Wake up! The Aussie church needs hopeful wisdom and imagination; not the ‘status quo’

“The sad truth is that many of us are, at best, only half awake. We think we’re engaged with the real world — you know, the world of stock markets, stockcar racing, and stockpiles of chemical weapon — but in fact we’re living in what Lewis calls the “shadowlands.” We think we’re awake, but we’re really only daydreaming. We’re sleepwalking our way through life — asleep at the wheel of existence — only semi-conscious of the eternal, those things that are truly solid that bear the weight of glory.” — Kevin Vanhoozer, In Bright Shadow: C.S. Lewis on the Imagination for Theology and Discipleship

I’ve spent the last few days feeling like most of us Christians in Australia need a bit of a wake up call.

And not because the world is going to turn against us because of what we think and believe and teach… but because we need to wake up to ourselves… to think — to rethink— or re-imagine even — how it is we live in the world as Christians.

I’ve been confronted recently about the stark reality of death, and the incredible and real hope the Gospel offers in the face of death; and how the cross and resurrection offer us some really amazing models for engaging with the problems we face in our world when people do stupid and evil stuff to each other.

But…

Day after day, week after week, I read think-pieces on Christian blogs, statuses posted on social media, and books, even books, about how the world is falling apart.

How Christians have it tougher in the west then ever before. How people now hate us just for thinking what we’ve always thought.

The Margaret Court saga is the latest in a long line of this… and if you’re part of my weird corner of the Aussie church there’s now a fight about whether some people at a conference said Christian women should exist to make men shine, should view being CEO of a company as an opportunity to be a ‘helper’ to men, or should not cut their hair short, and should avoid tattoos or something.

What are we doing? Why do we keep treading such obscure well trodden unimaginative paths that make the Gospel less and less appealing to our neighbours. Can’t we when faced with interesting dilemmas choose to be interesting and category confounding while still being faithful?

And yet. Time after time… we’re just…

So boring.

So predictable.

So.

Utterly.

Without.

Imagination. 

We’re sleepwalking our way through a changing environment and wondering why we keep bumping into things.

Seriously. There might be new problems; or at least new manifestations of old problems… but we’re not offering many new solutions. We’re retreating to the same black and white ‘factual’ answers to a bunch of complicated questions where people are feeling the implausibility of the way we live out those facts and so rejecting the answers that got us into a mess; and we’re wondering why it’s not working.

We’re wondering why even our growing churches are barely keeping pace with population growth (which means we’re shrinking in real terms).

And our answers aren’t the Gospel.

They’re not hopeful.

They so lack imagination that we wonder why the church in Australia is stuck in a rut. We can’t imagine why it is.

But there are a bunch of people clamouring to describe what is; to explain why things are so bad, but offering very little in terms of imaginative or new solutions to the problem except perhaps to bunker down and hope for revival.

There are a bunch of voices attempting to out doom-say one another about the future of the church here in Australia, predicting greater difference between us and our neighbours if we maintain the status quo… and maybe they’re right. But maybe instead of considering how to maintain the status quo in the face of opposition we might rethink the thing. Some of those doomsday prophets have had to re-think their narrative a little in the face of the latest McCrindle Research on Faith and Belief in Australia (it turns out the aggressive ‘secular left’ commentariat might be out of touch with what most Aussies think about religion and Jesus). Here’s a few interesting snapshot findings from the report:

“Australians vary in their current attitudes towards Christianity. When asked whether they themselves say that they are a ‘Christian’, almost two in five (38%) ‘consider themselves a Christian’ (compared to 45% who identify with Christianity as a religion). A further 24% are ‘warm’ towards Christianity with 12% neutral towards it. The remaining 26% of Australians are ‘cool’ (negative) towards Christianity.”

“Perceptions of Christians and Christianity are negatively influenced by the actions and behaviours of Christians in society. Perceptions of church abuse are the greatest negative influence (73% say this is massive/significant), followed by religious wars (65%). Two thirds (65%) say they are negatively influenced by hypocrisy.”

I don’t blame those who are ‘cool’ towards Christianity in Australia who are negatively influenced by our actions and behaviour (and I’d say even our thinking). Not just when it comes to abuse and wars… but when it comes to our utter failure to live out a plausibly better alternative to the visions of the good life offered by our world. I’m a Christian; a pastor; and half the time I don’t even feel like the Gospel is ‘good news’ as lived out by our churches… Certainly not if you’re something other than male, middle class, english-speaking, at least second generation Australian, educated, and heterosexual. Ironically, I wonder what percentage of the 26% of Aussies who are cool towards Christianity also fall in those categories… it also turns out that of the 38% of all people surveyed who define themselves of Christians only 7% of all people surveyed (18% of self-identifying Christians) are active practicers/’extremely involved’…

And I can’t blame them.

Because we’re terrible. And boring. We lack imagination so we’re unable to put together any particularly coherent and persuasive case even to those who call themselves Christians about why they should be involved in church life… let alone for those people who describe themselves as warm to Christianity who aren’t Christians, the 12% who are neutral or the 26% who are ‘cool’…

Here’s my doomsday prophet statement. I’ll put on my funky wizard’s hat:

The problem for the church in Aussie society isn’t with the society. It’s with the church. 

We have so utterly failed to understand the people around us and why they don’t like us that it’s left us fearful, or worse, unimaginative. We trot out the same lines in response to new challenges and wonder why they’ve lost their edge; and we never really ask if the lines we’re trotting out are actually coherently Christian (or Biblical), or if the way we’ve implemented our theology (our traditions) might need reforming.

Wisdom and the imagination

Maybe we should rethink what wisdom actually is. That it’s about navigating between two seemingly contradictory poles rather than picking one and beating people with it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that wisdom requires imagination. Not a rule book. And we’re failing society at large (and ourselves) because we keep assuming wisdom is about having the right facts or knowledge; rather than about using our Spirit-shaped imagination to chart shrewd paths through difficult extremes.

That’s why Proverbs — a book of Biblical wisdom — can contradict itself within two sentences.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes. — Proverbs 26:4-5

Here’s two places where, in the New Testament, we’re called to be wise in the way we engage with the world.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” — Matthew 10:16

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. — Colossians 4:5-6

Now. These two use different words for wisdom (the word the NIV translates as ‘shrewd’ in Matthew 10 is φρόνιμος (phronimos) which means practically wise), but both attach wisdom to action rather than to knowledge; we’re to ‘be as shrewd as’ and ‘wise in the way you act’ — this isn’t about head knowledge but about the charting of a path in life, in Matthew it’s to live amongst hostile wolves, and in Colossians, where Paul has just mentioned his chains, it’s to live amongst hostile wolves who are ‘outsiders’ but in the hope they ask questions that we can then answer with the Gospel… he’s just said: “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” (Colossians 4:3).

A way this wisdom thing seems to play out in Jesus’ life is in those moments where the wolves are out to get him; to trap him between two undesirable positions, when, say, the Pharisees ask him a question about tax and the scope of Caesar’s power where they’re trying to trap him and he confounds them by picking a grander third way between those two poles. He re-imagines their question and uses it to show where they’ve got humanity and power all wrong…

“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.”

This is wolf like. What Jesus does in response is shrewd.

Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. — Matthew 22

The implication here is that God’s image is on something other than these metal disks. It’s a bold gambit. It’s imaginative. It helps us re-imagine and re-image our humanity; and it avoids the obvious trap; Jesus would’ve been in trouble with the Pharisees and Israel if he’d claimed Caesar was the supreme power in the world, but he’d have been in trouble with Rome if he’d denied Caesar’s authority.

What a shame we appear to have lost the ability to imagine our own way through similar dilemmas and similar tests in the face of similarly powerful empires. Our answer now seems to be to just slam Caesar and those out there in the world who aren’t like us, and in doing so, to slam the door on Gospel opportunities.

I’m pretty sure our lack of ‘practical wisdom’ or shrewdness — our inability to imagine new ways — is limiting our ability to proclaim the mystery of Christ to people. And it is driving me mad. The way this manifests itself is that as soon as someone offers an alternative way they’re treated with the suspicion of liberalism or heresy, and interpreted in really binary labels; we can’t think outside the boxes that we’ve made for themselves.

Please. Can we start using our imaginations in the pursuit of wisdom… rather than simply doggedly repeating the same old mantras that got us here?

Here’s the thing; according to McCrindle’s research it’s not taxes and what we give to Caesar that’s the prime trap or ‘belief blocker’ for the church in Australia — for those Aussie Christians who want to take the Bible seriously as the word of God. It’s homosexuality. And again; this is an area where we rely on pat answers, ‘facts’, ‘proof-texts’, odd traditions and a total lack of imagination; both in the church and in our interface with the world at large. In a weird confluence; perhaps providentially… this is the issue that many doomsayers in the church are seeing as a sort of watershed, a sign that the culture has finally turned on us (perhaps, instead, this is just the only bit of the culture we’re prepared to offer some sort of resistance to, because for so long it’s been an area where we thought our norms were in the ascendency… we’ve ceded so much ground on stuff like economics and work (greed) and other types of idolatry so that we don’t look any different to our neighbours on that stuff). Here’s a quote from one famous piece of doomsaying, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (see my (mostly positive) review here):

“Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left—which is to say, increasingly the American mainstream— has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.”

I liked The Benedict Option because while it used metaphors consistent with doomsday prepping and heading to the hills; it did outline a positive and imaginative way of being the church in the world. It stumbled onto a some great solutions for the real problem facing us as the church despite perhaps over-reaching in its diagnosis of the problems (though writer Rod Dreher is as much writing to wake the church up to who we should be as he is to diagnose the problems outside us and what they might do to us).

But what if to read the situation this way as a ‘Christian conservatives’ v ‘cultural left’ ‘culture war’ is to be impaled on the horn of a particularly nasty dilemma; to choose between, if you’ll excuse the clumsy labelling of Christian conservatives as Pharisees, Caesar and the Pharisees. What if there are a bunch of alternative ways we might imagine to engage with people who disagree with us on this issue while maintaining our own faithfulness? What if Margaret Court had considered options other than boycotting Qantas? This sort of ‘third way’ is what I was outlining a bit in a recent post; but now we’ve got some interesting data from McCrindle to throw into the mix.

Homosexuality and Same Sex Marriage

“The biggest blocker to Australians engaging with Christianity is the Church’s stance and teaching on homosexuality (31% say this completely blocks their interest). This is followed by, ‘How could a loving God allow people to go to hell?’ (28%).” — McCrindle, Faith and Belief In Australia

Where I think we’ve failed here is that we’ve assumed faithfulness to Jesus means opposing same sex marriage for non-Christians in a secular nation. Because the Bible doesn’t recognise same sex marriage as marriage we should not allow anybody to; and, charitably, because same sex marriage will be bad for participants and families because it is outside God’s design, the loving thing to do is to oppose it. I understand this logic; I just think it lacks imagination and is ultimately a net loss when it comes to love and wisdom (in part because it becomes a significant blocker for people who as a result misunderstand how we feel about same sex attracted people and so stops them considering Jesus). If you stop someone considering Jesus because of a stance you take, you’re a bit like the crowd in the Zaccheus story in Luke 19; a barrier to Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost. You’re not loving. You’re hating. There are better ways to be clear about what the Bible says about sex than just to adopt a black and white opposition to same sex marriage.

Here’s a question. What would happen if we engineered everything we did and said around homosexuality around two scenarios (that might seem implausible to many of us).

  1. A gay or lesbian couple curious about Christianity who married overseas, have kids, and want to explore the Gospel.
  2. A same sex attracted Christian committed to Biblical teaching about sex who is pursuing a life of celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage.

What if it was our prayerful hope that our churches would be full of people like the people in this scenario, and church life revolved around figuring out how to work out what it means for us broken people to follow Jesus together. With my doomsday hat on again — and backed by the stats — our current unimaginative approach to this complicated question is keeping these scenarios from playing out.

The lens these scenarios would have us bring to questions about same sex marriage outside the church is totally different to the lens it seems our Christian political organisations and institutions want to bring to the political question. I can not imagine many of my gay friends and neighbours wanting to explore the truth claims of Christianity when we take their current hopes, dreams, and understanding of what a fulfilling life looks like, and spit on it without considering that our thinking about sexuality might be at all shaped by our prior decision to believe there’s a God, who reveals himself in the Bible and in Jesus, who has a design for our present and future, and who we love above all other loves.

Let’s assume that deciding how to approach your sexuality and your desires is a decision you make (what you do with them not who you are attracted to) that is either pleasing or displeasing to this God… and that our sexuality is something that God’s law/outline for what a flourishing human life looks like teaches us about. How do we approach questions of homosexuality for those who do not love God when the Bible itself says:

The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. — Romans 8:7-9

What do we hope to achieve by taking God’s law (natural law, or revealed law) and arguing that it should be the law of the land? Where do our expectations for this come from?

Why have we just categorically assumed that marriage as defined by God (in the Bible, and as seen in human history in most cultures) is what marriage should be for a bunch of people who reject God, and see nature as a thing to be conquered by human will, freedom, and ingenuity? Our failure to imagine how to run a ‘shrewd,’ wise, loving and compelling line on this issue begins with an utter failure to apprehend the playing field (and this too, is a failure of the imagination. We’ve assumed a status quo that is no longer there, and then imagined the status quo is worse than it actually is, because we haven’t really understood why and how the playing field has changed and how we might actually be better equipped to play on it than we imagine).

What if people just want to hear that we also have a vision of the good human life, and that rather than beginning with loving another person intimately, and expressing that love in sex, marriage, and belonging to a family, we believe it starts with loving God intimately, and through that being part of his family in a way that changes how we view sex, love, and marriage. We understand that our views of marriage require a particular view of God, and for those who don’t share that view they’ll seem archaic and weird. But that’s ok. We’re happy to be weird, because we believe we’re right and nature and human history seem to support this conclusion but we recognise that people should be free to make their own decisions about God. I don’t know anybody at this point who would call me a bigot for holding these views (I’ve not yet been called one), but I also think it’s both Biblical and compelling. So long as we really believe and live as though God is more important to us than sex and marriage.

Let’s for a moment, consider marriage as an institution that is shaped by religious beliefs — not just a ‘natural’ order thing — we know this is a thing because the Catholics view marriage as a sacrament where Protestants don’t, because Mormons in some parts of the world allow polygamy as a result of their beliefs, and so too do some Muslims (so do the Old Testament patriarchs, so it’s not totally clear even in the Bible that marriage as monogamy is a natural rather than revealed thing)… Let’s for a moment draw an analogy with another religious practice prior to coming to love Jesus above all else; halal food. Do we expect a Muslim we hope to introduce to Jesus to stop eating halal food; perhaps even to eat bacon; before they become a Christian?

It seems an odd hill to die on, and like an impediment to Gospel ministry if the political changes happen (and it seems like they will); and even the most nuanced opponents to same sex marriage within the church get tarred with the same brush as the more extreme fringes because we’re not particularly good at explaining why Christian beliefs should shape secular legislation (let alone simply be accommodated by secular legislation).

Our responses to proposed changes to the Marriage Act have also been utterly without imagination; we’ve been worried about protecting Christian bakers and florists rather than thinking about how Christian bakers and florists might engage with the gay community who come knocking. Maybe instead of refusing to serve our gay neighbours because we hold to a different definition of marriage; we should refuse to profit from a changed institution and so offer our services for free.

Maybe we should pursue a generous pluralism; allowing other people to re-shape a secular/common understanding of marriage while still recognising our own religious distinctives, rather than seeking to defend the status quo for as long as possible.

Maybe we should, as much as possible, seek to create opportunities to have conversations with our gay neighbours from a position of love for them, and belief that Jesus is actually fundamentally better than sex or romantic love and could be more compelling than sex should a gay family come through our doors, and leave that for us to figure out with our neighbours in the context of a loving Christian community rather than relying on public statements that are interpreted as hateful or that close down doors and opportunities.

Maybe the voices we should be listening to at times like this are the voices of the faithful brothers and sisters living out the Gospel calling when it comes to their sexuality; about their experience of their desires, about what they find compelling about Jesus, and about what helps life in the church, following Jesus, be a plausibly better alternative than embracing an alternative ‘gospel’… Here’s an interesting piece in Eternity from this week, from David Bennett, a same sex attracted, celibate, Christian. Here’s a bit from him:

“The pressure that has been put on the Christian Church by the gay lobby only makes things worse for LGBTQI Christians like myself who are trying to bring a subtler, but far more profound change in the Church. You heap pressure on faithful Christians like me, most of whom hide themselves away. But we are part of you – we are just as ‘gay’ but we don’t have gay relationships.

We are defined by our relationship with Christ; we have had lives that are just as hard and if not harder as a minority within a minority. We are not trying to change the Church’s theology, but agree with it. Marriage between a man and a woman is scriptural and God’s design and a picture of the gospel. But we are trying to change a deeper ethic, bringing a revival to the Church’s worship life, which has for too long enshrined the idols of romanticised notions of love, money and middle-class life, which denies many from the gospel whether refugees, the poor, people of other cultures, religions and ethnicities, and LGBTQI people.”

Let’s re-imagine and hope for something better with David. A church where his sort of faith is more celebrated and more plausible… but this isn’t going to happen if we just accept the status quo.

How do we do create a new ‘social imaginary’? 10 helpful starting points

Maybe the doom and gloom scenario from doomsayers like Dreher and the Christian blogosphere is not totally accurate.

Maybe what we’ve seen is just a small development in the secular ‘social imaginary’ — the phrase philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe how we imagine the world we live in; the kind of structures that shape the way we understand life in the world. Maybe once the world’s social imaginary, when it came to sex and homosexuality, looked very much like ours; our vision of the ‘sexual person’ and how that part of us fit into the order of things was uncontested. We didn’t have to worry about being out of touch with reality because our cultural reality shared much of the same cultural furniture; and there hasn’t been this wholesale and sudden rejection of the Christian social imaginary, but rather this last piece of the furniture was chucked to the curb; and it was our favourite chair. Maybe if we want to respond coherently we should be thinking about what a ‘social imaginary’ is comprised of, how to spot what’s going on in the world, and how to build an alternative reality that can exist alongside the dominant one as a plausible, though weird, and reasonably welcome alternative. At the moment we seem to want to insist that everybody should imagine the world the way we do; with God present and revealing the image of the flourishing human. And, just to be clear, the imagination does not just mean ‘fantasy land’ but how we see the world as it is, and where we turn to plot what it could be.

This could be the first time I’ve positively linked to Desiring God; but this Kevin Vanhoozer talk/essay on the imagination and its place in the Christian life is good and important.

“We feel a discrepancy, a fateful disconnect, between the world in which we live and the system of theology we believe. The imagination can help. I have said that theology is about the new reality in Christ and discipleship is about participating in that new reality. I now want to say that imagination is the faculty that wakes us up to that new reality and helps us to stay awake…

Here is the marvel: the one whose story the Bible tells is not confined to that story. He is Lord, and he is here. To see the common things of daily life drawn into the bright shadow of the Christ — this is the mark of a well-nourished theological imagination. It is precisely the biblically formed and transformed imagination that helps disciples wake up and stay awake to what is, and will be, in Christ Jesus.”

These are ten basic tips to be less boring and more imaginative. They’re a bit abstract, and I’ll unpack them over time… but feel free to explore what this might look like by asking questions.

  1. Tell better stories.
  2. Build better (and bigger) institutions (communities with a purpose — churches and groups/organisations on a ‘mission’ to do or create stuff) that hold the Gospel and ‘action’ (eg social justice or ‘deeds’) closer together.
  3. Be a more compelling alternative to the world (be saboteurs).
  4. Prepare to significantly change the way we live together so we look and feel different to our neighbours.
  5. Read more ancient (less panicked) voices.
  6. Use these ancient voices to question modern ‘orthodoxy’.
  7. Imagine better answers to complex questions.
  8. Listen more (especially to the voices of people grappling with the application of our doctrines).
  9. Be comfortable with mystery not just black/white ‘pat’ answers.
  10. Get the relationship between belief, behaviour and belonging the right way around (maybe it’s actually belong, behave, believe).

Benedict Option or Golden Rule?

“We faithful orthodox Christians didn’t ask for internal exile from a country we thought was our own, but that’s where we find ourselves. We are a minority now, so let’s be a creative one, offering warm, living, light-filled alternatives to a world growing cold, dead, and dark. We will increasingly be without influence, but let’s be guided by monastic wisdom and welcome this humbly as an opportunity sent by God for our purification and sanctification. Losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul. Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires.” — The Benedict Option, pg 99


The Benedict Option? Or is it?

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher has been making waves long before the book was published so much that many have seen the book as a refreshing opportunity to get some clarity from Dreher about exactly what it is he means when he speaks of the Option; is he talking about withdrawing from the world? retreating to a bunker? being the church in the world? or simply a strategy for disciple making in the modern west?

He’s been accused of calling Christians to head for the hills; and accused those who say so of misrepresenting him.

He’s been accused of responding to the changing world with fear; and accused those who say so of misrepresenting him.

He’s been accused of suggesting Christians abandon worldly institutions (like the political realm); and accused those who say so of misrepresenting him.

I’ve read lots from Dreher (both pre- and post- release of the book), and lots of people talking about The Benedict Option. I think the difficulty as I’ve read the reviews and his responses is that I think Dreher has been misunderstood, but I think he’s also misunderstood the responses (and fuelled them), and that the problem is that Dreher is attempting to present a series of practices — an orthopraxy — for any Christians to reinforce and preserve our faith in a hostile world (he goes so far as to suggest Muslims should do this too), but he fails to account for how different belief systems — orthodoxies — view the world and God’s work in it. Because Dreher writes so broadly, for Protestants, Catholics, and his own Orthodox tradition, and assumes you can work from a right orthopraxy upwards to an orthodoxy, he’s been ill-equipped to handle responses that read from an orthodoxy downwards. The real problem is that his orthopraxy is actually a product of his orthodoxy, and it never really escapes that, but there are many, many, principles and practices he recommends that can and should be adopted by people whose orthodoxy is in the reformed, evangelical, tradition.

“People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right? And I’m like, ‘Yes!’… But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care” — The Benedict Option, pg 142

Another problem is that there are several times where he wants to have his cake and eat it too; he says, for example, that he’s not advocating withdrawal, but then he says Christian parents must pull their kids out of public schools and into either home schools or Christian liberal arts institutions, that Christian workers should abandon ‘contested’ professions (or be pushed out) and be entrepreneurial, starting great businesses but only hiring Christians (and that we should also buy Christian); even to the point of uprooting from life in hostile environments. There’s a protectionism at the heart of his approach to the church and the world.

The Benedict Option sees centripetal force — creating more pull in the church than in the rest of space — as our strategy in a post-Christian world; and life as a competition between the gravitational pull of two bodies — the ‘world’ and the Gospel. To be super confusing, in this diagram ‘the world’ (the earth) is us, the ‘world’ is the cosmos. Gravitational force is ‘centripetal’ so replace the ‘sun’ here with the ‘son’ (for the ultimate Jesus-juke)… but also the church, the Gospel, and God.

The problem is that the centrifugal force created by our motion, that keeps us orbiting around the sun, is also an important part of the picture (both in the diagram and in the church). Dreher’s  approach to being Christian in the world and engaging with the world is centripetal (pulling people in) rather than centrifugal (sending people out); and there’s probably a case to be made that the church should be both at the same time; that we should be creating a sense of loving, Gospel-shaped, community that is so beautiful as to have its own gravitational pull, but that this community should shape us so that we can respond to and participate in the world outside the church without fear of being flung off or caught up by the gravitational pull of some other body.

Dreher tries very hard to be optimistic and bold but he does so in the face of a tsunami-like narrative regarding a current cataclysm for the church that is, in part, of his own making and imagination. I don’t mean that it isn’t true; I mean that he is the prophetic voice proclaiming it as true. It’s his account of history and the present that his solutions are confronting (though he marshals plenty of supporting voices). He wants to simultaneously build an ark so that the church can survive and one day thrive, and play the weatherman proclaiming that the flood is coming. It’s not new to have to balance a message of salvation and judgment, but if one thinks the flood is different (has been here for much longer, namely, since the crucifixion of Jesus), or that the design for the ark is faulty, Dreher’s rhetoric can feel panicked and urgent. A little bit Chicken Little; not because the sky isn’t falling, so much as that it fell some time ago… and it’s actually that it’s really starting to bite us now. It’s also not that Dreher’s solutions lack creativity — his chapters on work, on education, on politics as local institution building, and on community (both local and church) are fantastic and contain plenty of fodder for churches to chew through. I’m also a bit confused about how he offers his historical account of where things went wrong largely focused on ideas (until he gets to the industrial revolution), and then his solution is largely focused on practices.

I share, to some extent, Dreher’s analysis of what he calls liquid modernity and the pressures the modern world places on Christians, I share the sense that part of the solution is a radically different community-based approach to life in this world. I’ve written about the Benedict Option already a couple of times — once thinking about Christianity as an X-Men like mutation, the other considering aggressive secularism as something like a zombie apocalypse; and I’ve considered what sort of recalibration of church life might be required in a “post-truth” world (and earlier started penning some ‘theses’ around an ongoing ‘reformation’ of the church). I share Dreher’s communitarian vision, and the sense that these must be communities built on rhythms and practices (liturgies) even, that counter the ‘liturgies’ of the false worship around us. I’ve read enough Stanley Hauerwas, James Davison Hunter, and James K.A Smith (and enough Augustine, and the Epistle to Diognetus) to be on board with the central thrust of Dreher’s solution; we need to invest our time and energy into creating communities geared towards the formation of Christians who will face a world hostile to Christianity. This is probably urgent. It has probably been urgent for some time.

“Here’s how to get started with the anti-political politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbours. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department” — The Benedict Option, pg 98

You can see why people are confused. In the same paragraph Dreher calls us to secede and to participate in public life. And this is the tension that drives the book (and arguably the tension underpinning our life as Christians who are ‘in the world, but not of it’). The answer to this tension, and where I think at times Dreher doesn’t quite hold the tension, is that we Christians might not be ‘of’ the world; but we certainly should be for it. There’s a couple of things in this quote, and the book, that bother me in terms of his theologies of art and technology (he values ‘high’ art over pop culture, and ‘local’ low-tech forms of media over ‘high-tech’ globalised forms, and that will be the subject of a future post, another future post will tackle the education stuff he talks about).

I don’t share Dreher’s sense that the tipping point is the sexual revolution (and increasing activism about LGBTI rights); I think we’ve needed this solution for some time. We’ve already had our imaginations and desires conscripted by capitalism and an anthropology that sees humans as economic units who should be educated so that we can get a good job, develop new technology to control the world, and buy the stuff we want. We needed recalibrating long before corporations were signing up as LGBTI allies. I share the concerns of many that when Dreher writes, his perspectives (even as he travels abroad) can’t escape his whiteness, or his Americanness; now, the tagline of the book is A strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation”, so I don’t want to assess him for not having a broad enough scope; but there are plenty of marginalised communities operating within America as churches already, and instead of talking to them, Dreher headed off to a monastic community in Europe, and talked about the Mormons. The point at which the rubber really hits the road for me in terms of disagreement with Dreher, and how his orthopraxy clashes with my orthodoxy is on the question of education, and the best way to form our children to be Christians in the world. I know there are those within a reformed framework that share Dreher’s thoughts about the dangers of public education; but I don’t want to shape my kids to live in the world by having them box at shadows from the safety of a ‘home school’ or exclusively Christian school context (Dreher is down on church schools where many of your kids peers will be non-Christians who’ll pull them away from Jesus); I want my kids to learn to be in the world as Christians by being in the contested space of the world, with me (and their village) alongside them, not thrown into the world as adults for their first real ‘fight’ with people whose experience and understanding of the world is utterly foreign to them. I do share Dreher’s love for liberal arts educations though; and think Christians should be proactively starting alternative educational institutions for all built on this model because it is better for everyone.

80% of the Benedict Option contains really good and vital ideas and practices that should be factored in to how we approach life as the church in the world. I think what’s missing, or different, from a Reformed Evangelical perspective, is a vision for how to be in the world confident that it is God who saves and sanctifies and he does this through the Spirit, by faithAs someone in a different camp to Dreher, I think he puts too much faith in works to shape us, and is too afraid that the world will claim us; if you stand in the Calvinist tradition we certainly have a role to play in raising our kids in the Gospel-shaped community of the church, teaching them the Gospel in both word and practice, but we do this confident that it is ultimately God who acts to save, not our investment in our children. This should allow us to confidently engage the world with the belief that we have a more beautiful and compelling story that will be effective for those whom God calls, by the Spirit, through our presence.

“We have talked so far in this book about what it means to create the structures and take on the practices that train our hearts to be the Lord’s good servants first, even to the point of sacrifice. This is what the Benedict Option is supposed to do: help us to order all parts of our lives around him” — The Benedict Option, p 194

One of the issues with Dreher’s work, and the ensuing conversation, is that he really has considered and articulated a response to most objections; it’s just unclear which statements to weigh more heavily; ultimately your take on this book will be one of choosing which paradoxical bits to emphasise, or if you can live in tension; so he says:

“Communities that are wrapped too tight, for fear of impurity will suffocate their members and strangle the joy out of life together. Ideology is the enemy of joyful community life, and the most destructive ideology is the belief that creating utopia is possible” — The Benedict Option, pg 139

Yet so much of The Benedict Option reads to me like Moana’s father and his vision for community life on a dying island. So much of its strategy seems to be ‘stay on the island, the island is safe, good, and beautiful, and people have all they need here,’ and yet so much of the solution to liquid modernity seems actually to be found in the Gospel continuing to go out into the world, to challenge the powers and authorities of this world. This paragraph features everything that is right and wrong about The Benedict Option:

“We should stop trying to meet the world on its own terms and focus on building up fidelity in distinct community. Instead of being seeker-friendly, we should be finder-friendly, offering those who come to us a new and different way of life. It must be a way of life shaped by the biblical story and practices that keep us firmly focused on the truths of that story in a world that wants to obscure them and make us forget.” — The Benedict Option, pg 121

This vision is contradictory to an evangelical orthodoxy — a belief that the Gospel is the central story of the world and the church community — and that the Gospel is the story of the son of man coming to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), and that we, as the ‘found,’ via the Spirit, become seekers in turn (John 20:21, Matthew 28:18-20). Dreher has emphasised the need for a centripetal community that has its own centre of gravity, at the expense of the centrifugal force created by the Gospel at the centre of our community. The Christian life is the life governed by this tension; by these twin poles simultaneously holding us close to God, and throwing us into the world as his people. It’s also possible that it is in part being thrown into the world that shapes our love for God and the Gospel. The challenge of course, facing the church, is that the world has its own centripetal pull on our hearts — that’s how idolatry works — and part of the work of formation (and how the Spirit appears to work to form us) is making sure how hearts keep being pulled by Jesus with more force than the world can exert. The solution the Benedict Option offers in part, to the pull of the world, is to avoid that pull altogether. It seems, in part, that mission beyond the boundaries of the community in Dreher’s world is a specialised role (and perhaps this is a result of his orthodoxy shaping his orthopraxy), not a role of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ or the body of Christ corporately in the world (except in creating the centripetal force of Christian community).

Just as there’s much to be said for Dreher’s emphasis on practices that cultivate a love for, and trust in, God, I think there’s a good positive case to be made for many of Dreher’s options — like starting counter-cultural liberal-arts schools built on the assumption that a person is more than their economic contribution, or creating ‘thick’ local communities built on charity, or becoming ‘social entrepreneurs’ whose goal is to make something good for people rather than operate for profit — as positive ‘neighbour love;’ good things that we can invest in both as Gospel witness and as expressions of common grace for our neighbours. Where I feel the solutions of his ‘options’, based on the Rule of St Benedict, fail is in their centripetal impulses, their protectionist streak, and their failure to genuinely grapple with the scope of Jesus’ command to love our neighbour, and the universal imperative at the heart of Jesus’ so-called ‘golden rule’. The institutions built via a true Christian option that follows the so-called golden rule, and the command to love our neighbour, will be equally good and available to everyone; public institutions for the common good; not simply private institutions for Christians.

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

One problem with The Benedict Option is that it ultimately fights fire with fire; the world is increasingly going to force Christians out, says Dreher, it will create institutions that do not make space for Christian belief to flourish — including public schools — it will be harder for Christians to maintain jobs in both the public and private sector… and his solution is to create our own exclusionary spaces; not totally exclusive, certainly, we’re still to provide hospitality in our monasteries to those who are curious, but we should keep our kids from the influence of non-Christian peers.

The irony seems lost on Dreher; that as the hostile institutions of our culture (public and private) take steps to keep people from the influence of Christians we would do the same in our own ‘mirror’ institutions and communities. The golden rule is not ‘treat others as they treat you’ but ‘as you would have them treat you’… note that Jesus says here that this ‘sums up the Law and the Prophets,’ so it shouldn’t surprise us when he returns to this theme a bit later in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus is asked what the greatest commandments are for his people; the ones that should organise life in his kingdom. My sense is that Dreher emphasises the first, without thinking about how the second flows both out of, and into the first.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22:36-40

Now, it’s fair to say that Dreher’s work gives us plenty of equipment for obeying the first commandment, cultivating a whole-hearted love for God (as opposed to for the world — another big theme in Matthew) and this is a pressing priority in a world where belief in the God of the Bible is contested (to use Charles Taylor’s terminology for our ‘secular age’), and where this contest is increasingly hostile (not just lost in our hearts being captured by alternative visions)… but the ‘as’ in ‘as yourself’ is important; it contains an echo of the ‘golden rule’ — if our solution is not the solution we’d like to see our neighbours practice to us, it’s not the answer for how we engage with them. He also attempts to address these two ‘love commands’:

“Though fear in the face of these turbulent times is understandable… the Benedict Option ultimately has to be a matter of love. The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ, and dwelling with our neighbours in love, it ceases to be Benedictine… it can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or saving the world.” — The Benedict Option, pg 237

The problem is perhaps best expressed in the question Jesus poses in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who is my neighbour? My fellow Christian? Certainly. But also the people on my street, in my city, and ultimately in the world beyond my national boundaries and the west. He explicitly cites these two commands here, It’s just the failure to mediate them through the golden rule that breaks part of his project; if our neighbours really did have the words of life in their secular agenda, would we not want them to do all they could to bring it to us? How would we have them love us? If we have the words of eternal life, how should we then love? This is where a centripetal model of being the church doesn’t cut it; and where we’re to be centrifugal; to go out; just as Jesus ‘went out’ to us.

One of the best things about The Benedict Option, and the Rules of St Benedict is that they are corporate in their orientation. One of my bugbears with the recapturing of liturgy and practice as tools for formation is that they almost always seem self-interested; like a sanctified masturbation (to borrow from Fight Club’s line about self-improvement); Christian love is love that overflows out of the self and is directed towards God and other. You might argue that a sort of personal love is vital for other love, but I think the practices we see promoted in the New Testament church are largely oriented towards the body of Christ, not just the self. The Benedict Option nails this; I think; in its rich communitarian vision, and this is perhaps a positive product of Dreher’s Orthodox orthodoxy (where protestants/evangelicals tend to be a little more individual in our outlook). But one of the problems with the Benedict Option is that it is not other-focused enough, because in many cases, neighbouring stops at the boundaries of the community (while including visitors to the community). It’s far more concerned about how the world might shape us than certain about how we might, through God’s sovereignty and the Spirit, shape others (and shape ourselves as we seek this).

It’s of course, also interesting, when it comes to the life of the church in a hostile world, that the way Jesus ultimately obeys both these commands is in the hands of the hostile empire, and with his own hands spiked to a bloodied timber execution device… arguably this is what we should expect as Christians operating in the world. 

At one point Dreher urges us to ‘rediscover the past’ (page 102) and he heads to Norcia where the modern Benedictines have re-founded a community based on the Rule of St Benedict at the fall of Rome; I suspect he should have looked further back than 1,500 years ago, to what it was that helped a crucified king overturn the very empire that had crucified him; ostensibly as a sign of its power, to crush his claims to the throne. Here’s what the Epistle To Diognetus puts forward as a summary of the Christian strategy in a pre-Christian world; the first half of this quote emphasises the difference in Christian community and practice (and the tension of being in, but not of, the world), while the second half suggests this practice is ‘other-oriented’:

But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Dreher rightly emphasises that our practices should draw people to us, but what the book lacks is a confidence that these same practices should also unleash us confidently upon the world, from the safety of such a community. He suggests beauty will be part of our witness, but it’s the ‘beauty’ within the metaphorical monastery, and our alternative communities; rather than the sort of faithful presence that James Davison Hunter champions.

“In an era in which logical reason is doubted and even dismissed, and the heart’s desire is glorified by popular culture, the most effective way to evangelise is by helping people experience beauty and goodness. From that starting point we help them grasp the truth that all goodness and beauty emanate from the eternal God, who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. For Christians, this might mean witnessing to others through music, theater, or some other form of art. Mostly, though, it will mean showing love to others through building and sustaining genuine friendships and through the example of service to the poor, the weak, and the hungry.” — The Benedict Option, p 119

There’s lots to love about this quote; you’ve just got to hold it in tension with his call to move to rural areas apart from hostile civilisation that will counter-form us if we stay… I’m all for Christianity being a creative force from the margins; but I think out ‘marginalisation’ is felt more when it’s buttressed against the ‘centre’ than when it is removed from sight from those we are seeking to reach (or when we are removed from the reach of the ‘centre’ ourselves).

Dreher is also worth heeding inasmuch as he recognises that our job as the church now is not to win the culture war; but we need more, it’s not enough to simply become a ‘counter-community’ that centripetally draws people in. God is a sending God; we’re sent into the world as Jesus was sent into the world, commissioned to ‘go to the ends of the earth’ with the promise that God is with us… this isn’t a calling to go out and set up centripetal communities — new Israels — but to be a beautiful, alternative community, that goes into the world confidently modelling the beauty of our community and our trust in God even as it crucifies us. To be the sort of faithful witnesses envisaged in Revelation, a set of instructions for life as exiles in a hostile world; in Babylon… in Rome.

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

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

Perhaps rather than a plurality of ‘Benedictine communities’ across different orthodoxies (including Dreher’s suggestion that muslims and jews might adopt the same strategy) a better solution in the ‘secular age’ of ‘liquid modernity’ that is hostile to non-consensus views is to model how we wish to be treated; perhaps a confident pluralism is more in line with the golden rule and our hope; not confident that we will win our place in the world, but that the ‘categorical imperative’ of doing unto others as we would have them do (and as Jesus categorically did as a ‘categorical indicative’) is actually the right thing to do, and the right way for us to be formed, because we are confident that Jesus is victorious. Here’s how writer John Inazu (who wrote a short response to The Benedict Option) describes his strategy for life in the post-Christian world; in his book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference:

“The goal of confident pluralism is not to settle which views are right and which views are wrong. Rather, it proposes that the future of our democratic experiment requires finding a way to be steadfast in our personal convictions, while also making room for the cacophony that may ensue when others disagree with us. Confident pluralism allows us to function—and even to flourish—despite the divisions arising out of our deeply held beliefs… Confident pluralism explores how we might live together in our deep and sometimes painful differences. We should not underestimate the significance of those differences. We lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, and the meaning of human flourishing.”

The way to operate well in this world, following the golden rule, while also cultivating the sort of thick communities that help us love God and offer others the sort of love that we have had him offer us, as his co-missioned church, might not be to shut ourselves off from those who disagree with us, but rather to make space for them to speak, confident that when we also speak, our story is better, our community richer, and our practices more compelling to those whom God calls. Confident that the prayer of Jesus will be answered in us as we are sent into the world by Jesus to love like Jesus.

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” — Jesus, John 17:15-19

The Light Beer Apocalypse: 9 things a viral video reveals about the world

This week a Christian organisation, The Bible Society, hosted a civil conversation featuring political disagreement between two members of the political party who, at least in the short term, will be the people who determine the future of marriage in Australia. It featured some cross promotion with Aussie beer company, Coopers, who were going to release some special edition beers in support of the Bible Society’s 200 year anniversary. And the world exploded. Coopers backflipped on the deal. It’s a real brewhaha (sic).

Disclosure: I write for the Bible Society’s Eternity Newspaper. They’ve paid me for some stuff. I like them. I like the video (though I think it has some issues). I know the host, and like him. I think public civility is really important. 

You’d be forgiven, reading the response pieces around the Christian blogosphere (and the outraged responses in comments sections and the Coopers Brewery Facebook page) for thinking that the world as we know it is ending (or has ended), and that we find ourselves in some sort of (un)brave new world. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but I do think this episode is truly apocalyptic.

apocalypse (n.)
late 14c., “revelation, disclosure,” from Church Latin apocalypsis “revelation,” from Greek apokalyptein “uncover, disclose, reveal”

An apocalyptic text doesn’t really describe the ‘end of the world’ (not primarily), it reveals the world as it truly is. And that’s what has happened this week; the discussion around this video has been revealing both when it comes to the church, as we speak about issues our world disagrees with (and about our expectations about speech), and about our part of the world and its religiosity. Because what’s going on is really a clash between religious views of the world. A clash between the religious, the irreligious, and those who are fundamentally religious without realising it.

The religion of a section of the Australian left treats heretics with the same sort of sympathy that the church has, historically (when the church has been closely linked to the state and able to punish with the full force of the law); which is to say it seeks their utter destruction. Just ask Coopers (or read the one star reviews on their Facebook page, and see the pubs that are moving to quickly distance themselves from the company). And the thing about these moments of revelation is that they’re actually ‘apocalyptic’ in a true sense; they pull the curtain back and reveal the world as it really is, and give us a sense of the future as it could be. Stephen McAlpine’s posts on this story are worth a look (yesterday’s, and today’s), and ultimately his conclusions from the wash-up today look a bit like mine. Only I’m more hopefully optimistic about things than he is.

The conversation itself featured two politicians — a gay agnostic, and a Christian conservative. These white blokes trotted out well worn arguments for and against a change to the definition of  marriage in Australia over a light beer in a product crossover that has copped some flack. What was remarkable was that they were attempting to model civil debate, that they listened and disagreed respectfully. What is even more remarkable is what the fallout reveals about the end of the world as we know it. Twitter went nuts. Coopers was flooded with one star reviews on its Facebook page, accusations of homophobia (for a video they didn’t make, that featured a gay man who will potentially be the most effective advocate for marriage equality if the Lib/Nats move towards a free vote), and boycotts from individuals and pubs. Coopers released three statements; one in favour of dialogue on the issue, one distancing themselves from the video, and a third and final statement capitulating and signing up as paid up members of the marriage equality movement. They’re also pulling the release of the Bible verse beers… the Bible Society has been criticised for featuring two liberal MPs, but this criticism seems to miss the point that only Liberal MPs think this issue is possible to discuss anymore…

Personally, I’m tired of the idea that marriage is a zero sum game; that we (as Christians or conservatives) can only conceive of an approach to marriage that is a binary ‘no gay marriage’ or ‘gay marriage’ — this is where most of the anger seems to be levelled at us. Why we can’t do pluralism well and figure out ways to acknowledge the religious import of traditional marriage for some Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc, and protect that for both institutions and individuals within the community, while also acknowledging the religious import of changing the marriage definition for those who do not worship a god at all, but individual freedom, is beyond me. That’s my disappointment with the ‘debate,’ and why my position is closer to Wilson’s than Hastie’s.

Here are some things I think this episode reveals about the church and the world.

1. Our failure to practice listening as Christians means later attempts at ‘civil conversation’ fall on deaf ears

In terms of revelation, this reveals a certain degree of ‘out-of-touchness’ when it comes to Christians in Australia and our sense of just how distant our assumptions are from some people around us. That this video seems quite reasonable and good to us but to others is the stench of death (and the sort of thing that certain people believe should lead to the death of Coopers). If people are shocked by the vicious outrage in response to the video it probably represents how far removed some people advocating for traditional marriage are from the lived reality of those arguing for it.

There has been a tendency in some corners of the church — some that I move in — to suggest that we do not need to listen to, or understand, those asking for same sex marriage. Our job, we’re told, is simply to speak ‘God’s truth to the world’ not to listen to sinners or understand what they want; I can point to specific examples of this in the Presbyterian Church of Australia, and I’d say a new Sydney Anglican website on same sex marriage also does this when it employs slippery slope arguments and just generally fails to listen to what people on the other side are actually asking for and why, while ‘speaking faithfully’. The Bible Society is doing something different and commendable in this video, but it can’t escape the baggage of the Christian brand at this point.

It is possible that if the church continues apparently not listening our own speech will be treated the same way by those who disagree with us (and I think that’s happening), so it was nice to have this circuit breaker that said “hey, we’re not afraid to listen to a guy who disagrees with Christians, or even to give him a platform and share his thoughts with Christians all over the country”…

Our engagement in this debate as the church has involved a failure to listen, and so our arguments always feel like non-sequiturs, or nonsense, to the ears of people who have totally different understandings of what it means to be human. From where I stand, there has not typically been much sympathy for the desires of same sex marriage supporters or their view of the world; we’ve tended to impugn the motives of those asking for it, to see a bunch of other potential changes being ‘freighted in’, to be fearful of our own place in society, and there hasn’t been a real attempt, by Christians, to grapple with how our moral vision fits in a pluralist, secular, society where many of our neighbours don’t believe in God so reject the natural law arguments we serve up (Hastie offers a conservative, natural law, argument for maintaining the traditional definition of marriage).

This means it feels like we’re not interested in listening to, or understanding our neighbours, which means it seems disingenuous for us Christians to be making the case for civil discussions of the issue now. The great irony here is that we have a Christian organisation also giving a platform to a conservative case for same sex marriage from someone who is on the record as being sympathetic for a range of religious freedom concerns. If I was a non-Christian I’d be celebrating that a Christian organisation is providing a platform for that sort of view, and a conservative Christian politician is modelling actually listening.

2. The church needs to figure out how to operate in a pluralistic world… and fast

This video from the Bible Society was a nice example of a step towards pluralism. It doesn’t actually pick a side in the marriage debate, despite what those who’ve already settled on changing the definition of marriage might tell you. If we can’t figure out how to operate in a pluralist, secular, democracy then we can expect much more of the sort of treatment Coopers got from this video. And it’s not so much Hastie’s position (though he’s a Christian) that reveals the problem here, it’s a thoroughly consistent conservative position; it’s the ongoing sense that the future of the church’s witness, or our position in society, depends in some way on how this debate goes; it’s that the video presents the options on marriage as a binary choice between legislating same sex marriage, or maintaining the conservative position. This binary lacks imagination and backs us into a corner; if we can’t advocate a generous and pluralist solution to those opposite, then we can’t very well turn around and ask them for a pluralist solution (religious freedom) if/when they win. When it comes to same sex marriage it doesn’t have to be a choice between Wilson and Hastie.

Every belief about marriage is a position derived from a type of ‘religious’ conviction (a ‘theological anthropology’ even). A belief that there is no God brings with it a certain account of who we are, and opens up a range of potential visions of ‘the good human life’ — our ‘religious beliefs’ shape our understanding of what is and isn’t good for people. For the theist, the ‘good’ is the personification of the nature of God, for the non-theist the thing that acts as ‘god’ (a sort of organising force in the world) is the deification of the ‘good’ (in the case for same sex marriage the ‘divine good’ looks like love and individual freedom). We’re not good — many of us (Tim Wilson is an exception) — at accommodating different gods, or visions of ‘the good life’ in a shared political framework.

3. We need to be slow to overreach in our reaction to the reaction, because the outrage cycle is built on perpetual overreach

It’d be a shame to over-reach though, in terms of what the reaction to this video represents for us as the church. We’d need to do a good and careful job at parsing out exactly what people are angry at, and why, and whether they’re angry at Christians speaking at all, or angry because of the way Christians have spoken out on this… and we need to ask ourselves some pretty bracing questions if it’s the latter (and I think it could be, in part because as a Christian looking at how we speak about marriage, I think we’ve often got this wrong).

The thing about the outrage cycle is that it often involves a tit-for-tat ‘hot take’ driven over-reach, and there’s not always enough time given to that careful analysis of what is happening and why (this tends to be diminished the more somebody has been developing a systemised approach to understanding something more broadly, when it’s possibly a response to ‘data’ rather than anecdote).

We might be tempted to describe this as the death of free speech in Australia. It could be. Free speech is definitely under attack from a certain section of the Australian community; and the attackers do have some politicial clout. I’ll suggest below that Christians shouldn’t be into free speech, but costly speech, anyway… but I think it’s a mistake to think that the chattering class (who can be found writing opinion pieces, blogs, and comments below the fold on these pieces) represent the whole Australian landscape. It certainly doesn’t seem to value Tim Wilson or see his perspective as one shared by those outside a particular intellectual circle.  I spoke to someone yesterday who had reached out to Tim Wilson to see how he was coping with the fallout, and he’d remarked that the outrage simply proved his point. Not everybody in this world, outside the church, finds outrage appealing (just as not everyone in the church wants to join in the outrage but from the opposite end).

It’s possible that the hardcore, reactionary left is massively over-reaching in its response to this video (and Coopers is over-reacting, and responding far too quickly in response to this over-reach). I’ve written lots about marriage and same sex marriage, I haven’t hidden my Christian convictions, and yet I manage to have pretty robust and civil conversations with gay friends, my neighbours, my friends from the left, and friends from the right. The hard left gets a disproportionate and distorting influence on certain issues (including marriage) in the Labor Party, just as the hard right gets a disproportionate influence on certain issues (including marriage) in the Liberal Party.

I do think our problems, as the church, are more about a failure to listen, a failure to do pluralism, and some problems when it comes to what we say when we speak… I don’t know many people in the real world who planned to change their beer buying habits as a result of this campaign; I don’t know many people who have the sort of spare time that allows them to fill up the comments sections on different websites, or write one star reviews. We need to be careful not to over-react, in fear, to a noisy minority (while being careful in how we engage) because that actually serves to amplify the voice and impact of the over-reachers.

4. The new religion of the secular left learned how to treat heretics from the best… the church

In the 14th century there was a guy, John Wycliffe, who dared to translate the Bible into the language of the people. The church felt like its power was threatened by this dissenter. Sadly he died before they could kill him. So the church dug up his body and burned him. In the 16th century there was a guy named Servetus; his teaching was heretical and considered dangerous. Calvin reluctantly worked with the government of Geneva to have him executed. When religion co-opts political power, bad things happen to ‘heretics’… the state religion destroys them. The state hasn’t destroyed Coopers in this case (and the future of Coopers remains to be seen), but the treatment of the company, and its business, at the hands of their critics looked a lot like a witch hunt, a lynching, or a heresy purge. It remains to be seen whether Coopers’ repentance and contrition will save them — it would’ve saved a Christian in Rome, if they’d just chosen to bend the knee to Caesar… but it feels like the online outrage machine is less forgiving than Rome, and it’s certainly less inclined to forgive than Calvin was with Servetus. There isn’t much space for grace in the ‘gospel’ of the hard left. Just shame and destruction. The more we point that out not just by decrying it, but by modelling a compelling alternative, the better…

5. We need to tighten up our speaking; sometimes we can try to be too clever and homophonia gets us in trouble

The Bible Society has, for some time, had the slogan ‘live light’ as part of its brand. But its playfulness and lack of clarity about what ‘light’ is, has bitten pretty hard this week.

In its mission statement is says:

“Early in the life of Australia, passionate community leaders like Lady Macquarie created the Bible Society. They knew it wasn’t just government that could build a nation. It would need people of hope, people who live light.”

Indeed, its logo prior to this bicentenary celebration was this…


It’s not (though the tone of the video might suggest otherwise) really about treating the issue lightly (as though they don’t matter or should be laughed off); the two people conversing are very serious stakeholders in this debate mounting serious arguments for their position. It’s about bringing ‘light’ not darkness.

The bit of the verse featured on the Coopers carton in the picture above (a ‘light beer’) says:

“Whoever lives by truth comes into the light”…

That’s, of course, not the full story. It leaves ‘light’ a bit ambiguous. The verse that is, in part, featured on the Coopers cartons that support the campaign is John 3:21:

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.

This is about light as opposed to darkness; not light as opposed to ‘heavy’ (as in beer), or light as opposed to serious (as in discussion)

The context of this verse is:

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. — John 3:19-20

This verse is ultimately about Jesus. Coming to Jesus. Jesus is the light. He’s not darkness or watery beer.

Bible verses don’t work so well if we pull them apart and lift them from their context. And it’s especially dangerous to take a word like ‘light’ and be flexible with the definition for the sake of a clever campaign. Biblically, in the Greek, light in weight is ἐλαφρός while light as opposed to darkness is φῶς. It’s not a great bit of word play to let the definitions creep into each other. It’s confusing.

That the public conversation is now about how wrong it is for the Bible Society to treat such a significant conversation lightly shows that we have a real problem, in our culture, with homophonia. When words sound the same, we take the least charitable possible understanding in a way that serves our own purposes. But it doesn’t help when the people speaking are obscuring the charitable understanding they should be promoting… Sometimes we try to be too clever with slogans — so when we have ‘a light discussion about heavy issues’ in connection with a Bible verse about Jesus, that can catch us out. Mixing metaphors gets us into all sorts of trouble, and this campaign mixing a Bible verse, light beer, and a light hearted conversation is a bit confusing for all of us.

6. The Bible has useful principles when it comes to public civility; but its point is usually about something much more important than that

The video is meant to promote the idea that following the Bible’s advice when it comes to disagreement produces better outcomes (I think it does). It’s part of the Bible Society’s campaign to show how the Bible brings light to the world. What the video was meant to demonstrate, or reveal, is that it is possible that living in the light of the Bible, and its wisdom, produces better, more civil, conversations in public about significant issues. The way Wilson and Hastie attempted to model advice from the book of James does seem to demonstrate a virtuous type of public civility that I desperately crave in and for our nation. It’s not that the Bible alone produces this civility, Wilson isn’t a Christian, but the Bible does, or should, produce people who do this. The fuller context of James 1 says:

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

Now. I’m sure that being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry is good advice for civil conversation. But really… that’s not what James has in view — he’s writing to Christians (brothers and sisters) and the way we’re meant to approach speaking is connected to the ‘righteousness God desires’ and is meant to be about a connection between words and actions. There’s a lot more behind this verse than just a guide to civil conversation, and we’re not actually helping people see the value of the Bible by limiting its impact to ‘wise advice for everyone’… When Jesus talks about the Bible he says stuff like:

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me…” — John 5:39

It’d be interesting to consider how this shapes how we should speak about same sex marriage, or what our position we should be advocating with great civility.

7. Talk is cheap, but public speech should be costly not free.

As Christians we signed up to the idea that speech should be costly when we signed up to follow the crucified ‘word of God’… Jesus. I don’t think ‘free speech’ in a political sense is dead; words have always had consequences because speakers have always been challenged to back up words with actions (cost), because without that you’re a blowhard or a hypocrite.

The problem with the virtual outrage machine is that clicktivism costs nothing. People are free to jump on to a business’s page and destroy its reputation without ever changing their actions. This is what some now call ‘virtue signalling’ — for talking about virtue to be real not just a signalling exercise, it has to be backed up with action.

Ethical speech should not be free for Christians. It should be costly. Political speech should also be costly (I fleshed this out a bit more in a thing about how to write to your MP). Words for Christians need to be underpinned by action. We’re meant to do what the word says (to quote James). Speech should at least cost us ‘having listened’… but it must cost us more than that. If we want our speech to have integrity we need an ethos that supports our logos. 

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

8. We should live light in response to this apocalypse (and this doesn’t mean light beer or pulling our punches)

 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him — John 1:4-5, 9-10

The last few days has revealed much about the church, and much about our ability to have meaningful conversations in Australia. It has revealed the gap between what we think and believe about humanity and the world, and what the ‘world’ thinks about humanity. People outside the church have taken offence at a Christian organisation appearing to support a conservative political position because it lines up with Christian moral convictions. They’ve called even talking about traditional Christian views offensive, oppressive, and hateful.

It seems the deck is stacked against us; especially if this is some sort of majority position. If this is the case, we may as well be bold and be offensive for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. If people are going to be offended and mock us whether we make conservative political arguments from natural law, or for approaching the secular political realm as people who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus (and that this should shape our own politics and how we think of sex and marriage within our own communities, and in terms of God’s design for human flourishing), then why don’t we bring the real light?

“You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” — Matthew 10:22

Jesus says that’s what’s going to happen to us because of his name… and this isn’t some shibboleth test, but I’m not sure the name of Jesus got a mention in this little video. It might just be worth our while to be hated for living light — promoting Jesus in word and deed — rather than being seen to be pushing some sort of conservative political agenda according to the secular rules, or even to be seen to be advocating for the very good thing of public civility (as nice as that would be to see from my perspective as a citizen in the Australian public).

Here’s how this worked for Paul…

Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God. — 2 Corinthians 2:12-17

If we’re inevitably going to be offensive, let’s be offensive for good reason (and we might just be the aroma of life for some people) rather than carrying the stench of stale light beer.

9. We need less ‘hot takes’ and more cold ones

Hot take (n.)

“a piece of commentary, typically produced quickly in response to a recent event, whose primary purpose is to attract attention.”

Cold one (n.)

“a cold beverage, usually a beer”

I’m reluctant to add this post as another piece of chatter on this issue from the chattering class. Another hot take in a sea of outrage. Another rhetorical ship passing other ships in the night. I’d rather be a lighthouse than a ship.

I’d much rather have a beer with my gay friends and neighbours and really listen to them so that together we might imagine better ways forward than either binary solutions, outrage, or totalitarian solutions that aim to silence those who disagree with us. My shout (let me practice costly speech). It probably won’t be a Coopers this week (I confess, I’ve never drunk a Coopers), and it certainly won’t be a light beer, because I don’t want to mix metaphors, nor do I want to drink light beer.

But this sort of conversation should shed light on life lived together in the world, and on where my hope for my neighbours and our society is really found. The one who didn’t just ‘bring light’ to conversations, but who is the light of the world.

I don’t think civil public discourse is served all that well by fast, attention grabbing responses and conversation by hashtag. I hate boycotts — whether it’s Christians boycotting Halal certified food, or LGBTIQA allies boycotting Coopers. Boycotts are self-serving and self-seeking; they are the worst form of virtue signalling. Imagine how much more effective and persuasive it might be to write to Coopers and say “I don’t like that you’ve done this but I’m going to keep drinking your beer because I value you, it, and your workers”… We Christians don’t change hearts and minds through hostility (even if Coopers has backflipped), but hospitality, love, listening, understanding, and then carefully speaking the Gospel as it relates to an issue.

What saddens me is that as much as this has been a useful revelation about the state of public discourse in Australia, almost all of my Christian friends (myself included) have spent the last three days talking about beer, same sex marriage and civility, when we could’ve been talking about Jesus. Let’s aim our ‘living light’ or ‘keeping it light’ at that goal, even if apocalyptic moments like this one keep revealing that the world can be a pretty dark place.

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. — 2 Corinthians 4:1-6

Why (with all due respect) adopting the rules of the ‘secular’ political game and pretending Jesus doesn’t profoundly matter to us is a dumb idea for Christians and we should stop

“I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to [talk about the Bible in parliament] today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.” — Australian Presbyterian, Autumn 2017, ‘Political Christians’

Legend has it that the game of Rugby emerged in the middle of a game of football (soccer) when a player from the Rugby School, William Webb Ellis, decided he was bored with the traditional rules of the game, so he took things into his own hands (literally), picking up the ball and running with it. He changed the rules; and started something new. Without his act of rebellion and imagination we wouldn’t have Rugby League (cause let’s face it, Rugby was an evolutionary step towards something less boring).

Sometimes it feels like our approach to politics in our secular liberal democracy is us refusing to change the game; and that’s our loss (and the world’s); because just like Webb-Ellis’ actions would create something new, our changing how we play ‘political football’ and not playing by the ‘rules’ could actually create something better than the political status quo, and especially our culture’s toxic definition of ‘secular’…

Australia is a beautifully secular country. We don’t have a state sanctioned religion; which gives implicit freedom to everyone those who believe in fairy tales, and those who don’t, to practice those beliefs alongside one another. We’re not just a secular country, we’re a pluralist country, a multi-faith, multi-cultural, country, and a liberal democracy where different communities and cultures live in relative harmony with each other, and share hospitality with each other across suburban fences and in our many restaurants. We do expect the government to step in when a religious practice threatens the safety or freedom of another, but this plurality is part of the beauty of Aussie life.

Our politicians are faced with the task of managing certain aspects of this shared life; they’re not, and can’t be, responsible for how we speak to one another over the back fence, in these local restaurants, at the supermarket, or be responsible for arbitrating how different religious groups dialogue about their differences, but they do have a role to play in listening to the voices of a diverse constituency and doing their best to represent and accommodate a wide range of views.

This is what true secularism is all about; unfortunately the label has lost some of its meaning in a process Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes in the introduction of A Secular Age. Taylor says we’ve, in the modern west, collapsed the way we see the world. He describes how things have moved so that where once everyone believed in the ‘supernatural’ or ‘transcendent’ reality and that this reality overlapped with the natural, we now believe in the natural alone (or he says we want to believe in the natural alone, but have this nagging, haunted, sense that there might be more). This belief shapes how we understand and use the word ‘secular’, which it shapes the sort of data, or argument, people of our age will accept. He identifies three different understandings of ‘secular’ at play in our age:

  1. Our ‘common institutions and practices’ are separate from religion; where in the past ‘in pre-modern societies’ the ‘political organisation’ was underpinned by the idea of God, you can now “engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”
  2. People now no longer believe in God so we should ’empty our public spaces’ of God, or any reference to ultimate reality, and should instead make decisions on ‘rationality’ as defined in different spheres (economic gain in the economy, ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ in politics).
  3. The conditions of belief have changed so that the assumption that God is real, or that anything super-natural is real is now contested.

It’d be a real shame if in order to protect the goodness of definition 1 (that allows people from a variety of beliefs to ‘fully engage’ in shared life) we, the church, adopted practices that reinforced definitions 2 and 3… It’d be a shame if we assumed that the way to protect people who don’t agree with us is to agree with their understanding of how the public should be shaped (such that only ‘the rational’ or ‘the natural’ is important).

I think there’s a real risk that our practices will do exactly this if we assume the premises of the second definition and let those rules set the parameters for how we engage in public spaces as Christians. This belief (definition 2) sets the ‘rules of the game’ when it comes to our politics. Or at least it seems many Christians engaged with the political realm believe that it does — and this isn’t limited to the Australian Christian Lobby (though this has been my very longstanding criticism of them; as an aside, I quizzed Lyle Shelton on some of this recently and his answers were quite similar to a thing I’ll quote below from the Australian Presbyterian).

There are lots of voices in our political process who believe this is the field that the game of politics in secular Australia should be played on; that this is the ‘common ground’ that people from all these cultures and communities can get together on. But it’s not. It’s a profoundly different account of the world — even of mundane created things in the world — to the view of the world held by Christians, and shared by many other religious communities.

Christians don’t believe the world looks like this.

Christians don’t believe the natural is all there is, or that it is the exhaustive source of true knowledge about how to live (or even the best source).

Christians believe in the supernatural.

Christians believe that the whole universe is created by God to reveal things about him; and that he’s not some being within the universe, but rather ‘in him we live, and breathe, and have our being,’ and that he made people to seek him.

Christians believe real love and the real flourishing life are found in his love for us and his purposes; not just for us, but for the universe and things in it.

Christians believe, for example, that the significance of something like marriage is caught up in it being created by God to do something magical (unite male and female as one flesh, with the possible fruit of new life (children)) and point to something supernatural and significant (the relational, Triune nature of God, and the relationship between Jesus and the church). 

If all we do is make natural arguments that play by the secularist rules we think are established, we’re not being truly secular and we’re not giving lawmakers any reason to make laws that accommodate our views when they’re hearing compelling arguments that don’t play by those rules but are caught up in questions about what love is, and what the good human life looks like (and these are ultimately religious questions). If we argue that marriage is fundamentally a natural law thing, that is about being a building block of society where children are raised by their biological parents and that is good for them, then we don’t just run the risk of those arguments falling on deaf ears (as they appear to be), we actually only tell less than half the story when it comes to why we, as Christians, believe what we believe about marriage.

There are some Christians who seem prepared to try to play the political game according to the rules set down by the secularists (and let’s use this as the label for people who hold to definition 2 above, as opposed to people who want to create reasonably good rules for how we might do life together with people from different religious or cultural groups). These are the people who don’t believe God should have a place in public life (but ironically those who sometimes seem to want God to have a say in everyone’s lives through an argument from natural law, it’s a weird ‘all or nothing’ approach).

When we play the rules this way — assuming the secularist view of the world and so arguing from nature and using reason so excluding the supernatural and therefore the Gospel — we do politics in a way that is largely indistinguishable from the way our non-Christian neighbours do politics, we actually serve to reinforce the secularist assumption about the relationship between faith and politics, and we approach politics as Christians in a way that legitimises the question ‘should Christians be speaking about politics’ or the related question ‘does politics distract from the proclamation of the Gospel’?

The Gospel of Jesus is fundamentally political. Gospel is a political word; it’s the announcement — the good news — of a victorious emperor’s enthronement or victory. Jesus is a king who announces a kingdom and calls people to join it. The Gospel should create good, and at times radically different and beautiful solutions to political issues because Jesus is lord over every sphere of life, and because there is actually no divide between the natural and supernatural; or the secular and sacred, even if in a liberal ‘secular’ democracy there is rightly a divide between church and state. That divide only truly works if the state knows the core business of the religious, and if the religious know the core business (and limitations) of the state. We don’t need the state to create radically different solutions to issues for us; in some ways it is better for us if they don’t, if we’re displaying a ‘counter-politics’ in our own solutions to issues, but a democracy does afford us the opportunity to have the Gospel on the table… so why would we choose to table something quite different? Just today I read this paragraph in the Australian Presbyterian, in an issue titled Politics? Yes! (emphasis mine):

Question: If Christians choose to be involved in public life how should [having God in the picture] affect their discourse?

Answer: I think it partly depends on context. There are some contexts where it is acceptable to talk about the Bible when you’re in parliament, if there is a common assumption that the Bible is a legitimate source of political wisdom. I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to do that today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.

I think this is profoundly bad advice (in the middle of a pretty interesting and compelling article). It rigs the deck against us, and not in a good ‘dying to self’ way where we refuse to play the ‘power’ game so caught up in how politics happens, but in the ‘undermining the truth that the Gospel’s power is displayed in weakness’ way; and in the ‘God’s power in the world is the Gospel’ way, and in the ‘any real change in people’s lives doesn’t happen via common sense but by the Spirit’ way.

People will laugh? Almost certainly (they did, for example, when Paul spoke to a bunch of politicians in Athens (Acts 17:32).

But why should politicians even consider why we find marriage so significant prior to mounting a natural law argument for it if we never tell people, and if the natural law argument is not compelling?

Why should they listen to us if we’re just playing their game, and playing it badly? And playing it in a way that actually undermines the things we believe about the world?

People will change their mind based on common sense and wisdom? Sometimes. Sure. Common sense and wisdom means we can all learn math, and how to write sentences, and a bunch of other stuff about the natural ordering of the world. The Australian Presbyterian article says some reasonable stuff about common grace and shared morality; it’s just… when Romans talks about the human mind and how idolatry corrupts it, it seems to be corrupted in a way that might make reasonable arguments less effective when it comes to areas of our life that are directly related to our idols (you know, like sex, sexual freedom, and the sense that a flourishing life comes apart from God) (Romans 1:21-32). Romans 1 seems to pit the ‘common grace’ idea built from our shared human nature still carrying the image of God, against the fruit of our rejection of God in favour of our own ‘images of god’ (idols), and God’s active judgment in response where he ‘gives us over’ to a wrong way of seeing the world that seems to be totally natural to us. It seems too, that the solution to this wrong way of seeing the world is God’s intervention and a ‘renewed mind’ that comes via the Spirit (Romans 8:5-11, Romans 12:2).

The miss-fire at the heart of idolatry in Romans 1 — replacing the creator with created things (Romans 1:25)  is the miss-fire at the heart of what Taylor describes in the Secular Age; it’s where we stop seeing reality as supernaturally given meaning by the transcendent God who made it, and start thinking only the ‘material world’ gives meaning. It’s where we stop believing God is necessary to explain the flourishing life in this world; that we can do that from nature using our own wisdom. That worked real well in Genesis 3. This miss-fire is one we repeat ourselves if we play the political game on secularist terms. We believe the world is part of how God makes his ‘invisible qualities’ visible; that it is not just ‘matter’ but the rules of our political system, as the secularists would have it, are that only matter matters.

Why would we play by their rules? Especially if they’re not actually the rules… No law says you can’t mention God in a submission to parliament that you make as the church; no law says politicians shouldn’t listen to religious people, or even act from religious convictions… our constitution protects definition one. Nothing enshrines secularist definition number 2 and so says law making is to be a totally rational exercise built on natural law arguments; that’s a choice. Our practices are leading to a particular sort of ‘secular’ outcome in terms of definition 3 where we’re going to make it harder and harder for people who don’t share our convictions to be convinced by us about their merit.

Why would we play by ‘rules’ that people have made specifically to neutralise an authentically Christian voice (or perhaps, rather, an inauthentic Christian voice, the voice that acts as a moral authority apart from the Gospel)?

To do that only reinforces our age’s wrong beliefs about the world, and it also enforces wrong beliefs about what we Christians are on about.

The answer to this question of how we participate in secular politics is not more nature; it’s not trying to play the game by these ‘rational’ rules; the answer is to promote a right, ‘enchanted,’ understanding of the natural world as the basis for making good decisions about life together.

It’s the Gospel. Even if people don’t buy it. Even if they laugh.

If ‘serving created things’ is the problem at the heart of idolatry and ‘secularism’, then why would we play by the rules of a game that says its those created things that determine truth and the common ground for good life together in our world? Isn’t it possible we achieve more for people by making the political case that we should see the world as it truly is (and as it has been seen for most of political history everywhere).

If the Gospel is what Paul says it is (the power of God that brings salvation — Romans 1:16), then why wouldn’t we include it in how we speak into a truly secular liberal democracy where all views are ideally held in tension.

If the Gospel is the thing that unlocks people’s ability to actually live rightly in the world, then why would we speak as though that is found anywhere else?

If the Gospel actually creates a compelling counter-politics to the politics of the world, and it is the way God makes himself known to us, and saves us, and creates his subversive kingdom, then why wouldn’t we take every opportunity afforded to us in political dialogues to make the case for its vision of love and human flourishing?

Why play by other people’s rules when it leads to us playing a totally different game?

Why settle for less? Why play a game that neutralises our home field advantage?

We can’t expect our law makers to make laws that accommodate our views if, at every turn, we speak into that process in a way that plays by rules of a totally different game to the one we play. And choosing to try to play a different game to the one we normally play doesn’t just take away our advantage by levelling the playing field, it makes us look like idiots and it destroys our ability to promote our ‘game’ as the one worth playing.

Why don’t we pick up the ball offered to us in a democracy that gives us the chance to speak (via submissions to enquiries, in conversations with our local members, and ministers, using whatever platforms we can find, including the floor of parliament) and speak the power of God? Why don’t we play our game on their field (because it’s actually God’s field, and our field, and letting them make the rules is odd)? Why don’t we pick up the ball and run with it until someone tackles us? While the crowd laughs and mocks? Which is presumably what happened to William Webb-Ellis. I bet he got pounded. But it seems to be worth it…

Australian Stories: On resting in and wrestling with the paradox of modern Australia on Australia Day as a Christian

Twice a year I get invited to speak to a bunch of American (and sometimes Canadian) university students on an exchange program about ‘what it means to be Australian’… I confess it’s not a question I’d thought much about until my friend who runs the program asked me onto this panel.

On Australian Stories

I’ve been more deliberate in thinking about this question since the first time around; it makes me look and sound smarter; so I’ve become more deliberate in how I approach Australia Day, and in how I understand the ‘Australian Story’ (or, rather, stories). I’ve decided that the answer to the question ‘what does it mean to be Australian?’ is often profoundly shaped by how you understand the ‘Australian Story’ (and how many stories you recognise). There are, I believe, four fundamental stories always intersecting in the Australian identity (and in many Australian family stories, and so in many individuals).

  1. The Indigenous story: a story of invasion, dispossession and perpetual systemic injustice perpetrated by those in power, and reflected in the surrounding culture.
  2. The ‘Establishment’ story: a story of the expansion of the British empire (including membership in the Commonwealth, a system of government, an established religion and ‘establishment’ high culture).
  3. The ‘Convict’ story: a story of getting one over the establishment from back home; who sent our people to paradise as a ‘punishment’ for very small misdemeanours, who were brutal when we arrived, but who eventually released us into a land of opportunity. There’s an amalgam of these two stories in the ‘settler story’ which is a story of deliberate migration for new opportunity.
  4. The ‘Migrant’ story: this story is a more recent version of the settler story; it’s of people who’ve arrived post-establishment, seeking opportunity and prosperity. This included the gold rushes, the waves of immigration from Europe (especially Italy and Ireland), and more recently immigration from Asia. There’s a subset of this story that includes both refugees and asylum seekers.

Before being confronted with this question for the purposes of this class, I’d almost assumed that to be Australian was pretty much to be like me… to really love the idea of multiculturalism (especially the food); to have almost no sense of my ‘European’ heritage, and to believe that most of my view of Australia had been developed in my formative years growing up in a country town on the east coast. I was definitely aware that there were ‘other’ Australian stories out there that were part of the tapestry of Aussie life; the community I grew up in had a relatively large indigenous population, living in a city meant I’d spent more time with first and second generation migrant families from various places (especially from within Asia), and living in North Queensland and promoting Ingham and Charters Towers as holiday destinations built on their Italian and gold rush histories meant I was aware of different historic influxes of migrants who’d arrived in Australia seeking opportunity.

Despite being someone who’s possibly a bit of a European mixed bag of ‘establishment English’ (on my mother’s side), and Irish settler (though probably not convict side), I think the story I most closely resonated with was that of the convict; sent off to ‘purgatory’ by the stuffy British establishment only to end up in paradise. There’s an anti-authoritarian streak in Aussie culture borne out of this story, and reinforced by the possibly inept expressions of rule from the ‘mother country’ particularly in the trenches when we’ve gone off to fight for the Commonwealth. I’d say this is the story my public school education reinforced for me. I’ve become increasingly aware, the more I pay attention online to what Sydney Anglicans (as a generalised tribe) seem to believe about the ‘establishment church’ and Australian history (including the narrative that Australia was a ‘Christian country’ at European settlement) that there are other ‘stories’ out there that people tell about what it means to be Australian (my bias is to the convict/settler narrative I tend not to take this claim seriously because pretty much as soon as convicts were freed from having to go to church, they stopped)… I suspect, though I don’t have first hand experience, that this ‘establishment’ narrative operates in ‘establishment’ schools (especially church and private schools that come from the ‘establishment’ set). This is a different story to the anti-establishment story I’d had in my head about what being Australian is, and it leads to all sorts of different places when it comes to life now.

Stories matter. They really really matter. Our identity doesn’t just come from our tribe, or our ‘preferences,’ or what we choose for ourselves as though our humanity is some sort of blank slate that we, as individuals, are the only people get to write on. Your slate is written on before you are born, and as you are raised… and the thing that most shapes what is written is the story you are born into, and brought up believing.

On ‘Australia Day’ as contested ground in these Australian stories

The story we tell ourself about what it means to be Australian matters (which is why the ‘history wars’ were a thing when it came to the curriculum for teaching Aussie history in schools).

It shapes our understanding of what both progressive and conservative political agendas look like, because it orients us in particular ways to government, the world, our ‘history’, and the ‘ideal’ Australian story (typically subjectively viewed from our own story). Both the ‘establishment’ and ‘convict’ stories start at roughly the same point — some time around the 26th of January in 1788, which has become ‘Australia Day’ — which is a shame given that Australian history starts much, much earlier. There’s another story. One I’ve become increasingly convicted that I should be listening to in order to understand being an Aussie.

One of the results of being confronted with my default ignorance about what it means to be Australian by having to explain it to some outsiders (American students) is a desire to pay attention to other Australian stories. This has shaped the way I’ve understood and approached Australia Day this year. My neighbours are, mostly (to give them plausible deniability), like me. Their stories are like mine. Australia Day on our street has been one of the best parties of the year and it represents all that is good about my story. Over the last few years we celebrated this story in our Australia Day street party. Last year, our church family held a BBQ on Australia Day to celebrate the migrant story; and particularly that our church community embraces those who’ve come to Australia as asylum seekers (in this we were deliberately modelling an alternative Australian story; a kind of subtle protest movement against an Australia Day that has, in parts, become an ugly sort of ‘patriotic’ celebration of a particularly exclusive Australian story. This year, we did both these things again, but because I decided to consciously seek out another story, the first Australian story, I also attended a service of lament and prayer organised by a local Indigenous Christian Leader, Aunty Jean Phillips.

There were amazing things about this service that I’ll get to below; but it was a profound telling of that first Australian story, and the modern day implications of that story being over-written by other ‘Australian’ stories. The more I am confronted with this first story the more I recognise what drives the marches, the tent embassies, and the other efforts indigenous people make to have their story told, and the injustices it contains heard, recognised, and dealt with. I learned, as I listened in this service, that I shouldn’t speak as though there’s just ‘one first Australian story’… there were, I’m told (because this is how we learn stories) 300 indigenous nations living on this grand island. There are lots of stories about what it means to be Australian that come from our first people; and there’s little doubt that when European settlers declared Australia terra nullius and then set about establishing a colony of the commonwealth, part of what happened was a reflection of a desire to bring many of these stories to an end. And yet they, like the people who own these stories, survive. They survive as a testimony that terra nullius was a lie; as a testimony of resilience, and as a reminder that part of the settlement story was very, very, ugly.

There are things I love about my own ‘Australian story’… things I want to celebrate on ‘Australia Day’ that come from British settlement (but things that don’t necessarily need to be celebrated on the 26th of January).

I love our lifestyle, the laconic approach to almost everything, our in-built egalitarianism that means people are quite happy to think of our leaders as ‘mates’ (which also underpins the good bits of our democracy), there’s a dark side to this, of course, which manifests itself in tall poppy syndrome.

I love the sort of innovation that drives Aussies, born out of a need to survive in the harsher parts of our terrain. I love that some of our innovation is geared towards making laziness (or relaxing) more possible. One of my favourite things about visiting my pa, on the Campbell side, who was a sort of rural entrepreneur in country New South Wales, was finding little ‘fixes’ he’d installed around his house and shed (like belts cut in half and nailed to walls to keep the gates open or shut), this was a man who had owned stakes in produce stores, a piggery, and would buy farm machinery to on sell at a profit. When I think of what it means to be Australian, he’s the first picture I get in my head. I love everything about ‘Australia’ the image of my pa conjures in my head; I’ve got this romanticised notion of who he was, no doubt, and my own sense of what it means to be Australian includes the beaches of the north coast of New South Wales, and cane farmers, cane fires, and fishermen who run trawlers.

Now I’m citified, I love that being Australian means the easy availability of cuisines from many different cultures, and that my kids will go to school alongside people from many nations who now call Australia home.

I think it’s totally legit to look for an opportunity to celebrate these things. I love that I can do that with my neighbours and friends who share many of these loves (or similar loves when it comes to their own histories) and hold them as common goods that Australians enjoy as a result of our shared stories.

As a Christian, I also love that the Gospel of Jesus made it to these shores with European settlers (but hate how this Gospel is associated, forever, with what some of these settlers did), including, for example, the devoutly Christian governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, who it is said believed “that the Protestant religion and British institutions were indispensable both for liberty and for a high material civilisation” (there’s a Christian leadership institute named after Macquarie and a secular university). He was almost certainly a Christian (I mean, I can’t say that anyone certainly is), but also, certainly, part of the ugly side of Australian settlement. Here’s an excerpt from his diary.

“I therefore, tho (sic), very unwillingly felt myself compelled, from a paramount sense of public duty, to come to the painful resolution of chastising these hostile tribes, and to inflict terrible and exemplary punishments upon…

I have this day ordered three separate military detachments to march into the interior and remote parts of the colony, for the purpose of punishing the hostile natives, by clearing the country of them entirely, and driving them across the mountains.

“In the event of the natives making the smallest show of resistance — or refusing to surrender when called upon so to do — the officers commanding the military parties have been authorised to fire on them to compel them to surrender; hanging up on trees the bodies of such natives as may be killed on such occasions, in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors.” — Orders from New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie, 1816.

Australia’s history is messy. Ugly. This is true, as far as I know, of every human nation. We’re not unique in this; nor are we really unique in wanting to live in blissful ignorance, or comfortable denial, or to not be held responsible for the ugliness of our nation’s past. That this is true of all nations.

That I, personally, wasn’t responsible for the way Europeans arrived in Australia, doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from European settlement (in a way that others have not), or from the stories we’re told, and that we tell, about what it means to be Australian. This benefit is part of what people talk about when they talk about privilege; that, and that the ‘establishment’ looks and talks like me and largely identifies with the same story. The white bloke who signed that order quoted above, Lachlan Macquarie, looked like me; spoke like me; could well be my ancestor; and it’s a sort of chronological snobbery to assume that I would’ve been able to avoid the evil he was part of perpetrating through these orders had I been in his shoes. It’s absolutely true that I wasn’t responsible for how the first Australians were treated by British migrants, but I am, in part, responsible for how they are treated today. It’s possible that in denying responsibility for our history, we also avoid taking on responsibility for our future. It’s absolutely true that many Aussies aren’t racists and hate the situation our first Australians find themselves in when it comes to health, imprisonment, education and life expectancy; but it’s individuals who build and renew systems.

This all brings me back to the 26th of January; which, since 1994, has been a federally recognised and public holiday, celebrated nationally: Australia Day.

But whose Australia is celebrated on this day?

In which stories is this a day for celebration?

In the establishment story it represents the expansion of empire and the arrival of a certain sort of civilisation, technology, and worldview (including the religion of the establishment, Christianity).

In the convict story it represents the start of us getting one over the bigwigs who sent us to a country of sun and surf from their rainy misery; a chance for us to embrace our anti-establishment, egalitarian, tendencies and our valuing of mateship (and beer). 

In the migrant story, perhaps it is this settlement that made Australia a desirable destination to seek opportunity, prosperity or a fresh start.

In my own ‘story’; there’s little to no chance I’d exist, let alone exist in somewhere as amazing as Australia, if it wasn’t for European settlement, on this basis it’s hard for me to think that that first Australia Day was entirely a bad thing. It’s also quite probable that some sort of ‘conquest’ or settlement of Australia was going to happen without the British; and it’s possible that settlement would have been as bad, or worse, than British settlement… possible… but what we know for sure is that British settlement included such poetic instructions as ‘hang their bodies on the most public tree possible to terrorise their friends and family’… and that’s a real part of our history that we must confront, and be confronted by. It’s a part of our history that in some real way began around the 26th of January with the planting of the Union Jack on the shores of Sydney.

What are we celebrating on the 26th of January?

There are definitely good things that exist in Australia now because of how history has unfolded; there are things that are particularly good when viewed in the context of particular ‘Australian’ stories. But in the first Australians’ stories; well, I can, when I read things like Macquarie’s orders, and listen to the stories of indigenous friends and leaders of different indigenous communities, recognise that the 26th of January, this day, is not a day for celebration, but lament and anger. And it’s in moments like this that I need to consider the limits of my own story (especially its subjectivity), and ‘check my privilege’…

There are, also, things I don’t love about modern Australia; an ugliness that comes from, what I think in part is unchecked or unrealised privilege, and that is related, ironically, to our ‘settlement stories’. It certainly also comes from us wanting to honour the Australia shaped by people like my pa; the way of life and common goods they’ve carved out in living out the ‘settlement’ stories (either convict or establishment).

For many people there’s a good and natural desire to conserve things our ancestors have lived for and that have been produced through the ‘Australian story’ that is a sum total of all the Australian stories… but I suspect our treatment of asylum seekers is the product of a particular sub-story about what it means to be Australian… and I’m not sure this story is the one that should be our dominant story. But our treatment of asylum seekers (increasingly if the One Nation narrative picks up steam) comes from the idea that Australia is our country, and that our borders and lifestyle should be maintained against foreigners who come by boat and threaten our way of life. I hate what this leads us to do to those seeking asylum among us; those who’ve fled war, or persecution, who we lock up and systematically dehumanise for our own safety and security. I hate that we don’t recognise the inconsistency at the heart of this treatment of boat arrivals (and love the way I’ve heard the indigenous community speak of a desire to welcome and resettle refugees; which compounds the irony). I hate that we don’t recognise that this same desire to conserve a way of life is not something those who launched our ‘stories’ offered to the first nations people.

I hear indigenous Australians call for a change of date and I recognise the pain behind that call… and ultimately I think it’s the call of the indigenous community — the wronged — that we should hear.

It is clear that the 26th of January is not a day for unmitigated celebration of modern Australian life; and that the championing of a single Australian story is unhelpful anyway. If there was public will to change the date then that might be a very good thing indeed.

But my own (perhaps privileged) inclination is to leave ‘Australia Day’ on a contested date in order to make us sit with the paradox that is life in Australia. There is so much to love. So much to embrace. So much to celebrate. But there is also so much to hate. So much to overcome. So much to lament. And it is possible that attempting to do both — to experience the ‘contest’ of many Australian stories internally and to have that shape our own ‘story’ might lead to a better and more compassionate Australia; to a better future.

I’ve seen a few other people (all white so far, and mostly from the ‘establishment’ story) make this suggestion, and I’m offering it very tentatively; and I’m offering it largely because as a Christian I believe that grappling with paradoxes, rather than seeking neat resolution, is where real wisdom and progress towards what is good comes from. As G.K Chesterton put it:

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

I’d like Australia to get over the difficulty of combining our contested stories by recognising that there is meaning, and warning, and opportunity in the midst of the conflict, not in victory/simplicity (the One Nation approach), or in elegant conflict-avoiding resolution (a date change). But, I recognise that I say this as someone who has the privilege of a story free from being a victim of the ‘fury’ of one of these stories, and that the elegant solution of changing the date is far better than most of the alternatives… I suspect keeping it would mean not just us white Aussies lamenting at the evil in our own story; but hearing the voices raised in protest of our first Australians; and it would only be of any value if we were really committed to listening to these voices and having them change our shared story in ways that bring meaningful, tangible, change to our future.

Whatever happens with the date, there’s a way that is better by far in terms of bringing real change. The way of Jesus.

How the Gospel story ‘contests’ this contest, and provides a better resolution (and how Aunty Jean models this)

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.’” — Acts 17:26-28

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…” — 1 Peter 2:10-11

There’s a tension at the heart of being a Christian when it comes to our national identity; we believe that God is sovereign and places us (as in gives us a place to live) as ‘storied creatures’ (who exist in time and space and do things, and inherit ‘stories’ from those who come before us), but we also believe that as Christians our story is profoundly changed from what it was before; in such a way that our first ‘belonging’; our first ‘story’ is not our family story, or national story, but the story of the mercy we receive through Jesus which makes us into a new family; a new kingdom (a kingdom of priests cf 1 Peter 2:8-10). We become ‘foreigners’ even in lands we call home; lands we’re born into, perhaps with thousands of years of family history.

This isn’t to say our place, and our stories, and our families, don’t matter; they still profoundly do. We’ve just got another story in the mix that trumps the default, self-interested, reactions that happen when human stories are contested like they are for us on January 26.

And this is why I loved Aunty Jean’s service of prayer and lament (which was not just Aunty Jean’s, but thoughtfully constructed by Brooke Prentis from Common Grace). Aunty Jean is passionate about her people; but passionately believes the best thing for them is not tied to the Australian story but to the Gospel story. She’s said this thing to me a few times, and said it in this service; the great hope for indigenous Australians is found in the cross of Jesus. And she means this. And she lives it. Lots of Aussies — indigenous and white — were protesting today, and I can understand this; Aunty Jean wants Christians to be praying; and what she models in this is a deep understanding of life as an ‘exile’; life as a foreigner in a country where her people have roots that are significantly deeper than mine; she lives as one who believes that forgiveness and embrace is the key to contested stories; not conflict and exclusion or exclusivity.

There’s a letter from the early church, the Epistle of Diognetus, which talks about what life as ‘exiles’ looks like. The writer (probably someone called Mathetes, says of Christians, that they don’t look profoundly different to the people of the surrounding culture; they don’t live in their own cities and speak their own language, they dress the same, eat the same, and mostly live the same in the ‘ordinary’ stuff… but somehow “they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” He says:

“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers… They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”

This epistle is a powerful sort of concept, and let me tell you, it’s powerful to witness. Because I see it in Aunty Jean. Aunty Jean who as a member of a people horribly oppressed responds in incredible love and compassion for her people, but extends that love to others, even to those who number with the oppressors. Aunty Jean who is a dynamo, who’ll embrace anyone who is prepared to journey with her towards a vision of reconciliation built on the mercy of God displayed in Jesus.

I’ve had the utter privilege of spending some time listening to Aunty Jean in the last few months, of hearing her vision for Australia, and for her people, of hearing her desire to raise up new indigenous leaders who are committed to the Gospel of Jesus, of wanting to see her people better embraced by the Australian church, and of wanting to see the church speak up with her in pursuit of justice where injustice exists. And I’ve caught a bit of this from her.

Our story is the story of a God who doesn’t just take ugly stories and make them new (which he does in us); he takes the ugliness of extreme human evil, and uses it for his good purposes. That’s what the story of the Cross is; the ugliness of the human heart on display, but the beauty of God’s reconciling love overpowering that evil (which is why I think there’s maybe some hope for Australia bringing our messed up stories together to make something beautiful). Our story is a story that calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus; the Jesus who calls us to love our enemies, and calls for the forgiveness of those jeering him as he’s crucified… which when you understand the whole point of the Cross — is actually a picture of what Jesus is offering all of us… and there’s no part of the lives, stories, and identities of those who follow Jesus where that call, and that example, does not reach. And wow. It’s powerful when you see that lived in the context of these conflicting Aussie stories surrounding Australia Day.

Our job is to take up the picture of the kingdom of Jesus we’re offered in his story, the Gospel, and in its ending, which is found in the last pages of the Bible, and to live lives oriented towards that. It’s a powerful picture and that’s part of what compels us to live as exiles. A picture of life where our old stories of pain, and suffering, and evil, are done away with and all things are made new. A story built on reconciliation with God, that leads to reconciliation across historic and present enmity, with others.

Aunty Jean is committed to a sort of peacemaking that comes from having the story of the Cross of Jesus as her first story. She, and Common Grace’s Brooke Prentis, definitely want us to hear the story of our first Australians, and to respond with love and compassion; but they don’t tell that story in a way that leads to guilt or in a way that amplifies the contest; they tell it in a way that helps us to see an alternative future. And they don’t just tell the story, they live it.

It’s the “privilege” of the victim in the utterly subversive way that the Gospel story is lived, to be the one who can magnify the truth of the Gospel by offering forgiveness (this isn’t a thing you get to force either… it’s just beautiful when you see it. And it’s the privilege of the “privileged” in the Gospel story, to be prepared to give up privilege for the sake of the other). When it comes to Australia’s history the ‘privilege’ line is pretty clearly not the Indigenous Australians whose ongoing survival seems miraculous,

This ‘Australia Day’, it was Aunty Jean (and those she leads by this example) who modelled a way forward towards a better Australia to me, and if it looked like her vision for Australia, it’d be a beautiful place worth celebrating on any and every day.

 

 

Join a party, for God’s sake: An interview with Hilary, a Christian who’s a member of the ALP

I wrote recently about why one might consider joining a political party for the sake of being a faithful Christian presence in the world; even if the party platform involves compromising your Christian beliefs (so as to work towards better outcomes by ‘getting your hands dirty’). At the bottom of that post I mentioned that I’d reached out to some friends who I know are members of the major parties. My friend Hilary is an ALP member, and here are some of her thoughts about how the Gospel works in the political realm.

Like I said in that post, there are good Christian rationales for being involved in either the conservative or progressive sides of the political divide (depending on your picture of progress, or what you’re trying to conserve), or the left and the right (perhaps depending on whether you see responsibility for the ordering of society resting in the hands of the individual or in structural/systemic change). I’m not wanting this to be partisan, and have also asked a couple of Liberal/National Party friends to respond to the same questions. Back when I was living in Townsville, I interviewed the then perennial Greens candidate in North Queensland, Jenny Stirling, who is a Christian, about her membership of the Greens (and if you’re reading this and you’re a member of the Greens I’d love to hear from you on these questions too).

Why did you sign up/ why are you still a member.

I first joined the ALP when I was about 18 because I was very interested in current affairs and politics (no aspirations for myself, I just wanted to be involved in what was happening in our country, talking with other people who were keen about it too and helping support candidates when elections rolled around).

I’m still a member for the same reasons, plus a few more.  I was pretty idealistic and black and white about things back in my late teens/early twenties days, and as many have found out, it turns out things are a lot more grey than would be convenient.  While I think I was originally very firmly of the opinion that ALP equals the right policy and everyone else is wrong, that’s not my position anymore.

I find some of the party’s practices (when in government) and policies (in and out of office) problematic but my decision to remain a member is based on my belief that there is no perfect party; as a member I have the opportunity to be involved in pushing for better policies from within (and so much of that goes on); and I still feel feel a sense of responsibility/obligation/calling to participate, rather than sit on the sidelines.  Having said that, I’m a pretty inactive party member these days and haven’t been to a branch meeting for a very long time.

 How do politics and faith mix for you?

Growing up in a family with Christian parents heavily involved in politics, this question has always seemed strange to me, because there’s never been a separation.  Both have always been part of my life and I absorbed an attitude seeing political activity as one means of serving others.

I can try to analyse how it fits together and how to explain it to others who haven’t had that particular upbringing, but it really is hard for me to separate.

The world is a broken place.  I truly believe that the Bible provides the context and the answer to this, and I know that Jesus is my only way to have a right relationship with God.  Jesus has called me to repent and believe, and I have done that.

Christians having accepted Jesus’ salvation still live in a broken world.  We’re told to be in the world but not of the world.  We do not live in a Christian nation, despite what some would say, and we should not be trying to make Australia (or anywhere) into Christendom, which didn’t work out that great anyway.

I honestly feel that my involvement in politics (at its varying levels over the years) is an (not the only) outworking of my faith.  The purpose of my involvement in politics is to seek justice, good governance, equality and peace for all members of our communities, whether I agree with them on their politics or not, and certainly whether or not they are Christians.

There are some policies of the ALP that I will not ever agree with.  There are many that I do.  The same could be said for a Christian who is a member of another political party. I freely accept that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ do not share the same political opinions as I do.  In fact, they might list the same things I have above and see the best way of achieving them as being involved in a different party.   I respect that.  Jesus comes first, and we’re united in God’s family.  Political beliefs comes second and I can agree to disagree with other Christians.

What opportunities are there for Christians to work towards the common good via faithful presence in these institutions (the parties) that are part of life in Australia?

There is limitless opportunity.

Christians have a responsibility (and I do not believe that we all really grapple with this to the extent that we should) to think beyond abortion and same sex marriage as issues that require their attention.  These are the go to topics raised when politics comes up.  I think we do a disservice to the gospel by limiting our opinions and action to these issues.  If you join or vote for a party that has policies you like about those two issues, great.  What about everything else?

Christians have an enormous amount to offer in terms of shaping all sorts of policies, because if your conscience is informed by your salvation in Christ, you will be seeking justice and mercy for the weak and the strong in every area of their lives.  Every area of political leadership is a moral issue.  Christians involved in politics have the opportunity to have a say on all the issues that affect people – health, education, social housing, the economy, everything else.  Those issues are worthy of our attention, and we neglect them badly.

If you are a Christian involved in a party, or actually involved in elected office, you will come up against things that are very difficult to reconcile with the gospel and part of being part of a political party means you may have to accept policies from time to time that do not match up with your personal beliefs.  Non-Christians in political parties deal with this too (think refugee policy).  Smart and passionate people play the long game – there’s work to be done within the party.

Having said that, there may be some issues that you can never reconcile, and that is difficult.  But I come back to the fact that we are not entitled to impose the principles of a Christian life on everyone else, we are not living in a “Christian nation”, and whether or not you succeed in getting the majority of your party to agree with you on a particular issue, that does not negate the greater contribution that can be made by those who love and serve Jesus in loving and serving others in the way they engage with politics, in seeking to love and serve the greater population.

Minimalism and the danger of replacing one idol with another

Robyn and I watched Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things on Netflix last night. And now I want to throw out all my stuff.

The doco follows the two guys behind The MinimalistsJoshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, on a speaking tour around the United States, interspersed with little interviews and vignettes with people who’ve adopted the minimalist philosophy including popular atheist philosopher/neuroscientist Sam Harris to Project 333 founder Courtney Carver, to a few Tiny House dwellers, to Colin Wright who lives his life from two bags while travelling the world, with plenty of other people thrown in the mix. It makes the compelling case that we need less stuff; that we should disengage from the modern default of pursuing happiness through consumption, because, in the words of Fight Club’s narrator; the things we own, end up owning us. It challenged me to think about my consumer habits as a Christian, and where they might reveal what I treasure, it gave me some fun ideas, but it also left me wanting more in terms of a solution to the problem it recognises in modern western life.

“We spend so much time on the hunt. But nothing ever quite does it for us. And we get so wrapped up in the hunt that it kind of makes us miserable.” — Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

It’s a bracing reminder of what our consumption does to us, to our brains, and to our world and of the perennial dissatisfaction that comes from life lived vicariously through our possessions.

“You have this thing that you were obsessed about, but then the new version comes out and now you no longer care about the one that you have. In fact, the one you have is a source of dissatisfaction.” — Sam Harris, in Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

The diagnosis of what is wrong with a consumption based approach to modern life is spot on. My favourite quote of all in the documentary, from a speech by former U.S President Jimmy Carter titled Crisis of Confidence, explains a little of my uneasy relationship with Minimalism (even as I plot a widescale decluttering of my life, and a continued changing of my consumption habits).

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Carter’s diagnosis — which Minimalism endorses — is on the money. Modern consumerism isn’t just a behaviour; it’s about our identity. It’s about worship. From the Bible’s insight into our humanity it’s about how we feel the void left by our departure from God. It’s idolatry.

I thought Minimalism was spot on both in its diagnosis of what’s happening in our hearts, and thus in our culture, and of the damage our consumption does to us, the planet, and to others. Sadly, I’m not totally sold on the solution they (and those the people they featured) offer. Their solution was about a change in identity, a change in lifestyle, a change in consumption, and ultimately a change in worship. And while the gods they chose to replace ‘stuff with’ might make them better people to know and love, and give them more satisfaction, they’re still ‘idols’… it’s still ‘stuff’ just less of it, or less tangible stuff in the form of relationships and experience. The solutions offered in Minimalism still involved essentially defined by ‘stuff’ — sometimes just by its absence (whether in a tiny house or via meditation/stillness). The various minimalists spoke of pursuing something like asceticism, or simply a more self-controlled (no less self-indulgent) approach to consumption. I felt like most of the ways the minimalist alternative to maximalist-consumption driven living were built on an approach to life that is still built around being a consumer; but consuming more carefully by pursuing things of value. There’s a sense to that the idea that we should focus our ‘ownership’ on things that we love, that do give us pleasure, that this is actually just consumption with a modified philosophical aesthetic. I look at the sparsely furnished rooms and carefully curated piles of possessions and think ‘there’s beauty there’ and wonder how I can work my way towards achieving that particular way of life.

“There’s nothing wrong with consumption, the problem is compulsory consumption. We’re tired of it. We’re tired of acquiring things because that’s what we’re told we’re supposed to do” — Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things

This approach reminded me of a bit in C.S Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters where the character, Screwtape, writes on gluttony — and our possession based, greed-driven, over-indulgence is very much like gluttony. Screwtape wants his apprentice Wormwood to know that the most pernicious type of gluttony actually comes with the appearance of self-denial; because it’s actually ‘self-interest’ that makes gluttony or consumption so harmful (Carter was right!). My concern is that the solutions offered in Minimalism (though perhaps not the ones modelled by the Minimalists on their journey of self-giving, and by some of the other people interviewed who’ve simplified in order to maximise generosity) fall into the trap of replacing one excess with another kind of gluttony… And there’s a danger in my own heart, and my own desire to correct my excess, that I’ll go the same way.

“My dear Wormwood,

The contemptuous way in which you spoke of gluttony as a means of catching souls, in your last letter, only shows your ignorance. One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled by it in the whole length and breadth of Europe. This has largely been effected by concentrating all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of Excess. Your patient’s mother, as I learn from the dossier and you might have learned from Glubose, is a good example. She would be astonished—one day, I hope, will be—to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness and self-concern? Glubose has this old woman well in hand. She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile ‘Oh please, please … all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast’. You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance. In a crowded restaurant she gives a little scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says, ‘Oh, that’s far, far too much! Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it’. If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.”

If you want a really radical antidote to consumerism — one that might help you avoid both gluttony of excess, and gluttony of delicacy, one that might do something more to kill consumerism in your life and replace it with an alternative, one that might bring a truly meaningful solution in community not just individuals… the answer might not be to listen to a bunch of millionaire businessmen and people who tasted worldly success telling you about their conversion to a newer, simpler way of life. The answer might be to listen to a bloke who swore of this way of life from the beginning because, well, he was perfect. Jesus has some pretty profound things to say about humanity, consumption, and the pursuit of meaning.

He says life as humans is ultimately about the pursuit of treasure. This is because somewhere in our DNA, we pursue meaning through worship

Jesus said ‘where your treasure is, there your heart is also’ he said this having said ‘store up for yourself treasures in heaven’…

We are, by nature, worshippers who look for identity in what we treasure. The Bible’s answer to this is not to find the right thing to treasure, but to treasure Jesus… to pursue treasures in heaven. And this provides us with some guidelines not just for approaching the good stuff in this world with moderation (without worshipping it), but for understanding that the best way to approach consumables isn’t fundamentally about self-interest, self-indulgence, or self-control (though it will produce this), it’s about the other. Jesus models the pursuit of treasure in heaven when he lays down his life for the sake of others. He comes back to this theme of ‘treasure’; or consumption, and our desire to find meaning in controlling and possessing as much as possible, in a slightly indirect way when he challenges us to be givers not consumers; sacrificers, not killers. To follow Jesus is to adopt a life not of self-denial, but self-giving from a place of knowing God gives us everything.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. — Matthew 16:24-27

This does involve a radical approach to our stuff; you might remember the story where a rich young bloke comes up to Jesus to ask how to be part of God’s kingdom — how to have treasure in heaven, and Jesus tells him to give away everything to the the poor, and to come and follow him. This approach to stuff is what taking up your cross ultimately looks like — and it’s a death to self that I’m still working on in my own life. The bloke can’t do it, and Jesus says those famous words:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven…”

Now. Giving away everything doesn’t actually get you into heaven; there is grace even for my inability to totally kill my idolatry of my stuff and my comfort. Part of the point of the stories about Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel up until the crucifixion are to show that Jesus is the only truly faithful law-fulfiller. The Sermon On The Mount is first about him, and its an exploration of what it looks like to fulfil the humanly impossible Old Testament command to “be holy because I (God) am holy”… When the disciples are blown away by how big this command sounds and ask “who can be saved” if this is required, Jesus says:

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

What he calls the rich man to do is what he did when confronted with temptation, and what he did in his whole earthly life, up to and including the Cross. And that’s what makes following him the way; this means both following his example (discipling ourselves to become like him, or ‘worshipping him’) and relying on him as the one who actually achieves the righteousness God commands.

Following Jesus means changing who we worship — where we look to for identity and satisfaction — it means shifting our eyes from the things of this world to the one seated ‘in his Father’s glory’ — and having that change the way we live. It means ditching our old habits and consumption, and switching it for something else; not just mastering our vices but taking up virtues. Idols don’t just get killed they get replacedMinimalism offers a compelling picture of a replacement for the idol of worldly physical treasures, only it replaces them with other worldly things; one guy they interview says his whole approach to life is built on the idea that this is all there is, and our time is all we have. When Paul reflects on what it means to become a ‘new self’ with new worship in Colossians 3, he does something interesting that parallels Jesus’ call to pursue treasure in heaven by talking quite concretely about how we live here on earth. He starts by connecting us to Jesus promise that the “Son of Man” would come into his father’s glory:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

And he uses this to call us to put to death the idolatrous parts of our ‘earthly nature’ — our default patterns of looking for meaning through consumption and stuff… to ‘put on the new self’ which is being ‘renewed in the knowledge of the image of its creator’ (and from Colossians 1:15, that’s Jesus, this is about being a disciple, it’s about taking up our cross). Then he gives us this new pattern of living; one not built simply on being more appropriately ‘self-indulgent’ but rather built on putting others first.

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.

Looking for meaning in consumption — the hunt for identity in buying or not buying things — is a vice. It’s destructive; not just for hoarders, but for minimalists as well. If we believe we’re living a good life simply because we’ve adopted simplicity we’re still missing the heart of true worship. The opposite of greed — or the virtue that combats the vice — is not frugality (or minimalism), but generosity. Just as the opposite of gluttony is not abstinence, but hospitality. Generosity and hospitality require a particular approach to stuff that means not finding meaning in it, and not holding on to it — and there’s plenty of great stuff in the habits and philosophies put forward by the people featured in Minimalism that’ll help me (and maybe you) embrace a more generous and hospitable way of life; so long as my approach to stuff is profoundly ‘other-centred’ because my treasures are in heaven. That’s where love kicks in. Which is interesting, because the closing words of Minimalism which is something of a slogan for the Minimalists:

“Love people, use things. The opposite never works.”

The Minimalists have some fantastic stuff to say in Minimalism, but really following Jesus is the way to do this right.

Church Du Soleil

On Saturday night Robyn and I went to the Cirque Du Soleil’s Kooza. On Sunday a few people came to church for the first time. It struck me that the experience is quite similar; or at least I hope it is. If you have ever wondered about trying out church there’s a guide that might de-mystify some (not all) of the experience here.

 

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At some point, minutes before our scheduled departure, I ask my wife, and my parents who’ve been to this thing before what I should be wearing. Is there a dress code? Is it explicit, or implicit? Will I get away with my normal uniform of t-shirt, shorts, and a pair of thongs?

I change. I put on a collared shirt. Better to be over-dressed than under-dressed I guess. And who knows who I’ll bump into at this thing. I figure I also want to dress within a few standard deviations of my wife, so that she doesn’t feel awkward. Better to be awkward with others. Definitely.

I’ve been to something like this before. Once or twice. But I’m not a regular, and those were in very different contexts, once was for a professional thing, the other was when I was a kid. The etiquette feels different now that I’m choosing to go.

We’re ushered in to a park. The crowd is gathering in the carpark. Some people clearly know more about what is going on than others. Some stare intently at the screen of their phones, perhaps checking last minute details.

Someone in a black shirt at the door greets us, and gives us directions to where we can be seated; we’ve arrived with enough time to not be interrupting any of the ‘show’… We awkwardly file past people already seated in the row of seats and sit. Uncomfortably, because the seats in these places are almost always uncomfortable; perhaps to stop us falling asleep.

We’ve been seated for a while when the music starts. I’m not really sure what to do at this point. I look around a bit awkwardly to see what other people are doing. They’re staring quite intently at the stage; some rapturously, some blankly, some like me are looking around.

The band is tight. The music is amazing; it’s not something I’d listen to, let alone sing along to, during the week. But something about it captures my spirits and lifts them, and it seems to be doing the same for the people around me.

Then this clown starts to talk. I listen. He’s obviously done something like this before. He has the patter sorted. He’s engaging. It seems like it’s his job to have the crowd transfixed so that the spirit of the show might do its work and have us leaving changed, then coming back for more. Sometimes he’s joined by others; sometimes he invites audience participation. I shuffle down in my seat so he doesn’t make eye contact with me and invite me to take part in the show; I’m not ready for that. Yet.

There’s plenty of stuff happening on stage that leaves me feeling things. A sense of awe; a sense of our shared humanity being pushed to its limits in a way that teaches us all something about what it means to be human; in a way that makes me believe that something more is possible in my own humanity. For a moment I consider signing up to this weird colourful tribe.

There’s an interval. A chance to stretch my legs. I listen to the voices of people around me reflecting on what they’ve been inspired or challenged by so far; there’s an insider language being spoken by some, clearly more familiar with this sort of event than I am; but others, like me, are perplexed by what they’ve been experiencing. People seem really into this. Those performers on the stage must have devoted a significant amount of their life to mastering this thing that to me just seems other-worldly. How does one even begin to discover this way of life? If I was going to be part of this what would I contribute? What could I do? How could my humanity be stretched in such a way that it seems to defy both the human defaults and the laws of science?

There’s something mystical happening here. Mostly I’m just amazed. I’m a bit challenged. I can’t tell if I’m challenged by the oddness; the sense that I can’t, or wouldn’t, do that stuff, or if I’m challenged to think about how I might be more like this in the real world. These people just seem like a whole different category of human to me; they defy every thing I think I know about humanity and its limits. I’m a little scared. At some points it becomes too much and I look away; I tune out. But never for long.

There’s also something dangerous going on. You can tell that the people up the front have been changed; transformed; by this life, this ‘magic’… they’re enchanted. There’s something not quite normal about them; the way they do this stuff that defies my ‘normal’ like it’s not just second nature but totally natural. They’re invested there’s a hint of trance like focus where muscle memory has simply taken over as they go through their paces. I wonder what life is like for them off stage whether this preternatural way of being infuses everything they do; does this way of seeing the world only operate in this space, or is every aspect of their humanity, are all their relationships, transformed? I suspect they must be. This is a new way of being human. It must also profoundly change the community they belong to; there’s a tightness and trust on display as they interact. There’s also risk implicitly involved in what they’re doing… it’s just so… different. It seems that if they fall from that height it’ll hurt more than if I fall as I just bumble around in risk-mitigated normality. But there’s something beautiful about the human more fully alive. Something compelling. Inviting even.

Maybe I could be part of this? I’m just not sure I could leave the comfort of my way of life behind to follow a bunch of clowns.

But there’s beauty here. Something different. Something intangible. But something that invites me to have my senses changed and my expectations about humanity expanded.

It just looks like hard work though. And I’m struggling to get over just how weird this stuff is. How counter-cultural.

There’s something about the atmosphere; the hint of enchantment in the air; that leaves me more likely to become a true believer than before. Perhaps I’m even converted. I’m definitely intrigued enough to consider coming back again, and maybe to making this a regular part of my life. Maybe even to seeing the capability of the humans I mix and mingle with in the workaday world somewhat differently; as people with potential to be something more, if only they would discover and tap into this ancient embodied magic.

Maybe I’ll go back. I’ve start thinking about it, and reliving it, as soon as we’re filing out of that space with a bunch of others who’d lived through the same experience; our shared vocabularies expand; I imagine we’re all leaving with the same questions, the same moments sticking out and challenging our preconceptions. As my wife and I de-brief in the carpark I can’t help thinking “maybe we will do this again… she seems to have enjoyed it too.” It was all just so weird, so different. I’m still haunted by that music. The words of the clown ring in my ears. I climb into my car and drive back to my normal. But I can’t help wondering:

What is it to be human?

Why does my normal seem so limited when what I’ve just seen defies those limits?

What’s normal anymore?

 

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

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

utopia-banner

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Not for Peter. Not for Faber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your what and your what?” he said.

“My soul and my meat,” I said.

“They’re separate?” he said.

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

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

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

“Flense?” he said. “What’s flense?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?” I said.

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

So I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a bit more Irenaeus to plough through…

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

My 2017 Summer Recommended Reading List

I posted a list of ‘recommended reading’ for summer for church and figured I’d done the work of putting it together so I might as well paste it here. This is broken down into books I have read/am reading that I think are good, useful, or important (that I particularly want people in our church family to read), and books I’m going to read over summer (or try to) so that people can read with me.

I try to use summer to both refresh myself with some good stories and ‘practical’ stuff, but also to do a bit of deeper thinking to start the year well. (Disclosure: there’s an Amazon affiliate link in some of these and if you buy them after clicking I get a small commission) .

Have read/am reading

1. The Plausibility Problem — a really helpful book we recommended during the Love My Church series but that has driven lots of what I’ve said in talks in This Is Love too. Ed Shaw is a same sex attracted bloke writing passionately about how the church makes his chosen life of singleness plausible or implausible based on how well we love. It’s chockers full of practical advice and stories (not convinced, check out the review I wrote with my brother-in-law).

2. Paradoxology — a great littlish book about some of the ways we don’t grapple with tensions in what we believe but try to resolve them; Krish Kandiah does a great job of tackling big questions that people have about Christianity (suffering, evil, the Bible, the nature of God etc) in a way that refuses ‘pat’ answers.

3. Resident Aliens — Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write about being the church and that being a call to be joyfully different to the world and to be on an adventure together; it’s a bracing little book (I wouldn’t totally buy into his picture of what it looks like to be resident aliens, which looks a little like living in an enclave, but it’s overwhelmingly helpful).

4. Zeal Without Burnout — this isn’t just for paid ministers but is a useful book I just read in one sitting about self care; and I’d love out church to buck the current trend I’m seeing in lots of churches where people burn out.

5. Made For More — this book by Hannah Anderson is a great book on being made in the image of God; it’s unapologetically useful for women, but her insights are beneficial for all sorts of people.

6. Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian — Michelle Lee Barnwell wrote this thing that’s a little more academic than the others, but I’m aware lots of people are talking about gender roles in church and gender more generally, and this is one I dipped into ahead of and event on Christianity and feminism Robyn and I spoke at last Sunday.

7. Public Faith In Action — Miroslav Volf, this is a goody on what it looks like to approach politics from a position of believing Jesus is king and we’re called to live as people in his kingdom in a world that doesn’t believe or live this way. It’s an application (and thus more accessible) of his A Public Faith, which is also stimulating.

8. You Are What You Love — James K.A Smith — another one we’ve dipped into in talks a bit this year; Smith is great on what it means to be human and how we change; but his solutions are geared towards particular personality types (and we need to take lots of that on board as we figure out how our shared practices and habits cultivate our love for Jesus and each other), but there’s some stuff that won’t necessarily resonate with everyone.

9. To Change The World: James Davison Hunter is writing, in part, a response to Resident Aliens… where some have read Hauerwas as suggesting we should withdraw from public life as it becomes hostile, Hunter says we should pursue ‘faithful presence’ even if we lose and are treated with scorn. His stuff on why the world is the way it is and why we tend to try to solve issues politically rather than by creating groups or projects in society that tackle them is pretty great stuff and explains a little bit of the ‘Christian Right’ in the US.

10. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss — David Bentley Hart. This one is hard brain work even if you’ve got a Bible College degree but his stuff on who/what God is and how it differs from how modern people understand God is brilliant and has changed the way I talk about God.

11. How (Not) To Be Secular — James K. A Smith, this’ll be helpful for term 1, it’s a summary of Charles Taylor’s massive A Secular Age and is about how we modern western types see the world as completely flat and material, when we should see it as infused with life and supernatural (divine) meaning.

12. Infinite Jest — David Foster Wallace, the first novel on the list and interesting because it is very much a ‘secular age’ novel but sort of haunted by the loss of supernatural meaning.

 

To read/finish this summer

13. Becoming the Gospel  — Michael Gorman wrote the best and most influential book (apart from the Bible) that I read at college; Cruciformity (a short review here). This is part of a trilogy of works that includes Cruciformity.

14. The Road To Character — David Brooks writes great stuff in the New Yorker, and this along with finally finishing Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Stanley Hauerwas’ A Community of Character, is part of my reading around virtue ethics

15. Le Morte D’Arthur — Thomas Malory wrote the book on King Arthur before most other people. In term 1 we’re doing a series on Matthew’s Gospel comparing it to other epic stories of heroism, so I’m trying to read some others.

16. The Blood of the Fold — Terry Goodkind wrote a series of high fantasy, The Sword of Truth series, that is finished so I don’t have to wait for Martin or Rothfuss. I’m on book 3, I imagine I’ll get to 5 by the end of summer.

17. After Virtue— Alisdair MacIntyre (see 14).

18. Laurus — Eugene Vodolazkin wrote a Russian epic that gets rave reviews for the way it holds the natural and supernatural together as a sort of normal way of looking at the world.

19. The Book of Strange New Things — Michael Faber wrote about a missionary who took a ‘book of strange new things’ (the Bible) to a new world. This is a bit of prep for our Matthew series too.

20. The Course of Love — Philosopher Alain De Botton wrote a novel about what real nitty-gritty committed love looks like.

21. Modern Romance — Comedian Aziz Ansari wrote this about the experience of  looking for love in a Tinder world; I’m thinking it’ll be an interesting companion to De Botton’s

22. Bringing It To The Table — Wendell Berry is a poet/novelist/philosopher who’s really helpfully critiquing our blindness when it comes to how food gets to our tables and calling us to a better doctrine of creation where we’re much more closely linked to, and involved in, the way our food is produced in a way that makes it an act of connection to God as the creator of the things we enjoy and that sustain us where we’re as much as possible co-creating (and sharing). This is the book of his that I’ve chosen to dip into having read quotes from him in lots of other stuff lately.

23. Honest Evangelism — Our local City Bible Forum peeps are highly recommending this book by Rico Tice as a great way to think about evangelism in our post-Christian world.

24. Alloy of Law — Brandon Sanderson writes good fantasy stuff that I get lost in, this is the latest set around his Mistborn series, which I enjoyed, and all his books are apparently set in the same universe. Which is fun in that it’s a sort of grand scale version of the mythopeia Tolkien says is how our imaginations most closely reflect the world-creating imagination of God.

If I have time and inclination I’ll try to dip into Augustine’s City of God some of Cicero’s De Re Publica, and Andy Crouch’s Culture Making because one of the things I’m wanting to keep thinking about in the new year is what a Christian ‘political theology’ looks like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to, and join, people in their lament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

sam_and_ellie

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

Sam: How come you’re never scared?

Ellie: Who says I’m never scared?

Sam: What are you scared of?

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

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

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

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

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

Sam: But you don’t?

Ellie: I guess not.

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

Well…

anti-trump-protests
An anti-Trump protest

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

Zombies, Trump, Identity Politics, and civilised self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zombies, Survival, and the Benedict Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jeremiah

Image: Jeremiah speaking truth to power

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

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

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

We need to rediscover the prophetic voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Know God’s word (hint: it’s Jesus)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kim-dong-kyu-phone

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— David Rose, Enchanted Objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,

— Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:1

Then he says:

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

— Ecclesiastes 12:6-7

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

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

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

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

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