the past, people saw themselves as actors in a divinely created cosmic play, their position placed, determined, and directed by God’s mysterious plans, now, people assume life is a smorgasbord of choices and we are our own agents, able to place ourselves wherever we want (so we’re more mobile than ever, in terms of social status, education, and physical location, able to determine the course our own life takes, and directing ourselves via our own ethical framework or set of moral rules (sometimes with socially constructed frameworks that make sure other people, or as many other people as possible, enjoy these same freedoms). In this new script every action is ‘political’ because every person is a monarch. According to this new script, no actions are ‘religious’ — even if they are — because religion is just one choice we make among many, and we choose one religion among many equally (in)valid options. Religion, in this secular script, cannot, and should not, be spoken of as a motivating factor for action — because it gets dangerous when it is. In this script religion is, rather, a consequence of action, of choice, rather than a motivator.

“It is folly to say you know what is happening to other people. Only they know, if they exist. They have their own Universes of their own eyes and ears.”  — Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

There’s been a bit of a secular paradox at play in the reportage of the Parramatta shooting. On the one hand, the government, and a bunch of secular spokespeople, are very keen to eradicate the clear and present danger presented by ‘radicalisation’ — so keen that they’ll throw all sorts of religions into the mix as potential sources for dangerous radicalisation (see Michael Jensen’s piece on the ABC), they’ll even throw poor people like the hypothetical “Karen” under the radicalisation bus in order to protect the masses from these ills. If you break the Internet’s First Commandment “Never read the comments” on that article you’ll see that the discussion sort of proves the point of Jensen’s piece, any religious belief, taken seriously, is dismissed as dangerous.

On the other hand, when speaking of the Parramatta shooting, reporters do not speak of the event as ‘religiously motivated’ but ‘politically motivated’…

“We believe his actions were politically motivated and therefore linked to terrorism.” — NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, ‘Teen Shooting Linked to Terrorism

The shooter was ‘politically motivated’ by people he met in a religious place. A place of worship. I’m not claiming that his actions were a necessary product of the religion he aligned himself with by faith, but they were almost certainly a product of his faith. Of his understanding of the world and its end. Obviously there’s a massive link between religion and politics for most people of faith, for good or for ill, but I can’t help but think this plays into a narrative that isolates people of faith and robs us of the dignity that comes from being able to make choices about how we understand life and are understood. As a person of faith, putting myself in the shoes of someone who might be robbed of dignity in this sense, I’d like to offer a few alternatives for ‘deradicalisation’ that don’t involve ‘depersonalisation’… I’d like to suggest that the secular narrative being used to disenchant this narrative with a view to de-radicalising it (making these actions politically motivated (immanent) rather than religiously motivated (transcendent) might actually be counter-productive because it might reinforce a sense that the secular west is not interested in understanding those who don’t subscribe to its disenchanted story. I’d like to suggest that perhaps, even within a secular frame, what would be productive, virtuous, and just response would be to treat the perpetrator — and others — as human agents, giving them the dignity of understanding their choices and motivations, without thinking that doing so would either ‘radicalise’ other like minded people, or insult those who share a similar way of seeing the world as ‘enchanted’ and meaningful through eyes and ears of faith. Maybe a better way forward would be to invite those who share an ‘enchanted’ view of the world — be they Muslims, or people of other faiths — to enter dialogue in the public square that offers alternative ways of seeing the world and its end, through better stories (without shouting them down in angry comment threads).

Secularisation: an exercise in not seeing the emperor’s old clothes

Secularisation in its modern, disenchanted form, and especially the secularist narrative playing out in the analysis of the action of people of faith ends up being a deliberate attempt not to see things as they really are, but also, not to see people as they truly wish to be seen. It fails to give people dignity because it denies them the robes they choose to give context to their actions. When a person of faith acts in a way motivated by that faith the secular narrative is that this is ‘political,’ a category I certainly wouldn’t put first in describing my own actions.

This new narrative is disingenuous and unloving. It doesn’t love ‘political’ actors — or perpetrators — with the kind of just love that requires us to pay real attention to the motivations for action and decide on reasonable and just consequences or solutions. It dehumanises those who do not share the new narrative. It robs a religious person of dignity, stripping their life of the meaning they have ‘chosen’. In this it both undermines the secularist narrative of ‘choice,’ and also deliberately holds ignorance and arrogance in tension — it’s deliberately ignorant, in failing to consider possibilities beyond one’s own ‘eyes and ears’ or beyond a consensus reached by many eyes and ears, and part of this ignorance manifests itself in an arrogant failure to listen to narratives that don’t fit this dominant view. It’s a failure to listen, and a failure to see, other people as they wish to be seen, and perhaps the world as it should be seen.

If the old view of the world was one where the universe was fully clothed in rich, enchanting, meaning, where it was vividly coloured and beautifully formed so that both the emperor wearing the clothes was special, but the designer was clearly a good and creative genius who wished this to be the case, then the new version of the world is one where we, the new emperors, are naked and left to construct an outfit, and dignity, for ourselves.

The secularist assumption is that its those who have stripped off their old clothing who are dressed, while those who hang on to the idea of an enchanted world given meaning by a divine creator, are naked and foolish.

The secular status quo runs a real risk of dehumanising people according to its own account of meaningful humanism, where our sense of what it means to be a person with dignity, a monarch, a ruler of our own tiny kingdom, is caught up in making the decision about how to live and to channel David Foster Wallace, what to worship. In This Is Water, Wallace points out that our new default is to worship things within the world, immanent things, things that will ultimately eat us alive, and that our secular age is structured in such a way that it wants to keep us exercising our freedom, so long as its directed at these immanent things. So long as we don’t rock the boat. But he ponders whether or not this default is really freedom, or if freedom might lie elsewhere, in questioning the default narrative, and the default ‘secular’ gods.

“And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water


A radical story — motivated by a view of the end of the world

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. 

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” 
― Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe

As he explores Taylor’s understanding of The Secular Age, Smith mentions that part of the movement from an ‘enchanted’ or spiritual sense of reality was a depersonalising move from describing the world as a divine creation (as it had been understood right up to modern times), to simply ‘nature’… a neutral and unthinking thing, at best governed by ‘natural law’…

“The shift from cosmos to universe — from “creation” to “nature” — makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent “meaning” that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence… Now, from the vantage point of secular humanism, this new interest in nature can look like the next logical step on the way to pure immanence: first distinguish God/nature, then disenchant, then be happy and content with just nature and hence affirm the autonomy and sufficiency of nature. Such a story about the “autonomization” of nature posits a contrast or dichotomy between belief in God and interest in “nature-for-itself”…

Part of the fallout of such a metaphysical shift is the loss of final causality (a cause that attracts or “pulls”), eclipsing any teleology for things/nature. Understanding something is no longer a matter of understanding its “essence” and hence its telos (end). Instead we get the “mechanistic” universe that we still inhabit today, in which efficient causality (a cause that “pushes”) is the only causality and can only be discerned by empirical observation. This, of course, is precisely the assumption behind the scientific method as a way of divining the efficient causes of things, not by discerning “essence” but by empirical observation of patterns, etc. The result is nothing short of “a new understanding of being, according to which, all intrinsic purposes having been expelled, final causation drops out, and efficient causation alone remains””— James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

I can understand why people choose to see the world this way though. The universe is vast and intimidating. Douglas Adams goes on and on about infinity in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and its to explore just how uncomfortable a view of the universe is if it is very infinite, and we are very finite. There’s this thing in the story called the Total Perspective Vortex which promises to show anyone who attaches their mind to its probes just how small they really are. Trin Tragula built the machine to annoy his wife, but when he plugged her into it, it had disastrous consequences.

“To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

“For when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.” ― Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe

This is what happens when we strip the universe of enchantment, of meaning beyond the physical. Suddenly the sheer, immanent, physicality of the universe is intimidating, rather than comforting. It’s better to think of it as uncaring, and uninvolved, and as without an ‘end’ at that point, so that we don’t have to worry about getting the ‘end’ wrong, given our new freedom to choose how to live in it. Robbing the world of an ‘end’ — a telos in the old Greek sense — a purpose — in itself, means we are in the driver’s seat when it comes to creating meaning. We understand the world as we experience it with our eyes and ears, and we, within the world, are free to come up with our own vision for how things should be, and what things are for, and we’re free to direct our own lives. If people come up with some approach to their own life — an understanding of their own purpose, or ‘end’ that is tied to some broader purpose in the universe, some other director giving things purpose, especially a divine purpose, we treat them with suspicion.

And looking around at all the alternative understandings of the purpose of the world posited by religious people — including some Christians — I share a fair amount of this suspicion. I can totally understand why we’d want to take the shortcut of robbing people of their dignity by stripping them of their metaphorical clothes and leaving them naked. Exposing them and their folly for all to see. But when I put myself in the shoes of those seen as ‘exposed’ it leaves me feeling a little empathy for the religiously motivated person. It leaves me thinking that perhaps this strategy might leave other people of faith, who feel the same way about the world, feeling naked and foolish. Which is a brilliant ‘deradicalisation’ strategy. Except that it’s not. Especially if the ‘secular west’ has a habit of pushing the sorts of people who have faith to the margins, away from the benefits of the ‘secular defaults’ which builds a further degree of resentment.

Let’s come back to that alternative strategy — inviting those who share an ‘enchanted’ view of the world to the table to discuss solutions to radicalisation, rather than excluding us by lumping us all in together as potential dangerous radicals who want to see the end of the world as we know it.

For those who see and experience the world as shot through with meaning, the vastness of the universe helps build self-esteem. The universe is the stage in a divine cosmic drama that tells the story of the value of human life to the creator of the universe — one vaster than the universe itself. In this drama, especially the Christian version, the creator of all this steps onto the stage, and takes part in the drama, by laying down his life for the actors he made. The cross of Jesus is a new Total Perspective Vortex that puts us at the centre of a vast and infinite world. It gives the world a new end, both in an understanding of its purpose — as the ground upon which God became incarnate, made himself human, died, and promised to redeem — and it gives us a new understanding of how it all ends. Jesus, by his resurrection, promised to be the ultimate and final solution for this world, inviting those who follow him to ‘take up their cross’ becoming part of the picture of what the end of the world looks like. Eating with a radical Christian should be like eating at the restaurant at the end of the universe — you should see and taste the end of the world.

I confess, I totally buy into this ‘enchanted’ vision of the world. I believe the world is ‘shot through with meaning’ – that it’s a divine creation, carefully maintained, damaged by our selfish ‘default’ following lives and crying out for a solution. I pray God brings that solution every time I say anything remotely like the Lord’s Prayer. Prayer is an incantation of sorts, an act of enchantment, and this is the prayer of a ‘radical’ who follows the God-man.

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’” — The Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:9-13

This is a radical prayer for the world as we know it to end, for the world to meet its end — the kingdom of God. I suspect if our politicians knew what they were asking for when they prayed these words the attempt to further disenchant our ‘politics’ by removing ‘religion’ would gather steam.

I’m a religiously motivated Christian radical. I want to bring about this end. I want to confront people with this story and I want them to see that without it they’re actually naked.

This is what being a Christian radical looks like.

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

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

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12

It’s interesting that this largely matches up with how Christians were perceived to be living in the early church, in the Roman Empire. Pliny, a Roman governor, wrote to his friend, the emperor, Trajan, asking how he should deal with the Christian radicals popping up all over the empire and threatening to end the world as they knew it. The Roman world was also a world shot through with meaning — where Gods existed within the cosmos, and men (emperors) could become gods. Christians threatened this status quo, as we now threaten the secular defaults of our age. Pliny describes their radical behaviour as:

“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.” — Pliny, Letter to Trajan

It was concern for the status quo that motivated Pliny’s query, and Trajan’s response that Pliny was right to put these Christians to death if they wouldn’t worship his divine image, this was his litmus test for deciding who to execute, he spared those who “worshipped your [Trajan’s divine] image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ” — because people who did this were no threat to the established order. Here’s why he says he wrote — because the enchantment/superstition that led Christians to act radically like this was spreading.

“For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.” — Pliny, Letter to Trajan

People will do all sorts of things in the thrall of a compelling story, be it secularism, or your garden variety secular -isms like communism, materialism (but perhaps not naturalism, unless its paired with something else — or threatened by something else, which is why it’s a compelling antidote to enchantment). People will die for a secular ‘-ism’, just as they will for a religion (or a religious -ism like Judaism or Mormonism), an enchanted story.

Religious stories don’t just enchant life, but death as well. Often they involve some picture of martyrdom, which is closely tied to our sense of the world’s end, and how it the world. An interesting working definition of a ‘radical’ might not just be someone who is prepared to live by their story, but to die by it.

Being a Christian radical also means martyrdom — death to self — not just in the David Foster Wallace sense of death to the default in order to love others — but perhaps even in a literal sense, laying down our lives to give life to others. This is where our ‘enchanted story’ is fundamentally better for the world than any of the others. Jesus produces a different sort of radical, and a different sort of martyr. The diners at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe are horrified by how willing their meal — a sentient cow — is to die for their good, their food and entertainment, and yet, its this same willingness that Christians have historically shown in the face of death so that others might see the way the world ends. This same horror, for a secular citizen, extends to the idea that anybody might throw away their immanent existence — assumed to be their only existence — for the sake of some ‘religious’ notion.

“Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body? It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters into a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

“Something off the shoulder perhaps?” suggested the animal. “Braised in a white wine sauce?”

“Er, your shoulder?” said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

“But naturally my shoulder, sir,” mooed the animal contentedly, “nobody else’s is mine to offer.”…

“You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?” whispered Trillian to Ford.

“Me?” said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes. “I don’t mean anything.”

“That’s absolutely horrible,” exclaimed Arthur, “the most revolting thing I’ve ever heard.”

“What’s the problem, Earthman?” said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal’s enormous rump.

“I just don’t want to eat an animal that’s standing there inviting me to,” said Arthur. “It’s heartless.”

“Better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten,” said Zaphod.

I’m totally on board with being terrified by the sort of martyrdom that comes at the cost of others, but I can’t get my head around being opposed to a deliberate exercise of freedom that takes that sort of freedom David Foster Wallace identified to ‘sacrifice’ for others ‘over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day’ to its radical conclusion. It’s this sort of exercise of freedom, as he rightly identifies, that helps people see the world through different eyes. But it’s when we connect this freedom to the Christian story — where the infinite God steps into his finite creation as a man, and lovingly sacrifices himself for us — that we are no longer haunted by that “gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing” because in the ‘incarnation’ — in God becoming flesh — the transcendent and immanent are revealed at once in vivid colour. We see the emperor in his truly magnificent clothes as the God-Man hangs naked on the Cross, exposed in order to re-dress us. This story answers that ‘gnawing sense’ of having lost touch with the infinite, because in it the infinite one finds us, and draws us to him. It’s this story that gives us enchanted eyes and ears by which we now see the world, and imagine a better end  — both in terms of a better purpose, and a better future.

This new way of seeing is what brings the political and religious together. It’s what gives a deeper meaning to a radical life and death. It’s people living this radical story that best displays the enchanting and compelling power of this story. The Cross isn’t just our Total Perspective Vortex, it’s our Restaurant at the End of the Universe. When we stand near it — reliving it by living it each day,  through our words and practices as extensions of our story, as we practice dying to self each day, is what gives people the taste of the end of the world that Douglas Adams could only dream of meaningfully depicting in a secular sense by inventing time and space travel.

Tertullian, a guy from the early church, showed what it looks like to be both religiously and politically motivated at the same time when he wrote to the Roman government, the same government that kept executing Christians

“It is our battle to be summoned to your tribunals that there, under fear of execution, we may battle for the truth. But the day is won when the object of the struggle is gained.  This victory of ours gives us the glory of pleasing God, and the spoil of life eternal. But we are overcome. Yes, when we have obtained our wishes. Therefore we conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued…

…Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” — Tertullian, Apology

Re-Enchanting the World: Episode 1 — Heroic Space: DC’s Gotham v Marvel’s New York; Or, things I thought about while playing Spider-Man 2 with my son

In which I ask why Marvel Comics sets its stories in real cities, while DC creates anonymous every-cities. And consider what this does to us as participants in the narrative.

Image Credit: Screenshot from Amazing Spider-Man 2, US Gamer, Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review

I’ve somehow managed to get my 2 year old son obsessed with Spider-Man. It wasn’t hard. I’ve always loved Spider-Man’s off-the-wall (or on-the-wall) antics, and there’s something about the playful red/blue/web aesthetic that I just enjoy. I also love that clichéd line “with great power comes great responsibility”… I was never all that into Spider-Man myself. I was an avid reader of The Phantom as a kid.

Xavi and I have been watching The Ultimate Spider-Man together. A pretty fun cartoon. Mostly it’s fun for me. He has a Spider-Man figurine that he takes to bed. And so, I thought it’d be fun for me to grab a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on the PS4. And it has been fun. Though mostly for me.

In the last few years I’ve enjoyed the resurgence of comic book worlds in TV and Cinema. I love the Marvel Universe (except for the relatively insipid Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D). I thought Nolan’s Batman trilogy was great, and Arrow and The Flash are TV favourites in our household. Robyn isn’t so sure about Gotham. But I like its gritty gangster vibe, and its introductions of villains from Batman’s world have drawn me back into the Batman mythos a bit.

As I was swinging from building to building as New York’s friendly, neighbourhood, Spider-Man, it got me wondering — why is it that Marvel’s universe co-opts real world cities as a back-drop for its stories, while DC has invented the likes of Gotham, Metropolis, Central City and Starling City? What is gained through this decision? What is lost?

I’ve been thinking a bit about questions of place and story lately. And I’ll get to a bit of theological unpacking of these questions in some subsequent posts.

I while back I posted a bunch of lectures from TV show-runner extraordinaire Dan Harmon (of Community fame) about how stories work (and some stuff from Ira Glass and Kurt Vonnegut). The shape of stories Harmon talks about in those lectures is pretty much the shape of every comic book story ever created (and every story ever told), and he said this, which I think is true:

“Sooner or later, we need to be someone, because if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.” — Dan Harmon

Video games obviously make this process easier by giving you a character to play. Eyes to see through. An avatar. They bring us into the story via a character — other stories through other mediums have to do this in other ways, and as a result of web-slinging my way around New York, I’m wondering what role place plays in getting us inside a character. Do we get into a story, and into a character, quicker if the setting is one we know, or one that exists in our world, or does an ‘every-city’ do the job faster?

I’m also wondering what role comic books — or fantasy in general — plays in giving us a picture of a re-enchanted world. A world where good and evil are locked in a battle, not just in a natural sense, but supernaturally. I’m wondering how they might teach us something about compelling story-telling that helps us help people see the world truly.

All this. Just as a result of playing a video game about a comic book character…

Our Disenchanted world

I’ve been reading quite a bit of James K.A Smith lately. One of the ideas at the heart of much of his writing is that our modernist, ‘secular,’ world is a disenchanted world. A flat world that has lost a sense of meaning beyond the physical reality. He suggests that in moving to an epistemology (method of knowing stuff), ontology (understanding of what stuff ‘being’ ‘stuff’ is), and a philosophy (materialism, the way we bring these two together), that emphasises the material world above all else we’ve collapsed any transcendent (stuff beyond us, and our senses, and ‘ultimate’ stuff) reality into an immanent (stuff around us, that we experience and observe) reality. That is: we don’t ask questions about supernatural stuff. About magic. About God or gods — because all that really matters is what we (collectively, and individually) see, hear, feel, and experience.

The effect of this has been to disenchant the world — which has an impact on our art and culture as much as it does on the way we think about knowing, and the sciences. Our art becomes less enchanting. Our stories, even our ‘myths’ — not untrue stories, but the stories we live by — become more worried about the immanent.

But. Maybe the world isn’t as disenchanted as it appears to be. And maybe superhero stories are an invitation for us to consider our desire to be enchanted. One of Smith’s books I’ve been reading is How (Not) To Be Secular its a short commentary on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. in it, Smith says:

Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.

One of the ways out of a disenchanted world, via these haunted remains, is through the arts — and — specifically, through stories. Comic books are a type of art (even if high art types might criticise them as being ‘pop’ culture). They’re also a type of story particularly given to doing this work because they’re visual stories, not just words on a page. They’re also, often, an ‘epic’ sort of story capable of functioning as myth, and with a hero designed for us to care about, and identify with (but more on heroes in the next episode). Both the Marvel and DC universes, via their comic books, but also their multimedia platforms represent a billion dollar sector churning out stories people want to immerse themselves in as they read, watch, and play.

“The cinema has never before seen anything quite like the “Marvel cinematic universe”. This sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely connected skein of films and television shows draw on characters the comic-book publisher (now also a movie company owned by Disney) has been developing for decades. Begun in 2008 with “Iron Man”, its exercise in extended mythopoeia now consists of 11 feature films and three television shows, with many more to come… The studio has successfully explored a range of trappings and stylings for its superheroes, putting them in character pieces and ensembles, setting their stories in outer space and in congressional hearings, playing them for thrills, or laughs, or both. There has, though, been something of an amped-up sameiness to the recent offerings, with third acts dominated by variations on the theme of a large-flying-object-laying-waste-to-a-city-with-possible-world-changing-conseqences.” — Ant Man: The Smaller Picture, Economist

These stories matter. The settings matter — these cities that are laid waste matter. The ‘laying waste’ matters within those worlds, it has potential consequences that we largely ignore as viewers, but the authors are no longer interested in letting us ignore, nor are they interested in ignoring them as storytellers who are world building — that’s what that word ‘mythopoeia’ means in the quote above.

These stories are also a window into the way people experience the haunting of our ‘immanent’ world at a ‘pop’ level. They are art. Pop art. I don’t think ‘pop’ should carry any sense of snobbery, because what this really means is that its a popular way that people in western society get their little taste of enchantment. Even if the way these comic universes are set up (as we’ll see) are often products of an immanent view of the world.

Just briefly, as a bit of an answer for anyone who has bothered to read this far who is still thinking “what’s the point” of all this — the point is this. Too often our methodologies as Christians, the way we speak the Gospel and live it — buys into this immanent frame, and produces a sort of immanent Christianity that never touches the transcendent, or gets close to this haunting sense people have. One of our goals, as Christians who believe in a supernatural — something beyond our senses — and an archetypal hero — must surely be to give people a new vocabulary, and a new way of seeing the world. Our task in speaking into the secular world — the stories we tell — are stories, or ‘myths’ that are ‘enchanted’ and true.

Now. Back to the question at hand. What difference does it make to the story if its set in the “real” world, or in a created world? Are we most likely to see the world as enchanted if the ‘myths’ or stories we live by that give us models for action, and help us think through meaning are set in the real world, in real cities, or in fictional every-cities? What is more relatable?

It turns out this is a debate that goes as far back as CS Lewis and Tolkien, who both wrote about the importance of ‘faery stories’ and creating worlds shot through with meaning. Worlds where the transcendent was not collapsed into the immanent. Worlds where magic still happened. Enchanted worlds. Worlds that could speak to those haunted parts of our minds and help us see meaning in our own world. So we’ll unpack that a bit too. My basic thesis is that Tolkien advocates a DC approach to story telling, while Lewis would adopt Marvel’s approach. So, for example, the humans in Narnia are citizens of earth who arrive in the enchanted world of Narnia through a wardrobe, while the humans of Middle Earth are natives of this alternative, still overtly enchanted, world.

Although, Lewis understood that enchanted stories needed to take place a little beyond our little immanent bubbles of reality. Beyond our own place — our own city.

“It is not difficult to see why those who wish to visit strange regions in search of such beauty, awe, or terror as the actual world does not supply have increasingly been driven to other planets or stars. It is the result of increasing geographical knowledge. The less known the real world is, the more plausibly your marvels can be located near at hand.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction

The effect of dislocation into these enchanted places was meant, for Lewis, to help people carry that experience into their everyday reality. To re-enchant the world.

“He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — CS Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

But are comic books really the equivalent of the Lewis/Tolkien approach to faery stories? Can we really think these forms of pop culture can do what the literary work of two of the 20th century’s most prodigious literary geniuses were able to do? Is there any comparison between DC’s Gotham and Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Or Marvel’s New York and Lewis’ London? Or even perhaps Marvel’s Asgard and Lewis’ Narnia?

In the next couple of posts I’ll unpack what Tolkien and Lewis teach us about building worlds embedded with meaning, and I’ll consider the role of heroes within these world building stories. Who knows when those posts will be finished. For now lets continue on this question of what sort of place, or setting, provides the quickest path to re-enchantment. A real city, enchanted, or an ‘enchanted’ city we’re invited to see as a city we belong to…

Comics and the “real” world

Comics, as stories, are an interesting lens through which to unpack the values of the world that produces them, and they also play a part in shaping the world we live in. Comic book characters are no longer reduced to two dimensional avatars that move through panel by panel, they’re now brought to life in TV shows, Movies, and video games. We can, as I’ve experienced this week, see the world — our world — through their eyes, and so seeing, can be invited to re-see our world differently through our own eyes.

It’s interesting that in their current iterations the significant difference between DC and Marvel is that, thanks to the aesthetic of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, DC products tend to be darker, and grittier than Marvel’s, and ultimately, despite Superman coming from another planet, I think they’re somewhat less overtly enchanted or magical than Marvel. Marvel’s cinematic universe — with the exception of the new Netflix Daredevil series (and we’ll discuss it in a subsequent post) operates in a world soaked in vivid colour. Neither comic universe really engages in the magical realm quite so much as Lewis or Tolkien. Whether its New York or Gotham or Metropolis, these stories still occur in something close to the real world. And yet the ‘enchantment’ of the superhero still needs to be explained, this is truer in Marvel’s universe — Batman (DC) and Ironman (Marvel) both operate as functions of their wealth, and the opportunity created by such wealth, Superman (DC) and Thor (Marvel) are both ‘out of this world’ heroes from above, bringing a sense of enchantment to earth, while the rest of Marvel’s heroes are essentially ‘enchanted’ when the immanent world backfires, or, when science misfires. The ‘enchantments’ are largely not enchantments at all, but products of immanence (the question of whether God/gods exists in these universes is an interesting one that I’ll unpack a bit later too). As my friend Craig Hamilton put it when I asked him (and others) the question that drove this investigation:

“The DC universe is about the ideal whereas Marvel is about struggling to live up to an ideal. DC heroes are almost pure archetypes while Marvel are heroes with feet of clay. Even Batman isn’t a brooding vigilante he’s The World’s Greatest Detective. Marvel has a fearful, suspicious stance towards technology and science that DC doesn’t have. Most of Marvel’s heroes and villains are the result of science gone wrong. The Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Hulk. It’s fear of radiation that creates all these heroes. And they’re fundamentally flawed characters in a way that DC heroes aren’t. Sure Superman has kryptonite and Green Lantern’s ring didn’t work on yellow for a while, but that’s totally different to Tony Stark being an alcoholic weapons manufacturer or Peter Parker being responsible for his Uncle’s murder and being driven by that guilt forever while continuing to make stupid decisions and needing to fix his mistakes.” — Craig Hamilton

The X-Men, a Marvel franchise, are another example of enchantment via immanence — super powers developed via mutation, rather than enchantment being a natural product of a world that includes an accepted, and largely unquestioned, transcendent reality (ala Gandalf and Aslan).

Regardless of the origin of the powers of the hero, these stories have always had a mythic quality, the ability, via a sort of enchantment, to function as myth and cause us to understand our ‘immanent’ reality differently.They’ve always had this sort of power. Regardless of their setting — but a really interesting example of the differences between Marvel’s real world stories and DC’s stories that come from fictional cities set within the real world, came in World War II.

While being perennially dismissed as juvenile, comic books functioned as powerful propaganda in World War II, which took place just as superheroes were emerging as icons. DC Comics Superman and Batman, who existed in their own fictional ‘every-cities’ took part in the war effort by modelling an ideal citizenship — a citizenship of responsible consumption — cracking down on petty crime and irresponsible use of resources back home, while Marvel’s characters, especially Captain America, coming as they did from real cities, were able to participate in the war effort.

The question of setting is already playing a part in the way comic book stories function as ‘myth’ stories that shape us. Stories that use a sense of enchantment to reshape the lives of the people and cultures who both read them and produce them. What’s interesting in the question of setting, is that regardless of universe, all the action is really taking place in one city. Vancouver.

Or, rather, New York. “Every City” or not, comic book drama takes place in that great city.

That great city: Gotham, Metropolis and New York

“Originally I was going to call Gotham City “Civic City.” Then I tried “Capital City,” then “Coast City.” Then I flipped through the New York City phone book and spotted the name “Gotham Jewelers” and said, “That’s it,” Gotham City. We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it. Of course, Gotham is another name for New York.” — Batman Writer/Co-creator, Bill Finger

“The difference between Gotham and Metropolis succinctly summarizes the differences between the two superheroes. As current Batman editor Dennis O’Neil put it: ‘Gotham is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3 a.m., November 28 in a cold year. Metropolis is Manhattan between Fourteenth and One Hundred and Tenth Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year'” — Dennis O’Neil, Batman Writer, cited in ‘Metropolis is New York by Day, Gotham City is New York by Night,’ BarryPopkik.com

The locus of superhero comics was then, as it largely remains, New York. Writers and artists living in the city depict it in their work — so successfully that superhero stories set in any other city may require a certain degree of justification for their choice of locale.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader


But why New York? Making an ‘every-city’ based on New York is interesting, because it’s already an every-city.

“The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described his reactions on arriving in the city in the essay ‘New York in 1941’: “…New York (and this is the source of its charm and its peculiar fascination) was then a city where anything seemed possible. Like the urban fabric, the social and cultural fabric was riddled with holes. All you had to do was pick one and slip through if, like Alice, you wanted to get to the other side of the looking glass and find worlds so enchanting that they seemed unreal.” This is the New York (or Gotham City, or Metropolis) that dominates the superhero story and has become its almost inevitable milieu. New York draws together an impressive wealth of signs, all of which the comic-reader is adept at deciphering. It is a city that signifies all cities, and, more specifically, all modern cities, since the city itself is one of the signs of modernity… New York is a sign in fictional discourse for the imminence of such possibilities — simultaneously a forest of urban signs and an endlessly wiped slate on which unlimited designs can be inscribed — cop shows, thrillers, comedies, “ethnic” movies… and cyclical adventures of costumed heroes as diverse as Bob Kane’s Batman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader

What’s interesting is that these comic universes — even these comic New Yorks — have to grapple with questions of the relationship between people and place. Both people in these worlds — and the impact they have on the places they occupy, and the impact these places have on the people who occupy them, and the people and events outside the world and the impacts these people have on the fictional, enchanted universe of these stories. A question that flows from this is what do these ‘enchanted’ places do to people in the real world — via the power of story.


What places do to people, what people do to places

“Batman is integrally linked to his city, the city he has sworn to protect. In every sense of the word, he is a true avatar of Gotham. And Gotham City itself is an avatar, not only of the dreams of its fictional architects, but of our collective urban paranoia.” — Jimmy Stamp, ‘Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives,’ Life Without Buildings

There’s a sense amongst the literature on Batman, especially the Dark Knight Batman, that Gotham’s dysfunctionality is, at least in part, due to the sort of person, or sort of hero, he is. His ‘myth’ — his power as a symbol — is built on fear. He wears a mask. He strikes fear into the hearts of those who do wrong in the city, and yet, this perpetuates a kind of criminal in Gotham who needs to be fearless (or insane) to operate. It’s a vicious cycle. Batman is shaped by his city, and thereafter he shapes his city.

In the real world, as readers or viewers visiting Gotham, the city has the capacity to both embody our fears about criminals unchecked by conscience, and the ‘worst’ of city life. If the writers of Batman have quite deliberately based their ‘enchanted’ city on New York’s worst districts, at night, then this fictional place starts to reinforce certain fears in us, as we read. The Dark Knight is a certain sort of post-modern hero who turns the table on the way this ‘enchantment’ works from being light and magical to being dark, if not a dark art, or sorcery, at the very least a sort of defence against the dark arts that comes from us seeing humanity reflected at its worst through the magic mirror, rather than at its best in the, albeit masked, visage of the superhero.

“Since its inception, Gotham City has been presented as the embodiment of the urban fears that helped give rise to the American suburbs, the safe havens from the city that they are. Gotham City has always been a dark place, full of steam and rats and crime. A city of graveyards and gargoyles; alleys and asylums. Gotham is a nightmare, a distorted metropolis that corrupts the souls of good men.”— Jimmy Stamp, ‘Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives,’ Life Without Buildings

Architecture, real or enchanted, shapes the people who ‘live’ in it. It makes us feel. It’s a form of art, and thus, able to enchant. Or haunt. As my web-slinging avatar flew through the streets of New York, and as the impressively animated city was corrupted, burned, and blown up by bad guys, and an hyper-vigilant anti-hero agency, I felt things about the destruction of the city. I don’t know if this felt ‘realer’ because it was New York, a city I’ve never visited, but the setting was part of the story. It helped it touch some haunted part of me, or put me in touch with something enchanting. It got me asking the sort of questions that led me to read a bunch of stuff and write these posts.

“Architecture influences the lives of human beings. City dwellers react to the architectural forms and spaces which they encounter: specific consequences may be looked for in their thoughts, feelings and actions. Their response to Architecture is usually subconscious. Designers themselves are usually unconscious of the effects which their creations will produce.” — Hugh Ferris, An Architect/deliniator from New York from his book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Comic book architecture also reacts and responds to the real world. It has to, to keep us engaged. This becomes part of the motivation (apart from a desire to do-over a stupid plot line) for a comic book trope called retconning. The “retcon” is a portmanteau of retroactive continuity. It’s a sort of on the fly editing of a back story to account for a change in the present. From what I’ve read in the last couple of days, Frank Miller’s introduction of the Dark Knight version of Batman was an incredibly powerful and effective retcon, with a fitting story. It was a retcon that took place because of a cultural shift. It enabled Batman to be interestingly post-modern, asking new questions in storylines and for us as readers (but more on this in a future episode). Apparently Superman started off as something of a Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich and was a little anti-establishment, but as soon as World War II kicked off he became the face of the ideal American. These retcons seem necessary. But some are dumb. Other retcons, or changes, are forced because of physical changes in the real world — like the 9-11 destruction of the Twin Towers. There are other changes that are less retconny and more trendy.

“Miller’s revisionary realism is only another version of what comic books often accomplish in the narrative, a literal revising of the facts of a comic book character’s history on the basis of recent interpretation. Take, for example, the design of Superman’s home planet, Krypton. The rendering of a “futuristic” world looks very different today than the rendering done in 1938. Today, however, Krypton is portrayed anew and is expected to be understood by readers as the true rendition of how Krypton has always looked. — Geoff Klock, The Revisionary Superhero Narrative

But places are also, increasingly, affected by the events that take place inside the comic book universe. This is interesting because it makes the stories set therein simultaneously ‘realer’ in that there is an effect following a cause, and less real, in that the ‘real’ version of the city is increasingly removed from the story version. A story-teller particularly committed to their craft would have to start literally blowing up cityscapes to keep a continuity between the real world and the story world. Over time, the change inflicted on the physical landscape in the story could make the events more distant from us, if they didn’t become opportunities to present us with new questions. It’s funny that in one sense, Marvel’s New York is moving closer to DC’s, especially Dark Knight DC’s, Gotham.

One of the profoundly cool things about Netflix’s version of Daredevil is that it happens in the same Marvel universe as the films. And this becomes part of the story. The events shape the people. There’s continuity — which according to Reynold’s in a book called Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths  — is a thing that Marvel’s Stan Lee introduced into the world of comics as a key innovation in what he identifies as the Silver Age of Comics (these ‘ages’ are contested a bit). So it’s true to Marvel’s DNA. This continuity is interesting because Daredevil, via Netflix, has a sort of gritty aesthetic more at home in Gotham. Daredevil’s New York is gritty. And its grittiness is a result — a direct result — of the wanton destruction of New York in The Avengers. Daredevil confronts the fallout of the destruction of this city so prominently featured as the landscape for Marvel’s epic cinematic universe. This universe, a universe grappling with the destruction wrought upon it by these conflicts, and changing as our real world changes too, becomes the backdrop for increasingly complex stories, stories where we’re haunted by both our very immanent reality, and the real, physical, consequences of decisions made in the real world, but where we’re also haunted by a lingering sense of the transcendent, and the idea that even now, though we might deny it, our world is shot through with meaning. The Marvel Universe is becoming even more ‘fallen’ in a Biblical sense, as the impact of human, and super-human, failings are felt at an environmental level. Marvel’s universe, like DC’s, and like our own, is frustrated and groaning as a result of sin. But this makes the world meaningful, and real.

CS Lewis wrote a book called The Discarded Image in which he explores how our modern approach to knowledge displaced the idea that there is meaning beyond the material. He writes about the medieval model of the world, a world imbued with all sorts of meaning. A world which functions as a backdrop for stories — art — that is more enchanting than the art we produce as a result. We start handicapped, like a runner 20 metres behind the start line, because we’ve lost our sense that the everyday forest is enchanted already. Our fictional forests are as bland as the run of the mill forest of the medieval model. Our comic book villains are less magical, and our heroes are the product of science experiments gone wrong. They’re not the sorts about whom bards might sing.

In every period the Model of the Universe which is accepted by the great thinkers helps to provide what we may call a backcloth for the arts. But this backcloth is highly selective. It takes over from the total Model only what is intelligible to a layman and only what makes some appeal to imagination and emotion. Thus our own backcloth contains plenty of Freud and little of Einstein. The medieval backcloth contains the order and influences of the planets, but not much about epicycles and eccentrics. Nor does the backcloth always respond very quickly to great changes in the scientific and philosophical level. Furthermore, and apart from actual omissions in the backcloth version of the Model, there will usually be a difference of another kind. We may call it a difference of status. The great masters do not take any Model quite so seriously as the rest of us. They know that it is, after all, only a model, possibly replaceable. — CS Lewis, The Discarded Image

Romans 1 suggests we suppress the transcendent reality of our world, and exchange the transcendent supernatural God, in whom we exist, for a bunch of immanent gods — worshipping created things. Romans 1 shows that the world, as it was intended to be, is an enchanted space where we should be coming face to face with the divine, and its only our deliberate blinkers, our wilful intent to not see, to not be enchanted, that leaves our world more two dimensional than a comic strip universe (a world where meaning and enchantment still exist).

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

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. — Romans 1:18-23

Enchanting stories: Stories that bridge the gap between the immanent and transcendent

The contemplation of the actual Metropolis as a whole cannot but lead us at last to the realization of a human population unconsciously reacting to forms which came into existence without conscious design. A hope, however, may begin to define itself in our minds. May there not yet arise, perhaps in another generation, architects who, appreciating the influence unconsciously received, will learn consciously to direct it?” — Hugh Ferris, from The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Breaking this ‘suppression’ and the blindness that comes with it requires the world to become enchanted again, in some sense this requires the enchanted worlds that teach us that our world, too, is enchanted, to become more compellingly enchanted. That’ll help. It also involves us shifting our model for understanding the real world, to include the transcendant. This is another one of those vicious cycles. Our models are influenced by art and story, just as they influence art and story. Paul’s answer to the world broken by our fascination with the immanent in Romans 1 is a story, the story about how the transcendent one broke through. How God took the first step. How he provided a hero. Here’s a spoiler. The answer at the end of this series, wherever it leads, is going to be Jesus, because Jesus, in the incarnation, is the perfect character (a character almost every superhero, but especially Superman, rips off in some way). This isn’t your typical Jesus juke. I think it’s true in a profound and enchanting way.

But the answer is also us telling better, more enchanting, stories. Learning something from DC and Marvel, sure, but looking back to times when the world was more enchanted, or to those who engaged, deliberately, in the construction of enchanted worlds. Whose approach to ‘architecture’ or to world-building was an intentional attempt to direct us not just to something enchanting, but something truer than true about our own world. Stories require people (heroes) doing things in places, over time. So the next two episodes will explore that. But now. Some James K.A Smith on why we need stories.

“So what does this have to do with stories? Well, our hearts traffic in stories. Not only are we lovers, we are also story-tellers (and story-listeners). As the novelist David Foster Wallace once put it, “We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing”. We are narrative animals whose very orientation to the world is most fundamentally shaped by stories. Indeed, it tends to be stories that capture our imagination—stories that seep into our heart and aim our love. We’re less convinced by arguments than moved by stories… The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that stories are so fundamental to our identity that we don’t know what to do without one. As he puts it, I can’t answer the question, “What ought I to do?” unless I have already answered aprior question, “Of which story am I a part?” It is a story that provides the moral map of our universe…

Stories, then, are not just nice little entertainments to jazz up the material; stories are not just some supplementary way of making content “interesting.” No, we learn through stories because we know by stories. Indeed, we know things in stories that we couldn’t know any other way: there is an irreducibility of narrative knowledge that eludes translation and paraphrase…

So it is crucial that the task of Christian schooling is nested in a story—in the narrative arc of the biblical drama of God’s faithfulness to creation and to his people. It is crucial that the story of God in Christ redeeming the world be the very air we breathe, the scaffolding around us… we constantly need to look for ways to tell that story, and to teach in stories, because story is the first language of love. If hearts are going to be aimed toward God’s kingdom, they’ll be won over by good storytellers.” — James K.A Smith, Learning (by) Stories


So. What difference does it make if the story is set in real New York or New York in a mask? Perhaps not much. What matters is how enchanting the story is, or how much the use of the city is able to haunt us by pointing us to some truth beyond ourselves. To get us to remove the mask, or the blinkers, we wear that stop us truly seeing the world around us as enchanted, and shot through with meaning. A place where we might meet real heroes, and even behold the divine.

Snippet // GK Chesterton on belief via a system of truths

A while back I posted something about how my approach to deciding what is ‘true’ or what I believe is based not so much on skepticism, but on my ability to integrate a new piece of information into the system of truths I already believe (or my ability to adapt the system around new information). I’ve increasingly realised that this systematic approach to truth makes it a little harder to speak about why I believe what I believe in a sort of succinct way to people who don’t believe things I believe, be they foundational (like that Jesus existed, claimed to be divine, and his death and resurrection are a form of proof for this claim), or secondary sorts of things that flow out of those core beliefs.

I think GK Chesterton articulates the challenge this presents pretty nicely in Orthodoxy

“When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right. A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.

But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth. It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of huge helplessness. The belief is so big that it takes a long time to get it into action. And this hesitation chiefly arises, oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin. All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never get there. In the case of this defence of the Christian conviction I confess that I would as soon begin the argument with one thing as another; I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab…”

And a bonus. Which I love. On the centrality of paradox to the Christian faith, and how this is something good and not something to be resolved. He talks, first, about the humility the Gospel requires when it comes to an acknowledgment of our utter sinfulness, and the ‘pride’ required for Christians when it comes to saying that we are living, breathing, rulers of God who rule the world on his behalf.

“And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. Take, for instance, the matter of modesty, of the balance between mere pride and mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air. This is a manly and rational position, but it is open to the objection we noted against the compromise between optimism and pessimism — the “resignation” of Matthew Arnold. Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour. This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels; for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland. Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble. Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both of them….

“In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny — all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god. The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points.”

And finally, on just how difficult “Orthodoxy” actually is.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom — that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

SNIPPET // CS Lewis on science, truth, and knowledge

“In our age I think it would be fair to say that the ease with which a scientific theory assumes the dignity and rigidity of fact varies inversely with the individual’s scientific education. In discussion with wholly uneducated audiences I have sometimes found matter which real scientists would regard as highly speculative more firmly believed than many things within our real knowledge; the popular imago of the Cave Man ranked as hard fact, and the life of Caesar or Napoleon as doubtful rumour. We must not, however, hastily assume that the situation was quite the same in the Middle Ages. The mass media which have in our time created a popular scientism, a caricature of the true sciences, did not then exist. The ignorant were more aware of their ignorance then than now” — CS Lewis, The Discarded Image

How to ‘exegete’ a place

Image: A town crier in the public square, From this fun post about why they dress the way they did

Next week I’m taking a group of students from my old stomping ground, Queensland Theological College, to my new stomping ground, South Brisbane. I had to think of something that a wet behind the ears graduate church planter person could possibly hope to offer these guys that is valuable. And that isn’t just grunt work like door-knocking (the bane of college missions, I can say this now that I’m a graduate and a minister, not a whining student — don’t treat college mission students like an army of grunts who really need to learn how to doorknock or do some suitably mundane thing, make mission interesting and helpful). So we’re going out on an excursion to South Brisbane to exegete the suburb. To read the culture. To think about how we might speak the Gospel into this culture, and live the Gospel as part of this culture. (So, maybe I’m getting them to do my market research, but at least it’ll be fun — as you’ll see below, it’s really just going to involve them drinking coffee and using their eyes and ears).

In Christian parlance we use the word ‘exegete’ to describe the task of reading, interpreting, and understanding a text. In my circles this means interpreting a passage using a framework that we bring to each text — where we ask what God is saying in that passage through the person who wrote it to the people he’s saying it to, the people who first read it, and by extension, us. We ask how it fits in the bigger picture of God’s story, The Bible (Biblical theology), particularly with a view to how it helps us understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and how it fits with what we know about who God is via the rest of the Bible (systematic theology). We’re guided by trying to understand the historical context, including the language originally used (Hebrew, and Greek). We’re guided by trying to understand the literary context — the genre, the author, the audience. Exegesis is really important for drawing sound conclusions from the Bible in order to point people to the truth it contains.

Good preaching, good evangelism, requires good exegesis. A good understanding of God’s word, and the Gospel.

Exegesis. It’s a good word. Even if it sounds a bit fancy pantsy.

Good evangelism also requires good listening. Good loving of the people we’re speaking to. Not just belting people on the head with what we think.

To be good proclaimers of the Gospel we need to conduct an exercise similar to the exercise we conduct with God’s text, the Bible, with the people we speak to. We need to exegete the culture we hope to speak to — just as loving God’s word leads us to carefully interpret it, loving the people we hope to speak to leads us to carefully interpret them. Exegesis is a sort of attentive listening. We can’t just bring our own pre-conceived agenda to a text, reading it on our terms and bringing our own meaning (that’s called eisegesis). That’s not treating the text with respect. In the same way, we can’t simply shout (or speak) our message to the people around us. We need to listen to, and respect, the people we’re speaking to in order to love them, as much as we need to tell them our good news in order to love them. And we’ll tell them our good news, about the life changing death and resurrection of Jesus in a way that makes it clearly good news if we understand them better.

We need to exegete the people in the places we’re sent to share the Gospel. The best, clearest, picture of what this looks like is found in Paul’s visit to Athens. It’s there in the text of Acts 17, but it’s also beneath the text (and we can make this picture richer through good exegesis). This post isn’t ultimately exploring Paul’s methodology in Acts, its trying to give a guide to what applying this methodology might look like in our time and place. But I’ve bolded the bits here I think are really important for building our own model. The odd bits I’ve bolded in his speech at the Areopagus are where Paul quotes important philosophers and poets from the world of his hearers (and his own world — one is a philosopher from Tarsus). Paul carefully splits his audience by quoting some people he knows appeal to certain thinkers, and then showing some inconsistencies in the tests they’re trying to apply to his message  — his good news — about ‘Jesus and the resurrection’…  Even as Luke writes he demonstrates, himself, a familiarity with the lay of the land in Athens and with who was who in the Athenian zoo. He knows what parts of Paul’s time in Athens are significant to observe and record for the sake of those looking to Paul’s methodology for a model for our own presentation of this good news.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus,where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 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.

“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 [note: Paul is articulating a common, stoic, belief about God here, as well as a Jewish/Christian belief]. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ [Paul is quoting sources his audience is familiar with, though the ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ also has Old Testament roots]

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

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. — Acts 17:16-34

Paul’s evangelism is pretty savvy. It’s savviness doesn’t guarantee wholesale conversion, but this is Paul speaking in an environment that is hostile to Christianity, and because he lovingly pays attention to the people he is speaking to, and takes the time to connect, he gets a hearing for the Gospel, and some people, by God’s grace, and through the work of the Spirit, hear what he has to say and believe. They’re left wanting to hear more about Jesus and the resurrection.

Anyway. How might we do a Paul? Do we need to read ancient philosophers? Or was Paul doing something more like watching reality TV and being an astute observer of culture? It would be easy to make this sound hard, but I suspect as a Tarsus born Roman citizen, as well as being an educated Jew, Paul was simply bringing who he was and what he knew to the act of lovingly and carefully observing the people he spoke to. It’s not rocket science. Evangelism is simply a matter of carefully listening to the people you love, in order to lovingly offer the Gospel as a better path to human flourishing. That’s what Paul does. He says you guys really want to find God. You long for that. Well here he is.

Our modern idols might not be statues — but they tap into, and represent — similar longings, and are part of similar frameworks or philosophies. We’re creatures of desire. Part of presenting the Gospel is understanding these desires as they take shape in different places. You could do worse than checking out the TV guide for the Lifestyle Channel. But desires manifest themselves differently in different places and amongst different demographics. Place is important. Paul operates differently in Athens, Corinth, and Jerusalem (though both require a careful exegesis of where he is, and he’s equally lovingly incisive in each place).

This isn’t hard. We invent all sorts of labels for this, like contextualisation. But what we really mean by this is loving the other person. Listening. Understanding. And doing this before we speak. The only reason that’s hard is because our default is still to put ourselves and our truth first. We’re meant to put Jesus first, and then the other. That’s meant to flavour how we speak. So Paul says in Philippians 2:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” — Philippians 2:1-5

Listening well, loving well, involves humility. Christ shaped humility. That’s part of living out and speaking the Gospel. It’s the humility that leads us to put others first in the way we speak about Jesus. Because the way we live and the way we speak should line up. Like they did for Paul, in Athens, and in Corinth, where he ‘resolved to know nothing but Jesus and him crucified’ and later says:

I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. — 1 Corinthians 4:17

As I mentioned in a recent post, I love the idea from philosopher Iris Murdoch that loving goodness, virtue even, requires us to unselfishly try to truly see the world around us, and to understand what drives the people around us in order to understand them in a good and loving way. That’s what Paul does, and its at the heart of a virtuous approach to sharing the good news (and its why bashing people over the head with what we believe about them, rather than engaging with what people believe about themselves is frankly an unloving way to undermine our message by through methods that don’t match up).

“…goodness is connected with knowledge; not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one’s eyes but of a certain and perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.” — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

I collected some advice from smart people on social media, and I’d written a thing on ‘exegeting a place’ a few years back with my public relations hat still on, which turned out to actually be somewhat sage advice. So. Here’s what I’ll be asking this team of students to ponder as they wonder the streets of South Brisbane (bonus points if you’re a QTC student reading this ahead of time.  The reason I’m posting this now is to ask you, the hive mind/brains trust to suggest better questions to ask when reading a place.

Questions to ask when exegeting a place

I reckon these are some good questions to guide us in ‘walking around’ and ‘looking carefully at the objects of worship’ in a place.


Where do the people here come from? Are they locals? Do they work here? Or is this a ‘third place’ (somewhere they come to play, rest, eat)? What are people doing with their time? Are the cars parked on the road new or run down? What demographics of people are here?

How does life here match the stats? Where would you find stats about this area? See if you can find some. What stands out? How would you find out about the future of this area? Who could you talk to to understand life here?

Are the people working or running businesses here busy? Optimistic? Happy? Satisfied?


What would it be like to live here? Where are the key places/nodes? Transport? Services?

Count the cranes in the skyline. Investigate. What are they here for? What is being built? How does this make locals feel? How might it shake up the fabric of this area?

Where are the marketplaces where ideas are discussed? What are the idols? What are the longings that create these idols? What are the “common objects of love” here? The things that bring people here, and bring people together? Where are people forming community? Where is shared life happening within this community/place? What are the ‘rituals’? What are the ‘festivals’? What is the default spiritual practice?


What is ‘life’ like? What’s On? What’s trending? What looks new? What looks old? What looks run down? What looks empty? What looks popular? What art is being produced, displayed, and celebrated here? What are people photographing in this location online (Instagram etc)? What are they reviewing on trip advisor? Beanhunter? Urban Spoon? What are they saying?

What are people spending money on? What are people giving time and attention to?


What are the loves driving people in this place? What are the obvious needs? What stories do you imagine people living in this setting? Where are the ‘philosophers’ behind these stories? What is being advertised on location specific ads here (advertisers do demographic research so you don’t have to)? What does local media talk about (find a copy of the West Ender)? What is the history of this place, how is it present in the present?


What observations can you make about this place that would help shape how you proclaim the Gospel here? What sort of things would you do in this community to help people hear about Jesus and the resurrection?

Bloody Hands: What our media and our politicians teach us about us

“People of Rome, we are once again free!” —Brutus, after the death of Caesar

Image: Carl Theodor Von Piloty, Caesar’s Death, via Wikicommons

I keep reading that the problem with Aussie politics is politicians keep turfing/knifing/assassinating one another without going to the people for a vote/voice. I keep hearing media pundits who are angry about leadership changes, but don’t acknowledge the blood on their own hands. Like Karl, in these two clips from the Today Show this morning.



I keep hearing politicians blaming the media. But I’m pretty sure this is a problem with the vox populi. The voice of the people. It’s too loud. It’s too selfish. It’s too powerful. And both the media and our politicians — people who should know better, and should have roles to uphold in public life — are too reactive to this voice. And not active enough in calling us, the public, to match our voice with actions. To do more than just sit on the couch and (loudly) express our discontent as we consume media, which exists, at least in part, to fuel our desire to consume our politicians. It’s a vicious cycle, and this viciousness is at least, in part, our fault.

I think the problem is that our voice is now too loud. It’s amplified by social media, by polling, by a media that increasingly makes us part of their coverage (check out the number of news stories featuring impromptu vox pops via Twitter, or report on discussions on social media as though they are substantial, or required for substantive coverage of a complex issue).

There’s a certain amount of the 5 Prime Ministers in 5 years story that is down to political opportunists within their parties — but most would be leaders want to lead, and have some sense of how that leadership should happen. Rudd and Abbott were both, in some measure, brought down because they concentrated too much power in the hands of an unelected few — their staffers — at the expense of their elected colleagues. Both parties appear to play a game predicated on holding on to government, rather than governing well. But they can be excused for doing this, because our political parties, and parliaments, are actually full of people who’ve put their hands up and said “we want to make a difference” and “we believe in something” and power in a democracy is fundamentally based, and held, on providing good government. Or so it should be. People who want power for power’s sake either already have billions of dollars, and treat parliament with contempt, or they get weeded out by the system. I’ve met quite a few politicians from local, state, and federal politics — as a trainee journalist, in my role with an economic development lobby group in North Queensland, and through various connections — and just about every one of them, from all sides of the political spectrum (including Bob Katter) have been more than decent. They’ve been people of character and virtue seeking the good of their neighbours according to their ideologies. You wouldn’t know it from our media, or from the public perception of politicians — but I think public perception drives the way politicians are portrayed in the media as much as the media drives public perception of politicians. Plus. We make it so difficult for politicians that they constantly walk on egg shells, we nail them for deviating from whatever script we think they should be following, and then complain that they’re ‘robotic’ or ‘inauthentic’… We also tend to believe that government, managing the competing priorities of individuals and community groups, and managing an economy, is simple. I’ve been guilty of this myself.

Why is it that making good decisions and making popular decisions seem to be at odds when they should be synonymous? It’s that we, the people, are typically driven by one agenda. Selfishness. It’s almost politically impossible to bring in unpopular policy that is good policy. And part of that impossibility is the 24 hour news cycle (and its in built cynicism about people who hold public office). This news cycle bombards us with story after story about policies that potentially come at our cost. And so, opinion turns. With social media we don’t just get the media we deserve, we create it. People share outrageous things, and express outrage, as a default.

But good government costs us, and it requires selflessness, rather than selfishness.

We’re facing a population that, on average, will be much older than populations of the past. We’re unhealthier than ever because we stuff our faces with convenient junk food. We are selfish with our money and don’t want to pay more tax in order to pay down spiralling debt. We want government spending on quick fix solutions, or entertainment precincts, where we see an immediate benefit rather than long term infrastructure projects. These problems require tough solutions that come at our cost. But try selling those to the electorate. As Ross Gittins says, we’ve become a nation of selfish contradiction.

People lay the blame for our political unrest at the feet of the media, there was a hint of that in Tony Abbott’s gracious concession speech, but the media is feeding a demand that we create. We buy more, watch more ads, and engage more when there’s a hint of blood than we do when things are business as usual. My Facebook feed last night is evidence of this.

Your voice has not been taken away. Sure, you might never have been polled personally, but polls work because they reflect the people who respond to them, and they get responses from enough people (though only around 6% of people who are asked, are prepared to respond) to give an accurate picture of public opinion. And if it’s not accurate, that’s probably as much the fault of the 94% of people who don’t care enough to respond when polled. Having your voice heard might start with never saying no to an opinion poll, even if the call comes at dinner time.

Even without polls. You have a voice all year around. It’s not just contained in the very small percentage of people who are polled, so that the media know who we want in office. You know what speaks louder than polls? Being active in public life. Writing letters. Calling talkback radio. Speaking out. Serving. Volunteering. Joining a party and becoming part of the process of forming policy. Working in the public service. Meeting your local member. Loving your local member, regardless of ideology. Thanking them for serving you even if the knife is never far from their back, and the electoral precipice that we’re so keen to tip them over, is never too many steps ahead.

Our say has never been taken away. It’s been amplified. Our political turmoil is a reflection of politicians who react too quickly to public sentiment, and a media that is getting really good at quickly gauging public sentiment, but also increasingly good at shaping it. Stop being shaped by the media and start shaping it. Read beyond your circle. Selflessly pursue truth, and share it. Share ideas you disagree with, with grace and charity, not just to show how engaged and superior you are to those who are governing. Be charitable to people on both sides of the political divide rather than immediately, and naively, adversarial. Converse. Find common ground. Try to understand why people hold ideologies other than your own. This stuff isn’t rocket science, but our public square, and the players in it (increasingly including us via social media) are actively working against these ends.

Until we make it clear that we don’t actually want to be governed by a popular politician we’re going to be increasingly subject to a media (and a social media) that is increasingly reactive, and increasingly able to quickly take the whimful pulse of an Australian public. We’re not just driven by whims, we have short attention spans, we love outrage and controversy. We’re fickle. We turn against people quickly on the basis of what we read in the media — be it traditional media, or social media — that has a vested interest in serving us up material that conforms with our ideology (whether we pick our media outlet, or a social media algorithm picks who is serving us up content), and wants to keep us outraged because outrage is sexy, and it sells.

We need to break this cycle which is, at every level, built on the selfishness of the public. Politicians can’t govern well for us because we are selfish. The media caters to our selfishness and self interest because it exists to sell products, and hold an audience. And we, the audience, keep coming back. If we want our voice to be heard in the public square, maybe its time we earned it by working for the good of the public, not our own good? Maybe it starts with a better public square. A better conversation. Maybe it starts with this idea the ABC’s Scott Stephens shared at a recent conference on Faith and Public Office.

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

This idea was caught up with giving the public voice its proper place, and including the excluded voices from that public voice. But Stephen’s vision for the public square went beyond this, it involved a move from the sort of public square that relies on people reflecting the public’s already entrenched (selfish) views back at itself to reinforce them. It involved stepping beyond cynicism into the realm of the imagination, fanning our ability to imagine and work towards something better than we have, rather than just trying to toss out stuff we don’t like. The problem with how things currently play out is that our media reflects our self interest. Stephens expanded his vision for this virtuous public broadcaster with the below, but social media might give us this opportunity. Instead of being an opportunity for more of the same, just without the code of ethics and the professionalism of the mainstream press, these aren’t direct quotes, they’re notes I belted out as Stephens spoke, but they do articulate a picture of something better that we might be a part of:

Is it the role of the broadcaster to give people a vision of what they already think on whatever device they want. The moral responsibility of a public broadcaster has to be something larger than that.

More than any other thing, cynicism is killing us. Doubt. Secularism. Forget those. Cynicism is killing our common life. Our inability to trust one another and look for and hope for the best from our public figures is destroying the bonds that ought to hold us in common.

All journalists want their watergate moment. Changing your mind is condemned as a betrayal of public trust. We are killing the ecology of the public conversation. It’s not vested interest that is corrupting public life. It’s lack of imagination. It’s laziness. It’s the inability to have our imagination stimulated by a desire for something more.

Maybe if we start modelling this our politicians will listen, and so too, will the media. Maybe we should, whether we’re part of the church or not, take on this picture of a virtuous contributor to the public square. We have an opportunity via social media to be a new kind of public broadcaster…

Maybe the first step is being comfortable with silence. Using it to contemplate, rather than looking to fill it with arguments and new information that we assess through the prism of our selfish, unimaginative, hearts. The things we tend to imagine, at least in my experience, tend to be caught up with our own self interest, and our idols, rather than the common good and what such a good will cost us (though the common good, itself, can be an idol).

It’s not just our politicians and our press that have blood on their hands. We do too.

23 stab wounds create a fair bit of blood, so you can imagine that as Brutus proclaimed a freedom the Roman people hadn’t asked for, in the aftermath of the assassination of Caesar, he had pretty bloodied hands. Unlike the people of Rome who locked themselves in their houses when Caesar was deposed, and disposed of, because they didn’t want responsibility for his death, we locked ourselves in our own houses last night to watch the execution of a leader. With popcorn. And pithy insights. The blood is on our hands because the assassination, in part, was of our making. A product of our selfish, fickle, hearts, and the self-interested, fickle, public square this creates via the media and political scene that sets itself up and operates according to our whims.

But let’s, for a moment, imagine a different way forward — a different path to freedom. A different sort of blood on our hands.

People of Australia, we won’t be free until we stop crying for blood, we won’t be free until we’re prepared to start spilling our own blood for others.

Those of us who follow the crucified king have a model for a contribution to public life that involves blood on his hands, and our own. And it’s not through the knifing of others. It does involve the death of a king though — and its in this death, and this story, that we see what it might actually cost us to break the hold of selfishness on our hearts, and our minds. It’s this model of open-handed, sacrificial, love that will undo our grasping, and get our hand off the knife. The great irony, of course, is that the execution of Jesus was an example of grasping human hands wanting to usurp the rule of God, and it was an expression of those grasping hands at the start of the Bible, in Eden, that reached out, again, to push God from the picture. Grasping like this is part of the human condition. It shouldn’t surprise us to find the blood of a leader on our hands because we don’t like tobe lead. Selfishly, we love our autnomy. We’ll kill for it — and we’ll end careers for it. It’s why we have blood on our hands. It’s why we grab for the knife. It’s why politics in our country is a fraught business. And it’s why something’s got to give. We’ll always have blood on our hands — the choice is whether its someone else’s, taken for our own good, or ours shed for the good of others, just as his blood was shed for us. The suffering servant, the one who gives of himself, and his comfort, for the sake of others, is a famous picture from Isaiah the prophet in the Old Testament that very clearly describes Jesus, is the real “shepherd of the public square” and keeper of the moral ecology.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. — Isaiah 53:5-6

It’s in Jesus that we see this play out. In his approach to power, in his failure to ‘grasp,’ in his being bloodied on our behalf. This is the pattern we might follow if we want to end the bloodshed, and change the public square for its good, at our cost. It is, too, how we might come close to solving some of the big political dilemmas of our time. Dilemmas created by human selfishness. Because its where we see love that brings freedom in all its bloody-handed fullness.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.— Philippians 2:5-8


12 Great ideas on Faith and Public Office

The Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s worth learning how to wrap your tongue around the multiple syllables, or trying to remember the acronym (CSSRS). It’s based at Emmanuel College at the University of Queensland (where Queensland Theological College also resides), and is headed up by Dr Leigh Trevaskis. A top bloke with PhDs in science and theology. It’s aiming to provide an interface between the academic world and the classical Christian faith, and has regular events and a website that will (hopefully) have increasingly valuable content as these conferences take place and fill the digital airwaves (pixelwaves?) with content.

The Centre just held a conference on Faith and Public Office, I tagged along in my capacity as a member of the Presbyterian Church’s committee that thinks about the intersection between faith and public office (and to write a news story about the day that will maybe one day feature in the Eternity newspaper). I don’t want to steal the thunder of that story too much, but a 650 word news story (I can still write in less than 6,000 words) is bound to miss some goodness from the stellar line up of panelists. It was a terrific conference, and I’ll be keeping an eye on upcoming CSSRS events.

Image: The Trial of Galileo, a picture of faith and public office coming together in a possibly not so helpful way, and the banner image of the CSSRS.

1. A beneficial public square is a public square that hears all voices. A public square that silences dissenting voices and views, or establishes a common denominator that excludes richness is a path to catastrophe.

This was a sort of universally agreed upon point. Former Deputy PM John Anderson gave the opening speech, kicking off a theme that carried through the day. The public square benefits from people of faith bringing their views to the table – not just ‘natural law’ arguments or arguments based upon an agreed upon set of common assumptions – because hearing all views is vital to a liberal, secular, democracy. The suggestion that views need to be evidence based and speak only of things that everyone agrees on, especially when it is used to silence faith based voices, is not secular but secularist.

If only voices that speak according to an already established general consensus are allowed to be heard, then that consensus will never be able to shift. Anderson gave the example of voices from outside agreed upon norms that have achieved great change, and present examples that should be heard in order to provoke thought. He suggested William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, and secular ethicist Peter Singer would all be ruled out of contributions to public life on the basis of the assumption that conversation must start with common agreement, rather than seek it.

In speaking of the need for a better public square, many of the contributors acknowledged the challenges presented by social media, as well as the tendency for people to shout down views they’re opposed to with increasingly vitriolic methods. But more on that below.

2. Public life, and public office, based on reason, evidence, and the rule of law alone is not enough to stoke the fires of the imagination.

We need a more comprehensive narrative and a fuller view of humanity that speaks to the heart and soul, not just the mind. The conference was co-sponsored by UQ’s Law School, and the head of the Law School, Professor Sarah Derrington opened the festivities with the observation that public life becomes soulless if it just emphasises the bones and foundation of the rule of law and rationality. If that’s all we have, she said:

“The aching of the soul finds no relief in secular politics; civic life has become a farcical drama”

Others observed that the imagination will only be fired if people in the public square introduce counter-narratives that both have a place for the use of the imagination and the heart, and fire those parts of our humanity up in the process. These aren’t exclusively the domain of the Christian, but the Christian has a pretty good story that’ll do this.

3. We need virtuous heroes to speak into this public square to remind us of what has shaped the good parts of where we are today.

It’s not really enough to just be a good political strategist. A few of the panelists, especially those closest to the political scene, moved the discussion about the ideal politician from someone bound by duty to represent the will of the public, to someone elected on the basis of virtue. Fiona Simpson spoke about virtuous servant leadership using Kathleen Patterson’s model of servant leadership, which lists the virtues as:

  1. agape love
  2. humility
  3. altruism
  4. vision
  5. trust
  6. empowerment
  7. service

I’m all for virtue ethics. I found her presentation interesting when it was paired with Michael Cooney’s presentation on The Faithful Partisan in Public Office. Cooney is Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre and former speechwriter for Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He’s a church going, card carrying, member of the Labor movement. He talked about a few things but his basic thesis was that the pursuit of political neutrality, or fence sitting, doesn’t really serve anybody all that well. There’s a bit about the implications of this when it comes to commentators trying to appear objective below, but he suggested there’s a real moral challenge for partisan stakeholders when they’re participating in a party that requires holding to a party platform you might disagree with. There’s some interesting ground to unpack here on the Catholic roots of the Labor Party and its approach to ‘excommunication’ versus the Coalition’s less strident position on floor crossing outside cabinet. But Cooney spoke about the challenge of being a faithful partisan – in being both faithful to God and the Party – he talked about political martyrs, those who disagree with a party’s position, and walk away. He said it’s easy to find your way out of politics, with integrity via martyrdom. What’s harder is finding your way still in. Staying in the party. He discussed this harder way using a political dilemma, the Dirty Hands metaphor. This is for cases where a political actor is forced to choose between two bad options. Cooney doesn’t think martyrdom in the face of dirty hands is the best way to serve the public, or a partisan ideology. It’s not enough to just wash your hands of situations like this to avoid being confronted by the mess of structuring messy lives via politics. He quoted this article by Michael Walzer which posits a “suffering servant” leader as the ideal actor through messy dirty hands scenarios, one who knows they are sacrificing themselves and the cleanliness of their hands, for the sake of others. For Cooney (and Walzer), the virtuous partisan political decision maker navigates the dirty hands that come from being involved in the system by being someone of virtue, conviction, and conscience, someone who we can be confident acts as rightly as they can because when they do the wrong thing, they know and believe its a wrong thing, not the best thing. Importantly, Cooney made the point that the partisan doesn’t just operate on behalf of the party, but also the partial. He said “the party is not your city” – partisan participation in politics isn’t just a question of “right politics” but the “good society” and the way to really achieve that, as a partisan, is via humility and repentance. Rather than opting for martyrdom, he suggested partisans should be penitents rather than saints. This is his picture of a political hero.


John Anderson’s vision of the virtuous political actor – the hero – is somewhat embodied by William Wilberforce (and the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury), but also drawn from a speech by Churchill. He loves the way Wilberforce approached politics seeking to bring about social good as the fruits of his faith, rather than detaching them in a secularist sense.

This is what it looks like to be remembered as a virtuous hero. Churchill’s hero, and Anderson’s, is mindful of history and speaks truth to people who are all too willing to forget history – in this context people who are wilfully ignorant of the fact that a liberal secular democracy – and all the things we love about the system – is, historically, the fruit of Christian principles about human dignity being applied to politics.

“One of the signs of a great society is the diligence with which it passes culture from one generation to the next. This culture is the embodiment of everything the people of that society hold dear: its religious faith, it’s heroes… when one generation no longer esteems it’s own heritage and fails to pass the torch to its children, it is saying in essence that the very foundational principles and experiences that make the society what it is are no longer valid. This leaves that generation without any sense of definition or direction, making them the fulfillment of Karl Marx’s dictum, ‘A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.’ What is required when this happens and the society has lost its way, is for leaders to arise who have. It forgotten the discarded legacy and who loves it with all their hearts. They can then become the voice of that lost generation, wooing an errant generation back to the faith of their fathers, back to the ancient foundations and bedrock values.” – Winston Churchill

What’s interesting, I think, is that all these models of talking about virtuous servant leadership talk a little around the example of Jesus, rather than self-consciously being shaped by the example of Jesus. As much as we need to keep acknowledging the gap between our leadership and Jesus’ perfect servant leadership, we are being transformed into his image, and we are united with him by the Spirit (this isn’t necessarily the lynchpin of Catholic theology, and Cooney, at least, was speaking as a Catholic). Jesus is the real virtuous suffering servant, who embodies the true forms of Patterson’s virtues and remembered human history perfectly, drawing on it in order to speak rightly. Anderson did make a bit of a deal about his political heroes consciously seeking to base their actions in the Gospel, and the imitation of Christ, but he turned to Churchill, rather than Jesus, to provide the framework.

In the panel at the end someone, I think the ABC’s Scott Stephens, made the comment that virtues are taught by example. By story. Not by rules and regulations. We need more people leading by example.

4. Winsome and thoughtful contributions that assume the validity of our faith based framework are necessary, because actions are shaped by ideology.

I think it’s interesting given point 2, above, and the desire expressed by the speakers for truth-speaking, virtuous political actors and a public sphere that accepts all voices, that so many Christian voices buy into secularist assumptions and speak into the public sphere using natural law arguments, or arguments devoid of soul, imagination, and an attempt to articulate the divine mind. We’ve accepted the secularist position as the secular position without challenging its assumptions. And now. It’s coming back to bite.

Dr Joel Harrison is a law lecturer at Macquarie University, he spoke about the problem this presents in the legal sphere, where jurists now reject any transcendent rational for behaviour in the real world, the legal system is increasingly dismissive of reasons for behaviour that are not based on common assumptions, and (in a technical sense “more immanent”) evidence based (meaning empircal, science based or logic based) models, for human flourishing. Harrison cautioned that we need to find ways to speak into this world, but we also need to be modelling winsome alternative visions of the good that accommodate a sense of the transcendent. Part of the reason he gave for the legal system moving this way is how poorly such alternatives have been argued in the legal sphere, and in past cases. He suggested contributions that re-introduce, or assume, the validity of the Christian narrative might be a way forward. He suggested Nicholas Aroney’s presentation on The Role of Oaths in Public Office was a good example of what this might look like. It’ll be worth a read when it gets released or published.

5. We must match political arguments with an ‘eloquent life’ in public

Anderson quoted Wilberforce’s epitaph. Which I love.

“He was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men.”

6. The media’s pursuit of ‘objectivity’ leaves the media commenting on and highlighting questions of political strategy rather than substance and issues (lest they be seen to take sides).

Cooney made this point as he spoke about the common belief that somehow fence-sitting or non-partisanship is somehow a greater good, or a more ethical and virtuous position. Cooney’s broader point was that rightness and wrongness can’t easily be assessed from a disinterested position or the centre. He suggested that in not actually digging to the bottom of issues (to avoid being accused of being partisan) the media has to comment on less substantial issues.

7. The media has a self interest in defining the public and reflecting the public’s views back at itself as a new orthodoxy. This process is dangerous.

Scott Stephens, from the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal, gave a terrific presentation on the nature of the public, and the public press, and the public square. I hope it gets published somewhere because he crammed three hours worth of great content into 45 minutes. He outlined the process by which the press enlarged, empowered, hollowed out, and then dismembered the public. Here are a some of the questions he raised (and largely answered, though some of them remained questions, and a couple of the points he made that outline this story of the relationship between the media and the public. These are in quote marks to show they come from Scott, but they’re hastily typed notes, not verbatim.

The rise of the public happens alongside the rise of the media. The media never tires of repeating this story, because the media is the hero of the story. The heroic narrative is the story of the throwing off of the old order, the regime of monarchy and church. The press fuelled the revolution, then gradually took its modern form, where it became the medium by which common ideas were debated.

If the popular press is a plebiscite in permanence, then what happens is the press becomes the vehicle that extracts what people think, and turns around and tells people, “this is what you really think”… ?

The more people see themselves reflected in the public press, the more interested they become in the public press. In order for the popular press to be the popular press, the people need to become actors in the public square.

How does this help when it comes to issues that are extraordinarily complex? When you actually want expertise not populism?

This all led to opinion polling, which enshrines the plebiscite in permanence function. When polling started there was a rapid uptake by the public. People polled responded more than 80% of the time, but there was a slow uptake from the media. Now. 6-7% of people polled respond to polling requests, but the stories about opinion polls are the major drivers of stories.

8. Journalists have adopted cynicism as something intrinsic to the role of journalism, this is dangerous to the ‘public’

This is another part of the media story which explains why giving the press the role we have is a little dangerous to both those in public office, and those of us who make up their “public”…

Young journos who came of age during the cold war really wanted to get back into “muckraking” – not offering the sort of faith to public figures that they’d had in the past, but instead to view public officers with skepticism and distrust. Inspired by Watergate (and All The Presidents Men) the journalist became the modern hero. At the expense of the politicians. Keep tabs on how many ‘-gates’ we have these days as journalists hunt for their own version.

Cynicism became a journalistic virtue. Once you take cynicism and disrupt the big channels of communication, and begin to disaggregate the way people get their information, that’s the perfect storm. You’re supercharging it. It’s a climate of suspicion and doubt.

More than any other thing, cynicism is killing us. Doubt. Secularism. Forget those. Cynicism is killing our common life. Our inability to trust one another and look for and hope for the best from our public figures is destroying the bonds that ought to hold us in common. All journalists want their moment. Changing your mind is condemned as a betrayal of public trust. We are killing the ecology of the public conversation. It’s not vested interest that is corrupting public life. It’s lack of imagination. It’s laziness. It’s the inability to have our imagination stimulated by a desire for something more.

9. The church might have a role to play (along with an ethically minded public broadcaster) in shaping the public square in a way that is beneficial to society and especially for voices at the margins.

This was perhaps my favourite quote from my favourite presentation at the conference…

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

This is probably a good way of articulating a big question that I’ve been grappling with both in my own head, and in some recent posts. This is the virtuous and heroic thing for us to do, according to the views of public heroism outlined above, but it’s also the thing that will ensure we maintain a voice at the table even as the public shifts away from us.

10. Social media might be part of the solution. But it is dangerous.

A few speakers, both in their presentations and in the panel discussion at the end, expressed a sense of dismay about the state of the public square, and the way social media seems to be an amplified version of some of the problems with traditional media, where people angrily clamour at one another belting out screeds using keyboards that are sent to wide audiences via ubiquitous screens. There was a sense of optimism from some people that social media could be a game changer, and I believe it could be something the church (and the public broadcaster) use to play the role Stephens articulated above. But it’s a question of creating a platform that genuinely invites all voices to be heard, and that’s harder than it sounds. Cooney, who often belts out partisan opinion pieces in a couple of hours for the ABC’s The Drum, and a few others, acknowledged that there are heaps of online platforms that function just like Q&A, where people go hunting for an ideological champion. People on the panel generally agreed that The Conversation is a pretty good model of what this sort of platform looks like (even if it is a little high brow).

Michael Cooney reckoned the biggest game changer in social media is that it changes the way we receive content. It’s not the concentrated editorial policy of a publication with an agenda (and he, as a partisan, acknowledged there are commercial media outlets both sides expect favourable treatment from), but articles shared by friends and people you follow as trusted curators. I think this is certainly true if you can navigate the noise of Twitter. But Facebook is a little more pernicious. The “filter bubble” effect means you’re just as likely to become entrenched in your views on social media as you are in the mainstream (see this piece on coverage of the Israel v Palestine conflict in the newsfeed of various Facebook users), unless you deliberately give voice to people you disagree with, or who have a different perspective to you, and pay attention to them. This means combating the default settings of Facebook’s algorithm (and to an extent, Google’s search algorithms).

The question I wanted to ask the panel was:

Given that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says his social media platform functions with the underlying principle that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” and given online media is increasingly curated via algorithms that create this ‘filter bubble’ that are designed to give us what we want to see, how might we play the role Scott Stephens suggests as “keeper of the moral ecology” – the giving and protecting of voices, especially marginalized voices, in an age where new media exists in a ‘filter bubble’? What does this look like?

This, I think, is the question the church absolutely needs to grapple with if we want to play a significant role in the public square, and even, I think, if we want to have a voice in the public square into the future.

11. We need more silence. The Media (and social media) operate as Kierkegaardian “irresponsible speech”

Scott Stephens spoke about Kierkegaard’s (very negative) view of the press, and the sense that moral thought is something that comes through silence as a person considers what is right and true, not through simply speaking opinion without any responsibility or obligation being attached to your words. Both the media and social media function as noisy echo chambers that don’t give people the silence they need to consider moral questions, and worse, they simply entrench opinions people already hold (this is even more dangerous if the social media world is shaped by algorithms and filter bubbles, but Stephens didn’t get to speak much about that). He did speak about the problem with the media as typified by panel discussion shows…

The debate itself, the nature of the conversation, destroys the conversation. The way in which the conversation is had pulls down all sides. It’s about appealing to one’s constituents rather than persuading. All people do is appeal to their constituents so audiences now expect a champion to speak for their point of view well, not to be persuaded. WE don’t get the best versions of the arguments but cardboard cutouts. You already know what people are going to say. The point is that an already fractured audience can look at the panel and say “there’s my champion” and “there’s the person I love to hate”

12. Politics is a tricky business. And we need more people of character. More prayer. More understanding. And more politicians following the ‘golden rule’

In her opening address to the conference, the head of UQ’s Law School, Professor Sarah Derrington, talked about how people of faith in public office have come up with a common agreement about a golden rule that guides their contributions to public life. I tried to capture as much of this golden rule as I could, but I missed a couple of bits.

The Golden Rule involves always showing respect for the other, acknowledging the limits of one’s understanding, listening patiently, using precise language, trying to understand the experience that led to the other person’s views, looking for mutual agreement. Praying for leaders. Not using inflammatory words or derogatory names, not delighting in difficulties, not assaulting character or falsely assuming motives, not demonizing, not questioning the patriotism of others.

Derrington quoted a prayer from Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations, as a prayer that is a model for how faithful office bearers might pray.

You who are over us,
You who are one of us,
You who are also within us,
May all see you-in me also.
May I prepare the way for you,
May I thank you for all
that shall fall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others.
Give me a pure heart-that I may see you.
A humble heart-that I may hear you,
A heart of love-that I may serve you,
A heart of faith-that I may abide in you. Amen.

I like this. One thing I was reminded, hearing from various people engaged in public life, in various roles, in a most excellent conference, was that one way the church is meant to serve those who serve us — be they people of faith or otherwise — is through prayer. Faithful prayer because we have a virtuous suffering servant as our true king, who marks out our true citizenship, defines virtue by example, and calls us to live where we are as exiles who live good lives for the sake of our neighbours and enemies. Here’s how Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 2…

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”


His name was Aylan Kurdi

Just a heads up — there’s an image at the end of this post that’s incredibly shocking. But that’s absolutely the point and you need to see it.


I have a three year old daughter. Her name is Sophia. I love people to know about her, to hear about her, and to meet her. Because she is a delight. A living breathing smile. Mostly. A picture of much that is good about the world. A delight, but at times, a terror. Her behaviour is so typical of the mixed bag of humanity, one moment she’s cuddling her little sister, the next she’s sitting on her little brother. The same voice that sings beautifully jangled jingles from Disney movies and Colin Buchanan, and Playschool, is occasionally used for dishonesty, but also for honest apologies and that sweet phrase “I love you”… I’ll never tire of that. I see so much of what is good about life and humanity in my kids, and I hope others do too.

Kids are precious. My three year old is precious to me. But she’s not just a terror, she (and my other two children), terrify me. Or more specifically, the thought of something horrific happening to them terrifies me. I’m a significantly more anxious person now that I’m a parent. I’ve taken to caring more for my own well being simply because I want to be around for longer, but there’s this enhanced sense, or an enhancement of my senses, that comes with this new role, and responsibility, to keep my progeny safe and breathing, and to give them whatever I can (but not whatever they think they want) to enable them to flourish in this world. I want them to seek refuge in their home, in me and my wife, and ultimately in God. My children need refuge, they need a home, they need security. And I want to provide that through whatever means possible.

I say this all because despite my heart being so caught up with the delight, and the terror, of parenting, I can’t begin to fathom the life of parents whose existence is so fraught that they must risk their own lives, and the lives of their children, to seek refuge elsewhere. Families like the Syrian family of three year old Aylan Kurdi, whose body just washed up on the shores of Turkey.

We need to do better. The international refugee crisis is a massive and complex issue. There’s no easy solution. But the thing that will stop us finding solutions is the comfort that comes from not being confronted by these issues.

I was trying really hard not to see the picture of Aylan on social media today because I knew it would make me feel incredibly uncomfortable. And it did. But I’m thankful for the people sharing it because me feeling comfortable, and others feeling comfortable, with not paying attention is what stops change happening.

This is Aylan Kurdi. He was three years old. Just like my Sophia. And his parents wanted the best possible life for him. Just like I do for my kids, and if you have kids, just like I hope you do for yours.

This is Aylan Kurdi, who will no longer delight his parents, but instead will bring them grief as their terror is realised. Their very worst fear. UPDATE: It turns out his mother and brother also drowned. Tragedy upon tragedy. Grief upon grief.

This is Aylan Kurdi on the shore of a Turkish beach. Shores where the Gospel washed up with the Apostle Paul back in the first century. Shores close to the churches who received John’s letter of Revelation.

I hate death. And this is a universal tragedy. It transcends religious belief and it feels trite to get all preachy in response. But I have nowhere to turn but God when this sort of tragedy happens. Nowhere but God and his promises for a better, death-free world. No thing to turn to but writing, the attempt to articulate my hope for a better future — as an alternative to grief and despair.

Here’s what John records as a promise from Jesus at the end of his letter, in chapters 21 and 22.

“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place[a] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new…
…He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Yes. Come Lord Jesus.

But in the mean time, we can do better, but only if we are confronted with pictures and stories like this and forced from our comfort.

On Gayby Baby, sex education, the new normal, and the better normal

An education system is a powerful thing. I’ve perhaps not thought so hard about that power because I spent most of my time in institutions trying to avoid becoming institutionalised. Such is the contrarian streak that runs through just about every fibre of my being.

Australian schools are pretty contested fronts in a bunch of ideology wars — I was only vaguely aware of the “history wars” back when John Howard was Prime Minister, but at the moment there’s a “worldview war” going on for the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth.

It’s interesting, and worth chucking in up front, that Christians have long known about the importance of educating kids. One of the big reforms Martin Luther championed in the Reformation was in the education space. You couldn’t tell people they should be able to read the Bible for themselves, robbing the priesthood of some of its mysterious power, like Luther did, without teaching kids to read. The early schools in the Australian colony were also, often, set up by churches (eventually becoming public schools), and there are still Christian schools all over the place. Christians love education because education is powerful — in some sense, we should have no fear of education if we are confident that what we believe is true and stands up to scrutiny and comparison with other world views. But we should also realise that education isn’t ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ because curriculum are typically set as an expression of a set of values — we should realise that because we’ve been doing it at least since Augustine told Christian teachers to make sure they got a robust classical education so that they could understand God’s world in order in order to preach the Gospel of Jesus well in De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). This was published back in the year 397. Education served the church’s agenda well for a long time.

It turns out Christians aren’t the only ones who know that education is a powerful tool for deliberately shaping the way our young people see and interpret the world. A Sydney school, Burwood Girls, which happens to be the school my mum went to as a girl, kicked off a massive round of controversy this week when they decided to make a screening of Gayby Baby compulsory for students, who were also to Wear It Purple as an act of solidarity for the LGBTQI community. According to the Wear It Purple “about us” page, the student-led organisation believes:

“Every young person is unique, important and worthy of love. No one should be subject to bullying, belittlement and invalidation. We believe in a world in which every young person can thrive, irrelevant of sex, sexuality or gender identity… We want rainbow young people to be safe, supported and empowered in each of their environments.”

This sounds like a pretty noble aim to me, so long as there’s room in the rainbow spectrum for people who share different visions of human flourishing. I desperately want my lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer and intersex neighbours to thrive, and I want to love them, but I also want an Australia where those neighbours are able to love me. And where we’re able to disagree, charitably, about what place sex and sexuality play in true human thriving. I’m not sure how a kid at Burwood who didn’t share the same framework for achieving a noble aim like this for their LGBQTI friends would feel about being forced to wear purple. I think regimes that force people of different views to wear different colours, historically, are fairly dangerous and not great at providing an environment for human flourishing.

The clothing thing seems almost impossible to enforce as ‘compulsory’ anyway. Doesn’t it? The screening of the documentary, at least in the initial proposal at Burwood Girls, was compulsory. And this raises some interesting questions. Here’s the trailer for the doco.

Mark Powell, a Presbyterian Minister, was quoted in the Daily Tele

“This is trying to change children’s minds by promoting a gay lifestyle… Students are being compelled to own that philosophical view by wearing certain clothes and marching under a rainbow flag. Schools are supposed to be neutral and cannot propagate a political view.”

I’m curious about what change in children’s minds the screening of this movie was attempting to achieve. I’m sure there are dangerous ‘mind changes’ that could be involved (as outlined above), but I’m equally certain there are mindsets about homosexuality in our community that still need to be changed. A Fact Sheet from the National LGBTI Health Alliance presented by Beyond Blue, contains the following picture of the landscape for young LGBTQI Aussies… Perhaps we do need to change children’s minds… and perhaps normalising the gay lifestyle is part of that…

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems. The younger the age group, the starker the differences: 55% of LGBT women aged between 16 and 24 compared with 18% in the nation as a whole and 40% of LGBT men aged 16-24 compared with 7%

Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14x higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers. Rates are 6x higher for same-sex attracted young people (20-42% cf. 7-13%).

The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’.

The elevated risk of mental ill-health and suicidality among LGBTI people is not due to sexuality, sex or gender identity in and of themselves but rather due to discrimination and exclusion as key determinants of health.

Up to 80% of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young Australians experience public insult, 20% explicit threats and 18% physical abuse and 26% ‘other’ forms of homophobia (80% of this abuse occurs at school)

I didn’t go to Burwood Girls. And I finished school 15 years ago. I went to co-ed public schools. But I’m pretty sure I would have benefited from seeing a movie like Gayby Baby when I was at school. In my public schools it wasn’t uncommon for sexual slang about homosexual acts to be used to insult and belittle people, with little regard to how the pejorative use of ‘gay’ or ‘poof’ or any of the litany of terms associated with homosexuality might be heard by those in my year group, or in the school community, who were same sex attracted. Many of the people I know who identify as gay, or same sex attracted, came out after High School, and while I’m sure there are many reasons that are part of this decision for any individual, I can’t help but think the uneducated masses of people they might have had to confront in the school yard who spent years using words associated with their sexual orientation to demean others, was a barrier to having the sort of open conversations about their identity that might have been of benefit to them, to us, and to me. Perhaps I would have been better able to love my neighbour if the environment had been more conducive to my neighbour being truly known? It’s not just Christians who are nasty to gay people, and its not just religion that causes homophobia (and not all disagreement with a sexuality is a phobia).

Is it possible that more education might actually make life at school more comfortable for LGBTQI kids or kids with same sex parents? I would think so. Is it possible that sex education that presents homosexuality as a normal human sexuality might lead to less anxiety, depression, and suicide in the gay community? It seems possible.

Aren’t these good outcomes?

Why then are we Christians positioning ourselves against such education — be it Gayby Baby, or the so-called ‘normalisation of homosexuality in schools’?

I understand a certain stream of Christian thought that wants no sex ed in schools, but in the age of pornography, when kids are educating one another, and you can’t just leave it up to parents to encourage healthy practices, I’m not in that camp.

I don’t think you can truly love a person without truly trying to understand them. I love the idea that love is caught up with truly seeing a person through paying them attention. I love the idea that love is an exercise of subjectifying, not objectifying, the other in a sacrificial seeing of the person and their needs, and in an act of offering a way to meet those needs… based on that seeing. The true seeing won’t always mean agreeing with how the person you love sees themselves, we might actually be able to see a person’s needs in ways that they can’t imagine. But it will always involve seeing how a person sees themselves and the world in order to build a connection between their needs and your offer of love.

So, with this picture of love, you can’t love a kid who is working out their sexual identity, or a kid with same sex parents, without trying to understand what its like to be that kid, and without helping other kids in that kid’s network develop that same ‘seeing’ or that understanding. You can’t keep that kid as an “other” or as an “abnormal” kid. I think this is true in a secular sense, but I think its even true for Christians, even as we seek to point people to alternative identities and visions of flourishing, especially an identity built on who Jesus is, rather than who we want to have sex with.

This sort of understanding — the understanding required for love — actually comes through education. It comes through education that comes packaged up with different agendas.

It doesn’t just come through the application of our own agenda, or our own framework for how we assess other people based on what we’re told is true about them in the Bible. As true as that framework might be. It comes seeking to understand people on their own terms in order to have a conversation about these different frameworks. Our different ways of seeing. This education comes through hearing stories, through understanding more of the experience involved with ones sexuality, or family background, the sort of stories Gayby Baby presents. If this is the sort of change of mind Burwood Girls was trying to achieve, then who can blame them?

I’m not sure a documentary, or even the act of being forced to wear purple can achieve the second half of Powell’s suggestion — compelling students to own a philosophical view — but I do think coercive practices are problematic, whatever agenda they serve. Be it the ‘gay agenda’ or the ‘Christian agenda’.

I can understand the suggestion that Gayby Baby serves an agenda other than education, that it ‘promotes an ideology’, but it does also seem to serve a valid educational purpose given that there are families in our schools where children have same sex parents. People who believe education should be agenda, or ideology, free should have a problem with the screening of this film on the basis of its agenda. But that’s a pretty naive view of the way education functions, and has functioned, in our world. There’s a reason governments fund education, it produces ideal citizens according to a pattern, there’s a reason churches fund schools… But in a secular democracy it can be pretty dangerous for the liberty of our citizens (whatever the age) if one ideology is presented unchallenged. What if the best (both in terms of possible outcomes and desirable outcomes) that we can ask for in this contested space is that all voices are given a platform, in an appropriate context?

Which is interesting, because the Gayby Baby furore is kicking off exactly as governments around the country consider whether or not to follow Victoria’s example to remove Special Religious Education (known by other names around the country) from school life. There’s a particularly vocal group of activists, Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS) who are campaigning noisily to remove the special privilege religious institutions enjoy when it comes to access to the schools. Christians I’ve spoken to have been pretty upset about the removal of this privileged position — occasionally arguing from the historic involvement the church has had with education in our country, occasionally disappointed that this mission field has been lost (because if you’re genuinely concerned about the ‘flourishing’ of our children, as a Christian, you want them to hear the Gospel and have the opportunity to follow Jesus), while others have been angry at this further evidence that the church is being pushed to the margins in our society. Angry that our education system is being hijacked to serve a liberal, anti-Christian agenda. It’s incredible to me that SRE still exists in any form in public schools (and what a privilege), and I’d love it to continue to exist for many years. I’m not sure it can last, but if it is to last, if we are to maintain that seat at the table, we need to be prepared to offer space to other minority voices, with other visions of the good life. If we want to continue having the ability to speak to children in our schools to articulate a vision for human flourishing that centres on the reality of a good creator God, and his good son Jesus, who invites us to follow a pattern of life that will deliver a version of flourishing that will last for eternity, then we might need to be prepared for people to offer a vision of human flourishing more consistent with our age, and more in keeping with the church’s marginal position in the social and moral life of our country. We might have to let our kids hear about sex that some of us don’t think of as “normal”… and to hear about families that fall outside the statistical norm… and this giving others a voice might actually be a good and loving thing, and it might also be good for our kids, if we want them to grow up understanding and loving their neighbours and living together in community.

By the by, I feel like the real indicator of our ‘position’ in the education system isn’t so much in the SRE space, but in the chaplaincy space, where we agreed to be neutered in order to maintain a position of privilege. We agreed to give schools the benefit of a Christian presence, so long as that presence was not coupled with a presentation of the Christian message. What could be a clearer indicator of our position in modern society, as exiles, than a government and a population who are still prepared to use us to care for kids in crisis, but not to present an alternative, positive, view of the world that centres on Jesus. But I digress. Let’s return to why, as a Christian parent, I’d want my children watching Gayby Baby, and why I want them to learn, from their schools, that homosexuality is normal.

The idea that homosexuality is normal is one that offends a certain stream of thinking that wants to equate ‘normal’ with ‘God’s pattern for flourishing’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘normal’ with ‘natural.’

This Gayby Baby initiative seems to fit with the Australian Marriage Forum’s (AMF) anti-gay marriage argument that a change in the definition of marriage will change our educational agenda to “normalise” homosexuality. This is seen by this particular lobby group, and presumably others, as a problem. The AMF does not believe there is any reason to focus on sexuality when it comes to anti-bullying initiatives, and especially no justification for ‘normalising’ homosexuality.

In other words, there are many reasons to be bullied at school – for being too smart, too dumb; too fat, too thin; or for standing up for other kids who are being bullied. That is something we all go through, and the claim that homosexual people suffered it worse appears to be “taken at face value”.

There are less insidious means to address the perennial problem of bullying – for all students – than by normalising homosexual behaviour in the curriculum.


Is it just me, or is this saying “there are other forms of bullying, so we shouldn’t tackle this one”? Even if its true that other forms of bullying are out there, if there’s a genuine belief in the community that the mental health outcomes for same sex attracted people are due, in part, to bullying, shouldn’t we try to stop that bullying to see if the correlation is causation? Shouldn’t it be enough that bullying in any form is wrong, without the greater risk?

Dr David Van Gend, a spokesperson for the Australian Marriage Forum, disputes the link between mental health and suicide in the LGBTQI community and bullying or homophobia, he provides a list of other possible causes to suggest there’s no need to ‘normalise’ homosexuality as a result. In its 2012 submission to the Australian Government, as it considered an amendment to the Marriage Act, the Australian Christian Lobby argued against the redefinition of marriage for a variety of reasons, including the argument that such a change would ‘normalise’ homosexuality in our education system.

“Some educators in Australia are effectively seeking to normalise homosexuality under the guise of “anti-homophobia” campaigns. ACT Education Minister Andrew Barr opened an anti-homophobia art display at a Canberra school, at which one student’s poster read “Love is not dependent on gender, what’s your agenda?

Although no one would object to the condemnation of homophobia, promoting homosexuality in this fashion is something many parents would not be comfortable with. Redefining marriage will increase these incidents, as schools would be required to teach the equivalency of same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. The principal public school teacher’s union, the Australia Education Union, actively promotes homosexuality among its members and in schools. Its policy document, Policy on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People, says it is committed to fighting heterosexism, which involves challenging “[t]he assumption that heterosexual sex and relationships are ‘natural’ or ‘normal’”.

The change to the Marriage Act hasn’t happened (yet), but these words from the ACL seem almost prophetic (except that Biblical prophecy is all about pointing people to Jesus ala Revelation 19, which says: “Worship God, because the testimony about Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” — but now I really digress). The problem with the Australian Marriage Forum and the Australian Christian Lobby is that they’re speaking against one view of human flourishing, one view of “normal”, without actually providing a viable alternative. “This is not natural” is not an alternative argument to “this feels natural to me.” And the argument is not one that Christians should really be making when it comes to trying to have a voice at the table, and in our schools, in terms of a real picture of human flourishing. The AMF’s slogan is “keep marriage as nature made it,” the ACL submission uses the word natural 9 times and nature 4 times, and normalise or normal 10 times, while containing no mentions of God, creator, Jesus, or Christ. It’s an argument for one view of what is ‘natural’…

The problem, as I see it, is that homosexuality is totally normal. And it will appear totally natural to people. And I’m not sure we’re being true to the Bible if we say otherwise.

The “New” Normal

Here’s what I don’t get. When I read Romans 1, I get the impression that for a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, we should have no problem acknowledging that in our world, a world that readily swaps God for idols, like sex, homosexuality is the ‘new normal’… If you don’t take the Bible seriously then the normality of homosexuality seems uncontested (which, would ironically prove the point the Bible makes). And if you do, then the only people homosexuality is not normal for are the people who have had their sexual ethics redefined out of worldliness, by God. Check it.

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. — Romans 1:22-31

This is normal. Education doesn’t make homosexuality ‘normal’ — we do — and God does it to us because humanity collectively bailed on his design.

People in this picture aren’t given a choice about what to believe about the world. God chooses it for them. God acts to create a new normal for humanity because humanity rejects him. This downward spiral is the story of humanity that plays out through the pages of the Old Testament, and in every human culture since. Including ours. Claim to be wise. End up as fools.

So far as Paul is concerned, this is the new normal. This is the default view of the world. This is what our worldly schools should be teaching, so long as they are worldly schools. To suggest otherwise misses the role and place of the church in such a world entirely. Our job is to preach the one message that enables a new normal. A new identity. A new view of the world, and the things we are inclined to turn into idols.

If we want a picture of human flourishing that doesn’t look like the things in this list, we actually need a counter story that points towards a different normal and a new nature. That’s the problem with AMF and the ACL and the push to not let our schools treat homosexuality as normal. It is normal. Until someone has a reason to believe otherwise. And that reason isn’t ‘nature’ — it’s Jesus.

The Better Normal: Paul, Athens, giving others a voice, and God’s picture of human flourishing

Let’s briefly recap. I think a summary of the important bits from above is that education is important because it allows us to truly see, and truly seeing allows us to truly love. When it comes to (secular) public education in Australia there are multiple voices wanting to be heard offering multiple pictures of human flourishing. One obstacle to any version of flourishing (except very twisted understandings of that word), would seem to be the plight of LGBTQI students in our schools, and also the children of LGBTQI families in our community. These families, by any measure — Christian or secular — are actually normal. Hearing stories from these families and creating a space to truly hear from these young people is necessary in order for us to love and understand them… But these families may not be the ideal setting for human flourishing, and embracing one’s normal sexuality may not be the best path towards that end. It may be that purple is not the colour on the spectrum that represents the best solution to the experience of LGBTQI students and families in the community, or the very best pattern for life in this world.

If Christians are going to get a voice at the table, in schools or in politics, what is the voice we really want being heard? What are we going to say? We may not have that opportunity for very long in the form of SRE, and we certainly won’t if we keep rattling cages by shutting down alternative voices, and alternative normals, rather than presenting our own, and graciously be asking for the opportunity to do that… Should we be mounting an argument from nature that it seems God himself is foiling by making things that are unnatural seem natural and desirable? Or should we be trying to better understand the link between the rejection of God, the pursuit of alternative gods (idols), and what this does to how people picture the world and how to flourish in it?

I love much of what Stephen McAlpine writes (he’s posted on Gayby Baby as I’ve been writing this, but his piece on the Sexular Age is pertinent at this point. Here’s a quote:

“Which gets to the heart of the matter – the matter of the heart. The separation of church and state simply papers over the reality that whether we be secular materialists or secular religionists, we are all worshippers. We were built to worship, and worship we will. Jesus and David Foster Wallace line up on that one. We want an ultimate thing. We desire something that arrives at a climax. And sex will do that just nicely in lieu of anything else. It’s an exceptional idol – and an instant one to boot. Sex is a mainline drug, and is a heaps cheaper experience than an overseas trip. Hence to challenge its hegemony in our culture is to challenge a dark, insatiable god.”

I love Debra Hirsch’s conversation with her husband Alan about what heaven will be like, in her book Redeeming Sex (have a read – it’s worth it).  I love it because my wife and I had the same conversation and arrived at the same conclusion, a conclusion that gets to the core. When she asked Alan what he thought heaven would be like, his reply? “One eternal orgasm”.

That’s not trite.  Not trite at all. In fact it gets to the heart of why, in the end, sexularism will win out in our culture.  After all, you need as many guilt-free, culturally, politically and legally endorsed orgasms as you can if – in a manner of speaking – there is nothing else to come. If this is the pinnacle  then the best thing to do is to reach the zenith as many times as you can in the here and now.  Anyone threatening, questioning, or legislating against that, is tampering with the idol; threatening the order of things by refusing to bow to the image.

I’m struck by what Paul does when he enters a city full of idols. Athens. The city of Athens exists in the world of Romans 1. If Paul followed the power-grabbing, take-no-prisoners, God’s-way-or-the-highway methodology of Christendom (or ISIS, in its iconoclasm), and the church defined by a vision of the world loosely modelled on Christendom, he’d have entered the city with a sledgehammer. He’d have used that hammer to destroy every statue and altar set up in opposition to the real normal. He doesn’t. He walks around. He seeks to understand. He speaks to people in the marketplace. He preaches Jesus and the resurrection. He gets an invitation to the Areopagus, a seat at the table, if you will. And he uses it to speak about the city’s idols with a sort of ‘respect,’ in order to ultimately speak about God’s vision for human flourishing as revealed in Jesus. Sure. He absolutely nails the hollowness of idols in his alternative vision, he pushes back at their version of normal… but he doesn’t do this by knocking the statues over, or even by treating the people who follow these idols as complete fools.

He speaks to people whose view of nature has been clouded. He even does it in a way that demonstrates the value of a good secular education, quoting a couple of ancient, non-Christian (non-Jewish) poet/philosophers.

This is how to speak in a world, and city, whose view of normal is dominated and defined by idolatry and heads and hearts shaped by the normal human decision to turn on God. Because this is how to offer people a path back to God, and his version of human flourishing.

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 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.

24 “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. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” — Acts 17:22-32

Paul allows Athens a voice even though he believes his God made the entire universe.

Paul listens.

Paul really understands.

And this understanding gives him an opportunity to love by offering an alternative. He offers them Jesus.

That’s why I want my kids to watch movies like Gayby Baby, and listen to the stories of people in their world. Because this is the pattern of engagement I want them to follow in this sexular age. I want them to love like that. Even if they, like Paul, are laughed at by most…


The ‘disgusting’ Ashley Madison exposed: The impossibility of secrecy, and the promise of forgiveness

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I can’t imagine the sorts of conversations that might be happening in households around the world this week after a group of hacktivists unleashed a public sort of hell on millions of cheaters, and would be cheaters, by naming and shaming them as members of an online infidelity service. Well. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it, except that some commercial radio hosts in Australia told a caller on air that her husband was an account holder. And her response:


I don’t listen to commercial radio, because I’m old. And lame. I listen to the ABC. On the radio this morning the consensus on talkback on the Ashley Madison data dump is that it’s not so much the sex that matters when it comes to infidelity, it’s the lying.


We’ve tangled and contorted ourselves into a weird sort of moral knot if we somehow think that the problem here is not more complicated than lying. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure my wife would appreciate me honestly telling her that I seriously wanted to sleep with other people if only she’d give her blessing. I think that desire, itself, is a problem for one’s marriage vows. But maybe that’s where the dishonesty rests… in those vows.

This breach of security and privacy does throw a bunch of interesting ideologies into the mix. It invites us to consider just how coherent a view of morality based on ‘harm’ and individual liberty really is in the scheme of deeply enmeshed human relationships. It’s easy enough to ask “where’s the harm in a bit of consensual sex between adults” but much harder to ask that question so flippantly when one or both of those adults is already enmeshed in a relationship where their actions are not simply their own, but actions of a person-in-relationship. It’s interesting to consider what privacy really is, and whether its something to protect and pursue, or at least whether its something you can ever assume. Someone called this the “wikileaks of personal data.” There are some who feel the really egregious sin here is the breach of privacy. Others have asked about the place of vigilante justice for moral, not criminal, failings (the whole vigilante thing makes me uncomfortable, be it wikileaks, or Anonymous). The company behind Ashley Madison released a statement on the breach that says:

“The criminal, or criminals, involved in this act have appointed themselves as the moral judge, juror, and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all of society. We will not sit idly by and allow these thieves to force their personal ideology on citizens around the world.”

The question of competing visions of personal virtue and what this looks like in a society where some aspect of life is shared is interesting. I think. I’m not sure you can speak of concepts of ‘society’ and ‘citizenship’ without trying to establish a sense of virtue, or some parameters, tht hold people in a society, or people group, together.

It also invites us to ask what is really private, and whether the thoughts, desires, and private acts of one’s ‘inner-man’ or ‘inner-woman’ are morally distinct from public acts. There’s a whole bunch of modern moral theory that says its only what you do that matters, what you think is private and its your own little kingdom with your own rules. That you can’t be morally culpable for thought crime. But doesn’t this just invite us to extend our private kingdoms as far as we can? To get away with as much as we can short of actually doing something? And where do we then draw the line? What’s the moral difference between fantasy and pornography? Between signing up for a cheating account with every intention of using it, and actually using it? What difference does it make if you are in a relationship and the private ‘inner world’ denies, dishonestly, your changed status?

If an Ashley Madison account exists but nobody is there to see it, is it still ‘cheating’?


It’s pretty easy to jump up and down and point the finger at these exposed men (and women, though nobody can really tell what percentage of Ashley Madison accounts were really real, and really women). Lots of people are doing it. We love it when some horrible person gets EXPOSED. Imagine that text as a rubber stamp graphic being thumped onto your TV screen in one of those Current Affair exposé episodes. We love a good finger point. Somehow a crass commercial exercise like exposing a cheating husband on radio is something to delight in or be fascinated by, even as a family’s life potentially disintegrates in the voyeuristic ear shot of hundreds of thousands of listeners.

But what if it were me, and my inner man in the spot light?

What if my thoughts were projected on a screen, captured, hijacked, and released to millions of voyeuristic ears and eyes baying for blood?

It’s a horrible thought. Isn’t it. My hidden desires. The stuff that I would consider doing if I thought there was any chance that nobody would ever know. That nobody could ever find out. That my privacy was guaranteed… What is it for you? Where would you go given the cover of darkness? What would you do if you had Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak? I know I’d be dangerous with that sort of power… and that sort of opportunity.


I hope I’m not alone in acknowledging that if the very worst of my thoughts were captured, catalogued, and released online I would be terrified that anyone could download a database and search for my name. Least of all that my inner thoughts would be exposed to my wife, and the nation, in a radio interview.


I feel like most of us would be destroyed if this happened, most of our relationships — at least those built on the assumption of total honesty rather than love, grace, mercy and forgiveness — would disintegrate with the voyeuristic eye of the public turned on us. I don’t want to give the guys on this database a free pass. Signing up for a terrible website offering a terrible product is a terrible and disgusting thing to do. I’m not interested so much in excusing them, but in remembering to number myself amongst the transgressors. Not because I have an Ashley Madison account, but because the account that I do have, in terms of my desires and thoughts, is not clear. My guess is neither is yours, nor any of those jumping in to condemn the cheats. We’ve all got some sort of ‘account,’ a record that if revealed to the world would cause that sort of visceral response (so long as we’re prepared to forget our account when we judge others).


For the record, just so we’re clear, Ashley Madison is destructive, its destruction would be terrific if it didn’t involve so much collateral damage, and if the collateral damage wasn’t the result of an outraged mob baying for the blood of these “disgusting” clients. Cheating, or attempting to cheat is disgusting.

But so am I.


And I don’t want my disgustingness exposed. The thought profoundly terrifies me. The cost would be excruciating.

And so. I empathise with these guys who have been exposed.

I understand the desire to keep our desires private. Uncovered. Hidden in darkness. Held in encrypted digital vaults rather than published for all to see. I wish I had that sort of control. The ability to keep things hidden. But I don’t. I can’t.

What’s perhaps most shocking is that while I may never be accountable to other people for the workings and perversions of my inner-man (so long as I keep them in check and don’t sign up for, or use, web services where I can be exposed), I will certainly be accountable to God.

The God of the Bible who has a little something to say about adultery that should put all of us on notice, and invite us to not be so quick to point fingers of judgment at those ‘disgusting’ folks who have been caught out using a disgusting ‘service’ (to call it a ‘service’ as though it provides some sort of beneficial act for its customer is to be a little too generous). Jesus says the life of the inner person counts. The stuff that you think is private, and secret, isn’t. And it’ll be exposed.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. — Matthew 5:27-28

In another passage, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus warns against hypocrisy because nothing ‘hidden’ stays hidden.

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. — Luke 12:2-3

When it comes to God, I don’t have secrecy. But I do have grace, love and forgiveness. I might try to keep the worst of my thoughts and desires from the people around me, this desire for secrecy and darkness to get away with stuff is fundamental to our humanity — it’s exactly what Adam and Eve do when they hide from God in the garden, and its what people do over an over again in the Bible. But I should be able to trust the people who love me with this part of me, and trust their ability to love and forgive me, just as God does — often its the desire not to hurt others that rightly prevents people from oversharing the depths of their brokenness. I hope that this love and forgiveness would be offered in my marriage (I’m not seeking to test the limits), but ultimately, I know and have a promise from the one who intimately and completely knows my “inner man” that the disgusting stuff has been seen, but the record, the account, is as good as destroyed because Jesus took on the cost of my disgust, the shame, the public humiliation, and the punishment, for himself. He wore it. He owned it. He took it.


That’s good news for me, and perhaps it might be good news for the hundreds of thousands of Ashley Madison account holders in Australia, or the millions around the world, facing an uncertain future at home this week. Your account can be wiped. You can start again. Trying to hide behind ‘privacy’ and secrecy is something that should decrease over time as you follow Jesus, both because shameful behaviours should decrease, because hiding is a path to hypocrisy, and because you simply realise that Jesus bringing us into the light we no longer need darkness to feel loved and secure. That pattern of our humanity is broken because guilt, shame, and their cause — our disgusting behaviour — are taken away.

King David was an adulterer — not just in the ‘inner man’ sense — he committed adultery and like an Ashley Madison customer tried to get away with the ‘perfect’ secret ‘leave no trace of lipstick’ act. He tried to cover up his actions (and used murder to do it).


And God exposed his heart, and his ‘hidden’ actions. David, more than anyone in the Bible, knows the ins and outs of the experience a bunch of blokes around the world are going through as the nightmare of having their ‘disgusting’ hearts exposed. A prophet is pretty much the equivalent of an Old Testament wikileaks, or a group of hacktivists, and David’s sin was brought out into public and recorded in the books that went on to become the Bible. A book that has been read for thousands of years. EXPOSED. You don’t get much more exposed than this. And yet, David found forgiveness and love and mercy in God, a taste of what was to come through the Cross. He wrote:

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
    slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
    or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us. — Psalm 103:8-12

I’m praying some of the Ashley Madison customers thrown into the emotional abyss by this exposé find comfort in this picture of forgiveness, and find this sort of forgiveness in God through Jesus, and expressed by his people, the Church.

The invitation you’re extended, by Jesus, is to step out of darkness and secrecy, and to come into the light. You have nothing to fear when it comes to being exposed if you’re absolutely prepared to be exposed, and to point to Jesus, the one who is not disgusting, and was free from guilt and shame, as the basis of your security.

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 3:19-20